The Telegraph, 30 JUNE 2018
by Rupert Christiansen
Wagner: Parsifal, Bayerische Staatsoper, 28. Juni 2018
Ignore the boos – this Parsifal is the opera experience of a lifetime *****
With other major summer festivals such as Salzburg and Bayreuth offering relatively dull programmes this summer, opera buffs’ attention has turned to Munich and its annual June jamboree at the Bayerische Staatsoper. The dazzling highlight of its current offering is an all-star new production of Wagner’s Parsifal, designed by the legendary German artist Georg Baselitz and conducted by Kirill Petrenko, Simon Rattle’s successor at the Berlin Phiharmonic.

Happily, in an era of last-minute cancellations, everyone turned up; and miraculously, the result exceeded all expectations.

Most conductors of this opera explore the contrast between a diaphanous watery luminosity and a grim fatalistic militarism; Petrenko’s approach is much warmer and gentler than that, a reminder that at this opera’s heart is a plea for pity, Mitleid, an understanding of the pain of others. Although it explores some dark human places and maintains keen dramatic tension, this isn’t a Parsifal that shouts Nazism or grandstands any rhetorical message: even in its more agitated moments, it has a constant lyrical fluency, exquisitely rendered by the superb orchestra.

And what wonderful performances Petrenko’s nurturing interpretation sustains. Jonas Kaufmann is in magnificent voice as the hero – how well this music suits his baritonal timbre – singing with flawless security and acting with total commitment. Likewise Nina Stemme, who as Kundry looks and sounds the million dollars she has just won as recipient of the Birgit Nilsson Prize: I have never heard the second act’s fearsome climax nailed more accurately or thrillingly.

Rene Pape makes a serenely mellifluous Gurnemanz, radiating quiet wisdom and spiritual authority; Christian Gerhaher infuses Amfortas’ bitterly remorseful anguish with his matchless sensitivity to colour and text; and Wolfgang Koch is all malice and venom as the twisted Klingsor. The chorus of Flower Maidens and Knights of the Grail simply could not bettered.

Baselitz’s production – intelligently and clearly staged by Pierre Audi, but very much shaped by the sets and costumes – will divide opinion. It offers a bleak and deathly vision of a withered and scorched world, in which Titurel’s holy order seems not so much a cult of idealistic votaries as a band of outlawed survivors. The naked fat suits worn by the Knights and Flower Maidens are both ridiculous and repulsive, suggestive of the hopeless vulnerability of our humanity, while the final apocalyptic starburst of white light seems more like a destruction than a redemption: neither image resonates with the Mitleid that courses through the music. Munich’s audience booed Baselitz at the curtain calls, but the power of his negative imagination is undeniable.

What an overwhelming evening. Five stars? I could double that, for this was one of the great operatic experiences of my lifetime.

 back top