This new staging of Parsifal for the Bayerische Staatsoper has as fine a casting as one could hope for and if Pierre Audi's production had been halfway decent, it would have joined Munich’s already lengthy list of legendary performances.

Wolfgang Koch (Klingsor) and Nina Stemme (Kundry) © Wilfried Hösl
Wolfgang Koch (Klingsor) and Nina Stemme (Kundry)
© Wilfried Hösl

Regrettably Audi’s mise-en-scène was entirely bereft of mystery and magic but had an abundance of travesties and textual aberrations. Stage designs by Georg Baselitz omitted the Great Hall of Monsalvat entirely and instead of the “mächtigen Saals” there was merely a slight modification of the forest setting more suitable to Norma. Klingsor’s magic garden had neither blooms nor blossoms, just a high cracked rock wall which looked like a deflated children’s bouncy castle when it partially sagged to the ground at Parsifal’s sign of the cross. There was no sign of spring flowers in Act 3; in fact, the scene was exactly the same as Act 1 except the horse skeleton had bolted and the cheerful campfire spluttered out. Titurel never made a physical appearance and Bálint Szabó sang the role off-stage with overly reverberant karaoke-sounding amplification. When Amfortas finally unveiled The Grail, he held aloft a bleeding heart more like a peyote-drugged Aztec making a ceremonial sacrifice than the heir to Monsalvat. Urs Schönebaum’s crepuscular lighting ignored Wagner’s instruction that the forest should be “nicht düster” as well as direct textual references by Gurnemanz such as “hoch steht die Sonne”.

Jonas Kaufmann (Parsifal) and the Flowermaidens © Ruth Walz
Jonas Kaufmann (Parsifal) and the Flowermaidens
© Ruth Walz

The most distracting distortion was Florence von Gerkan’s costumes which had a fixation for prominent prosthetic buttocks and genitalia. Klingsor could have been dressed by Stan Winston and the knights wore Michelin Man padding which revealed mostly corpulent torsos and everything reproductive, whilst the flower maidens had uniformly emaciated sagging bosoms and tasteless menstrual-stained vaginas. No wonder Parsifal wasn’t interested. For some inexplicable reason, von Gerkan also had Jonas Kaufmann's Parsifal return in Act 3 wearing an enormous codpiece more suitable to Blackadder II than Wagner’s ultimate masterwork.

Fortunately, the musical element redeemed the multiple directional shortcomings. Kirill Petrenko gave a brisk reading of the score, with Act 1 coming it at just under 95 minutes, but there was scrupulous attention to correct rests and pauses. Petrenko coaxed some fine playing from his Munich musicians who displayed the requisite lyricism in the cantabile sections and decibel shattering force in the Grail scenes and the opening of Act 2. The empyrean remoteness of the Vorspiebl was not quite as ethereal as one might have wished for, but the Transformation Music was more engaged. Trumpets and trombones were raw and raspy and first clarinet and oboe were especially effective. High strings had a silky sheen but the especially built tubular Grail bells sounded artificially projected. 

Nina Stemme (Kundry) © Ruth Walz
Nina Stemme (Kundry)
© Ruth Walz

Wolfgang Koch was more louche than loathsome as Klingsor with a particularly clarion top. The contempt, or lust, with which he snarled “er ist schön, der Knabe” combined effective word colouring with razor-sharp diction. Despite a slightly intrusive fast vibrato, Nina Stemme was an impressive Kundry. Her lower tessitura was served by some really plummy chest notes while the upper extremities such as “umschlang” had metal without losing musicality. The treacherous jump from top B to low A-sharp on “Gottheit Erlanger” was as refulgent at the top as it was resonant at the bottom and the “Ich sah das Kind” narrative had nuanced textual subtlety. Only “Ich lachte” was slightly more Scandinavian circumspect than mystic manic.  

René Pape has been singing Gurnemanz since Titurel was a toddler but the voice is still in remarkably good shape, especially the upper register where “entnimm nun seinem Haupt!” had real punch. There was booming force in “wundervoller heiliger Speer”. Pape’s articulation of the “Das ist Karfreitags-Zauber” was a perfect example of masterful word painting and subtle phrasing. Hometown lad Jonas Kaufmann sang a convincing reine Tor and his characterisation was interestingly more timid introvert than idiot bumpkin. Vocally the lower tessitura of the role suited the tenor’s smoky timbre much better than recent verismo roles. A prolonged pause between “Amfortas” and “Die Wunde” made a major dramatic impact.

Christian Gerhaher (Amfortas) © Ruth Walz
Christian Gerhaher (Amfortas)
© Ruth Walz

The highlight of the performance was Christian Gerhaher’s intense, embittered Amfortas. The German baritone’s experience as a Lieder singer was evident in his exemplary diction and there was some beautifully measured crescendos, diminuendos and phrasing. More surprising was the volume this outstanding artist can employ when necessary – “Strafe!” and “Erbarmen!” soared over the hefty orchestral tsunami. The Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper was consistently outstanding and “Zum letzten Liebesmahle” and “Nehmet vom Brot” so convincing they could have converted Nietzsche. 

The singers, Petrenko and orchestra received vociferous cheers and applause but there was widespread booing for Team Audi. Perhaps locals felt they had been sold a Trabi.

****1