On paper, the idea of Sir Simon Rattle conducting Parsifal with the Berliner Philharmoniker at the Baden-Baden Festspielhaus would seem like a must hear. The ink started to smudge when one noticed that the director was octogenarian Bayerisches Staatsschauspiel regisseur Dieter Dorn. Dorn’s Modernist/geometric production of Tristan at the Met in 2003 gave rise to a lawsuit and his last major operatic offering was Idomeneo in Munich ten years ago.  

Only a few minutes into the celestial vorspiel, it was evident that like most Regietheater directors, Dorn was not content to let the music speak for itself. The curtain quickly opened to reveal Kundry in foetal position on a bare stage. Magdalena Gut’s set design then came into play, which consisted of multiple wooden wedges of varying sizes constantly pushed around the stage for no particular purpose. One expected them to miraculously align to form some clever structure but that never happens. 

Monika Staykova’s costumes made the Grail fraternity look like scruffy panhandlers with lengths of moth-eaten curtain fabric draped over their shoulders. When admonishing Parsifal for killing a holy swan, there wasn’t a sword in sight – the impoverished knights merely poked sticks at the errant cygneticide. Admittedly Kundry shares a fondness for snoozing with Erda but the latter is a subterranean savant and the former, at least according to Gurnemanz, is almost as dumb as Parsifal. Nevertheless, Dorn has Kundry materialize on almost every occasion from beneath the Festspielhaus stage as if a moody Earth Mother.

The Great Hall of Monsalvat was formed by reversing two of the larger wedges so that the knights gathered behind giant advertising hoardings. The communion wine was served in earthenware pitchers straight out of Cavalleria rusticana and the Host was large round loaves of bread presumably from Baden-Baden’s Brezelbäckerei Ditsch up the road. No wonder Parsifal was unimpressed. Klingsor’s magic garden was neither enchanted nor botanical and bore no resemblance at all to the Palazzo Rufolo in Ravello which was Wagner’s stated inspiration. As Grail HQ in Act One was already just a few slanting wedges of plywood, the deterioration of the knight’s domain in Act Three was indiscernible.

The singing was much better than Dorn’s rebarbative direction although the Flower Maidens could have been in better vocal bloom. At 78, distinguished British bass Robert Lloyd displayed remarkable projection and exemplary diction as the failing Titurel. Looking like a gothic Orc, Evgeny Nikitin had the requisite malevolence and snarly low register to be a credible Klingsor. Gerald Finley was convincing in portraying Amfortas’ physical and psychological suffering although occasionally a tad too hysterical. Dorn has Amfortas’ unheal-able wound situated on his genitals, meaning that revealing “die offene Wunde hier!” required Finley to do the “full Monty”. The chaste knights were no less shocked than the Baden-Baden Hautevolee.

Romanian mezzo Ruxandra Donose was making her role debut as Wagner’s most enigmatic character Kundry. There was some intelligent phrasing in “Ich sah das Kind” but the manic “Ich lachte” lacked the musicality of Waltraud Meier. The huge jump from top B to low A sharp on “Gottheit Erlanger” was strong on the first note but the second disappeared into Klingsor’s compost. Stephen Gould sang a robust title role with a dependable, hefty top, and was more convincing as the reine Tor than the serene Erlöser. His fortissimo high F on “Amfortas! Die Wunde!” raised the already very high Festspielhaus roof. Franz-Josef Selig was an outstanding Gurnemanz. The long narratives such as “Titurel, der fromme Held” were distinguished by a burnished timbre and refined phrasing which kept both Squires and audience eager to hear more. “Das ist Karfreitags-Zauber, Herr!” had mellifluous mystery and “Du siehst, das ist nicht so” was deeply moving.

Simon Rattle and Parsifal are not exactly longstanding friends. His first complete performance was in Amsterdam in 1988 and director Klaus Michael Grüber complained that Rattle’s conducting was “too clean”. It seems that Rattle still prefers sterile to sonorous and his tempi were much closer to Clemens Krauss speedy than James Levine langsam. Act One took only one hour forty minutes. With musicians of the caliber of the Berliner Philharmoniker there was always going to be plenty to savour and the Verwandlungsmusik and Vorspiel to Act Three were a highlight.

The performance ended with more Dorn-ish deviations. Instead of the knight’s kneeling reverentially to receive the Grail during “Erlösung dem Erlöser!” the ragbag yokels merely wandered off into wooden wedge land. Even more disturbing was that Kundry does not attain death and redemption during the ambrosial Dresden Amen as Wagner specified but stood bug-eyed in front of the curtain as if it was all a dream. Or perhaps a nightmare.