Pierre Audi’s dark and abstract production of Wagner's Parsifal for the Bayerische Staatsoper, first seen in 2018 and with artwork by Georg Baselitz, returned in time for Easter. The desolate landscape of ghostly forest in Acts 1 and 3 now seem more congenial to our wounded psyche after our collective experience of the pandemic and war of the past two years. The staging of Act 2 is still awkward. Klingsor and Kundry both roll onto stage from under a curtain for their initial confrontation. Flowermaidens wear ugly body suits with exaggerated body parts to try to entice Parsifal. The “Schloss” is a papier maché of white paper with black lines marking small squares. Audi’s direction is largely constrained by the static, bleak staging and unattractive costumes. One of the saving graces of the production remains the latter half of Act 3 as brighter lighting illuminates the glory of Good Friday. The starburst image on the screen is a beautiful backdrop to the glorious final moments of Wagner’s last work of redemption.

Stuart Skelton (Parsifal)
© Wilfried Hösl

The production is free of the typical trappings of many traditional religious symbols, such as chalice and cross, but embraces the universality of human failings and suffering. Amfortas is severely wounded and bloody. Dressed in white with bandage dressings visible, he staggers around the stage, flailing around a stick and sporting a crown. His “Grail Ceremony” consists of his holding up a bloody piece of meat in his bare hands. The Grail Knights receive their blessing by removing their robes to reveal, as with the Flowermaidens, “naked” body suits. The scene could almost be comical were it not for the singular performance by Christian Gerhaher. He began Amfortas' monologue as a self-absorbed musing in quiet and contemplative tone, only to unleash his anger and frustration in a heart-wrenching outburst while maintaining clean legato lines. His diction was exemplary, as if he was singing Lieder, with every word infused with deep meaning.

Christian Gerhaher (Amfortas) and Stuart Skelton (Parsifal)
© Wilfried Hösl

Replacing the ailing Simon O'Neill at just a few days notice, Stuart Skelton was magnificent as Parsifal, wielding his powerful tenor with colour and nuance to show the progression of an innocent “fool” to enlightened redeemer. His best singing came in Act 2: when the seductress Kundry’s cajoling and pleading became almost unbearable, Skelton countered with a beautiful and thrilling outburst of high notes to assert his freedom. Parsifal’s final declaration of Amfortas’ redemption and his own assumption of the Grail Knights’ leadership was sung with tenderness and sympathy as Skelton modulated his voice with pianissimo. 

Anja Kampe was a strikingly attractive Kundry, even in Act 1, when she was presented as a “wild” woman. She sang with her characteristic commitment, with her warm but penetrating soprano dominating her every scene. Her allure and pity were both memorable as she convinced us of her life’s sorrow and regret in fine vocal acting.

Stuart Skelton (Parsifal) and Flowermaidens
© Wilfried Hösl

As a youthful looking Gurnemanz, Christof Fischesser took advantage of his lyrical, light-timbred bass-baritone to communicate the importance of compassion and fellowship as an equal peer of the Grail Knights and Parsifal. One would have wished for a bit more force and gravitas in his singing, but this was a commendable assumption of a long and challenging role. He kept us riveted during Gurnemanz’s lengthy Act 1 monologue, no mean feat. Jochen Schmeckenbecher made a strong impression as a Klingsor of unusual elegance and sophistication. His Klingsor was not so much evil personified, but another troubled, lost soul. The splendid male chorus made major contributions to the crucial Grail Knights scenes.

Stuart Skelton (Parsifal) and Anja Kampe (Kundry)
© Wilfried Hösl

At 83, veteran Wagnerian conductor Marek Janowski showed no signs of fatigue after his recent assignments at New York’s Met and Tokyo’s Spring Festival. By restraining the brass, he emphasised subtle melodies in the strings and winds that are not always clearly brought out. He encouraged key players at crucial times, creating a deep layer of sounds on top of one another. While tremolandos and vibrato were present, what was most striking was the melodies stretched out as long legato lines, even in the brass writing. He was expert at seemingly straightforward conducting which slowly culminated to an unexpected and moving surge. It was gratifying to see the musicians expressing such appreciation for Janowski’s firm but kind leadership. The maestro showed what professional and superb musicianship can achieve: a thoroughly moving and cathartic performance of one of the most profound pieces of music, played and sung with care and cooperation by all musicians.