Parsifal, Bayerische Staatsoper

Kirill Petrenko’s radiant account of Parsifal shines so bright that it overcomes the lacklustre direction and staging.
Parsifal: finale (© Ruth Walz)

991 words · 5 min read

Münchners aren’t shy about their admiration for the Generalmusikdirector (GMD) of their opera, and one of them expressed to me, during the pause between acts two and three of Parsifal, the great sadness they have for Kirill Petrenko’s move to Berliner Philharmoniker. And they have good reasons to be sad about his departure. Bayerische Staatsoper, an opera company which has an illustrious history, and where the famously elusive Carlos Kleiber appeared the most often, has by some miracle a GMD who is almost as mysterious as Carlos Kleiber, and whose music-making is no less electrifying.

Kirill Petrenko, who famously gives no interviews to the press, was pretty much unknown outside of the German-speaking world before he was elected the future Chief Conductor of Berliner Philharmoniker. While his elevation to the most well-known and visible conducting position in the world gave him a much-needed public exposure outside of Germany, the mystery about him, especially about his music-making, has only deepened even further in my mind, as, just like Kirill Petrenko the person, Kirill Petrenko’s music seems to come from nowhere. He is invariably able to give every masterwork a new light, and he does it with an utmost respect for the scores, not just for the sake of being different.

The case in point here is his Parsifal, which was premiered in 2018’s Münchner Opernfestspiele. His Parsifal doesn’t have the manufactured majesty created by the slowness of Hans Knappertsbusch, it doesn’t have the swiftness and directness of Pierre Boulez, it certainly doesn’t have the exaggerated (although at times satisfying) gestures of Christian Thielemann, and it certainly doesn’t sound remotely like Herbert von Karajan or Daniel Barenboim. Kirill Petrenko’s Parsifal has a natural flow that never feels rushed or stale, and it has none of the exaggerated rubati, as Christian Thielemann is prone to do with everything. Everything serves the libretto. When the Blümenmädchen first make their appearance, they see their lovers being wounded and killed by the approaching Parsifal. None of the recordings of this passage have the desperate and somewhat hysteric mood to it. If anything, it often sounds too beautiful too early. Under Kirill Petrenko’s though, this passage for once sounds exactly what the text says. The sound Petrenko manages to draw from the house orchestra, the Bayerisches Staatsorchester, is close to miraculous, with incredible singing tone of the high strings in Karfreitagzauber and the glorious Verwandlungsmusik in the first act, when Gurnemanz brings Parsifal into the Holy Grail Castle.

Except Gurnemanz doesn’t bring Parsifal anywhere. The curtain drops, and rises again, but nothing has changed on stage. The staging and direction are the most problematic part of this production, but it isn’t because it moves the story to a comtemporary time in an attempt to appear relevant, as in the cases of many modern Regietheater productions that aren’t successful with their goals. If anything, the staging remains mythical, if only more minimalistic and symbolic. The set features paintings by George Baselitz, hung as the curtain at the beginning of every act, but serves very little purpose, if at all, and one could easily argue that they could have been empty curtains and wouldn’t have changed anything. The forest at the beginning is dark and colourless, but otherwise quite true to the libretto. After the Verwandlungsmusik, however, there is no transformation at all. In the second act, Klingsor’s castle is resprented simply by a large canvas with the drawing of a large stone wall, and as Klingsor is vanquished, the wall collapses. Meanwhile, the scenery of the third act is simply the one from the first act but hanged upside down, and it remained as dark as ever, with the only purplish lights shining when Parsifal points out how the forest looks so beautiful today, before the whole set turns into darkness again, even as Gurnemanz announces that it is now mid-day.

Parsifal: Klingsors Zauberscloß

Parsifal: Klingsors Zauberscloß (© Wilfried Hösl)

Parsifal: finale

Parsifal: finale (© Ruth Walz)

Parsifal does not lend itself to easy direction, as lines of sung text are often interrupted by endless silence (or the most beautiful orchestral music, depending on how you see it), and here, the direction, led by Pierre Audi, hasn’t found anyway to overcome the difficulties. René Pape, who sings the part Gurnemanz with ease and emotion, is often seen pacing around the stage between lines, as though even he himself has no idea what to do. Nina Stemme, the formidable Wagnerian soprano, sings effortlessly, yet in the second act, her voice doesn’t come across as seductive, as is called for by the plot. Derek Wilson’s Kingsor is outstanding as a wicked Klingsor, while Michael Nagy offers an emotionally raw account of Armfortas. The only weak point of the cast is Parsifal himself, sung by Burkhard Fritz, who appeared with the same role some years ago at Bayreuth with the celebrated production by Stefan Herheim. At times, he seemed less secure, especially during the second performance I was present.

The lacklustre staging is saved by Kirill Petrenko, who draws the biggest applause, and deservedly so, as it was him who single-handedly turned an otherwise dull production into a singular Wagnerian event. He will have two more seasons left at the Bayerische Staatsoper. My advice for opera fans is: go to Munich and witness the wonder of Kirill Petrenko while you still can.


Composer and Librettist: Richard Wagner Director: Pierre Audi Stage Design: Georg Baselitz Assistant Stage Design: Christof Hetzer Costume Design: Florence von Gerkan Assistant Costume Design: Tristan Sczesny Lighting: Urs Schönebaum Dramaturgy: Klaus Bertisch, Benedikt Stampfli Chorus master: Sören Eckhoff Childrens Chorus master: Stellario Fagone

Amfortas: Michael Nagy Titurel: Bálint Szabó Gurnemanz: René Pape Parsifal: Burkhard Fritz Klingsor: Derek Welton Kundry: Nina Stemme Erster Gralsritter: Kevin Conners Zweiter Gralsritter: Callum Thorpe Stimme aus der Höhe: Rachael Wilson Erster Knappe: Elsa Benoit Zweiter Knappe: Noa Beinart Dritter Knappe: Manuel Günther Vierter Knappe: Galeano Salas Klingsors Zaubermädchen: Elsa Benoit Klingsors Zaubermädchen: Selene Zanetti Klingsors Zaubermädchen: Natalia Kutateladze Klingsors Zaubermädchen: Vuvu Mpofu Klingsors Zaubermädchen: Mirjam Mesak Klingsors Zaubermädchen: Rachael Wilson

Kinderchor der Bayerischen Staatsoper Bayerisches Staatsorchester Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper

Kirill Petrenko

28, 31, March, 2019 Nationaltheater, München, Germany

 Live    4 Apr, 2019
 Opera    Richard Wagner  
Copyright © Peter Y. Chuang 2019

Peter Y. Chuang is a Hong Kong-born novelist, short story writer, and a music critic who has lived in London at a time and now goes to Berlin semi-regularly for no good reason. When he’s not writing or reading, he’s probably playing with his cat, or listening to classical music, either at home or at one of the opera houses and concert halls in Germany. He uses Linux (current distro of choice: Arch Linux). Read more about his Linux stuff.

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