Stark but Musically Convincing Parsifal in Munich

GermanyGermany Wagner, Parsifal: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Bavarian State Opera, conducted by Kent Nagano. National Theatre, Munich 28.3.2013. (JPr)

Amfortas: Michael Volle
Titurel: Goran Jurić
Gurnemanz: Sir John Tomlinson
Parsifal: Michael Weinius
Klingsor: John Wegner
Kundry / Stimme aus der Höhe: Petra Lang
Erster Gralsritter: Kevin Conners
Zweiter Gralsritter: Tareq Nazmi
Erster Knappe / Zweiter Knappe: Soloists of the Tölzer Knabenchor
Dritter Knappe: Dean Power
Vierter Knappe: Kenneth Roberson

Director: Peter Konwitschny
Set and Costumes: Johannes Leiacker
Lighting: Peter Halbsgut
Dramaturgy: Werner Hintze
Chorus Master: Sören Eckhoff

Peter Konwitschny’s 1995 production of Parsifal for the Bavarian State Opera doesn’t really need any detailed analysis after so many years and a number of revivals but this was the first time I have seen it. His Konzept spans the decades because it recalls the Götz Friedrich production I saw on my first visit to Bayreuth in the late 1980s and François Giraud’s recent new staging at the Met . How? Well it focuses on undercurrents of misogyny by highlighting the absence of women from the Grail community. In New York at the end Kundry dies having brought the men and women together, but in this production, however, there is no such rapprochement. Here the militaristic society’s exclusion of women continues because they seem to surround her at the end and crush her to death. I suspect when she is killed everything feminine dies with her and this must hint at the ultimate fate for this exhausted Grail community.

I previously described Munich’s National Theatre, home of the Bavarian State Opera, as ‘a thing of beauty – five circles, all faux-marble columns and Grecian friezes, Angels, reds, blues and ivory, a huge central chandelier, electric candles, chairs with perfect sightlines, rather than “seats”. Spotlessly clean – camp, glorious and very un-Germanic!’ This is worth repeating because it remains so true. On entering the auditorium there is front cloth with ‘Erlösung dem Erlöser’ in several languages on what looked very much like prayer petitions that might be seen in the chapel of a church. When this rises we are in a post-nuclear world familiar from several previous Parsifals. Lying flat on the stage and pointing towards us is a ‘monolithic’ tree – very much made of paper and not stone. Konwitschny has said how Parsifal ‘is a single outcry against the division of man and woman, man and nature.’ This tree remains an important scenic motif throughout the evening; the ‘Grail’ is in fact a Lourdes-like vision of Kundry-as-the Madonna with a (live) white dove who is revealed as the ‘trunk’ opens to be venerated by the Grail knights – in greatcoats that have seen better days – inhabiting a subterranean bunker. The tree is decorated with gaudily coloured leaves for Klingsor’s magic garden in Act II and then in Act III is shown, now blackened, like a discarded totem pole. He is clearly using this tree to deliver a comment on ‘modern man’s’ desecration of the natural world.

Elsewhere, there are some very interesting – and possibly more puzzling – moments, such as why does Kundry arrive ‘racing’ downstage on a rudimentary wooden horse dressed as an American hippie; she eventually disappears the same way. Then Parsifal first appears by swinging in – Tarzan-like – on his grapevine. (Actually it was soon clear that this was a lithe, tall, stunt performer because when Michael Weinius, as the ‘real’ Parsifal, soon appears he was more well-upholstered and looked very much like Hugo ‘Hurley’ Reyes from TV’s Lost.) Initially, there was an ever-present fluttering red rectangle of paper high above the stage that later falls when the swan is killed, Parsifal shapes this into a red heart that he gives to Kundry because he is immediately infatuated by her. I certainly liked the pillow-fighting flower maidens in their dormitory at the start of Act II and how Klingsor is represented as the mirror image of Amfortas, whose eternally seeping wound was also to his genitals, as if he too had tried to emasculate himself. There is little sense of nature being renewed in Act III and Gurnemanz just seems to have a twig with some blossom. The final, slightly kitsch, image is of Kundry lying dead on the ground with the Holy Spear clasped to her. It has two red paper hearts on it; the one Parsifal gave her and another she later gives him. A further sheet of paper descends on which is stencilled the white dove of peace as the curtain falls.

Under Bavarian State Opera’s music director, Kent Nagano, Parsifal was given a driven performance, that was quite stark – befitting what we were seeing – yet, I found it appropriately dramatic and musically convincing. It is the absolutely antithesis of Gatti’s very-reverential Parsifals at Bayreuth and the Met. I thought his orchestra was on top form; the string section radiated a glorious silky sheen and there also was excellent work from the woodwind and brass. There was never any indication that this was the first of just two current Easter performances. The only real give away here was the attention Nagano was giving throughout the performance to maintaining coordination between pit, soloists and the accomplished chorus.

In this Wagner anniversary year Parsifal is everywhere at Easter and casting must have been made very difficult. However it is impossible to imagine that anywhere there was a better one to be heard than here. Sir John Tomlinson is (almost unbelievably) in his 67th year but there does not seems to be any great diminution of his talent as a story-teller supreme, he remains an incomparable stage presence and so Gurnemanz is a great role for him at this stage of his career. Naturally, he can be little else but avuncular from his first moments – and his character does not go on any real ‘journey’ – but he demands our attention throughout, not least, because his still impeccable diction makes the German surtitles irrelevant. Occasionally the role does go a little too high for him but I understand he had a start of a cold and this could not have helped – and truthfully it never mattered.

Michael Weinius’s heavy build belied his lightish, rather lyrical Parsifal, which was much to my liking. He had an easy way of phrasing that was backed up by darker, huskier, tones from his previous career as a baritone. He is not the finished article but I would be happy to hear him again, though, I would prefer him to be more fully clothed next time as this production required him to reveal rather too much naked flesh at times. John Wegner was convincingly menacing as Klingsor, and Michael Volle (just back from his Scarpias in London) was suitably agonized as his doppelgänger, Amfortas. Goran Jurić intoned, typically balefully, as Titurel. However, a big misjudgement for me was the use of boy trebles for two of the squires – but I was told this was a tradition in this production.

Petra Lang, Bayreuth’s current Ortrud and who will sing Kundry there in 2016, was her usual reliable self, initially impressing with the richness of her still often contralto-sounding tones but later nailing some extremely high notes with absolute security and seeming ease. There are not many current Kundrys who can do that and act the role as convincingly also. I don’t think Peter Konwitschny wants Kundry to be simply a one-dimensional evil seductress and, indeed, Petra Lang plays her as ‘Everywoman’ – and as representative of all women becomes an image that Wagner in his 200th year would, I suspect, heartily endorse.

I had enjoyed Konwitschny’s Tristan und Isolde in 2005 and found this Parsifal equally compelling, though I can imagine it would not be appreciated or understood by everyone.

Jim Pritchard