Arts Talk Magazine, 21 July 2018
Wagner: Parsifal, Bayerische Staatsoper, ab 28. Juni 2018
PARSIFAL at Munich StaatsOper
Wagner as you have never heard him before.
This new Parsifal production in Munich was one of the most anticipated opera
premieres of the year: Kirill Petrenko, the future chief conductor of the
Berliner Philharmoniker assembled a star-studded cast to attack Wagner’s
great final work, including Nina Stemme as Kundry, Rene Pape as Gurnemanz
and Jonas Kaufmann in the title role. The world-famous artist Georg Baselitz
designed the decor.
Baselitz famously said that he wanted to “turn
the piece onto its head” in his new Parsifal production in Munich. With the
help of the formidable genius of Kirill Petrenko, he has indeed managed to
realise a new, revolutionary Wagner. An opera production is defined by the
conceptual forethought that it is built around, and when an ensemble of the
quality of the one in Munich puts all of their artistic energy into
realising that concept, we are nearly guaranteed a special night with the
new Parsifal of the Bavarian State Opera.
This Parsifal demands
substantial effort and time to understand it, I needed the entire first act
to realise it’s scope. For most of the first act, I did not understand
Petrenko’s conducting, was surprised by modern tempi paired with a lush,
old-fashioned orchestra using their whole bow for every note. With unusual
accentuations, the whole thing appeared to me as a long, dull quest for the
most intricate details of the score, which almost always goes wrong with
Parsifal, a piece that demands one singular vision in its interpretation. I
was missing the emotional basis that is found everywhere in Wagner’s music.
When even the transfiguration music was done by Petrenko in the same manner-
uncomfortable, unusual accents, reposeful dynamics, never emotional- I
realised, that there must be some method to this madness. Petrenko must be
aiming for more than to conduct a good Parsifal.
I had never heard
Petrenko before, and as a frequent guest of the Berliner Philharmoniker, I
was excited as to what their next chief conductor would make out of Wagner’s
final piece, which I had just heard with the Philharmoniker a few months
prior. Throughout the evening, Petrenko completely reversed my opinion,
leaving me impressed and breathless: He tries to change how we hear Wagner.
We know Wagner’s music featuring an emotional force unlike any other from
recordings and impressions over decades. Musical motifs work as conduits for
journeys into an emotional, sensuous world. The best examples for this
approach are the first act of Walküre and the second act of Tristan, both of
which get you to the edge of your seat through sheer emotional force.
Petrenko tries something wildly different, which I would never have expected
a Wagner-conductor to try: He strips Parsifal of all emotion and sensuality.
He breaks with the highest law of the piece, he permits no sanctification or
consecration in the music at all. Whether in the Good Friday Music, the
final chorus or the transfiguration passages. The Flower Maiden’s music is
the only time where Petrenko ever allows some sweetness, some colour, and
only because he has to. Here, the music is simply composed in too sweet and
luscious a manner, with obvious, impassible zesty textures. When I realised
what Petrenko was doing, I was rooted to my seat: He is walking along a
completely new musical path for Wagner. He rips the carefully quilted,
well-known and protected emotional Wagner- carpet out from under the
listener’s feet. And is met by tons of bravi.
