Sublime, Compassionate Parsifal. Bravos to Audi, Baselitz, Petrenko, Gerhaher, Kaufmann, Pape and Stemme

Nelida Nassar.  07.09.2018

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Bayerisches Staatsoper Munich’s presentation of Wagner’s Parsifal, conducted by maestro Kirill Petrenko, offered a dream cast: René Pape, Jonas Kaufmann, Nina Stemme, Christian Gerhaher and Wolfgang Koch. Directed by Pierre Audi, with sets by Georg Baselitz, the production is vintage Audi – stylized, austere, and fully thought through. Audi, who has been at the cutting edge of musical theatre for decades, avoided any flashiness, and so minimalism, darkness and desolation greeted us on the stage. The community of the Grail is in trouble, desiccated like the skeleton in the corner beneath which Kundry takes shelter, a wild, lonely outcast. Audi focuses our attention on the main characters and on what they are singing about. As in Greek tragedy, there is little need here for fancy decoration, and especially in an opera like Parsifal abstraction will suffice. This leaves more room for the music itself, which in many ways is the whole point of the drama, being more important than the stars or scenery.

Gurnemanz (sung by René Pape) is cloaked in black, Amfortas (Christian Gehaher) in white, and Kundry (Nina Stemme) in black/red moiré. When the “Innocent Fool” Parsifal (Jonas Kaufmann), arrives, he is wearing a bizarre simple breastplate. The Knights of the Grail are in heavy armor. But for what purpose? In their fortress they have no enemies to fight – unless it be among themselves. The orchestra wells up magnificently, with bells booming, and of course Parsifal is impressed. The children’s choir sings of sacrifice, but what is this blood ritual that is re-enacted without explanation? While Amfortas is suffering the knights merely look on. Then they remove their cloaks to reveal body suits, in which they don’t exactly look “beautiful.” Judging a production on the basis of shocking images is easy, but what really matters is to figure out why they are chosen to appear that way. Under their armor, the knights are human, capable of compassion. Though ugly, they are redeemable. Compassion is a greater gift than conventional beauty. As Parsifal wanders off, deep in thought, we should be reflecting, too.

In Act Two we enter the realm of Klingsor (Wolfgang Koch), which is depicted through images of dead bodies, hanging upside down. Again, simple but effective. The Flower Maidens are seen in unflattering body suits. Like the dead men, they are Klingsor’s victims, creatures under the sway of his sick mind, created to trap and deceive. If we judge them by their surface appearances, we are accepting his terms, treating women as objects to be consumed by men. Instead, listen to their voices. (The casting is very good here; listen especially to Tara Erraught.) There is a lot of misogyny in Parsifal, such as the Knight’s mistreatment of Kundry, something which needs to be pointed out, because abuse is the opposite of compassion. Part of the reason the Grail community is in trouble is its dismissal of women and the principles they represent. Kundry, after all, “never lies,” as Gurnemanz tells us very early on, though the Knights malign her. True, she is controlled by Klingsor, but she is the vehicle through which Parsifal connects to his mother, thereby awakening his conscience. In this act, Stemme looks lovely in evening gown and blonde wig; all the same, her lines are forcefully delivered. She is too “real” to be a mock temptress. As the walls of Klingsor’s kingdom are rent apart, his victory is denied him, and Kundry reveals how she was cursed. Stemme’s performance beautifully projects her character’s personality. And as Parsifal achieves self-discovery, Kaufmann’s voice swells with magnificent resolution.

Hier bist du an geweihtem Ort:da zieht man nicht mit Waffen her, geschloss’nen Helmes, Schild und Speer (Here you are in a consecrated place, where you do not draw weapons, or appear with closed helmet, shield and spear). These words from Gurnemanz in Act Three explain a great deal. Parsifal creeps back to the Grail Community garbed in strange armor but disrobes, handing over the spear – a neat, elegant cross, not a weapon. Instead of violence, bigotry and obsession with outward appearance, redemption comes through kindness. The steel in Kaufmann’s voice gleams, evoking the inner strength Parsifal has learned from years of wandering and searching. Pape and Kaufmann can do no wrong in this act, where they pretty much steal the show. As Parsifal baptizes Kundry, the stage lights up in utter simplicity and purity, and we hear Wie dünkt mich doch die Aue heut so schön! (How beautiful the meadow seems to me today!). The textures in the orchestra open up, with clarity and ineffable sweetness, and Kaufmann’s timbre becomes infused with tenderness. 

Meanwhile the Knights are back in their formal black armor intoning their ritual dirge. Like Amfortas, they are still acting out guilt, blood sacrifice and immutable agony.  Christian Gerhaher sings Amfortas well enough, though he is somewhat one-dimensional. Bearing deep emotional wounds and riven with conflicts, he should, ideally, evoke more sympathy than he does. This is all the more regrettable given that Audi’s clean, unfussy staging puts so much emphasis on the part.

His mission accomplished, Kaufmann stands with the chorus, one among equals and prays — not with this hands together but over his eyes. Durch Mitglied wissend Mitglied (by member knowing member). In other words, treat people with empathy and kindness, judging them not by their appearances but by what they might be inside. Above all, one must rise above self in the service of a higher purpose. In an excellent ending to the performance, the focus shifts from the mortals on stage to an abstract depiction of light, more spiritual than specific. This reflects Wagner’s stage direction Lichtstrahl: hellstes Erglühen des Grales. (Beam of light: brightest glow of the Grail). We don’t see a dove flying around, but the meaning is clear. The orchestra, or rather the music, has the last word, so to speak: we are in the presence of the sublime.