For a production that faced both an early change of director and the resignation of its conductor barely a fortnight before the première, Bayreuth’s new Parsifal gets a lot right. Uwe-Eric Laufenberg, intendant at Wiesbaden, was handed the poisoned chalice of directing the replacement for Stefan Herheim’s epoch-making production of the work (2008-12) when the festival’s initial choice didn’t work out. His solution turns out to be rather tame by recent Bayreuth standards – no rats, effluent digesters, paint fights or crocodiles that have characterised other works in the recent and current festival repertoire. The fact that Laufenberg has not set the opera in mythical medieval times may be too modern for some, but today’s Bayreuth regulars are made of sterner stuff and are used to being challenged perhaps a little more than here. Yet it does what it aims to do exceedingly well.

Klaus Florian Vogt (Parsifal) and the Flowermaidens © Enrico Nawrath
Klaus Florian Vogt (Parsifal) and the Flowermaidens
© Enrico Nawrath

The drama is relocated to modern-day Iraq, where a Christian community hangs on against the odds. Their church has been bombed and the monks and congregation valiantly soldier on. Meanwhile, the renegade Klingsor, though still a closet Christian, as suggested by his secret shrine of crucifixes, gives the outward impression of having converted to Islam and his flowermaidens divest themselves of black Islamic dress to become exotic seductresses. The church is little more than a ruined shell by Act III and the members of all three Abrahamic religions have sought mutual protection.

Gerd Grochowski (Klingsor) © Enrico Nawrath
Gerd Grochowski (Klingsor)
© Enrico Nawrath
Yet with Parsifal’s final healing of Amfortas’ wound, all their religious artefacts and symbols are consigned to Titurel’s open coffin as the people walk off together to a post-religious future. This is very much what Wagner had in mind, going back to his reading of Feuerbach and Schopenhauer, that salvation would come by moving beyond reliance on religion. This manner of staging the work’s conclusion, indeed, has become a common solution of Parsifal productions in recent times, and there were further reminiscences from previous conceptions here, for instance the brutal opening of Amfortas’ wound and sharing of his blood in the ritual of Act I, as well as Amfortas’ unscripted appearance to re-experience his liaison with Kundry in Act II.
Ryan McKinny (Amfortas) © Enrico Nawrath
Ryan McKinny (Amfortas)
© Enrico Nawrath

“Here time becomes space,” as Gurnemanz describes the domain of the Grail to Parsifal, and during the first act’s transformation music, a projected video zooms out from the centre of the church roof to the furthest reaches of the cosmos and back again (hence, also, we can identify the location as Mosul thanks to the satellite image en route). Admittedly, the English ‘space’ pun may not work in German so can be seen as coincidental, but it proved a stunning visual interlude. The comparable scene change in Act III was accompanied by visions of the deaths of Kundry and Titurel, as well as – for no apparent reason – Wagner’s death mask. One other unexplained element is a static seated figure on the church roof in Acts I and II, who is then seen collapsed and dead at the end of Act III. Perhaps it was Wagner after all.

Georg Zeppenfeld (Gurnemanz) and Elena Pankratova (Kundry) © Enrico Nawarth
Georg Zeppenfeld (Gurnemanz) and Elena Pankratova (Kundry)
© Enrico Nawarth
Given that he took over the conducting from Andris Nelsons at such a late stage, Hartmut Haenchen showed that he had already mastered the theatre’s difficult acoustic by this second performance of the run. He adopted fashionably brisk tempos in this famously slow-moving work, but it never felt rushed, and he gave plenty of space for his singers. Klaus Florian Vogt didn’t bring a conventionally heroic Wagnerian tenor to the title role and his pallid tone tended to become monotonous, but he looked good as the innocent who finds self-revelation.

Otherwise, the cast was as good as one can hear in this work today. Georg Zeppenfeld’s Gurnemanz was a masterclass in clear enunciation, opulent bass tone and vocal charisma, and Elena Pankratova’s Kundry was gripping, no more so than on her forceful and extended “lachte” that seemed to leave a stunned audience in the silence that follows. Ryan McKinny suffered soaking and stage bleeding for his art as a sympathetic, vocally well-rounded Amfortas, Karl-Heinz Lehner was a forceful Titurel and Gerd Grochowski was in firm voice as Klingsor. The solo Grail Knights, Knappen and flowermaidens acquitted themselves with distinction and the powerful Bayreuth Festival Chorus lived up to its reputation as the best opera choir in the business.