Pretty much any artist
who has tried to take Wagner into a new direction in the past encountered
the stiffest headwind, simply ask Wieland Wagner, Patrice Chereau or Hans
Neuenfels. But the public loves Petrenko, because he overwhelms by not
overwhelming. This is essential to understand, if you want to get Petrenko’s
Wagner. Now, of course, if this is your first Parsifal, you might find the
piece bland, unordered or colourless. And that makes an interesting
statement for when Petrenko conducts Tristan for the first time. But ravish
orchestral colours is also not Petrenko’s principal goal here. He wants to
show us a new way of perceiving Wagner’s music, as an expression of our
society today: No longer permitting the good old emotional comfort that we
are used to, but instead finding new, current perspectives on the work of a
So how does he do it? First of all, this Parsifal is
rather quiet, even in the final chorus and Klingsor’s fight with Parsifal,
the dynamics are remarkably subdued. Instead, Petrenko dives into the score,
separating individual woodwind voices from one another, shifting the
dynamics in a specific way to make that one exquisite line in the bases
audible. What looks like a detail-driven score-excursion is actually
painstaking dynamic shifting and balancing within the orchestra. Petrenko
really is a dynamic architect, teaching his orchestra to vary in the
pianissimi, rather than in louder dynamics and taking back the choirs as
well. Combine all of that with faster tempi that remind of Rattle and
Boulez, and Petrenko sucks all the emotion out of the piece. He introduces a
completely new conceptual thinking of the piece, which he executes so
daringly and perfectly, that you really have no other choice but to shout
“bravo” at the end.
To execute such a daring project, Petrenko needs
an exquisite ensemble. While not all singers catch on as well, three of them
do stand out as musicians who have inhaled Petrenko’s concept.
role-debut as Amfortas, Christian Gerhaher fits most cleanly into Petrenko’s
vision: His singing is of an astounding clarity, the emotions come out of
the simple notes, rather than might in the voice, vibrato or interpretation.
I am reminded of the great Günther Wand’s advice on Bruckner; He famously
said to the Berlin Philharmonic in a rehearsal: “Please do not interpret the
music!” When it comes to emotional acting, Gerhaher is remarkably subdued.
His Amfortas is transparent, appears calm and resigned and never suffers in
the conventional way. Never is there even a trace of baritonal glaze or
guttural vibrato. This makes Gerhaher’s portrayal distinctly honest and
special: While he is not a pure-blooded opera performer and his voice is
much softer than that of other bases that have interpreted the role over the
years, he takes all of the surplus emotion out of his singing, as Petrenko
takes it out of the orchestra.
Wolfgang Koch takes on the role of the
demonic villain, Klingsor. Similar to Gerhaher, his voice is clear,
transparent and flexible. This Klingsor takes his villainous energy from a
grounded, distinctly musical attitude. While still the clear antagonist, he
is an honest antagonist who requires no mask to appear scary or menacing. It
becomes clear that Petrenko wants the singers to abandon all operatic
behaviour, all the usual tricks of emotional grandeur. Instead of grand
vocal features, he demands honesty and dynamic repose. Koch executes
Petrenko’s concept brilliantly and makes the most of his comparatively short
time on stage in act two.
And then we have the messiah of the
tenor-world, the global star of classical music, Jonas Kaufmann in the title
role. It is my first time hearing him tonight. Just like Koch and Gerhaher,
he has taken his tenor back a notch, in a role that does not require much
Heldentenor-ish staying power in the first place. This makes for even more
brilliant music moments: As with all truly great singers, Kaufmann’s
pianissimi are not of this world, the quiet endings of his passages are the
high points of the evening when it comes to singing. He has that
irresistible timbre somewhere between Tenor and Baritone, which still allows
for incredible dynamic outbursts in “Amfortas, die Wunde!”. His Parsifal is
truly pure, innocent and withdrawn. He fits into Petrenko’s concept
wonderfully, but his voice always puts him at center stage, whenever he
sings. He is the brilliant tenor of his generation, superior to all others
that I have heard in this role (Ventris, Skelton, Schager). His diction is
clear as crystal water, the Bavarian “r” clearly discernible here and there.
This role fits Kaufmann perfectly and I am astounded after hearing him for
the first time.
I have heard Nina Stemme several times, and for some
reason she always seems subdued to me in scenic performances as Kundry. Her
vocal contribution to the night is, of course, flawless, indeed
extraordinary. She also fits wonderfully into Petrenko’s concept, her
highest notes are clearly audible over of the orchestra like we can expect
from the leading dramatic soprano of our time. Many well-deserved bravi for
her at the end. But still, her acting seems slightly subdued to me. Maybe
that is because I recently rewatched the eternal Waltraud Meier sing the
role in the Kufper staging, which was simply spellbinding, or because of
Stemme’s Nordic coolness. Whichever one it is, I may be missing some
charisma in Stemme’s acting, but her singing is likely unbeatable.
