Richard Wagner´s “Parsifal” at the Bayreuth Festival 2017
By Opera Views, July 27th, 2017
Photos: Bayreuth Festival, Enrico Nawrath
The centre of the “Parsifal´s” story builds another personal triangle between King Amfortas, Kundry and Parsifal. Contrary to “Tristan” love-triangle, the “Parsifal” one concentrates on the significance of the human will and its role in the formation of one’s personality.
The story develops around the search of “the pure fool, who is enlightened through compassion”. The one who has to save the brotherhood of Holy Grail from decay and cure the eternally bleeding wound of the Holy Grail King Amfortas. To be able to succeed in this task, the pure fool must reconquer the holy spear from renegade knight Klingsor.
The later has confined himself in his castle after emasculated himself in defying his desire for holiness and incapability of leading a chaste life. There the beautiful Kundry and her entourage seduce all willing knight, including Amfortas.
Excluded from the brotherhood, Klingsor steals the holy spear and injures Amfortas, thus causing him a never-healing wound. Kundry, now a repentant woman, strives to heal it with herbs and potions. Parsifal, an ignorant fool, returns after years of wandering and brings the holy speer back to the Holy Grail, thus saving it. Amfortas finally enforces his redeeming death, wants to reveal the Grail one last time. Parsifal is anointed as a new Grail King and donates baptism to the dying Kundry and closes Amfortas wound with the holy spear. Parsifal reveals the Grail, and a white dove floats down on him as a sign of divine grace. “Parsifal’s” Libretto is based on the life of a real historical person: a knight Parzival. Brought up in the wood by his mother, he came to be a knight at the King Arthur’s court and achieved great fame for his heroic acts and pure life.
Wagner first encountered the story by Chréthien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach as a young conductor in Dresden in 1845. It took him 37 years to finally finish the score and the premiere took place on July 26th, 1882 in his new theatre in Bayreuth. Wagner, who as mentioned before, was obsessed with the idea of a “perfect” human being, evolved himself in life-long search after “Salvation for the Savior”. This quest was ignited and influenced by ideas of two major personalities: Schopenhauer and Buddha.
Schopenhauer’s philosophy is based on the concept of the denial as a result of individually influenced will. Buddha defines the human will as being affected by outer, higher will, thus creating an eternal knowledge-thirst that pushes forward person’s goals and actions. These two contradictory theses found its reflection in “Parsifal’s” story in the brotherhood of Holy Grail and the pleasure garden of Klingsor. Both Amfortas and Parsifal encounter these two worlds experiencing different results: Amfortas endures, both physically and socially, a painful defeat and leads an existence in expectation of the outer salvation. Parsifal, on the other hand, resists the motherly charms of Kundry and defies Klingsor, thus brings the salvation to the holy grail.
The Eric Laufenberg´s interpretation of “Parsifal” left an impression of being somehow misplaced and somewhat overloaded with mystic-philosophical video projections as in-between acts transformations well as numerous symbols and props. Presenting us with an impressive stage design by Erich Jäkel and lighting by Reinhardt Traub, Laufenberg shifts away from Wagner’s original idea of Stage-Consecration-Play and places the action in the modern times, somewhere in the middle of the Near East war zone. Jessica Karge dresses resemble present-day clothes from the Middle East or Africa, thus visually underlining Laufenberg´s ideas.
First, we see a church, where the war refugees are being sheltered and where the holy grail is used as a bathtub. In the second act, we experience a lavish oriental palace, where Klingsor keeps some brothel and castigates himself in front of the crucifix shrine. In the third act, there are ruins of the bombed church covered by lush jungle vegetation. The later transforms into a utopian paradise, where young naked girls enjoy a warm summer rain and all religions exist in freedom. Regardless all the beautiful stage sets and lighting, this interpretation remains indifferent, sparkling no real controversy and full of all sorts of clichés.
Despite all said, the evening surely can be considered musically and from the singing point of view a challenging one. First, for the large singing parts and secondary to the enormous complexity and subtlety of the orchestra score. Conductors’ Hartmut Haenchen reading is marked by pompous but at the same time tenacious sound in the prelude to the first act, an energetic and stirring one in the second act and the perfectly balanced, transcendent and full of vibrant colours in the act three.
The real stars of this evening are singers, highlighting George Zeppenfeld as Gurnemanz and Elena Pankratova as Kundry. Zeppenfeld shapes this demanding part with beautifully carried Bass, perfectly secure throughout the whole range. He draws long and full of endurance singing curves and presents us with excellent diction. Pankratova is a great Kundry. Her gentle, velvety, yet large, well-focused voice unfolds with no difficulty in the acoustics of the theatre, and her German diction is excellent. She also deserves special praise for her economical, concentrated and yet impressive acting that made her omnipresent throughout the performance. Andreas Schager as Parsifal possesses a large, well-focused voice and tremendous acting skills. He sometimes gives too much sound and power, but convinces in portraying this complex character. Bass-baritone Derek Welton as Klingsor presents full sounding, mighty voices with excellent diction and should be praised for his authentic portrayal of the torn, renegade knight. Güntehr Groissböck as Titurel impresses with velvety, noble bass and Ryan McKinny as Amfortas possesses a big, organ-like sounding bass and touches by his sensitive, emotional acting.
Apart from this great ensemble, the special praise should be given to the fabulous Bayreuth choir (Eberhard Friedrich) for its majestic sound and phenomenal acting skills. Another praise goes to the ladies-sextett in the second act, who not only presented beautiful and well-blending voices but convinced in their acting first as veiled Muslim women and later as seductive harem servants.
This last opera by Richard Wagner was specially composed adapting to the unique acoustics of Festspielhaus and exhibits composer’s message of universal love and eternal freedom. During the last “Parsifal” performance in August 1882 composer himself took the button and conducted the show from the transformation scene till the end. Soon afterwards he travelled to Venice, where on 13. February, the heart attack has terminated his life. More information on production, coming-up performances and cast here.