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Gurnemanz (Georg Zeppenfeld) provides for

Beauty Unveiled

Barry Millington reports on a new ‘Parsifal’ and a revived ‘Tristan’ at Bayreuth


Parsifal. Klaus Florian Vogt (Parsifal), Elena Pankratova (Kundry), Ryan McKinny (Amfortas), Gerd Grochowski (Klingsor), Georg Zeppenfeld (Gurnemanz), Karl-Heinz Lehner (Titurel), Tansel Akzeybek (First Grail Knight), Timo Riihonen (Second Grail Knight), Alexandra Steiner (First Squire), Mareike Morr (Second Squire), Charles Kim (Third Squire), Stefan Heibach (Fourth Squire), Anna Siminska, Katharina Persicke, Mareike Morr, Alexandra Steiner, Bele Kumberger,  Ingeborg Gillebo (Flowermaidens), Wiebke Lehmkuhl (A Voice from Above); Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra/Hartmut Haenchen; Uwe Eric Laufenberg (director), Gisbert Jäkel (designer), Jessica Karge (costumes), Reinhard Traub (lighting), Gérard Naziri (video designer). Bayreuth Festspielhaus, 2 August 2016


Tristan und Isolde. Stephen Gould (Tristan), Petra Lang (Isolde), Iain Paterson (Kurwenal), Claudia Mahnke (Brangäne), Georg Zeppenfeld (King Mark), Raimund Nolte (Melot), Tansel Akzeybek (Young Sailor/Shepherd), Kay Stiefermann (Steersman); Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra/Christian Thielemann; Katharina Wagner (director), Frank Philipp Schlößmann and Matthias Lippert (designers), Thomas Kaiser (costumes), Reinhard Traub (lighting). Bayreuth Festspielhaus, 1 August 2016


With the Siegfried-Wagner-Allee (the grand avenue leading up to the Festspielhaus) closed to all traffic, multiple bag searches and police security at all entrances, this was a Bayreuth experience like no other. Ill-informed advance reports had suggested that the new production of Parsifal by Uwe Eric Laufenberg was anti-Islam in conception. But with the Munich shooting incident just a few days earlier and terrorist atrocities an ever-present danger, not to mention the presence in the audience of the German Chancellor, the Bayreuth management and police authorities were taking no chances.

The expectation (maybe even the hope) in some quarters that the new production would be a disaster was fuelled by the last-minute withdrawal of Andris Nelsons. (In fact, Nelsons’ departure had nothing to do with his feelings about the production. His allegation of interference by the new music director, Christian Thielemann, in his rehearsals is confirmed by chorus members.) Nor does it represent the post-dramatic school of production, as exemplified by the Castorf Ring. Laufenberg’s Parsifal is actually rather conventional, at least within the parameters of Regietheater, which may explain its unpopularity in some sectors of the German press.

In fact it’s an impressive and often moving piece of work that may even recommend itself to those for whom ‘Wagner’s intentions’ are paramount, in the way it tackles the very issues with which the composer was wrestling in his final opera: love (in both its compassionate and erotic forms), religion and redemption. To take religion first, it is a commonplace that while Parsifal makes use of Christian symbols and sacraments, its composition was also influenced by Buddhist beliefs; the stage directions further allude to Moorish Spain, which suggests an element of Islamic colouring at the very least. But Parsifal may perhaps best be regarded as a ‘post-religious’ work, that is to say one which extracts the kernel of religion, even its rituals, in the search for the enlightenment of individuals and society generally. Laufenberg duly sets it in an environment that brings various religions into close proximity. Notwithstanding indications of modern-day Iraq, Gisbert Jäkel’s set suggests a place rather like the Mar Musa chapel, a Byzantine stone monastery in the Syrian desert mountains which has for a number of years provided a sanctuary for Christian nuns and monks, visited daily by Arab Muslims who come ‘to talk, to sing and to keep silence with them, and also to pray according to their own Islamic ritual in a corner of the church […] kept free of images’.[1]          

