Wednesday 8 August 2018

Jonas Kaufmann as Wagner’s Parsifal at the Munich Opera Festival

Wagner: Parsifal - Jonas Kaufmann - Munich Opera Festival (Photo Ruth Waltz)
Wagner: Parsifal - Jonas Kaufmann (Parsifal) & the flower maidens
Munich Opera Festival (Photo Ruth Waltz)
Richard Wagner Parsifal; Christian Gerhaher, Jonas Kaufmann, Wolfgang Koch, René Pape, Nina Stemme, Bálint Szabó, dir: Pierre Audi, cond: Kirill Petrenko; Bayerischen Staatsoper, München Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 31 July 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Pierre Audi delivered an intriguing production of Parsifal at Bayerischen Staatsoper, München, closing this year’s Munich Opera Festival

In Pierre Audi’s somewhat strange, unusual but compelling production of Parsifal, the Great Hall of Montsalvat Castle - the home of the Knights of the Holy Grail - drifted miles away from its original setting inasmuch as it turned out to be a strongly-built, wooden-constructed, wigwam-type building located in the Holy Forest of the Knights of the Grail with members of the Brotherhood attired in dark monastic-style robes as opposed to being clad in tough leather or chain-mail shirt and embroidered tunic favoured by medieval knights.

Presented at the Bayerischen Staatsoper as part of the Munich Opera Festival on 31 July 2018, Pierre Audi's production of Parsifal was conducted by Kirill Petrenko and featured Christian Gerhaher, Jonas Kaufmann, Wolfgang Koch, René Pape, Nina Stemme and Bálint Szabó.

At the opera’s première at Bayreuth in 1882, the set presented was, perhaps, more conservative, based on a traditional German wooden-beamed roof supported by four heavy-duty stone columns. But with Audi (the incoming general director of the Aix-en-Provence Festival) you can expect his productions to be challenging - and he duly obliged.

A marvellous, intriguing and dark production, nonetheless, Parsifal closed the Munich Opera Festival on a high and was conducted by Kirill Petrenko, artistic director of Bayerischen Staatsoper and, of course, the new chief conductor of the Berlin Phiharmoniker. His reading of Wagner’s score was brilliant.

Wagner: Parsifal - Nina Stemme - Munich Opera Festival (Photo Ruth Waltz)
Wagner: Parsifal - Nina Stemme - Munich Opera Festival (Photo Ruth Waltz)
And, brilliant, too, was the legendary German artist, Georg Baselitz, who came up with a host of rather dark and gloomy sets produced in pen-and-ink drawings (they caused a bit of a hoo-ha in some quarters, though) complementing well Mr Audi’s realisation of the opera and, indeed, the opera’s traditional setting, The Middle Ages, a dark and war-torn period for Europe after the upheaval and fall of the Western Roman Empire therefore the darkness and unsettling nature surrounding this production fitted this historic scenario extremely well.

For instance, in the last act (the Holy Forest setting of the first act) one comes across Gurnemanz, a veteran knight of the Grail (the role so admirably and intelligently sung by a Wagnerian of great standing, René Pape) and several of his followers offering morning prayers but the whole set was inverted reflecting, perhaps, on Baselitz’s personal suffering growing up amongst the upheaval and demolition of the Second World War. The concept of destruction plays a significant role in the artist’s life and work. ‘I was born into a destroyed order, a destroyed landscape, a destroyed people and a destroyed society and I didn’t want to re-establish an order, I had seen enough of so-called order,’ he said. ‘I was forced to question everything: to be ‘‘naïve’’; to start again.’

Thereby, disrupting any given orders, breaking the common conventions of perception, Baselitz formed his personal circumstances into his guiding artistic principles and to this day he still inverts all his paintings which has become a unique and a defining feature of his work. And in the case of this production of Parsifal his artistic vision and thinking could well represent the overall suffering of the Brotherhood of the Grail especially Amfortas who, broken, wounded and uncertain was in complete disarray and unable to perform Holy Office.

Wagner’s final and farewell work to the world, the composer referred to Parsifal as ‘ein Bühnenweihfestspiel’ (A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage) not an opera underlying the deeply-religious overtones the work harbours. This fact is more than highlighted at the end of act one as Titurel (founder and former King of the Grail) speaking from an offstage position urging his son to proceed with the centuries-old ceremony of Holy Communion.

At first, Amfortas (King of Monsalvat) declines feeling too unworthy but succumbs in the end and with members of the Brotherhood closely gathered round him they partake of Holy Communion (the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ) from the Holy Grail, the cup from which Christ is supposed to have drunk from at The Last Supper. A telling and most delicate moment in the whole of the opera the role of Titurel was admirably sung by the strong Hungarian bass, Bálint Szabó.

The ritual of Holy Communion underlies, of course, the Christian aspect of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th-century poem focusing on the Arthurian hero Parzival and his long quest for the Holy Grail but the religious and philosophical ideas of the libretto also touches upon Buddhism, too, while the symbolism of the Cup and the Spear is much older.

