Friday 26 August 2016

Wagner - Parsifal (Bayreuth, 2016)

Richard Wagner - Parsifal

Bayreuth, 2016

Hartmut Haenchen, Uwe Eric Laufenberg, Klaus Florian Vogt, Ryan McKinny, Karl-Heinz Lehner, Georg Zeppenfeld, Gerd Grochowski, Elena Pankratova, Tansel Akzeybek, Timo Riihonen, Alexandra Steiner, Mareike Morr, Charles Kim, Stefan Heibach

BR-Klassik - 25 July 2016

The scene where Amfortas sheds his blood in transubstantiation and reveals the mystery of the Grail is an extraordinary moment and usually the key scene in the first Act of Parsifal. It largely determines the nature of the production as a whole, the moment where, famously in the words of Gurnemanz, time becomes space, where the act of pain and suffering of Christ on the cross is shown, his blood given in communion to his followers as a symbol of the mystery of faith. For the knights of the Grail, it's spiritual nourishment of their belief that Christ's death and suffering will lead to human redemption. It's where Parsifal's eyes are open to the truth of this message of the Redeemer, even if he (and we the audience) don't fully understand it, wrapped up as Wagner makes it in Buddhism, religious mysticism and the philosophical writings of Schopenhauer.

It's no small order to get that across on stage, but its important for any successful production of Parsifal and Bayreuth's new production does that with all the necessary stage-consecrating pomp and ceremony, with all its associated imagery of religious transfiguration, but most importantly, with a sense of the real pain of suffering that approaches true agony. Here in Uwe Eric Laufenberg's production, Amfortas, stripped down to a loin-cloth and a crown of thorns like Christ about to be nailed to the cross, reveals the scars of the blood-letting that has sustained his followers, the Knights of Monsalvat, as he is painfully reveals his open wound and bleeds for them once again. The blood simultaneously pours out from other cuts and openings and pools at his feet, rolling down onto the round altar to a tap where the knights partake of it, and Titurel is able to look again upon the Holy Grail.

Along with Wagner's extraordinary score, it's a powerful and unforgettable moment where the Good Friday meaning and implications of it are made explicit, one where you can feel the audience - in reverence at Bayreuth - collectively hold their breath and almost wince at how real the pain is made to feel. It's the high point of the Act, but it's also an indication of how the rest of the opera is to be played out, setting the tone for the more globally important moment (in perhaps the whole of opera) when we and Parsifal return to the same scene in Act III. Unusually for Bayreuth, the first Act is played out with close attention to the directions in the libretto, showing very little of the interpretation, modernising and deconstruction of the composer's work that has been the hallmark of the festival in recent years, and certainly a feature of the last Parsifal produced there directed by Stefan Herheim.

Here, Monsalvat is a semi-ruined temple in the Middle-East. We know this because, in practically the only other moment of visual and dramatic licence in the first Act, we zoom out at this significant moment through time into space in a projected scene that locates Monsalvat's place in the wider universe. Elsewhere, the acolytes are dressed in monk's cassocks, with knights dressed in army combats, none of them seeming to have any other purpose than to look on at the suffering of Amfortas, prepare his bath and move a huge crucifix around, taking off a plaster figure of a naked Christ down from it. Kundry's role is not only mocked by the young squires, but it's somewhat downplayed in Laufenberg's production, the mysterious figure remaining in the background for most of the first Act. In the only real suggestion of a contemporary agenda, there is a reference made to refugees of different faiths taking shelter there. If that feels like a little tacked on, it does however provide a rather more powerful message at the end of the opera.

Act II doesn't stray too far either from the familiar template, but again there are a few contemporary Middle Eastern references that feel shoehorned in. The most bewildering is Klingsor being a keen collector of crucifixes who likes to indulge in a bit of self-flagellation in front of them. Some of the crucifixes he puts to fairly profane uses in the absence of any "equipment" of his own. He also has a bound and gagged Amfortas held captive, his presence meaning that he doesn't so much taunt Kundry over her past as encourage her to act it out again, at least until she can turn her attentions to Parsifal. Elsewhere it's fairly straightforward. We're in the same temple structure, but one that is somewhere between an Arabian temple and a harem. The flower maidens share the same duality, dressed in hajibs when first appearing, before stripping down to colourful Arabian Nights costumes and veils.

None of these touches, much less the presence of Amfortas on the stage, make the action any more real, and again there is a failure to address the nature of Kundry (and women) in this work where they are either playthings or pawns in the power games of men. It's an inconsistent, literal and very old-fashioned reading of the role and of the place of women in Parsifal. Again, this is partly made up for by Act III in this production, but it's achieved more through Wagner's score and the musical performance than anything that the director is able to bring out of it. It doesn't help that Laufenberg's direction is also lacking as far as acting performances are concerned, not that the nature of this unusual music-drama makes this an easy obstacle to overcome. Everyone however seems to be enacting Parsifal or ritualising it with great reverence (Wagner himself even making a death mask appearance in the of the projections) rather than living the work or making its concerns real.

If there is one element however that makes up for the lack of dramatic stage direction in this new Bayreuth production, it's the quality of the singing and the musical direction. I've seen nothing but the highest praise for Hartmut Haenchen's conducting of the work, and undoubtedly you had to be there in the Festspielhaus to really get the impact, but it sounded a little sober and subdued to me in the broadcast version, at least in the first Act, not really carrying the huge emotional sweep of the work. There is some good dramatic underscoring of moments in Act II however and Act III is every bit as extraordinarily beautiful and transformative and it ought to be. While I personally have some questions about the conducting, the singing is beyond reproach. Klaus Florian Vogt gives us his light, lyrical and deeply sensitive Parsifal; Elena Pankratova is one of the most secure and powerful Kundrys I have heard recently, with great dramatic delivery; and Georg Zeppenfeld is consistently brilliant, his bright timbre and perfect enunciation making Gurnemanz's pronouncements nothing less than a sheer joy that compels you to listen.

It's Vogt however who ensures that Act III is nothing less than the magnificent conclusion it ought to be. The soft-voiced tenor makes it a time for quiet reflection, but with a steely sense of purpose and unwavering belief in his deliverance of purification, redemption and a return to the paradise/innocence. It's a stunningly good performance. Keeping the Monsalvat temple as a constant, it is now in ruins, with huge vines and reeds breaking through the cracks. Following Parsifal's lead, having actually broken the Holy Spear in Act II in what seems like a terrible act of religious vandalism in order to make it into a cross, the refugees also come together to abandon their little bits of religious iconography, throwing it into the sand-filled coffin of Titurel. The stage empties to be filled with the light of Redemption, and the magic that is Wagner's Parsifal resounds to fill the hall and the heart of the listener.

Links: Bayreuth Festival, BR-Klassik