Gurnemanz, wearing a kufi prayer cap, is welcoming to refugees and visitors, dressed in modern-day clothing, and to Kundry, who in the opening scene wears a hijab. She sits in a corner, barely tolerated by the junior squires, who still have a lesson to learn in compassion. There are regular incursions by armed soldiers, who at one point sit smoking in precisely the spot where Kundry had been squatting – truly an occupying army. The propriety of featuring western ‘peacekeeping forces’ in such a context has been questioned, but I see them as a modern equivalent of the medieval grail knights, sent out into the world to protect innocent people suffering – with all the ambivalence such a mission entails. Gurnemanz’s Narration is vividly illustrated, even enacted: episodes include Amfortas being revived in a bath and a huge crucifix borne in. (The ubiquity of bleeding crucifixes and crowns of thorns in this production attests to Laufenberg’s conviction that we need to go ‘beyond a religion that places its focus on suffering and martyrdom’.[2]) The Transformation Scene uses stunning computer imagery to spin us through time and space, from the chapel and back again to a similar place for a grail ceremony in which Amfortas strips to a loincloth to be knifed in the side by an acolyte. Blood pours from not only his side but his head – this Amfortas is clearly identified with Christ – and is collected in a chalice.

Amfortas appears bound and gagged in Klingsor’s castle at the start of Act II, and it is the sight of him that provokes Kundry’s first scream. Klingsor makes unavailing use of a prayer mat and is more obsessed by the impressive collection of crucifixes over which he fetishises up in his solitary tower – a telling reinterpretation of the ‘implements of witchcraft and necromantic apparatus’ stipulated in the stage directions. The decor is Moorish and the Flowermaidens wear hijabs. They cower at the sight of another soldier, but it turns out to be Parsifal, who takes off his helmet, encouraging some of the Flowermaidens to remove their veils. They are joined by a more scantily clad bevy of girls, who relieve Parsifal of more of his clothes and accompany him into the bath in one corner. Kundry, when she appears, offers Parsifal a drink – red wine, natch. As their scene together approaches its climax, Amfortas reappears. He may or may not be a figment of the imagination, but his looming presence certainly makes sense of Parsifal’s cry ‘Amfortas!’ at the moment of Kundry’s kiss. An unregenerate Amfortas gratifies himself yet again with Kundry, while Klingsor, up in his crucifix-adorned sanctum, flagellates himself. As Kundry sings of her guilt-ridden compulsion to seduce, she is joined by a bevy of Flowermaidens now in full niqab, though colourful western attire is visible beneath. Parsifal leaves Kundry alone here with the girls. When he reappears to say farewell, he is in combat gear, ready to undertake his mission. And indeed, after seizing (and breaking) the spear with which Klingsor threatens him – at which the sanctum complete with crucifix collection collapses – he is joined by a group of armed comrades. Subsequently in the drama the spear becomes a makeshift, cross-like contraption, a weapon of war having no place in the process of redemption.


[1]Quotation from Navid Kermani’s award ceremony speech for the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, 18 Oct. 2015, cited in the programme book.

[2]Laufenberg in conversation with his dramaturg, Richard Lorber, in the programme book.

Gurnemanz (Georg Zeppenfeld) invites Parsifal

By the start of Act III Kundry is an old woman. She hobbles arthritically around the stage – a tour de force of acting by Elena Pankratova – but is still expected to push a wheelchair occupied by Gurnemanz. Another soldier, masked and armed, enters, but it is Parsifal again. Even he at first allows the geriatric Kundry, physically challenged as she is, to stoop before him, let down her grey hair and use it to wipe his feet. At last the redemptive process begins, and deeply touching it is too. Parsifal helps Kundry to her feet and the Good Friday Magic brings a spring shower in which naked girls cavort innocently. Subsequently decked attractively in summer dresses and slacks, they can now be embraced decorously by Parsifal. Kundry is helped to a wheelchair and the crowd that gathers is representative of all religions and none.

