Financial Times, 30.6.2018
Shirley Apthorp
Wagner: Parsifal, Bayerische Staatsoper, 28. Juni 2018
Parsifal, Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich — a prestige production
A staging of Wagner’s opera that is full of big-name artists
The problem with hiring visual artists as set designers for opera productions is that they seldom leave room for the music. In having Georg Baselitz design a Parsifal for the Bavarian State Opera, intendant Nikolaus Bachler won a big name for his season brochure. But Baselitz has made Baselitz’s Parsifal, and the result feels rather like being locked inside an exhibition for five hours while listening to Wagner.

Fortunately the Wagner is driven by Kirill Petrenko, who draws playing of ravishing warmth from the house orchestra and carries his singers with infinite tenderness. His is a gentle, reflective Parsifal, full of delicate colours, strong when it needs to be, always in motion, never violent.

Baselitz’s set for the last act is the same as his set for the first act, but upside down (of course) — a cut-out forest of the kind you might find as a Gothic cardboard construct in a box of particularly depressing breakfast cereal. Insert tab A into slot B. There are some luminously painted curtains for the orchestral interludes, and Klingsor’s magic garden in the middle act is a rough suggestion of a brick wall with a suggestive gash in it.

In Pierre Audi, Bachler found a director who would not attempt to insert his own ego in front of Baselitz’s sketchy imagery. But Audi is left with no interpretative wiggle room, and cannot answer any of the work’s fundamental questions — who are these knights, what is the grail, what is this redemption? At two key moments, Audi simply lets his protagonists place their hands over their eyes, implying an internal answer, presumably for want of any other option. Audi’s figures are left to float in an obligatory stasis, striving for a spiritual purity that is utterly at odds with the naked, smeary fat suits of Florence von Gerkan’s costumes, or the rubbery ambiguity of Baselitz’s winter trees. Urs Schönebaum’s lighting lends a helpful note of poetry — purple for the Good Friday flowers — but the totality is bleak.

The plus of such a big-name cast is that there is plenty of excellent singing. René Pape is a Gurnemanz whose every word is not only crystal clear, but also infused with meaning. Christian Gerhaher brings even more exactitude to the role of Amfortas, singing every letter of his text with love and lending the whole exceptional formal grace. Nina Stemme’s Kundry is filled with compassion, while Jonas Kaufmann remains on a planet of his own as Parsifal, delivering singing that sounds effortless and clean but moving as if his main concern is to display aloof disdain for all around him.

Wagner wanted Parsifal to be a religious act. It is not necessarily a bad thing when a performance is not that. But it needs to be something. This is a Parsifal assembled with prestige as its main goal. It sounds superb, and looks imposing. But it never really takes off as music theatre.

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