Parsifal - Bayerische Staatsoper, Nationaltheater, Munich, 23 March 2008
On to my second Parsifal in two days, and my third this month. This infamous Peter Konwitschny production has been illuminating, baffling and enraging audiences since 1995, though this was the first time I'd managed to fit it into my diary.
Even before a note is heard, Konwitschny's central preoccupation is established - the symmetries of the work. For replacing the curtain is a huge screen (above) pasted with multilingual versions of the same message - 'Erlösung dem Erlöser', or 'redemption to the redeemed' - the final words sung in the opera.
Konwitschny doggedly exposes the music's repetitions and binary oppositions, even when this is at the expense of clarity or fidelity to the text. At times it's frustrating or downright silly, as when the grail - here represented by a silent actress playing the Virgin Mary - is reproduced in the second act as a Lourdes-tat statuette, hugged by Klingsor like a teddy bear.
But the themes and leitmotifs are superbly organised around a tree theme.
A huge central tree with a roughly papered trunk is white and branched at the start, leaved in yellow paper in the magic garden, and a bare black trunk by the end.
Paper - the manufactured fruit of the tree - is interleaved throughout the production both as motif and as symbol of culture in opposition to nature, as represented by the tree. A single sheet of red paper is suspended over the stage at the start. It drops as Parsifal kills the swan. He is attracted to Kundry from the start in this production, so he presents her with a heart torn from the paper. On parting in the second act, they each take one half of the heart. In the third act, matching up the halves prompts mutual recognition.
The matching overcoats and underpants of Klingsor (John Wegner, left) and Amfortas (Michael Volle, right) graphically exposed lookalike injuries. The text may say Amfortas is wounded in the side, but Konwitschny clearly sees a second castration.
Parsifal shoves aside the healed Amfortas at the end - in disgust that Amfortas yielded to the passion that Parsifal resisted? Parsifal's own comfort at the end appears to lie in Kundry, treated tenderly until her death at the close.
Grating irrelevances like Kundry's toy wooden horse, or Parsifal's Tarzan-like entrance on a swinging vine may only be fleeting moments, but unfortunately they stick in the memory just as long as than the more solid elements of the production and detract quite disproportionately from its overall impact.
At least Kent Nagano's conducting was free of gimmicks. Resonant, measured, OK rather risk averse, it was the polar opposite of what I'd heard a couple of days before in Dresden.
The Bayerische Staatsorchester are a fine bunch of musicians anyway, one of the world's best opera orchestras, but here they excelled themselves in flawlessness and responsiveness.
Nagano never pushed to extremes of tempo or dynamics, or hung on pauses so long that the music framed the silence. But there was always the sense that he knew exactly where he was going, and how each moment related to the next. His delicate emphasis on the music's rhymes and alliterations subtly pointed up this key aspect of Konwitschny's production, making the whole experience a lot more coherent than I suspect it could have been in lesser hands.
It was a truly mature performance that drew Nagano not just applause but Richter-scale, camera-shaking, foot-stamping appreciation, turning most of my photos into a tremulous blur.
Whether it was more down to the production or the performers it's hard to say, but the character of Parsifal himself was more to the fore here than in any other performance I've seen. Nikolai Schukoff, light voiced and slight framed by Wagnerian standards, looks an egregious miscast on paper. His may not be a conventional portrayal, but he was remarkably effective as the savage jungle boy turned Christ figure this concept demanded, and produced power without strain, clear phrasing and a profoundly human dimension. And yes, he ended up in his underpants - rather grubby cut-off longjohns that look as if they haven't been washed since the production debuted in 1995 (right).
Lioba Braun has a smallish voice for a Kundry, but she sang beautifully and intelligently and sympathetically. Her subtle characterisation embodied the unusual degree of femininity and compassion that this production demands.
The mighty Kurt Rydl was alternating nights in Munich and Dresden all week. Quite how he was managing the 500km commute on top of the demanding role of Gurnemanz I don't know, but here as in Dresden, his performance was simply magisterial. Actually, it was even better here, his voice more resonant and alive, his relationship to the other characters more engaged.
Michael Volle was an unusually lyrical Amfortas, a contrast musically if not visually to the Klingsor of John Wegner, whose dark timbre gave him all the menace required without resorting to pantomime theatrics.
As ever in Munich, there is no such thing as a small part, and all the lesser roles were superbly handled by company performers, with singers of the calibre of Aga Mikolaj and Daniela Sindram included amongst the Flowermaidens, and Steven Humes as Titurel.
This is not an undemanding production, either for performers or audience, but it's an incredibly rewarding one that, minor annoyances aside, continues to provoke my thought long after leaving the opera house.