The Flower Maidens raised an eyebrow or two witnessing the despised, fallen knight and evil sorcerer, Klingsor (a gift of a role for the likes of that fine German bass-baritone, Wolfgang Koch, who has mastered many of the great roles of Wagner and Strauss) acting in a creepy and over-protective way towards his charges who looked as if they had just jumped out of an Otto Dix painting adorned with skin-coloured body coverings offering a grotesque and obscure nakedness of the human body which over-emphasised and over-exaggerated the contours and curves of their sagging flesh. And, indeed, as the Knights of the Grail took Holy Communion they, too, discarded their day-to-day robes to reveal a baggage of exaggeratedly-sagging flesh.

And when Klingsor is amazingly unarmed in his castle, the scenario kept well in line to Audi’s overall concept of the production inasmuch as he ditched much of the grand ritual displays in favour of staging techniques that were simple but effective. For instance, in that daunting moment when the evil sorcerer hurls the Holy Spear at Parsifal, he simply hands it to him as if on a plate and, in doing so, it witnesses the end of his realm and his dark satanic ways. Struck dead on the spot his treasured castle (comprising a simple abstract black-and-white drape) falls in ruins around him as Kundry (performed by Swedish dramatic soprano, Nina Stemme, one of the world’s greatest Wagnerian sopranos, for sure) sinks to the ground in utter despair.

The morning of Good Friday (where Maestro Petrenko and the orchestra excelled in the music of this special day) sees the repentant Kundry - suffering endlessly for mocking Christ on the Cross but now penitent, sorrowful and chaste - return to the bosom of the Brotherhood in the company with a remorseful Parsifal, the role comfortably sung by German tenor star and ‘man-of-the-moment’ Jonas Kaufmann but, nonetheless, coming over from my viewpoint as being slightly underpowered for Wagner.

Now a humble and dignified person, Kundry ceremoniously washes the feet of Parsifal but, sadly, the scene lacked the dramatic input that I’ve seen in productions of recent years. And when she’s baptised by Parsifal one witnesses Gurnemanz explaining to the Young Hero the spell of Good Friday in which Nature is transfigured by love and innocence completely regained.

The scene was as powerful as it comes while the wounded and Christ-like figure of Amfortas was magnificently portrayed by the gifted and talented German bass-baritone, Christian Gerhaher, whose voice was crystal clear, precise and articulate. A formidable and charismatic lieder singer, too, he’s often seen at London’s Wigmore Hall.

Overall, though, the opera was well cast but as far as Wagner is concerned the orchestra is just as important as the singers and under the baton of Maestro Petrenko (by the way conducting his first Parsifal) his charges in the pit acted to his every whim. They were magnificent and heard to good effect in the Prelude (played against a grand drape depicting four skeletal objects in pen-and-ink) based on motives heard in The Love Feast and The Spear as well as the ‘Dresden Amen’ representing the Holy Grail. And let’s not forget members of the chorus who, under the guidance of Sören Eckhoff, put in some excellent and diligent work.

Incidentally, the ‘Dresden Amen’ was composed by Johann Gottlieb Naumann for use at the Royal Chapel, Dresden. But such was its popularity that it took Saxony by storm and used by Catholics and Lutherans alike. Wagner also incorporated the piece in Das Liebesverbot (one of his earliest operas) and, indeed, drew upon it for the third act of Tannhäuser.

Wagner: Parsifal - Christian Gerhaher - Munich Opera Festival (Photo Ruth Waltz)
Wagner: Parsifal - Christian Gerhaher - Munich Opera Festival (Photo Ruth Waltz)
At curtain-call, Maestro Pretrenko was showered with bunches of flowers underlining his popularity at this dominant German house grandly situated on Max-Joseph-Platz in one of my favourite German cities.

Director: Pierre Audi
Set designer: Georg Baselitz
Costume designer: Florence von Gerkan
Lighting designer: Urs Schönebaum
Dramaturg: Benedikt Stampfli

Amfortas: Christian Gerhaher
Titurel: Bálint Szabó
Gurnemanz: René Pape
Parsifal: Jonas Kaufmann
Klingsor: Wolfgang Koch
Kundry: Nina Stemme
First Grail Knight: Kevin Conners
Second Grail Knight: Callum Thorpe
Voice from the height: Rachael Wilson
First Squire: Paula Iancic
Second Squire: Tara Erraught
Third Squire: Manuel Günther
Fourth Squire: Matthew Grills
Klingsor’s Zaubermädchens: Tara Erraught, Paula Iancic, Noluvuyiso Mpofu, Golda Schultz, Rachael Wilson, Selene Zanetti
Bayerisches Staatsorchester; Chor, Extrachor und Kinderchor der Bayerischen Staatsoper; Statisterie der Bayerischen Staatsoper

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