Starry Wagnerian Quartet Highlights Restrained ‘Parsifal’

Director Pierre Audi’s minimal approach to ‘Parsifal’ lent the Bayerische Staatsoper production a gratifying simplicity.
Tenor Jonas Kaufmann starred as the innocent knight on a quest for the Holy Grail. (© Wilfried Hösl)
By David Shengold

MUNICH – The Bayerische Staatsoper (Bavarian State Opera) is one of the few major companies in Europe to continue performing throughout July. A weeks-long festival reprises earlier season successes and usually introduces some new stagings. Munich is a heady place operatically, one of the few non-capital cities to rank among Central Europe’s leading venues for artistic achievement.

As he made evident in two impressive presentations of opera in concerts at Carnegie Hall in March 2018, music director Kirill Petrenko is a commanding and fluent leader of the Bavarian State Opera’s orchestra. Its strength and polish were in evidence at the National Theater July 31, when Petrenko ended this year’s festival with a surpassingly fluid, well-structured Parsifal. Traditionally this work or – as next year, again under Petrenko – Die Meistersinger closes the season.

Kirill Petrenko led an all-star quartet of singers difficult to rival today. (© W. Hösl)

Petrenko obtained rich, flowing results while eschewing some of the atmospheric solemnity customary with this score – in contrast to another wonderfully alert Russian conductor, Semyon Bychkov, heard the very next afternoon at Bayreuth, where orchestral sound seemed to emerge as effortlessly as incense from the pit and Bychkov went a more spiritually probing route.

Petrenko’s approach, suited to his heavy-hitting cast, proved exciting – more so than Pierre Audi’s minimal production. Critical charges were leveled of excessive directorial parsimony and sobriety. Yet after the over-directed, cluttered stagings I encountered on previous nights of Haydn’s Orlando Paladino and Janáček’s From the House of the Dead, both musically excellent, I found Parsifal’s simplicity gratifying: It was a relief to have no capering videographers onstage, no director-added characters, and no dramaturg-interpolated texts.

Georg Baselitz’ iconic upside-down imagry figured in a scene
featuring Kundry (Stemme) and Klingsor (Koch). (© Ruth Walz)

Besides Petrenko and an all-star Wagnerian quartet of singers difficult to rival today – tenor Jonas Kaufmann, soprano Nina Stemme, bass René Pape and baritone Christian Gerhaher – the big “sell” for this new, modern-dress Parsifal was designer Georg Baselitz. The 80-year old artist’s neo-expressionist imagery seemed apt for this death-haunted piece. He largely eschewed the typical bright color palette of his paintings in favor of the black-and-white starkness of his print work. Sets evoked dead trees, skeletons, and (on the scrim curtains) dead bodies, depicted upside down as is iconic praxis for Baselitz. Restraint prevailed, at least in the Monsalvat acts, nicely suggesting Norma’s Druid sanctuary; the starry evocation of the Grail’s revealed grace divided critical opinion, but I liked it.

Jonas Kaufmann has reached the dangerous “superstar” place in his career where hype and expectation freight every production undertaken. Some operatic superstars spend years following their public coronations essentially playing themselves, or presenting in newly assumed roles those aspects of their successful public persona that have already clicked. Fortunately, as Kaufmann demonstrated in the Met’s fine 2013 Francois Girard production, the role of Parsifal very naturally suits his baritonal timbre, immaculate dynamic control, and famously attractive if somewhat cool stage presence.

Despite the long quest, Kaufmann’s Parsifal doesn’t age. (© W. Hösl)

The only concession to Kaufmann’s “hometown heartthrob” status in Munich might be that the Parsifal in this production – unlike Kundry or Gurnemanz, both much altered – aged not at all in the long quest between the final acts, retaining the same dark curls and flatteringly tailored silhouette. Kaufmann sang very gracefully, always on pitch, though interpretive color was minimal until Parsifal’s (threatened) erotic awakening; this might have been an interpretive choice.

