Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Wagner - Parsifal (Munich, 2018)

Richard Wagner - Parsifal

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich - 2018

Kirill Petrenko, Pierre Audi, Georg Baselitz, Christian Gerhaher, Bálint Szabó, René Pape, Jonas Kaufmann, Wolfgang Koch, Nina Stemme, Kevin Conners, Callum Thorpe, Rachael Wilson, Paula Iancic, Tara Erraught, Manuel Günther, Matthew Grills, Golda Schultz, Selene Zanetti, Noluvuyiso Mpofu

Staatsoper.TV - 08 July 2018

I'm convinced that if I never watched any other opera but Parsifal, I'd still continue to find it an inexhaustible source of wonder, continually offering new insights about life, its purpose and meaning. There aren't many operas that offer as much, particularly from what appears to be so little. Whether it's Wagner's music itself, the director involved in a new production, the conductor, the singers, the staging, it seems that there are infinite way of exploring this enigmatic work. It seems impossible not to engage with its deeply spiritual content, and each and every new performance and contributor seeming to have something new to bring to it. That's certainly the case with this exceptional 2018 production of Parsifal from the Bayerische Staatsoper.

On a basic narrative level Parsifal seems to be a religious parable or fantasy that bears little connection with real life matters. In Monsalvat, a place outside of space and time, the knights dedicated to a cult of the Holy Grail are falling into despair, their hero Amfortas having been struck by the Holy Spear of Destiny no longer able to endure the pain of performing the ceremony of the unveiling of the the grail that gives strength to its acolytes. They are crying out for someone to resolve the conflict and division in the world since Klingsor the spear has fallen into the hands of Klingsor. Along comes an innocent fool who doesn't even know his own name. He is moved by what Gurnemanz shows him and determines to do something about it, to learn and understand. That's Act I. In Act II, resisting temptations of the flesh he encounters Kundry, a restless spirit who awakes him to a new awareness not just of the self, but of others. He wrests the spear from Klingsor and, after many years of wandering lost, finds his way to return the lost spear to Monsalvat in Act III.

On another level Parsifal is a story of redemption, the Grail and the Spear symbols of the gifts that God has given which can be used for good or evil. Mankind has taken a wrong step and it needs someone - someone pure who doesn't know the ways of the sinful world - who can heal the divisions and put us back on the right path; a return to innocence through death, rebirth and renewal. Parsifal's journey is not an easy one, the acquiring of learning and knowledge is difficult and painful, but it is through pain and loss that he acquires compassion and, through compassion, purpose. The opera however is not just about Parsifal, but Gurnemanz, Amfortas, Kundry and even Titurel reaching his end, all have their own paths to take towards redemption, resolution, transfiguration and transcendence, but Parsifal is the light that shows them the way.

There are many paths to follow then in Parsifal, and evidently even the above description and reading is greatly simplified. What lifts Parsifal to another level entirely and which can't be put into simple narrative terms is of course Wagner's miraculous music. Noble, dignified, passionate and compassionate, it embodies all the qualities of being human and striving to understand, but there's an abstraction in the flow and blend of melodies and leitmotifs, in the use of instruments and sounds, in the choral and ceremonial aspects of the work that also touches on something deep and spiritual and makes this little fable something more meaningful and endlessly capable of revealing new depths.

So what are we to make of Pierre Audi's new production of Parsifal for the Bavarian State Opera's 2018 summer festival? Well, initially, not a great deal. There's no particular emphasis or vision in display in the first Act, other than the distinctive and unusual set designs by the German artist and sculptor Georg Baselitz. Audi has successfully worked with visual artists before - not so long ago with Anish Kapoor on another production of Parsifal for the Dutch National Opera - and it does succeed in bringing another personal vision of a world that lies between abstraction and reality, a world turned upside down and deflating. Monsalvat appears to be deep in the woods, the knights congregating around a rough hewn structure of stone pillars that come together like a pyramid bundle of sticks sculpture. Kundry is to be found under the skeleton of whatever beast she rode in on. The outdoor-living monks wear heavy robes and tribal paints on their face, stripping down to reveal padded naked suits when Amfortas carries out an act of self-bloodletting within the sacrificial altar of the stone sculpture.

Aside from the eccentricities of the designs - which are nothing more than bringing the style of Georg Baselitz's paintings and designs to life - there's not much in the way of a concept revealed here. It seems to be relying on Kirill Petrenko's conducting of the score to bring out the real depth and mysteries of the work, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Under Petrenko, this is a performance of extraordinary quality by the Bayerisches Staatsorchester, perfectly paced and balanced to allow the emotional depth at the heart of the work infuse the limited dramatic action, and indeed even the otherwise unspectacular 'time becomes space' and unveiling of the grail 'transubstantiation' scenes.

