Parsifal, Munich Opera Festival

Parsifal, by Rogelio de Egusquiza

Parsifal, Munich Opera Festival

Richard Wagner’s Parsifal, Bayerischen Staatsoper, München, Germany, directed by Pierre Audi, sets by Georg Baselitz; Bayerischen Staatsorchester conducted by Kirill Petrenko, Tuesday, 31 July, 2018; reviewed by TONY COOPER

In Pierre Audi’s strange but compelling production of Parsifal, the Great Hall of Montsalvat Castle – the home of the Knights of the Holy Grail – has drifted away from its original setting. It is now a strongly-built, wooden-constructed building located in the Holy Forest of the Knights of the Grail, with members of the Brotherhood attired in dark monastic robes as opposed to the tough leather or chain-mail shirt and embroidered tunic favoured by medieval knights. Parsifal closed the Munich Opera Festival on a high note and was conducted by Kirill Petrenko, artistic director of Bayerischen Staatsoper and the new chief conductor of the Berlin Phiharmoniker.

At the opera’s première at Bayreuth in 1882, the set was 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 to be challenged – and he duly obliged.

Legendary German artist Georg Baselitz came up with suitably dark and gloomy sets produced in pen-and-ink drawings, complementing Audi’s conception of the opera. Its traditional setting is the Middle Ages, a dark and war-torn period for Europe after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. In the last act, the Holy Forest setting of the first act, we encounter Gurnemanz, a veteran knight of the Grail, the role sung by a Wagnerian of great standing, René Pape, with several of his followers offering morning prayers. But the whole set was inverted, reflecting Baselitz’s personal suffering during the chaos of the Second World War. ‘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 says. ‘I was forced to question everything: to be ‘‘naïve’’; to start again.’ Baselitz has turned his personal suffering into art and to this day he still inverts all of his paintings. His artistic vision also reflected the suffering of the Brotherhood of the Grail, especially of Amfortas, who, broken and wounded, is unable to perform his Holy Office.

Wagner’s referred to Parsifal, his farewell workas ‘ein Bühnenweihfestspiel’, ‘A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage’, not an opera. He thereby highlighted the work’s deeply-religious overtones. This fact is also emphasised at the end of act one when Titurel, founder and former King of the Grail, speaking from an offstage position, urges his son to proceed with the centuries-old ceremony of Holy Communion. At first, Amfortas, King of Monsalvat, declines, feeling unworthy but eventually he complies. 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 at The Last Supper. In this telling and most delicate moment in the opera, the role of Titurel was powerfully sung by the Hungarian bass, Bálint Szabó.

The ritual of Holy Communion underlines the Christian aspect of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th-century poem focusing on the Arthurian hero Parzival and his quest for the Holy Grail. But the religious and philosophical ideas of the libretto are also informed by Buddhism, while the symbolism of the Cup and the Spear is much older.

The despised, fallen knight and evil sorcerer, Klingsor was a gift of a role for that fine German bass-baritone, Wolfgang Koch. When Klingsor is unarmed in his castle, Audi opted for staging techniques that were simple but effective. 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, we witness 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 the Swedish dramatic soprano, Nina Stemme, one of the world’s greatest Wagnerian sopranos, sinks to the ground in despair.

On the morning of Good Friday, 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 of Parsifal, the role sung by German tenor star Jonas Kaufmann. He seemed, to this commentator, somewhat underpowered for Wagner.

Now a humble and dignified person, Kundry ceremoniously washes the feet of Parsifal. And when she is baptised by Parsifal, Gurnemanz explains to the Young Hero the spell of Good Friday by which Nature is transfigured by love and innocence regained. The wounded, Christ-like figure of Amfortas was magnificently portrayed by the talented German bass-baritone, Christian Gerhaher.

For Wagner, the orchestra was just as important as the singers and under the baton of Maestro Petrenko, conducting his first Parsifal, his charges in the pit rose to the occasion. They were heard to particularly 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, and in the ‘Dresden Amen’ representing the Holy Grail. The chorus, under the guidance of Sören Eckhoff, put in diligent work.

At curtain-call, Maestro Pretrenko was showered with flowers indicating his popularity at this dominant German house, grandly situated on Munich’s Max-Joseph-Platz.

Parsifal, by Rogelio de Egusquiza

Tony Cooper is QR‘s Opera Critic

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