Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Parsifal at the Festspielhaus

Parsifal, Wagner's last major work for the lyric theater, which premiered at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, was the opera presented for our last night at Bayreuth.  A new production last year by Uwe Eric Laufenberg, this staging replaced the great Stefan Herheim production which I saw here five years ago. It's a tough act to follow.  Whereas the Herheim production has already passed into legend, and is now beginning to be copied (as in this year's Meistersinger), this current production succeeds in its simplicity.

Set in modern times, somewhere in the Middle East, the Grail Knights give the appearance of being a rogue Christian group who bleed Amfortas every day, and drink his blood in a ritualistic manner reminiscent of the faithful taking the blood of Christ.  Amfortas himself, with his crown of thorns and loincloth is the most Christ-like I have ever seen in any production.

Whereas the rest of the characters, Gurnemanz, Kundry, and Parsifal himself are treated in a familiar manner, the character of Klingsor is somewhat intriguing and provocative.  His story is well-known to those who know the plot of this work.  In an effort to join the Knights of the Grail, Klingsor castrates himself, and after this dastardly act is rejected by the Grail Knights.  This causes him to turn to the dark side, and it is he who steals the spear and wounds Amfortas. He becomes a necromancer who rules over Kundry and an enchanted garden.  In this production he wears a skirt (perhaps alluding to his asexuality) but lives in a lair filled with crosses.  As a matter of fact when Parsifal is able to win the spear from him, he breaks it in two, shapes the pieces into a cross.  The destruction of Klingsor's lair is shown by the falling of all the crosses.  I found this turn of events in the production a bit confusing.

Likewise, I found the transformation scene in Act I a bit over-the-top.  A scrim comes down and we go on a space journey, starting a with a Google-Earth aerial look at the terrain where the action takes place and heading far into the farthest reaches of the universe.  Does the universality of this work really have to be shown so literally?  The Good Friday Spell became a torrent of water projected unto a scrim with appearances by the faces of the cast and even Wagner's death mask from Wahnfried awash in the cascading waters of Spring.

After four nights of a lackluster Ring led by Marek Janowsky, it was a pleasure to hear Harmut Haenchen leading the Bayreuth orchestra with such authority.  Like Christian Thielemann, he knows how to get the sound from the pit to every nook and cranny of the auditorium.  Under Janowsky, the chorus overwhelmed the orchestra in Götterdämmerung, but the Parsifal chorus and the orchestra under Haenchen playing fortissimo made one's ears tingle. 

The star of the evening was Georg Zeppenfeld who last year premiered this production with his star turn as Gurnemanz.  Also returning to this production was Ryan McKinny, who was a moderately voiced Amfortas, and Elena Pankratova, whose Kundry was truly heartbreaking. The newcomer to the cast was Andreas Schager who sang a memorable, powerful Parsifal. 

In many ways this was the best way to leave Bayreuth for the 2017 season.  With a strong production of an austere work that is respectful to Wagner's legacy and the traditions established at the Festspielhaus.

1 comment:

Ora said...

I loved the final effect, when the pillars at the side of the auditorium were illuminated, with the effect of bringing the audience into the temple.

We were sitting in row 28, two rows from the back, and had a great view of this effect. Our friends, sitting in row 15, had the experience of turning around to see the lighting in the theater, and seeing the rapt faces of the audience looking down on the stage.

I thought it was magical.