Heart Of ‘Parsifal’ Beats Clearly In Bayreuth Staging

American baritone Ryan McKinney was an impressive Amfortas in Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s new production of 'Parsifal.' (Production photos by Enrico Nawrath, Bayreuth Festival)
American baritone Ryan McKinney was an impressive Amfortas in Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s new production of ‘Parsifal.’ (Production photos by Enrico Nawrath, Bayreuth Festival)
By James L. Paulk

BAYREUTH — Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s new production of Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival represents a startling turn from the recent Bayreuth practice of filling the stage with multiple layers of complex references, perhaps best exemplified by the last production here, Stefan Herheim’s extraordinary 2008 staging, with its masterly combination of German history, festival history, and Freudian psychology.

Klaus Florian Vogt's appearance as Parsifal was highly anticipated..
Klaus Florian Vogt’s Parsifal was highly anticipated..

Laufenberg writes that this back-to-basics concept runs the risk of “something approaching a Passion Play, or kitschy religion.” He’s right, of course, and this is the problem with most traditional Parsifal productions. He defends his interpretation as necessary “to access the heart of the work.” That is debatable. But his is a production that often seems to channel Wagner’s music in a psychologically satisfying way. (I saw the Aug. 24 performance.) By not only avoiding layers, but also simplifying and, at times, ignoring some of Wagner’s most vexing ideas, it allows the music to carry the drama along.

Laufenberg sees Parsifal as both pan-religious and post-religious. The setting is updated to war-torn Iraq, where a Christian monastery has become a refuge for people of all faiths. This gives the knights a purpose: caring for the refugees. Laufenberg has a knack for the powerful gesture. When Parsifal shoots the swan, a young boy is slain onstage. And at the Act I ritual unveiling of the Grail, projections begin with an overhead view through a hole in the ceiling and zoom out, giving us a majestic trip through the universe. Amfortas, who wears a crown of thorns and a loin-cloth, extends his arms as in a crucifixion; his wound bleeds profusely.

The most astonishing performances in 'Parsifal' came from Georg Zeppenfeld as Gurnemanz
Georg Zeppenfeld was astonishing as Gurnemanz in ‘Parsifal.’

The second act is a bit messier. Klingsor is a closet Christian masquerading as a Muslim. The flower maidens appear in hijabs, but then strip down to sexy attire and bikinis. Concern about this scene was rumored to be a factor in the enhanced security this season. Amfortas drops by to witness the seduction attempt.

After a detour somehow involving naked girls taking a bath on stage, the final act “redeems the Redeemer,” as Wagner would say, by taking us in a Unitarian direction. At the end, Muslims, Jews, and others line up to place their religious symbols in Titurel’s coffin, where Parsifal has deposited the spear. It sounds corny, but it actually was very moving.

Klaus Florian Vogt’s appearance as Parsifal was the most anticipated event of the season, and he delivered a satisfying performance, his distinctive, clear, clarion voice and fine legato matched by riveting charisma and acting skills. His Parsifal is not as spell-binding as his Lohengrin, the role seemingly written just for him, which rocketed him to Wagner stardom. Yet he is possibly the best Parsifal now singing.

Elena Pankratova (right) was a strong, wild, gripping Kundry.
Elena Pankratova (right) was a strong, wild, gripping Kundry.

The most astonishing performances of the evening, however, came from Georg Zeppenfeld, the Gurnemanz, whose large, gorgeous bass was matched by fine intonation and diction. Elena Pankratova was the strongest, wildest, most gripping Kundry I can recall. The voice is huge, and she ranges from raging beast to winsome seductress. American baritone Ryan McKinny was equally impressive as Amfortas, eloquently expressing pain and sorrow while nearly naked on stage, exposing his ripped body. Gerd Grochowski was an effective Klingsor.

Hartmut Haenchen, who became the production’s conductor less than a month before opening night after Andris Nelsons withdrew over artistic differences, took us on a whirlwind ride, fast, lucid, and exciting, with fine balances and, for Bayreuth, lots of volume. Altogether, this was an unforgettable, electrifying performance.

In Act III of 'Tristan und Isolde,' a deathbed dreamscape.
In Act III of ‘Tristan und Isolde,’ a deathbed dreamscape.

At least in terms of the sets and costumes, Tristan und Isolde, directed by Katharina Wagner, the composer’s great-granddaughter and the festival’s director, appears spare, almost minimalist. The production, which debuted last year, sets the first act in a maze of stairs inspired by the drawings of M. C. Escher and the second act in an abstract rendition of a prison yard. The third act takes place on a bare stage, but little pyramid-like structures appear from time to time containing images of Isolde, apparently part of Tristan’s deathbed dreamscape. In each case, the beauty and effectiveness of the staging is magnified by the exquisite lighting of Reinhard Traub. The empty stage clearly echoes Wieland Wagner’s radical “New Bayreuth” of the postwar era here, while the pyramids suggest the geometric figures so prominent in Robert Wilson’s work.

Tristan (Stephen Gould) with Brangäne (ChristaMayer) and Isolde (Petra Lang).
Tristan (Stephen Gould) with Brangäne (ChristaMayer), Isolde (Petra Lang).