The treatment of Kundry is indicative of the compassion now demonstrated by the newly enlightened community, and rarely have I seen it so graphically visualised. But Laufenberg’s point is surely that this compassion goes hand in hand with a new approach to sexuality. As I read it, the Islamist distaste for western excess, as represented by the lascivious Flowermaidens, is perhaps analagous to the surfeit of sensual pleasure experienced by Tannhäuser in the Venusberg. Parsifal’s more mature understanding of sexuality, once helped to self-knowledge by his experiences with Kundry, enables him to embrace sensuality in a wholesome form, which certainly doesn’t exclude taking pleasure in the naked body.

Equally striking is the plea for tolerance and compassion towards those from other backgrounds, including refugees – the poignancy of this message enhanced by the presence of Angela Merkel. On religion, Laufenberg goes even further. In the final scene, Amfortas, still refusing to carry out his duty, tries to occupy the coffin in which Titurel’s remains have already turned to ashes. He is persuaded to vacate it, whereupon it is used as a receptacle to collect crucifixes, menorahs and other religious paraphernalia. The implication is that once having dispensed with the dogmas of religion, men and women from different communities can bury their differences and live in harmony. Impossibly idealistic? Maybe, but Wagner too was an idealist. And so long as those redemptive A flat harmonies resonate in our ears, what a beautiful thought to hold onto.

All this is realised by Laufenberg and an excellent cast in a highly professional production which time and again gives evidence of painstaking work in the rehearsal room. As Kundry, Elena Pankratova is a revelation for her acting as much as her singing. If the Kundry of Act III is too often reduced to a cipher, then Pankratova triumphantly reclaims the character as the instrument of redemption. But before that, her astonishing vocal authority allows her in Act II to linger sensually over her lines, while the extended top B of her ‘lachte’ was electrifying. Georg Zeppenfeld deployed immaculate diction to project a youthful (and he didn’t age as impressively as Pankratova), sympathetic Gurnemanz. Ryan McKinny’s Amfortas was powerfully incisive and Gerd Grochowski was a formidable Klingsor. At the risk of offending the many admirers of Klaus Florian Vogt, I can only say that with his flowing blond locks, he’s ideal as Parsifal – until he opens his mouth. Then the lack of tonal variety in his middle range, not to mention the shallowness lower down, barely add up to an adequate account of the role, despite the uniquely ethereal quality of the voice.

Hartmut Haenchen may have had only three and a half weeks to prepare for his appearance on the podium – enough time for just two orchestral rehearsals plus the dress, apparently – but his meticulous attention to detail stood him in good stead. As he made clear in an essay published in this journal when he conducted the work in Copenhagen, the search for appropriate tempi is fundamental to his interpretation.[1] His 3 hours 55 minutes reading is not a world record (Clemens Krauss came in at 3/44 and Thomas Hengelbrock’s period-instrument performance clocked an extraordinary 3/33; at the opposite extreme are Levine’s 4/33 and Toscanini’s famous 4/42) but shaves minutes, even quarters of an hour, off other leading interpreters. To my ears, the tempi always sound perfectly natural, however, even the fast-twirling triplets of the Flowermaidens’ music. No less vital is the animation of his phrasing, enhanced by clearly pointed articulation.

All in all, then, a highly accomplished production, in both musical and stage terms: one which addresses the work’s major issues in a perceptive and often original way.

                  Revisiting Katharina Wagner’s production of Tristan und Isolde, now in its second year, I was intrigued to find that while many of my initial impressions – of imaginative and often moving dramaturgy – were reinforced, my reservations about the characterisation of King Mark underwent some modification. In Act II Tristan and Isolde are bundled into a prison or secure institution of some kind where they are under the surveillance of Mark, Melot and followers. The searchlights trained on them do not always correspond to the Day/Night dichotomy of the text and music. Isolde of course cannot put out the light, and although she later tries to, she has to resort to covering herself to escape it. The ‘So starben wir’ section of the love duet is also brightly illuminated, even though Mark and Melot themselves have left by this time. One could argue that the lovers are striking a note of defiance by conducting their liaison in the full glare of searchlights (if not actually daylight), and in the knowledge that they are being watched (as we must assume). But what are we to make of the brutal characterisation of Mark? For much of the Monologue, Georg Zeppenfeld, with a keen edge to his tone as lethal as the knife he wields, is able to convince us that there may be another side to the king that we are not usually aware of. If at the climax of the D major section – ‘die so herrlich hold erhaben’ – what we usually hear as the humanity of the betrayed monarch appears to conflict with the eruption of angry violence shown here, then perhaps an important point is being made. Perhaps Mark is all too capable of the murderous, vengeful instincts that normally accompany sexual betrayal. Brooding on this possibility after the performance, I began to wonder whether perhaps Mark’s more sadistic aspect had actually been played down this time in favour of a more understandable potential for violence.

