On a purely musical level this is a luminous Parsifal at the Wiener Staatsoper, fabulously cast from the A-list and conducted superbly by a proven Wagnerian in Swiss maestro Philippe Jordan. The whole company excels, no one more than the central pairing of Jonas Kaufmann and Elīna Garanča as Parsifal and Kundry, two icons in prime vocal form and immersed in their roles to a degree that transcends the hullabaloo that surrounds them.

Nikolay Sidorenko (Young Parsifal) and Elīna Garanča (Kundry)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

Wagner, never one to dial down the self-importance, decreed that Parsifal should be reserved exclusively for the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in order to avoid the “Entweihung” (sacrilege) of merely entertaining opera-goers. What, one wonders, would he have made of this new staging? It hardly matters because that was then and this is now, but I wish Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov had done more with the opera than use it as a cathartic vehicle to relive his own arrest in 2017.

Parsifal at the Wiener Staatsoper
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

The Vienna State Opera Orchestra plays the first-act Vorspiel from venerable parts and scores with yellowing, well-used pages. The Parsifals they must have seen! Never one like this, though, I'll wager. Wagner's final opera offers countless opportunities for a director to explore and elucidate what Wagner wrote – or, in such matters as the duality of Kundry’s character, what he omitted – but Serebrennikov sets all that aside and pastes on an ill-fitting scenario that makes Klingsor a cipher, Titurel a mystery and the Flower Maidens faintly ridiculous.

Jonas Kaufmann (Parsifal), Nikolay Sidorenko (Young Parsifal) and Elīna Garanča (Kundry)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

A flashback device in the first two acts diminishes Kaufmann’s impact as he weaves his spectral way through memories, singing the notes but handing his physical responsibilities to actor Nikolay Sidorenko as a silent ‘Young Parsifal’. It works well enough, mostly, but only in Act 3 does the great tenor truly own the show with an acting performance of subtlety and robustness. His emotion-laden reaction work when he embraces a broken Kundry is a sublime moment of theatre.

Currencies among inmates include cigarettes and body art, the latter the purview of chief tattooist Gurnemanz (another of bass Georg Zeppenfeld’s pitch-perfect performances) who was probably responsible for the swan-wing image on the shoulders of the albino prisoner murdered by Parsifal in Act 1. In the cells it’s no surprise that the wound suffered by Amfortas (Ludovic Tézier in a haunted and agonised account) fails to heal, for hygiene levels in Montsalvat Prison are dismal.

Ludovic Tézier (Amfortas)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

Garanča rides the incongruities with great dignity and commitment to her character as well as a searing mezzo voice. I’ve not heard a finer Kundry, nor seen a more versatile one. Klingsor’s ‘magic castle’ is the shabby office of male glamour magazine Schloss, with the man himself (Wolfgang Koch, vocally imposing and seedy) a boozy exec leering at a computer screen in front of a wall that drips with pics of hunks in trunks. That infamous castration went well, then. The Flowermaidens are the PA and PR pool who strip and objectify Young Parsifal, tarting him up and dressing him down ahead of a mildly blasphemous photoshoot. Kundry, needless (almost) to say, is the Devil who wears Prada. Rather less obviously, and a bit of a cop-out in the ‘Parsifal as pure fool’ stakes, is having Kaufmann’s older Parsifal physically rip his half-naked younger self from Kundry’s embrace like a tetchy dad who’s surprised his son mid-snog.

Jonas Kaufmann (Parsifal) and Elīna Garanča (Kundry)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

Will audiences tune in to hear fine musicians make great music, or to watch a meandering jail show that struggles to fit its conceits to Wagner’s drama? (By Act 3 the prisoners locked behind bars have apparently learned to forage for food in the forest; goodness knows how.) There were too many times in this Parsifal when I zoned out and simply listened. As a reviewer that’s not the job, but it was a strain on the brain to reconcile two disparate dramas – one elevated, one I barely cared about – for upwards of four hours. Interpretation be damned when what we see and hear are so much at odds.

This performance was reviewed from the Arte Concert video stream