Review | Parsifal at Bayreuth Festspiele

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© Bayreuther Festspiele | Enrico Nawrath

Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s thought-provoking, sometimes flawed production of Parsifal is revived for audiences at the Bayreuth Festspiele.

The Bayreuth Festspiele is a type of pilgrimage for opera fans, and most particularly, fans of the composer Wagner. Bayreuth is where Wagner had a theatre built to showcase his operas (principally for his Ring Cycle). It was there Parsifal first premiered; and for a while was the only place in the world that you could see it staged, which imbues the show with a special resonance, in the knowledge that it’s where Wagner wanted it performed.

Bayreuth is steeped in tradition and order: tardiness is not permitted, since ushers lock the doors from inside the theatre; only tiny bags are allowed in and the rest must be stored. Silence during the performance is sacrosanct. This is most definitely a ‘singers’ opera house: the orchestra and conductor are hidden away under cover, so you can’t see them at all, and the acoustics brilliant.

Parsifal isn’t technically an opera but a Bühnenweihfestspiel or sacred festival drama. The story follows an order of knights charged with protecting the grail. King Amfortas (Ryan McKinny) accesses the grail freely, which he uses at his disposal. After being seduced and subsequently wounded by nemesis Klingsor (Derek Welton) however, the king is driven to madness. Amfortas awaits an honest fool to save both him and the grail. Parsifal (Andreas Schager) steps in to fulfil the role, with help from the knight Gurnemanz (Günther Groissböck) and the witch Kundry (Elena Pankratova).

© Bayreuther Festspiele | Enrico Nawrath

Directed by Uwe Eric Laufenberg, this particular production of Parsifal first premiered in 2015, after the terror attacks in Germany, and touches on themes of community and religious fundamentalism. Set during the Iraq war, Parsifal appears as a soldier of the American forces. The setting is thought-provoking and mostly works, although some scenes felt like the were included simply to shock. The Flowermaidens scene, for example, saw Islamic women wearing abayas undressing to reveal themselves as Ottoman harem ladies.

Putting to one side the more controversial aspects of the performance, an incredible bloodletting/grail scene rounds off a show with stunning imagery throughout, ending with a prevailing message of religious tolerance, between Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

The singers are well cast, with standout performances from the phenomenal Elena Pankratova as Kundry, who brought depth to the role, and Derek Welton as Klingsor, who evidently relished playing the villain with joy – his being quite an act.

Laufenberg’s Parsifal is a thought-provoking, sometimes flawed production. It has a fantastic cast and finds a great conductor in Semyon Bychkov. While ambitious in scope (Laufenberg arguably takes on too much), I imagine repeat viewings would only bring further enjoyment, especially given the atmosphere, locale and stellar quality of the music.

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Parsifal was part of the 2019 Bayreuth Festspiele from July-August.

Words by Stuart Martin.