Hartmut Haenchen Conducts Fresh, Lucid Parsifal set against Background of Conflict

downloadGermanyGermany Bayreuth Festival 2016 [3] – Wagner, Parsifal: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival. / Hartmut Haenchen (conductor). Festspielhaus, Bayreuth, 15.8.2016. (JPr)


Wagner, Parsifal

Cast included:

Amfortas: Ryan McKinny
Titurel: Karl-Heinz Lehner
Gurnemanz: Georg Zeppenfeld
Parsifal: Klaus Florian Vogt
Klingsor: Gerd Grochowski
Kundry: Elena Pankratova


Director: Uwe Eric Laufenberg
Stage design: Gisbert Jäkel
Costumes: Jessica Karge
Lighting; Reinhard Traub
Video: Gérard Naziri
Dramaturgy: Richard Lorber
Chorus Director: Eberhard Friedrich

Uwe Eric Laufenberg brings religion to the fore in his new Parsifal. It is set in roughly modern times in what appears to be war-torn Iraq. We see a rubble-strewn church which has obviously suffered some shelling. Wagner’s knights here are Christian monks in habits and their abbot is Gurnemanz wearing what looks like a knitted cap along with spectacles. That they are a charitable brotherhood is evidenced right at that start during the Prelude when the church is a refuge for the dispossessed. Soldiers are guarding these monkish knights (Knights Templar?) and wander in and out at times but never appear threatening. There is a large baptismal font which Amfortas bathes in and much time is taken to draw a connection between him and the naked image of Christ taken down from a crucifix. This connection is most significant near the end of the act when Amfortas wears a crown of thorns and has his side pierced. It is his flow of blood which renews the brotherhood.

As Parsifal (offstage) shoots the swan a young child in T-shirt and short trousers falls onstage as if felled by random stray bullet. This is a powerful image. Titurel is the former head of their order – very much like the Pope Emeritus is to the current pontiff – and he is seen onstage which is not usual. Kundry has little to do in this first act but is dressed as if from the ancient times her backstory suggests she originates from. We know one of her previous incarnations was Herodias and that is who she looks like. ‘Zum Raum wird hier die Zeit’ allows for a simply stunning few minutes of videography from Gérard Naziri when we leave the Earth and head out of our galaxy before returning.

Act II is set in a Mosque and at the start Klingsor is shown as a transvestite in a skirt looking to pray towards Mecca and who is holding someone hostage. He has a secret upper room with a large collection of crucifixes from which is spies on Kundry and Parsifal and later is shown self-flagellating. The only religiously-dubious moment happens when the Flowermaidens enter in burqas but soon disrobe to reveal skimpy colourful Arabian dress suitable for One Thousand and One Nights. This is what caused this year’s heightened security! They bathe Parsifal after stripping him of the army uniform he enters wearing. Strangely Laufenberg has Kundry leave the stage when Parsifal is singing and him leaving when she sings. Klingsor eventually interrupts proceedings and just gives up the spear he captured from Amfortas with just a wave of Parsifal’s hand. He takes it and actually breaks it so he can make the sign of a cross with the broken pieces. Thus Parsifal vanquishes Klingsor very much like Van Helsing destroying Dracula in the old Hammer films. All the crucifixes fall onto the stage.

On to Act III, time has moved on and we are in a smaller even more derelict chapel. We no longer appear to be in a Middle East desert but a rainforest which is now encroaching on the ruins. There is a fridge which acts as ‘die heilige Quelle’ and provides the ‘holy’ water Gurnemanz and Kundry need. Both of them have aged and Gurnemanz occasionally uses a (strangely shiny) wheelchair. As Parsifal sings ‘Wie dünkt mich doch die Aue heut’ so schön!’ girls enter and a waterfall is seen at the back allowing for some naked bathing. (One translation of ‘Aue’ is floodplain.) Parsifal absolves Kundry of her sins and here she is celebrated by an extended family gathering. More video impressively shows the tolling of a bell and the baptism in some rushing waters of Kundry, Amfortas and Wagner himself!