Unfortunately the antics of Kurwenal, clambering up walls, hurling himself at the door of the prison far too many times and continuing to distract us throughout the duet, are as irritating as ever. A shame, because vocally Iain Paterson is on terrific form. One of the work’s greatest moments – the ravishing modulation onto a second inversion in A flat major, suspending time as Tristan invites Isolde to join him in the world of endless forgetting, is wrecked by Tristan being hustled noisily to the ground. On the other hand, the final section of the love duet is movingly enhanced by a pair of holograms showing two shadowy figures walking away into the far distance, side by side yet on parallel, unconverging tracks. Graham Vick represents this other sphere, the noumenal world, in a different way in his production for the Deutsche Oper, Berlin (see review in the November issue of The Wagner Journal). Both are equally valid and effective.

Act I of Katharina Wagner’s production presages the theme of imprisonment with a complex structure of interconnecting staircases and crosswalks (designed by Frank Philipp Schlößmann and Matthias Lippert) inspired by Piranesi’s Imaginary Prisons. As a visual analogue of the psychological barriers between Tristan and Isolde, and of the efforts of their retainers Kurwenal and Brangäne to keep them apart, it’s an effective mise-en-scène. More impressive still is Act III. As the curtain goes up on that final act, we see four figures (Kurwenal, the Shepherd, the Steersman and the Young Sailor) huddled in darkness round the prostrate form of Tristan. With little red lights at their feet and a misty backdrop, it makes a striking tableau. Triangular shapes appear framing more holograms, this time of lookalike Isoldes – visualisations of Tristan’s fevered imagination – and variously crumble, disappear or turn into rag dolls, complementing the pain and yearning of the music powerfully. Equally remarkable is the ending, where King Mark prises Isolde away from Tristan’s body, dragging her off with him, her world of illusion having come to a shattering end.

Complementing this gripping dramatic representation is Christian Thielemann’s superb conducting, which seems even more fluid than last year. The Prelude had a wonderful rhythmic flexibility, the ebb and flow of passion caught to thrilling effect, that, if memory serves, outstrips that of 2015. I happened to be in the room when Thielemann made the acquaintance of Strauss’s extraordinary 1928 recording of this Prelude, with its unrivalled mastery of rubato, in Oxford in January of this year. Could his reading have been influenced by this? It is in any case an exemplary demonstration – and this applies equally to the love music of Act II and the long scene of Tristan’s delirium in Act III – of subtly differentiated dynamics (far more piano than usual), translucent textures and flexible rhythmic control.

Stephen Gould’s Tristan had also matured since last year – the result of working with Thielemann, some were suggesting. It was as powerfully projected as ever, but now with far more tonal nuance. Making her role debut as Isolde was Petra Lang, who certainly managed to hold her own against Gould’s stentorian tenor (as even Evelyn Herlitzius had been unable to last year). Lang has made her reputation in mezzo roles, of course, not least Brangäne, and although she has the top Cs, it still sounds, to my ears, like a Brangäne voice, which can be confusing when she’s interacting with the relatively light-voiced Claudia Mahnke, standing in for Christa Mayer. More of a problem is Lang’s line, very beautiful in its way but almost totally devoid of consonants, thus depriving it of textual meaning. Also worthy of mention is Raimund Nolte, who makes a big impression in the comparatively small role of Melot.


[1]‘ “Here time becomes space” ’, TWJ, vi/2 (2012), 51–7.

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