The New York Times, July 1, 2018
|By Zachary Woolfe
Wagner: Parsifal, Bayerische Staatsoper, ab 28. Juni 2018
Review: A Conductor Sets Munich’s Ashen ‘Parsifal’ Aflame
“Spring is here,” an old knight declares in the final act of Wagner’s
“Parsifal.” Yet wintry night never ends in the grim, ashen new production of
the work which opened the Munich Opera Festival on Thursday. (It will be
broadcast live at staatsoper.tv on July 8.)
The lights are dim. The
sets — based on, and sometimes magnified reproductions of, melancholy ink
drawings by the artist Georg Baselitz — are black and white. The
performances of a superb cast, led by Jonas Kaufmann, Nina Stemme, Christian
Gerhaher, René Pape and Wolfgang Koch, are sober, responsible, gray.
Pretty much the only color comes from a brief flood of sickly dark purple
illumination near the end — and from Kirill Petrenko, the music director of
the Bavarian State Opera here, who conducts with visionary flammability.
It is the kind of dreary canvas that could have been the backdrop for a
memorably stark, even brutal account of Wagner’s opera, in which a suffering
company of knights guarding the Holy Grail is saved through the slow
progress to understanding of an innocent young man.
production — by Pierre Audi, the artistic director of the Park Avenue Armory
in New York, who will soon add the same role at the Aix-en-Provence Festival
in France — never risks brutality; it never risks much of anything. Barely
veiled by the somber setting, a marriage of Neolithic skeletons and
contemporary fabrics by way of riffs on medieval armor, is a dully rote
telling of this ambiguous story.
There are a few striking scenic
moments, such as when a shadowy forest begins to collapse on itself. And
there are flashes of insight: As the knights celebrate the communion-like
ceremony of the Grail, they drop their hardy outerwear and reveal suits of
exaggeratedly sagging flesh.
This staging’s Grail appears to be a
kind of fountain of youth, grotesquely elongating the lives of the men who
worship it for that reason. Parsifal, then, seems less a savior than an
exposer of the artificial persistence of an aging generation.
idea is initially not without a certain self-lacerating poignancy coming
from Mr. Audi, 60, and Mr. Baselitz, 80, whose globby neo-expressionism is
the subject of a current retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture
Garden in Washington, D.C. But it goes nowhere. The final act is a listless
shamble toward vague transcendence, with Parsifal bathed in light as the
knights — sagging flesh safely covered — slowly spin in place, a Baselitz
starburst looming over everything.
What does Parsifal learn? What
does he, by the end of these hours and hours of music, teach? What happens
to this tortured society? Just a gently happy ending? “Parsifal” can
persuasively be a parable of ecological disaster, of tormented nationhood,
of — as in the Metropolitan Opera’s far more interesting production — the
great rift between the sexes. In Mr. Audi’s hands, though, it is a mellow,
shallow ritual, with little to tell us at all.
The man who does have
something to tell us — who is, in fact, fairly shaking us by the lapels with
his ideas — is Mr. Petrenko. This is the first time that he, the incoming
music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, has taken on “Parsifal,” and it
is a vivid, truly essayistic reading that feels like the proper parallel to
the febrile sketchiness of Mr. Baselitz’s ink drawings. (They’re better than
After starting the prelude with daringly careful
slowness — many conductors today favor a swifter, more natural flow — Mr.
Petrenko unleashes waves of spiky, sparkling sound. The strings are almost
troublingly raw, perched on the edge of hysteria, over a yawning gulf to the
deep base of the orchestra.
This is an evocation of the unhealing
wound of Amfortas, the leader of the knights, and of the opera’s bitter
power plays and nightmarish, incest-like seductions, more harrowing than
anything onstage. It’s hard to forget even passing moments, like Mr.
Petrenko’s choice to lean heavily on the nausea-laden rustle that ends the
He is not afraid to be solemn and grand, even blaring,
but he lightens the textures of much of the score nearly to chamber music;
this is the rare “Parsifal” that never feels leaden, that is deliberate, yet
propulsive. The mood is swirling, gently dizzying, as Gurnemanz, a veteran
knight, describes the calling of the company; when Parsifal is unmasked in
the final act, Mr. Petrenko carries the emotion through what feels like
several full minutes of sustained intensity.
It is unsettled, and
unsettling. And riveting. If the singers did not match it for
moment-by-moment interest, that’s Mr. Audi’s fault more than theirs — and
this was as solidly rewarding a cast as you can find in this opera today.
As Mr. Kaufmann did at the Met a few years ago, he wanders a bit emptily
through the title role. But his voice seems less moored to its depths and
hooded than it has recently, and it emerges without strain; he is serene,
Articulate, too, is Mr. Gerhaher, one of our greatest
lieder singers, as a quietly bitter Amfortas, posing the text with clarity.
Best is when, with Mr. Petrenko’s help, he can diffuse his voice to its
uniquely haunting, smoky ruefulness; he is less fascinating when the role
demands sheer power.
Mr. Pape, lacking only some heft in his lowest
register, is a conscientious Gurnemanz. Ms. Stemme, singing the opera’s
conflicted temptress with easy richness and pale mournfulness, is the rare
Kundry who is more elegant than intense.
None of the performances is
disappointing; none of them ultimately stands out for its detail or
originality, either. Mr. Audi seems to have gently buffed them all to a
straightforward sheen. He has inspired far more coolness than heat in a
cautious handling of the opera.
Mr. Petrenko didn’t get the memo.
Remarkably, given the starry cast, but deservedly, the cheers for him at the
curtain call were the most enthusiastic by far.