Parsifal, Bayreuth Festival, Bayreuther Festspiele, July 2018

Parsifal in Bayreuth is one of opera’s great experiences. It is also the location of its first performance in 1882 where the marvellous acoustic of the Festspielhaus welcomes the huge dynamic range that this ‘sacred festival drama’ embodies. A thirty-year moratorium forbade stage performances elsewhere until the end of 1913, though the Royal Albert Hall hosted the first concert performance in 1884, and the Met in New York ignored copyright protection to give a staged performance in 1903.

Parsifal with the swan, all images Bayreuth Festival/ Enrico Nawrath

The current Bayreuth production by Uwe Eric Laufenberg, which I reviewed for the Daily Telegraph at its opening in 2016, places it in a modern setting influenced by the recent Iraqi war. The Land of the Grail is a damaged monastery in Iraqi Kurdistan, seen during the overture to be housing refugees, with US forces bringing back a sculpture of Christ on the Cross. The location itself is clearly seen during Gurnemanz and Parsifal’s journey to the Grail, ascending from the earth, beyond sun and planets to the deepest reaches of space before returning to the place they started. Here, as Parsifal says, “Ich schreite kaum, doch wähn’ ich mich schon weit” (I scarcely move yet seem to move apace) while Gurnemanz replies, “Du siehst, mein Sohn, zum Raum wird hier die Zeit” (You see, my son, here time turns into space). In Laufenberg’s conception time is a central element as the predominantly Islamic nature of modern Iraq confronts earlier religious communities that come together at the end with Jews, Christians and Muslims attending the renewed ceremony of the Grail that Parsifal initiates.

Parsifal and flower maidens

In the meantime the flower maidens of Act 2 strip off black abbayas to reveal flimsy Ottoman era costumes for their attempted seduction of Parsifal, and Klingsor as a Shi’ite Muslim flagellates himself among his collection of crucifixes before the final showdown with Parsifal, whose great journey as “der reine Tor” who shot the swan, to the hero who breaks Klingsor’s spear, has taken him to join the US special forces. This is a fantastic conception, though I could have done without naked figures dancing in the rain during the Good Friday music of Act III, but the performance under the baton of Semyon Bychkov exhibited an ethereal quality in which the singers expressed their roles with a conviction enhancing the production.

Kundry, Parsifal, Gurnemanz in Act 3

Günther Groissböck was an exceptional Gurnemanz, both vocally and in his stage presence, with Elena Pankratova an outstanding Kundry whose quiet power in Act 1 developed into the seductive charm of Act 2 and her final peace in Act 3, where both she and Gurnemanz have aged and are now close to death. Andreas Schager brought out the early confusion and determined focus of Parsifal in a superb performance, with Thomas J. Mayer a strongly sung Amfortas, who appears silently in the Act 2 of this production as a prisoner in Klingsor’s realm, unable to withstand the wiles of Kundry. Derek Welton made a threatening and firmly sung Klingsor, and Tobias Kehrer gave Amfortas’s father Titurel a depth contrasting with his aged presence on stage as a frail man with a walking stick.

This production will be repeated for the next two years, and if the performances of the past two years are any guide, it alone is worth the trip.

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