Wagner as you have never heard him before.
This new Parsifal production in Munich was one of the most anticipated opera premieres of the year: Kirill Petrenko, the future chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker assembled a star-studded cast to attack Wagner’s great final work, including Nina Stemme as Kundry, Rene Pape as Gurnemanz and Jonas Kaufmann in the title role. The world-famous artist Georg Baselitz designed the decor.
Baselitz famously said that he wanted to “turn the piece onto its head” in his new Parsifal production in Munich. With the help of the formidable genius of Kirill Petrenko, he has indeed managed to realise a new, revolutionary Wagner. An opera production is defined by the conceptual forethought that it is built around, and when an ensemble of the quality of the one in Munich puts all of their artistic energy into realising that concept, we are nearly guaranteed a special night with the new Parsifal of the Bavarian State Opera.
This Parsifal demands substantial effort and time to understand it, I needed the entire first act to realise it’s scope. For most of the first act, I did not understand Petrenko’s conducting, was surprised by modern tempi paired with a lush, old-fashioned orchestra using their whole bow for every note. With unusual accentuations, the whole thing appeared to me as a long, dull quest for the most intricate details of the score, which almost always goes wrong with Parsifal, a piece that demands one singular vision in its interpretation. I was missing the emotional basis that is found everywhere in Wagner’s music. When even the transfiguration music was done by Petrenko in the same manner- uncomfortable, unusual accents, reposeful dynamics, never emotional- I realised, that there must be some method to this madness. Petrenko must be aiming for more than to conduct a good Parsifal.
I had never heard Petrenko before, and as a frequent guest of the Berliner Philharmoniker, I was excited as to what their next chief conductor would make out of Wagner’s final piece, which I had just heard with the Philharmoniker a few months prior. Throughout the evening, Petrenko completely reversed my opinion, leaving me impressed and breathless: He tries to change how we hear Wagner. We know Wagner’s music featuring an emotional force unlike any other from recordings and impressions over decades. Musical motifs work as conduits for journeys into an emotional, sensuous world. The best examples for this approach are the first act of Walküre and the second act of Tristan, both of which get you to the edge of your seat through sheer emotional force. Petrenko tries something wildly different, which I would never have expected a Wagner-conductor to try: He strips Parsifal of all emotion and sensuality. He breaks with the highest law of the piece, he permits no sanctification or consecration in the music at all. Whether in the Good Friday Music, the final chorus or the transfiguration passages. The Flower Maiden’s music is the only time where Petrenko ever allows some sweetness, some colour, and only because he has to. Here, the music is simply composed in too sweet and luscious a manner, with obvious, impassible zesty textures. When I realised what Petrenko was doing, I was rooted to my seat: He is walking along a completely new musical path for Wagner. He rips the carefully quilted, well-known and protected emotional Wagner- carpet out from under the listener’s feet. And is met by tons of bravi.
Pretty much any artist who has tried to take Wagner into a new direction in the past encountered the stiffest headwind, simply ask Wieland Wagner, Patrice Chereau or Hans Neuenfels. But the public loves Petrenko, because he overwhelms by not overwhelming. This is essential to understand, if you want to get Petrenko’s Wagner. Now, of course, if this is your first Parsifal, you might find the piece bland, unordered or colourless. And that makes an interesting statement for when Petrenko conducts Tristan for the first time. But ravish orchestral colours is also not Petrenko’s principal goal here. He wants to show us a new way of perceiving Wagner’s music, as an expression of our society today: No longer permitting the good old emotional comfort that we are used to, but instead finding new, current perspectives on the work of a great master.
So how does he do it? First of all, this Parsifal is rather quiet, even in the final chorus and Klingsor’s fight with Parsifal, the dynamics are remarkably subdued. Instead, Petrenko dives into the score, separating individual woodwind voices from one another, shifting the dynamics in a specific way to make that one exquisite line in the bases audible. What looks like a detail-driven score-excursion is actually painstaking dynamic shifting and balancing within the orchestra. Petrenko really is a dynamic architect, teaching his orchestra to vary in the pianissimi, rather than in louder dynamics and taking back the choirs as well. Combine all of that with faster tempi that remind of Rattle and Boulez, and Petrenko sucks all the emotion out of the piece. He introduces a completely new conceptual thinking of the piece, which he executes so daringly and perfectly, that you really have no other choice but to shout “bravo” at the end.
To execute such a daring project, Petrenko needs an exquisite ensemble. While not all singers catch on as well, three of them do stand out as musicians who have inhaled Petrenko’s concept.
In his role-debut as Amfortas, Christian Gerhaher fits most cleanly into Petrenko’s vision: His singing is of an astounding clarity, the emotions come out of the simple notes, rather than might in the voice, vibrato or interpretation. I am reminded of the great Günther Wand’s advice on Bruckner; He famously said to the Berlin Philharmonic in a rehearsal: “Please do not interpret the music!” When it comes to emotional acting, Gerhaher is remarkably subdued. His Amfortas is transparent, appears calm and resigned and never suffers in the conventional way. Never is there even a trace of baritonal glaze or guttural vibrato. This makes Gerhaher’s portrayal distinctly honest and special: While he is not a pure-blooded opera performer and his voice is much softer than that of other bases that have interpreted the role over the years, he takes all of the surplus emotion out of his singing, as Petrenko takes it out of the orchestra.