As in her 2010 Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Ms. Wagner’s Tristan (seen Aug. 22) explores some momentous changes in plot elements. The tragic, benevolent figure of King Marke is here transformed into a menacing tyrant, attended by a gang of thugs. At the end of the opera, he pulls Isolde from Tristan’s corpse and drags her away, alive.

A minimalist approach to Tristan is pretty much the norm. So is relatively static movement of the singers on the stage, and here Ms. Wagner departs from tradition. Something is almost always going on.  Kurwenal and Brangäne work as referees, constantly trying to pry apart the lovers, who seem almost depraved. Kurwenal spends most of the second act either climbing the walls or digging. King Marke fondles Isolde during his lament. But this isn’t an opera about restraint, and the exaggerated passions are supported by the score.

Georg Zeppenfeld as King Marke, with Stephen Gould as Tristan.
Georg Zeppenfeld as King Marke (left), with Stephen Gould as Tristan.

Stephen Gould was a dynamite Tristan, with a huge voice, excellent diction, and fine phrasing. Petra Lang, singing Isolde for the first time here, was fascinating. Her dark, powerful voice is paired with a singular dramatic intensity. Once again, Zeppenfeld stole the show, this time as King Marke (he also was Hunding in the Ring). Iain Paterson was a decent Kurwenal and Christa Mayer a superb Brangäne. Christian Thielemann once again proved himself today’s finest Wagner conductor, with a searing, surging account of the score. An explosive performance.

Frank Castorf’s production of the Ring (attended Aug. 20-25), returning for its fourth season, continues to be wildly unpopular. This is a Ring offering a mind-boggling three-ring circus of distracting, sophisticated, very complex stage business and multiple projections, generally built around the concept of the oil industry as mankind’s primal sin, corrupting both capitalism and communism. Its universe is bleak, tawdry, trashy, and corrupt.

Stefan Vinke was a tower of strength as Siegfried.
Stefan Vinke was a tower of strength as Siegfried.

Seeing it for the second time and with better preparation, I found myself fascinated, wanting to rush back into the theater for each act, all the while recognizing the fundamental problem created when there is simply too much going on to ever grasp, and which usually happens at the expense of the music. Castorf refuses to respect the primacy of the score, and that is his primal sin.The production is a failure, yet it is a riveting, epic experiment, perversely stretching the limits of the opera form in every direction at once.

Catherine Foster’s Brünnhilde was a revelation. With power to spare, an effortless top, and nice coloring, she threw herself into the role with vigor. Stefan Vinke was a tower of strength as Siegfried, dramatically potent, with a beautiful tone. Paterson, who sang Wotan in Das Rheingold, was a bit underpowered and gravelly. John Lundgren, who took over the role for Die Walküre and Siegfried, was more satisfying. Christopher Ventris was a solid Sigmund and Heidi Melton a passionate Sieglinde. Of the rest, the most memorable performances came from Sarah Connolly as Fricka and Nadine Weissmann as Erda.

Catherine Foster’s Brünnhilde (shown in 'Götterdämmerung') was a revelation
Catherine Foster’s Brünnhilde (shown in ‘Götterdämmerung’) was a revelation

Conductor Marek Janowski developed a cult following when he recorded the first digital Ring in the early 80s with the Staatskapelle Dresden and a distinguished cast. The recording revealed his skill in articulating the motives and his fine sense of texture. All of that was present here, yet his performance failed to take fire. Crescendos eluded him and fortes lacked forte. It’s possible that he simply hadn’t adapted to the famously difficult acoustics of the Festspielhaus, or perhaps he was going for the ultimate in subtlety. But sometimes less is just less.

Dutchman (Thomas J. Mayer) as a cyborg CEO.
Dutchman (Thomas J. Mayer) is imagined as a cyborg CEO.

Jan Philipp Gloger’s land-locked Der fliegende Holländer (seen Aug. 26) imagines the Dutchman as a cyborg CEO in town to merge Daland’s factory into his conglomerate. In this vision, the electric fans the factory turns out are the substitutes for wind and sails, and Senta is the sanest of the principals. This production falls short perhaps because Holländer, unlike the weightier and more open operas that would come later, can’t support this much directorial baggage, but also because the execution is so uninspired.

Musically, it was an even greater disaster. The Senta, Ricarda Merbeth, bellowed out of tune and wobbled badly. None of the other principals were so inadequate, and the Daland (Peter Rose) was excellent. Things were no better in the pit, as conductor Axel Kober served up a loud, murky approximation of the score, with the worst intonation and coordination issues of the season.

Almost everything here now winds up on commercial video; the current Holländer and Tristan productions are already available. The new Parsifal was filmed this season and will be released in about a year.   –

James L. Paulk is a freelance critic based in New York.

Petra Long and Stephen Gould are the lovers (above),with Iain Paterson (Kurwenal) and Christa Mayer (Brangäne) In Act I of Katharine Wagner's production of 'Tristan und Isolde.'
Petra Long and Stephen Gould are the lovers (above), with Iain Paterson (Kurwenal) and Christa Mayer (Brangäne) in Act I of Katharina Wagner’s production of ‘Tristan und Isolde.’