Specifically written for the Festspielhaus, Wagner described Parsifal as ‘ein Bühnenweihfestspiel’ (A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage) not an opera thereby underlying the work’s deeply-religious overtones.
This production by German director, Uwe Eric Laufenberg, sensitively brought the religious aspect to the fore especially at the end of act I where one witnesses Amfortas, wearing a crown of thorns and covered by a loin-cloth, re-enacting the Crucifixion with members of the Brotherhood (now seen as a community of Christian monks) gathered round him receiving Holy Communion and partaking of the Blood of Christ. A powerful scene, the Christ-like figure of Amfortas was magnificently portrayed by the gifted American bass-baritone, Ryan McKinny.
However, Herr Laufenberg, working in partnership with dramaturg Richard Lorber, turned the work upside down dumping the traditional setting of Montsalvat – the revered castle of the knights of the Holy Grail in medieval Spain – and switching it to Islamic State’s Middle Eastern-held territory of northern Iraq.
A bomb-scarred church provided the setting for act I but its sanctuary lamp -used in Christian and Jewish centres of worship – remained intact. Here the monks go about their daily business of serving the needs of the homeless brought about by the ravages of war with families of mixed faiths sleeping on makeshift canvas beds and kept under tight surveillance by a small battalion of armed soldiers.
Overall, the opera was well cast and German bass, George Zeppenfield, delivered a strong performance as the veteran knight, Gurnemanz, while the ‘wunder boy’ of the Green Hill, Klaus Florian Vogt, was exemplary as Parsifal.
But the surprise in the pack turned out to be Russian soprano, Elena Pankratova, who delivered a strong and articulate performance as Kundry while fellow baddie and sorcerer, Klingsor, was admirably sung by bass-baritone, Gerd Grochowski.
Amfortas’ father, Titurel (Karl-Heinz Lehner), also put in a rewarding performance seen at the end of the opera as a withered old man rather than the usual hollow-type voice straining from a coffin which manifested itself by a group of mourners depositing all sorts of artefacts into the coffin as a sign of redemption. As the scene unfolded the lights of the Festspielhaus were slowly heightened to full glow thus inviting members of the audience to partake of this redemptive act, too.
The church setting of act I was adorned for act II simply by adding a decorative glazed-tiled wall as befitting a mosque while Klingsor dominated proceedings cavorting about as ‘king of the castle’ in his reliquary stuffed with crucifixes by the dozen.
In the Flower Maidens scene, who stormed the stage wearing traditional black-robed Islamic dress of tschabors and burkas, it positively hit the mark in Laufenberg’s realisation. But when they taunt Parsifal of the sins of the flesh they quickly discarded the robes revealing brightly-coloured garments to skimpy bikinis.
Mahatma Gandhi said ‘The soul of religion is one but encased in a multitude of forms.’ Therefore, Laufenberg seems more than justified at the closing stages of the opera in grouping together a trio of faiths – Christians, Jews and Muslims – witnessing Amfortas, old, worldly and weary and longing for death, entering the Hall of the Grail only to be miraculously cured by Parsifal who touches his side with the Holy Spear thus saving the Brotherhood and mankind!
The orchestra under veteran Wagner conductor, Hartmut Haenchen, were on top form.