And then there is René Pape as Gurnemanz. I heard him in the role with
Barenboim conducting in April. Together with Barenboim’s old-fashioned, slow
conducting it became one of the truly great scenic opera performances that I
have ever witnessed. But now, Pape had to sing a completely different
Gurnemanz: Instead of the slow, authoritarian and majestic grail knight he
sung for Barenboim, Petrenko askes him to sing more lyrical, focused on
phrasing and feature (same as the other singers) reposed dynamics. Pape
indeed tries his best to make the long Gurnemanz monologues as sophisticated
and differentiated as possible, but that cannot tarnish the fact that he
wields an inherently strong, sometimes elephantine bass voice. Pape’s
Gurnemanz in Munich is, of course, foot-perfect when it comes to matters of
sound and text, he simply does not stand out as much from the rest of the
ensemble as others, because it is apparent that a different type of
Gurnemanz fits better to his vocal features. His natural Gurnemanz (as I
heard it in Berlin in April) reminds more those of vintage greats like Josef
Greindl, while the staging and Petrenko’s concept could have done well with
a bass who has the lyrical approach of someone like Franz-Josef Selig.
Pape’s Gurnemanz is absolutely appropriate for the festival setting, just
To come to the staging: We definitely see traces of
Petrenko’s radical concept on stage. But there are some traditional features
as well. The first act, for a change, is actually set in a forest and Jonas
Kaufmann shoots down an actual swan. There is no pantomime or other acting
during the prelude and, in the finale, an actual dove (painted by Baselitz)
graces the stage. Director Pierre Audi had to convince Baselitz not to make
everything dark and boring, but he did take up the suggestion to keep the
stage dark and quiet and not to interfere with Petrenko’s vision of the
piece, but to support it. The movement on stage is creative, moderate, but
fitting; only in the third act do Parsifal, Gurnemanz and Kundry stand
slightly far apart from one another.
The costumes, by designer
Florence von Gerkan, are a real looker in this production. Von Gerkan shows
the society of the grail in all its helplessness. Clothes are hanging from
the singer’s bodies, rather like dead body parts instead of clothes. And
then, everyone gets fat and pseudo-naked, which looks questionable, but also
serves the overall concept: If you want to turn Parsifal onto its head, what
do you do? Well, you transform the Flower Maidens from their usual
appearance as images of sex and lust into a naked, fat (possibly raped?)
heap of sorrowful bodies. Perhaps exactly because of their radical power,
these costumes caused such a scandal.
In act two Klingsor’s castle is
a painting by Baselitz, which collapses in on itself rather noisily at the
end. And in the third act Baselitz and Audi make good on their promise to
turn the piece onto its head, as they hang the stage decorations from act
one literally from the ceiling in reverse. Interpret that, as you will. For
me, the scenery overall contributes to a Parsifal production that challenges
our habits in understanding and hearing Wagner, that takes a step towards a
new Wagner that few productions have risked before.
So we are left
with a highly philosophical Parsifal that features a brilliant conductor and
challenges the Wagner lovers of this world: What do they think of their
beloved master? Is all of this emotional music really still current? Or do
we need something new, a Wagner of the 21stcentury? An interpretation that
does not necessarily satisfy old expectations, but exists in its own right?
Petrenko manages just that, creating a new Wagner in the master’s most
sacred piece. With an ensemble of singers unlike any other and the great
Jonas Kaufmann at the helm, this is a Parsifal no one is likely to forget.
Now it will be even more exciting to see what will happen, when Petrenko
takes over one of the most sound-intensive and emotional orchestras of the
world. We are in for exciting times in Berlin.