As a Canadian I regularly see pleasant but undistinguished productions that are enjoyable for some aspects, while leaving me unsatisfied overall. The performance of Parsifal that I watched tonight live-streamed from the Bavarian State Opera, sung and played with such brilliance, at times left me puzzled, but waiting for the scenes that always move me. Maybe I expected too much, especially with an opera that is among my favourites, and usually an event. While I may want a religious experience, I suppose I should learn to be content with something that is merely good in places, while letting down in others. Of course I invested the hours in watching and listening, and indeed was moved to tears in places. I’d be hard-pressed to describe the interpretation of the opera, the objectives of the production beyond a bare description. Even so it’s an opera that never leaves me cold especially when we get to the last act.
The production employs visual art as a kind of subtext, not unlike what we’ve seen in co-productions at the Met and ENO using the direction of Phelim McDermott and the art of Julian Crouch. This time it’s director Pierre Audi and designer Georg Baselitz. The best scenes were the ones where –after much visual sturm und drang in the first two acts—we were permitted to encounter the main trio of actors in the last act, without all the artifice, indeed without much art. This might have been the most beautiful Good Friday Scene I ever saw & heard: because it was unadorned, just the music and the performers on a mostly bare stage. So I suppose it’s meaningful when we finally get to see the characters without all the extra layers. Those layers helped set up this beautiful scene.
The overlay works best in Act II, a Brechtian game we play, where the women are wearing some sort of bodysuit resembling a naked body, with a looser outfit over that. And so we get glimpses of fake boobs and ass, that really enhances the scene when the young Parsifal encounters a stage full of half-naked flower maidens, all trying to seduce him with their bodies and mouth and cute singing. If they had actually been naked I doubt it could have worked nearly so well. But because it was in this funny alienated discursive space as Berthold Brecht sought, where we are thinking and feeling but not fully swallowed up in the illusion, we are as a result laughing at Parsifal’s bemusement even as we see that the boobs are all fake, and often saggy and silly looking.
The real star for me was Music director Kirill Petrenko, leading a very tender & sensitive reading. The video director regularly brought us back to the pit to watch Petrenko & the Bayerisches Staatsorchester at work. I was struck by how wonderful the production values were, the excellent sound & intimate camera work. Petrenko’s reading was a wonderful mix, at times majestic and respectful, as at the opening of the First or Third Acts, at times quick and light of foot, as in the Good Friday music.
The singing was as good as any you could find in the world today. Jonas Kaufmann sings but also acts a Parsifal who is youthful for the first 2 acts, and seems quite old to begin the last act: but inspired for the last scene. René Pape offers a different Gurnemanz than the one we see on the Met Opera video of the Girard production, much more outgoing and direct in his displays of emotion; where the Girard production calls for a more reticent display, in this one Audi gets Pape to respond, to smile, to rage, to cry, in other words to react to the drama and lead us in his displays of emotion. It’s an old trick –watching someone onstage thrilled or upset, showing us how to feel—and you bet I fell for it every time.
Kundry is sung by the variable Nina Stemme, perhaps the single most visually flamboyant element of a production that is predominantly black & white plus splashes of blood. Stemme looks different in each scene, and gives us a performance to match. She is perhaps most exciting in the last act when –as you may recall—she only has one line: but is otherwise fabulous to watch. Several times her reactions totally set me off. Her singing is of the powerful type, rather than subtle. I suppose Pape & Kaufmann are subtle in comparison
And then there’s the Amfortas of Christian Gerhaher whose acting sometimes is blatant to the point of caricature, limping & mugging yet singing with a broad range of sounds. Sometimes he’s as sweet as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, at other times crooning or moaning or growling. But the characterization hangs together, impossible to take your eyes off him, stumbling around with a blood belly. And in his brief appearance as Klingsor, Wolfgang Koch is magnificent, with a sound reminiscent of Gustav Neidlinger, a remarkably sympathetic portrayal of a role often turned into a monster or a travesty.
Someday there may be a DVD available of this performance. I’ll get it if I can.