Seldom is one able to see Wagner’s first successful repertoire opera and his final masterpiece within the space of twenty-four hours. After a few anxious moments with a delayed flight from Warsaw to Munich, a high-speed taxi ride to the National Theatre in the centre of the city, this reviewer, heart pounding and blood racing, settled into the first act of Parsifal (1 July ★★★★1/2), in which one is immersed in a world where standard notions of time lose their meaning. The wise Gurnemanz points out to the innocent fool, Parsifal: ‘zum Raum hier wird die Zeit’ (‘time here, becomes space’). The prelude to the opera creates a feeling of space and timelessness that permeates the entire four-and-a-half hours of the performance. Even one’s pulse seems suspended.
Debussy, who described an orchestral colour which seems ‘lit from behind’, called Parsifal ‘one of the most beautiful edifices in sound ever raised to the glory of music’. The orchestral world of the opera possesses a diaphanous, almost mystical quality; Wagner had moved away from the orchestra of The Ring, not wanting ‘any figurations of that kind: it would be like cloud layers, dispersing and then forming again’, creating a unique sense of transparency and balance, written with the unique acoustic qualities of Bayreuth in mind.
Parsifal was strongly influenced by Wagner’s wide reading in Buddhism. He began sketching an opera based on incidents in the life of Buddha, tentatively entitled Die Sieger, as early as 1856, when he also completed his first prose sketch for Parsifal, a work which was seventeen years in the making; not quite as long as The Ring. Indeed, he envisaged ending The Ring with Brünnhilde attaining Nirvana, but that did not come to fruition. The idea is developed in Parsifal, whose title character attains enlightenment through learning compassion.
Significantly, Parsifal kills a swan at the beginning the opera. The swan from Lohengrin onwards had metaphoric importance for Wagner, part of his lifelong resistance to cruelty towards animals. He strongly linked Parsifal with Buddhism right until his death, but felt that what he had to say had already been said in this opera, which is, in a sense, a fascinating blending of Buddhist, Christian, and other religious and philosophical elements, many of which can be found in sources that predate Christianity. The central concept of the redemption of mankind sometimes obscures the equally important redemption of nature.
Friedrich Nietzsche, a great admirer and friend of Wagner who gradually became disillusioned with him, saw the religious elements in Parsifal as a form of betrayal. He described it as ‘a work of malice and revenge, a secret poison against the preconditions of life, a wicked work. The sermon of chastity is an incitement to pathology, and I would despise anyone who did not feel in Parsifal an attack on morality itself’. Nietzsche was exploring a more life-affirming view of the world, whereas he felt Wagner, in this opera, was denying life. Some years after Wagner’s death, however, Nietzsche described Parsifal as a ‘sublime, extraordinary experience in music at its most fundamental ... a synthesis of spiritual states which many, including so-called superior minds, will consider irreconcilable ... an intellectual and psychological penetration which cuts through the soul life a knife. The only thing like it is in Dante – nowhere else.’
The new production at the Bavarian State Opera has designs by the renowned artist Georg Baselitz. This is a Neolithic world of degraded nature in which the Grail community progressively disintegrates, symbolised by stylised trees constantly shedding leaves. The stage picture is unrelentingly dark grey, apart from a sudden burst of a sickly purple in the final scene. As is the case with much of his work, Baselitz inverts the picture from the first act for the final act, with the forest now upside down, while the second act in Klingsor’s realm is dominated by a huge gash – emblematic of the real and metaphoric wound central to the opera.
The costumes were controversial; the Grail knights wear grotesque, naked skin suits in Act One, yet the effect is poignant, suggesting their utter vulnerability. Less effective were the costumes for the women in Act Two: similar grotesque naked suits that had a somewhat comic effect. Director Pierre Audi’s direction seemed somewhat in awe of the sets – a frequent issue when imposing artists design for the stage – and there was limited dramatic interaction between the principals; at times it tended towards stand and deliver. But what a delivery!
It is difficult to imagine a better musical performance of this opera. At its core is the Gurnemanz of René Pape, the only true heir to the great Kurt Moll in this role. While very occasionally underpowered in some of the lowest register, Pape sings with superb subtlety in his delivery of the text and creates a character of warmth and humanity. Jonas Kaufmann (who sang the role in Sydney in 2018) similarly has no peer today as Parsifal, a role he was born to sing with his plangent voice of baritonal warmth and weight and effortless high, limpid tone. He brilliantly conveys the character’s journey from feckless, unthinking youth to the assumption of the responsibility of leading a potentially revived community. The great Act Two confrontation with Nina Stemme’s Kundry was astounding: two of the greatest singers of the age in brilliant form. Stemme herself is without peer in several of Wagner’s greatest female roles. Apart from her consummate vocalism, Stemme’s silent presence throughout act three was a riveting focal point.
