Bayreuth 2019


Specifically written for the Bayreuth 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.

Therefore, this compelling and rewarding 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 the Christ-like figure of Amfortas (magnificently portrayed by the gifted American bass-baritone, Ryan McKinny) wearing a crown of thorns covered only by a loin-cloth re-enacting the Crucifixion with members of the Brotherhood – now seen as a community of Christian monks – gathered closely round him receiving Holy Communion partaking of the Blood of Christ.

However, Mr Laufenberg – working in partnership with dramaturg Richard Lorber – rethought the traditional scenario of the work and dumped the setting of Montsalvat – the revered castle of the knights of the Holy Grail in medieval Spain – switching it to Islamic State’s Middle Eastern-held territory of northern Iraq.

A bomb-scarred church provided the setting for Act I (for the mosque featured in Act II a decorative blue-tile wall sufficed) while its sanctuary lamp, used in Christian and Jewish centres of worship, remained intact. Here the monks go about their day-to-day business of serving the needs of the weak and homeless brought about by the ravages of war with families of mixed faiths sleeping on makeshift canvas beds kept under tight surveillance by a small group of armed soldiers.

Overall, the opera was well cast and the strong and authoritative voice of Austrian bass, Günther Groissböck, proved an excellent choice for the pivotal role of veteran knight Gurnemanz while Bayreuth favourite, Andreas Schager, sang an impassioned Parsifal and Russian dramatic soprano, Elena Pankratova, delivered a strong, articulate and commanding performance as Kundry. Her fellow baddie, Klingsor, effortlessly portrayed by Derek Welton who’s no stranger to the role, was seen cavorting about as King of the Castle in his reliquary stuffed with crucifixes by the dozen.

Storming the stage wearing traditional black-robed Islamic dress of tschabors and burkas, the Flower Maidens positively hit the mark in Laufenberg’s realisation and when the moment comes for them to taunt Parsifal the sins of the flesh they quickly discard their Islamic dress to reveal an array of brightly-coloured Western-style garments.

Amfortas’ father, Titurel (William Schwinghammer) 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 unfolds the lights of the Festspielhaus were slowly heightened to full glow thus inviting members of the audience to partake of this redemptive act, too.

Mahatma Gandhi said: ‘The soul of religion is one but encased in a multitude of forms.’ Therefore, I feel that Mr 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 Russian conductor, Semyon Bychkov, found themselves on top form and once again the Bayreuth Festival Chorus under the direction of Eberhard Friedrich did a sterling job that was wildly acknowledged at their curtain-call by an audience who really know their stuff when it comes to the music of Richard Wagner.