We appear to be back in the original church setting and Titurel’s coffin is brought on and Amfortas refuses to shed blood despite the protestations of his knights and a throng of devotees and zealots of every possible denomination. When Parsifal brings back the spear it is cast into the coffin and everyone else throws their religious artefacts and clothing in after it. What Uwe Eric Laufenberg seems to be showing us is that the community has renewed itself because of its own hope and optimism for the future which does not demand any belief in a supreme being.

Through all three acts there has been an unmoving seated figure (hopefully a dummy) up in the cupola looking down on proceedings. I do not seem alone in coming to the conclusion that this represented Wagner himself. I felt he was watching one of his works used to reflect the best in all of us rather than – which is more often the case – the worst! At the very end of this Parsifal the houselights are up as if to ask ‘Weisst du, was du sahst?’/ ‘Do you know what you saw?’. The knights and everyone else onstage wander away into a slight haze as if hinting that the future will be what we make of it.

There have been ten productions of Parsifal since 1882 and I have been fortunate to see the last five at least once. Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s Konzept is certainly not worse than anything else I have seen at Bayreuth. If I was to commit to whether I did understand everything I saw, then I would have to say no. I refer to the German director’s interview in the programme book when he explains that he sees Parsifal as ‘a pan-religious work, or a post-religious work, a work that goes beyond religion and that at the same time explores the origin of religion.’ He concluded by describing the opera’s setting as taking place ‘In places where Christianity is under threat, where it is not present as a large institution and power factor – in precisely the places where (and this is something the last three popes have repeatedly emphasised), because it is under threat, it is capable of being regenerated – in other words, in the places where it has no choice but to exist as a community of its own, withdrawn upon itself, and at the same time offering refuge to anyone seeking protection. We imagine a church in an area that is dangerous for Christians, and follow the story from there, as Wagner wrote it, incorporating our experiences of today.

Naturally I cannot explain better than the conductor, Hartmut Haenchen, how he has revised Wagner’s score so that this performance reclaimed the composer’s intentions more than recent ones at Bayreuth. He was a very late replacement for Andris Nelsons but what an achievement his debut was for the veteran conductor. This Parsifal indeed sounded as if the score had been ‘spring-cleaned’ and it was swift, lucid, nuanced, and very fresh. The Bayreuth Festival Orchestra perhaps played – if that were possible – even better for Haenchen than for Thielemann or Kober the previous evenings and there was fervour, finesse, perfectly blended timbres, a rich glow and a full share of incandescent climaxes from conducting which had insightful cerebral flexibility.

Apart from one of the principal singers the real stars of this performance was the Festival Chorus. Georg Zeppenfeld’s Gurnemanz was sung with an ease I have not heard recently and of course Bayreuth’s famed acoustic must have helped. A native German speaker, I suspect, would have understood every word he sang and this is not always the case. His voice was very pleasing to the ear yet nobly authoritative and exuded gravitas. Ryan McKinny’s warm baritone elicited compassion for Amfortas’s suffering and this character was shown as much younger than usual. Elena Pankratova was not the best Kundry I have heard which is a tie between Waltraud Meier and Petra Lang. Pankratova is not in their league and is neither furious nor seductive enough, but her portrayal of the old shaking and hobbling servant in Act III was top notch. Gerd Grochowski’s Klingsor was firmly sung with a hint of gravel in his voice but he was not overtly evil; Karl-Heinz Lehner was sonorous Titurel.

My biggest problem with this Parsifal was Klaus Florian Vogt in the title role. He is a singer I admire so much as Lohengrin (Parsifal’s son!) because with his supple, high, piping and somewhat colourless tones he does dreamy very well. However, Parsifal doesn’t require much of that but must be significantly more impassioned at times than Vogt’s tenor is capable of. I suspect he will have a happier time next year at Bayreuth when he will sing Walther in Barry Kosky’s new Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

Jim Pritchard

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