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Performances

<em>Parsifal </em>: Munich Opera Festival
04 Aug 2018

Parsifal: Munich Opera Festival

And so, this year’s Munich Opera Festival and this year’s Bavarian State Opera season came to a close with everyone’s favourite Bühnenweihfestspiel, Parsifal, in the final outing this time around for Pierre Audi’s new production.

Parsifal : Munich Opera Festival

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Jonas Kaufmann (Parsifal) and the Grail Knights

Photo credit: Ruth Walz

 

With a cast of dreams, an orchestra of distinction conducted by Kirill Petrenko, not to mention a world-class opera chorus, what could be not to like? Nothing for much of the audience, it would seem. Alas, for me it proved a grave disappointment, for which the responsibility must either lie with me, Audi, or both of us.

I am not sure I have ever seen a production of Parsifal so lacking in - well, anything. Goodness knows one can argue about what this work is about, what its problems might be, what its extraordinary virtues might be, even what it might be made to be about, and so on and forth. Goodness knows directors can come up with execrable concepts or execute their concepts, good or bad, less than well. I speak from the bitter experience of having attended a good few, not least the present Uwe Eric Laufenberg farrago at Bayreuth , which somehow manages both to be intensely offensive in its Islamophobia and unbearably boring.

RuthWPars3.jpg Jonas Kaufmann (Parsifal) and the Grail Knights. Photo credit: Ruth Walz.

Audi, however, seems to have no discernible thoughts about it whatsoever. I almost have nothing beyond that to say, so shall keep the rest of this very short. Its selling point - to some, anyway - seems always to have been designs by the strangely overrated visual artist, Georg Baselitz. They struck me as very much in keeping with what else I have seen from Baselitz; if you like to look at this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you would have liked to look at. The first act, all of it, is set in a forest. For some reason, the knights take off their outer clothes to reveal unflattering fattish naked suits, which suggest a degree of androgyny, although that suggestion seems later - by the Flowermaidens - to be refuted. The second act is barely staged at all, yet without any of the virtues of a concert performance. The third act returns to the forest. The end. To think that this succeeded a production by Peter Konwitschny beggars belief.

MunPars2.jpg Nina Stemme (Kundry) and Jonas Kaufmann (Parsifal). Photo credit: Ruth Walz.

Yet so oppressive are the designs, for that is really all the production can be, so different is the experience from a concert performance, that much very good - although not, I think, quite so good as many seem to have thought - musical work went largely to waste. Petrenko’s conducting was excellent, although it never seemed to me to dig so deep as, say, the work of a Barenboim or indeed, in days not so very distant, a Haitink . Still, there could be no real complaints either with Petrenko or his orchestra. His tempi in the first act, at least earlier on, felt relatively swift; I have no idea whether they actually were. Yet they never felt rushed; his was a fleet, at least slightly Boulezian conception, until it was not. For there was plenty of space, well taken, to manage the work’s ebb and flow - whilst seeming, and doubtless to a certain extent, being managed by the work’s ebb and flow. Interestingly, the opening of the third act, its Prelude in particular, sounded more anguished than anything in the second. If only some of the pain implied for Parsifal’s wayfaring had been otherwise reflected in the staging. This was certainly a reading that developed and, by any standards, marked a fine debut run in the work. One oddity: I do not think I have heard such feeble Grail bells. According to the programme, however, this was a special instrument modelled by the Bayreuth piano company, Steingraeber, after the instrument used at the 1882 premiere. If so, the Meister was - not for the first time, nor even for the last - surely mistaken. The Bayreuth bells we know from, say, Karl Muck’s 1927 recording, in their 1926 design pack sound to my ears more impressive in every way. Or maybe I am just too wedded to what I think I ‘ought’ to hear.

Walz 1.jpg Christian Gerhaher (Amfortas). Photo credit: Ruth Walz.

Singing was also distinguished, although it was really the Amfortas and, perhaps more oddly, the Klingsor who stood out for me. Christian Gerhaher has recently, surprisingly, seemed more at home in opera than in Lieder, and so it was here. His fabled beauty of tone was never an end in itself but put to sweet, agonising dramatic work - alongside the fascinating suggestion, apparent in his eyes if nowhere else on stage, of a crazed, ecstatic religious visionary. Could that not have been the director’s concept, if he had no other? It would certainly have opened up all manner of possibilities. Wolfgang Koch’s way with words, music, and their combination marked him out as an uncommonly excellent Klingsor - even if Klingsors rarely disappoint. Again, one learned much simply from observing his facial expressions. Jonas Kaufmann offered lovely moments, lovely passages, and a great deal of verbal acuity too in his assumption of the title role. However, his voice really did not sound as I recall it from not so long ago; there were times when it sounded not only strained but worn. Let us hope that this was just an off-day (a highly relative off-day). He and Nina Stemme as Kundry were certainly not helped by Audi’s non-production. I am not entirely convinced that this is Stemme’s ideal role, but it is surely not unreasonable for us to adjust our expectations according to a particular artist’s abilities and conception. Something a little wilder either on stage or in voice, or ideally both, would not have gone amiss, but again there were no grounds for true complaint. Likewise with René Pape’s Gurnemanz. His beauty of tone remains, yet there is now far more of a sense of verbal response than once there was in his singing. If Parsifal, then, is for you primarily, even exclusively, about singing and more broadly about musical performance, you would have experienced something undoubtedly special. If, however, it needs to be for you a drama too, I cannot imagine your response would have been so very different from mine.

Mark Berry

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