Wolfgang Koch takes on the role of the demonic villain, Klingsor. Similar to Gerhaher, his voice is clear, transparent and flexible. This Klingsor takes his villainous energy from a grounded, distinctly musical attitude. While still the clear antagonist, he is an honest antagonist who requires no mask to appear scary or menacing. It becomes clear that Petrenko wants the singers to abandon all operatic behaviour, all the usual tricks of emotional grandeur. Instead of grand vocal features, he demands honesty and dynamic repose. Koch executes Petrenko’s concept brilliantly and makes the most of his comparatively short time on stage in act two.
And then we have the messiah of the tenor-world, the global star of classical music, Jonas Kaufmann in the title role. It is my first time hearing him tonight. Just like Koch and Gerhaher, he has taken his tenor back a notch, in a role that does not require much Heldentenor-ish staying power in the first place. This makes for even more brilliant music moments: As with all truly great singers, Kaufmann’s pianissimi are not of this world, the quiet endings of his passages are the high points of the evening when it comes to singing. He has that irresistible timbre somewhere between Tenor and Baritone, which still allows for incredible dynamic outbursts in “Amfortas, die Wunde!”. His Parsifal is truly pure, innocent and withdrawn. He fits into Petrenko’s concept wonderfully, but his voice always puts him at center stage, whenever he sings. He is the brilliant tenor of his generation, superior to all others that I have heard in this role (Ventris, Skelton, Schager). His diction is clear as crystal water, the Bavarian “r” clearly discernible here and there. This role fits Kaufmann perfectly and I am astounded after hearing him for the first time.
I have heard Nina Stemme several times, and for some reason she always seems subdued to me in scenic performances as Kundry. Her vocal contribution to the night is, of course, flawless, indeed extraordinary. She also fits wonderfully into Petrenko’s concept, her highest notes are clearly audible over of the orchestra like we can expect from the leading dramatic soprano of our time. Many well-deserved bravi for her at the end. But still, her acting seems slightly subdued to me. Maybe that is because I recently rewatched the eternal Waltraud Meier sing the role in the Kufper staging, which was simply spellbinding, or because of Stemme’s Nordic coolness. Whichever one it is, I may be missing some charisma in Stemme’s acting, but her singing is likely unbeatable.
And then there is René Pape as Gurnemanz. I heard him in the role with Barenboim conducting in April. Together with Barenboim’s old-fashioned, slow conducting it became one of the truly great scenic opera performances that I have ever witnessed. But now, Pape had to sing a completely different Gurnemanz: Instead of the slow, authoritarian and majestic grail knight he sung for Barenboim, Petrenko askes him to sing more lyrical, focused on phrasing and feature (same as the other singers) reposed dynamics. Pape indeed tries his best to make the long Gurnemanz monologues as sophisticated and differentiated as possible, but that cannot tarnish the fact that he wields an inherently strong, sometimes elephantine bass voice. Pape’s Gurnemanz in Munich is, of course, foot-perfect when it comes to matters of sound and text, he simply does not stand out as much from the rest of the ensemble as others, because it is apparent that a different type of Gurnemanz fits better to his vocal features. His natural Gurnemanz (as I heard it in Berlin in April) reminds more those of vintage greats like Josef Greindl, while the staging and Petrenko’s concept could have done well with a bass who has the lyrical approach of someone like Franz-Josef Selig. Pape’s Gurnemanz is absolutely appropriate for the festival setting, just not ideal.
To come to the staging: We definitely see traces of Petrenko’s radical concept on stage. But there are some traditional features as well. The first act, for a change, is actually set in a forest and Jonas Kaufmann shoots down an actual swan. There is no pantomime or other acting during the prelude and, in the finale, an actual dove (painted by Baselitz) graces the stage. Director Pierre Audi had to convince Baselitz not to make everything dark and boring, but he did take up the suggestion to keep the stage dark and quiet and not to interfere with Petrenko’s vision of the piece, but to support it. The movement on stage is creative, moderate, but fitting; only in the third act do Parsifal, Gurnemanz and Kundry stand slightly far apart from one another.
The costumes, by designer Florence von Gerkan, are a real looker in this production. Von Gerkan shows the society of the grail in all its helplessness. Clothes are hanging from the singer’s bodies, rather like dead body parts instead of clothes. And then, everyone gets fat and pseudo-naked, which looks questionable, but also serves the overall concept: If you want to turn Parsifal onto its head, what do you do? Well, you transform the Flower Maidens from their usual appearance as images of sex and lust into a naked, fat (possibly raped?) heap of sorrowful bodies. Perhaps exactly because of their radical power, these costumes caused such a scandal.
In act two Klingsor’s castle is a painting by Baselitz, which collapses in on itself rather noisily at the end. And in the third act Baselitz and Audi make good on their promise to turn the piece onto its head, as they hang the stage decorations from act one literally from the ceiling in reverse. Interpret that, as you will. For me, the scenery overall contributes to a Parsifal production that challenges our habits in understanding and hearing Wagner, that takes a step towards a new Wagner that few productions have risked before.
So we are left with a highly philosophical Parsifal that features a brilliant conductor and challenges the Wagner lovers of this world: What do they think of their beloved master? Is all of this emotional music really still current? Or do we need something new, a Wagner of the 21stcentury? An interpretation that does not necessarily satisfy old expectations, but exists in its own right? Petrenko manages just that, creating a new Wagner in the master’s most sacred piece. With an ensemble of singers unlike any other and the great Jonas Kaufmann at the helm, this is a Parsifal no one is likely to forget.
Now it will be even more exciting to see what will happen, when Petrenko takes over one of the most sound-intensive and emotional orchestras of the world. We are in for exciting times in Berlin. Yannik Eisenaecher 21st July 2018
Yannik Eisenaecher is the publisher of the blog FreshEarsClassics