It's only in Act II of this production that the path, intent and purpose of the work becomes evident. The more I see Parsifal, the more it becomes clear that the key figure in the work, the role that is most rewarding in terms of following the progression from lost to found, from self-interest to care for others, is not Parsifal but Kundry. How successful this is may well be down to the singers involved, and Nina Stemme is just astonishingly good here - one of the greatest performances of this role I've ever heard or witnessed. But the characterisation and understanding of who Kundry is important, and Audi and Stemme seem to have paid particular care and attention to this aspect of the work.

It's significant that Kundry is seen awakening out of a long "sleep of death" at the beginning of all three acts. It's her long-suffering moans we hear clearly in each of these scenes as she is called back into the pain of existence. Wild, untamed and confused, seeking redemption for a kind of 'original sin', she struggles with her own nature, unsure of the path to take, helping to ease the pain of Amfortas in one incarnation, forced to act as an agent of Klingsor in another. Tired of being torn, she wants to believe that there is a chance of rest, that someone will bring her struggle to an end. Like all the others, it can't be done by will alone, but in Act II - according to the very direct imagery of Georg Baselitz - a wall is breached.

Pierre Audi also pays particular attention to Parsifal in this Act and Jonas Kaufmann is very much able to make something of this characterisation and his interaction with Stemme's extraordinary Kundry. In a quite different reading of Wagner's exotic music for the Flowermaidens scene, Parsifal is not seduced, but rather the music seems to exude compassion - not love or lust - that he feels for these poor twisted naked bloody creatures of Klingsor (as Baselitz depicts them in lumpy padding). It's not just compassion though, but fear of compassion, unprepared for what it will take out of him. It's a reaction that for the first time made me think of the Flowermaidens scene not as some false Garden of Eden but rather as something closer to Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, a religious scene that Wagner would undoubtedly have considered and referenced in relation to compassion, pain and sacrifice.

It's a simply stunning Act II, superlative on every level of execution in concept and performance. Its position as the true pivotal scene in the opera is fully realised here, the single greatest enactment of this Act that I have ever seen. It's not just Stemme, Kaufmann and Koch, it's Audi's direction, Baselitz's simple but meaningful set designs and, essentially, Kirill Petrenko's management of the ebb and flow of Wagner's near miraculous score reaching out and bringing all of this together. When you see it the way it is supposed to be done, it's no wonder that Klingsor is so quickly and easily dispatched at the end of the Act. Parsifal has become an unstoppable force that has still to learn to control and come to terms with the knowledge and power he has gained through the medium of Kundry, but at this point he's just burning fire.

By the time we return to an upturned Monsalvat in Act III, it really does feel like a long time has passed, that Parsifal's righteous fire has lost none of its force but Kaufmann's demeanour wields it like a smouldering sun exuding only light and warmth. The tone and intent of this Act remained deeply moving and sincere in its account of redemption, rebirth and a return to innocence but it felt to me that there were understandable signs of tiring in the orchestra and in the performances. It also brought out the one real weak-point in this production, which was Christian Gerhaher's Amfortas. Gerhaher sings one of the most beautiful lyrical Wolframs you will ever hear in Tannhäuser, but he seemed to me ill-suited and lost as Amfortas. Then again, with the focus wholly on how Kundry and Parsifal become the catalyst to change, there is inevitably less attention paid to the other aspects of the work. If Amfortas's pain was at the same level, it would not only present a different balance, it would almost be too much for a viewer to bear in this production.

René Pape's Gurnemanz is also underdeveloped. Pape is left to stand inhabiting his own world, almost invariably poised beatifically with hands clasped in front of himself, focussed on the delivery but visibly wilting under the heat in the theatre as much as under the weight of the role. It has to be said that the delivery is still very good. I have mixed feelings about Jonas Kaufmann's Parsifal. On the one hand, he does bring depth and compassion to Parsifal, his singing heartfelt and emotional. On the other hand his range lacks effectiveness as he tires, going from soft and barely audible to full-volume belting at the cost of real emotional feeling. He tries to compensate in his acting and often overcompensates. Without question however he delivers some spine-tingling moments here, particularly in his interaction with Nina Stemme's Kundry. There I'm afraid words are completely inadequate to express the depth of detail, the warmth of tone and expression in Stemme's ability to bring one of the greatest characters in all opera to life. It's just extraordinary and it makes this Parsifal extraordinary as well.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper.TV