Florence von Gerkan’s principal costumes added some color to the largely black-and-white stage, with regal purple for Kundry and touches of rich blue for Gurnemanz and Parsifal. Urs Schönebaum’s lighting tended towards murkiness. The stark exception came at Kundry and Parsifal’s kiss, when, in an obvious but effective representation of the hero’s moral enlightenment, bright light suddenly flooded the stage.

At this point any Personenregie that Audi might have offered pretty much disappeared, and Kaufmann and Stemme commenced to give their thrilling all in what was essentially a concert-in-costume version. For several minutes while the soprano sang, the tenor watched collegially with his arms folded across his chest. As it happened, this intensified rather than dissipated the sense of musical drama. Kaufmann came fully into declamatory focus, and Stemme gave a demonstration unmatched in my experience of how a real dramatic soprano in her prime fares best with Kundry’s harrowing tessitura in the second act’s last 15 minutes.

Not only on the ringing high B in Kundry’s confessional “Ich sah Ihn… Ihn… und lachte” but also on every other precarious high note, Stemme gave out perfectly rounded and pitched value – even on “Gottheit,” the usual trip-wire for mezzo-sopranos not named Christa Ludwig or Waltraud Meier. Petrenko also turned up the fire here, though the visual production stayed fairly lame, with the paper sets more or less collapsing and no attempt at “magic” as Parsifal wrested the sword from Klingsor (Wolfgang Koch, next year’s Sachs, muscular of voice).

Christian Gerhaher, as Amfortas, was best in quiet moments. (© R. Walz)

Gurnemanz clearly suits René Pape’s current capabilities. Far more consistently audible than in his Metropolitan Opera role reprise in February 2018, he sang with feeling and autumnal beauty, able to haul out some power at big moments. One did notice that Gurnemanz implausibly absented himself from the stage throughout the first Grail unveiling, as if the devout monk strolled off for a drink and a smoke.

Bálint Szabó’s offstage Titurel sounded imposing. Christian Gerhaher (Amfortas) has – like Matthias Goerne – outlasted the other Fischer-Dieskau students annointed as his successor. He certainly put the words across vividly, at times on the verge of hysteria. He sang best in quiet moments; otherwise, actual core tone proved elusive and lines grew choppy. The audience received his strenuous performance vociferously, I with skepticism.

Fake-nude Flower Maidens were costumed by Florence von Gerkan.  (© R. Walz)

Despite repellent costuming, the Flower Maidens sang with seductively blended tone. (Their bulky, fake-nude suits in a Lucian Freud palette matched the Knights’ similar get-ups during the Grail exposures, though with blood-smeared crotches instead of fake phalluses topped with ginger-colored pubic hair.)

Their cohort was led by two rising South African sopranos of color – Golda Schultz (who made a successful Met bow as Pamina last season) and Noluvuyiso Mpofu – reminding one of how frequently in Central Europe women singers of African heritage still are naïvely deployed in “sensual“ roles like Carmen, Venus, and Maddalena. Yet the seamless beauty of Schultz’s and Mpofu’s vocalism paid rich dividends. It was nice to hear the tradition honored of a star soloist taking the First Flower Maiden. Vienna’s Staatsoper, for example, has cast Edita Gruberová, Gundula Janowitz, Lucia Popp, and Patricia Wise in the role; Schultz’s talent and career trajectory places her comfortably in such august company.

Act One’s many small parts were capably taken, most notably the forthright Grail Knights of Kevin Conners and Callum Thorpe. And if Munich’s acoustics don’t permit quite the same structural layering of the choruses as do Bayreuth’s, the choral work under Sören Eckhoff echoed powerfully, showing finely calibrated dynamics and precise attack.

Critic/lecturer David Shengold resides in Philadelphia and New York City; he regularly writes for Opera News, Opera, Opéra Magazine, Opernwelt and other venues; he’s written program essays for companies including the Metropolitan, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, ROH Covent Garden, and the Wexford and Glyndebourne festivals.