Uwe Laufenberg’s production of Parsifal comes back to Bayreuth for the third consecutive year. Günther Groissböck, Thomas J. Mayer, Andreas Schager and Elena Pankratova were on stage with Semyon Bychkov in the pit
Initially intended for the Cologne Opera, Uwe Laufenberg‘s Parsifal was tailored and further developed for the Bayreuth Festival after the dismissal of the controversial director Jonathan Meese.
In this production the location moves from the southern Spanish town of Montsalvat to Iraqi Kurdistan, as showed in the video projected during the Transformation Music in the first act. The Grail castle is here a monastery that provides shelter for refugees, where a patrol of (American) soldiers occasionally passes by, connecting the opera to current events.
By placing the plot in the Middle East, Laufenberg wants to emphasize that, despite persecutions, the Christian religion maintains faith in humanity, and by using the coffin of Amfortas to collect all the symbols of the different confessions, he also suggests a message of love beyond religious boundaries.
The flower-women are divided into two groups: hijab (and niqab) women and belly dancers. As veiled women, they complain to Parsifal about the death of their husbands, then as belly dancers they try to seduce him. Instruments in Klingsor’s hands, the flower-women show their pitiful and seductive sides. Their encounter with Parsifal in Klingsor Palace is both a strong and sensual scene, although some have interpreted the hijab/niqab connection to Klingsor as a criticism towards Islam or even as Islam-bashing.
Besides the (alleged) controversy over Islam, the production presents some (real) problems: Laufenberg’s choice to have Amfortas on stage during the second act doesn’t work from the narrative point of view, and letting him make love to Kundry only states the obvious (sexual sin as the a cause of the decadence of the Grail community).
The refugee crisis, the theme of religious tensions and the conflicts in the Middle East make this Parsifal a topical story, it’s a pity that the different scenarios implemented by Laufenberg lack coherence and seem a bit far-fetched.
Günther Groissböck takes over the role of Georg Zeppenfeld’s Gurnemanz with great conviction. His deep voice and his charismatic stage presence make us look forward to his performance of Wotan in 2020, when the new Ring will be scheduled in Bayreuth. Passionate and convincing, Elena Pankratova manages Kundy’s demanding role like few others. She is assertive, seductive and maternal, and shows great vocal skills and a theatrical ease.
As Parsifal, Andreas Schager shifts convincingly from the « ignorant fool » to the man who at last understands how to heal Amfortas’ wound and revitalize the Grail community. His voice is less silky than that of Klaus Florian Vogt, who sang the role the first year, but nevertheless balanced and powerful. Thomas Mayer‘s energetic performance makes Amfortas’ suffering a remarkable experience in every aspect, and Derek Welton‘s Klingsor, for the second year in this role, is just as outstanding. In his dark baritone bass tone, he enlightens the anger, doubt and frustration of the evil wizard.
After two years of Hartmut Haenchen as music director, the baton is handed over to Symon Bychkov, who makes his debut in Bayreuth. The Russian conductor uses larger tempi than his predecessor and gives more gravity to scenes such as the Grail ritual and Good Friday music.
Whatever the staging, Parsifal in Bayreuth is a quite exceptional experience, since it is the only opera composed by Wagner with the acoustics of the Festspielhaus in mind (and ears). Where the brass of Lohengrin and Tristan, for example, can sound muted, Parsifal‘s orchestration is like a superbly balanced musical landscape that finds in Bayreuth its one and only true home.