Joining this supreme triumvirate of Wagnerians is Christian Gerhaher, regarded by many as the inheritor of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s mantle as the pre-eminent Lieder interpreter of his generation. Gerhaher demonstrated all the verbal subtlety and vocal fluidity of that artform in his embodiment of Amfortas, one of Wagner’s most anguished characters. Kirill Petrenko, who soon takes over the reins from Simon Rattle at the Berlin Philharmonic, brought out all the poetry and majesty in this most remarkable score. The orchestra runs like a high-performance engine from one of the cars of the chief sponsor of the Munich Opera Festival – the pre-eminent Bavarian automaker. This music is in their blood and sinews. It is hard to imagine a more all-encompassing and profoundly moving interpretation.
The figure of Kundry links Wagner’s first opera, Der Fliegender Holländer (2 July, ★★★★), with his last. She mocked Christ on the Cross, and the Wandering Jew, linked to Wagner’s figure of the Dutchman, mocked Christ on the way to Calvary. Wagner claimed that The Flying Dutchman represented a new start for him: ‘From here begins my career as poet, and my farewell to the mere concoctor of opera-texts.’ The opera is the earliest of his works regularly performed at Bayreuth. Throughout Wagner’s operas there runs a philosophical thread which sees human beings eternally striving for a sense of inner peace and spiritual fulfilment, but always challenged by the reality of their instincts and desires. Wagner’s wife Cosima observed in her diary: ‘from Holländer to Parsifal – how long the path and yet how similar the character’.
The opera – a turbulent journey towards moral discovery, the essence of which is compassion – is very much a mid-nineteenth century work, showing the influence of several composers, most notably Weber, and Heinrich Marshner’s Der Vampyr, which Wagner had often conducted, and whose vampire title figure is a precursor of the Dutchman. Wagner claimed that the inspiration for the opera occurred on a voyage from Riga to London, where he had worked as Kapellmeister for several years and was escaping his creditors. In the Skagerrak they took refuge from a storm in a Norwegian fjord: ‘A feeling of indescribable well-being came over me as the sailors’ calls echoed round the massive granite walls while they cast anchor and furled the sails. The sharp rhythm of these calls clung to me like a consoling augury and soon shaped itself into the theme of the [Norwegian] sailors’ song ... now under the impressions I had just experienced, it acquired a distinct and poetical musical colour’.
The story was originally set in Scotland, not Norway. Wagner had begun to sketch ideas for the opera before this voyage, including Senta’s Ballad, one of the crucial elements in the score. Wagner somewhat fancifully later claimed this piece as the impetus for the opera – ‘the poetically condensed image of the whole drama’ – but it certainly does colour much of the score, making Senta, rather than the Dutchman, musically the central figure in the drama. The Ballad describes the Dutchman’s destiny, but it is an expression of her psyche and deepest desires. Here, Wagner reveals how he can take a hackneyed operatic form and inject new life into it.
Peter Konwitschny’s production is perhaps more effective than that of Parsifal. Premièred in 2006, it has a conventional opening with the arrival of the Dutchman’s ship on a realistic stage setting of scudding clouds and turbulent seas. An abrupt transition takes us into a gym spin class! Yes, the humming bicycle wheels take the place of the spinning wheels of Wagner’s conception. Surprisingly, nothing in the text jars with the staged scene; it provides a humorous and colourful backdrop to the first meeting of the two major protagonists. The final scenes follow a more conventional path, but with the striking juxtaposition of the seventeenth-century costumes of the Dutchman’s crew with the rest of the seamen and women in contemporary clothes. The final moment is visually arresting: Senta, instead of plunging into the sea to follow the Dutchman, lights a barrel of gunpowder which ignites with a flash, followed by a sudden blackout, and the recorded final bars of the opera are heard as if from a great distance.
The performances were uniformly strong. Wolfgang Koch, who gave an incisively evil performance of Klingsor in Parsifal the previous evening, here sang a commanding Dutchman, but perhaps without the black tone often associated with role. The Munich Opera Festival has fifteen different operas rotating within five weeks; a huge demand on the resources of this eminent opera company. The smaller roles were vocally well cast from strength, with a bluffly sonorous Daland in Franz-Josef Selig, and some heroic tone from the Erik of Tomislav Mužek, a role frequently vocally undercast.
But the vocal highlight of the performance was Russian soprano Elena Stikhina as Senta. This is a voice that possesses all the requisite power and projection needed for the character, but also a vocal refinement and elegance often not found in the same vocal mix. She has a charismatic and alluring stage presence, slipping sveltely from her gym clothes into a Dutch seventeenth-century wedding gown, while simultaneously conveying both the vulnerability and steel of the character.
Again, the orchestra provided much of the enjoyment of the evening, this time under the baton of Bertrand de Billy. Gone was the ethereal transparency of Parsifal; now the power and turbulence of mid-nineteenth-century German Romantic opera was unleashed.
Opera is thriving in Europe, if these two performances are representative. While both productions might have controversial elements, it is through this striving for innovation in seeking new insights into standard repertoire works that this greatest of all the performing arts will survive and continue to develop.
Parsifal and Der Fliegender Holländer are being presented by Bavarian State Opera at the National Theatre in Munich, Germany as part of the Munich Opera Festival (24 June to 31 July 2018). Performances attended: 1 July (Parsifal); 2 July (Der Fliegender Holländer)
ABR Arts is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation and the ABR Patrons.