Wagner Notes

Hermann Grampp
May 2024

Parsifal: A Good Friday Play. To perform Parsifal on Easter has been and still is a tradition in many an opera house in Germany. Whereas the Bavarian State Opera in Munich used to reserve this privilege for Good Friday, this year’s Parsifal series started on Easter Sunday and continued with three more performances in early April. While Pierre Audi’s production of June 2018 has not improved essentially – the rather appalling set design of a decaying forest and the absence of any visible direction of the singers have not become clearer than six years ago – the actual reason to see and hear this production again is the singing and the conducting, both of which represent a new level of Wagner excellence.

Pierre Audi’s non-production. If it is true that Georg Baselitz is one of the most important post-war German artists (he “invented” the method of painting motifs predominantly upside down), his set design for this Parsifal production is uninspired and unimaginative and does not help to better understand Wagner’s most enigmatic work: rotting black trees and a few figures presented upside down betray a severe lack of ideas. The costumes by Florence von Gerkan are at best questionable (in particular, the aesthetically challenging oversized naked suits that the knights and the flowermaidens have to wear), and Audi clearly refuses to offer a genuine production since the singers are largely left alone as far as direction goes. Musically, however, it is memorable and arguably of higher quality than the premiere in 2018, which was reviewed in the Oct. 2018 issue.

The Americans. The two outstanding singers of this Parsifal are the two Americans: Clay Hilley (recipient of WSNY’s 2015 Robert Lauch Endowed Fund Award and its 2018 recitalist) and Irene Roberts, both frequently performing at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, where they have repeatedly proved their excellence in recent years. The radiance of Hilley’s tenor suits Parsifal perfectly: not too heroic, but strong and expressive, especially during the shattering exclamations of Act II (“Amfortas!”). Roberts, who had performed an outstanding Kundry in Berlin in February, perfectly matches that level. Her beautiful and crystal- clear voice, as well as her vivid expression in acting and shaping the character, make her the natural successor to Waltraud Meier. In Act II, she forms a perfect unity with conductor Constantin Trink’s slow but considerate musical pace, resulting in moments of pure and ineffable beauty. The much-acclaimed Christian Gerhaher as Amfortas possesses a beautiful, warm tone, but his singing technique often seems constrained and forced. Georg Zeppenfeld’s excellently sung and pronounced Gurnemanz is of a whole different caliber. Even though he seemed slightly indisposed, both the majestic mastery of the sheer length of the role and his brilliant diction and expression prove yet again that he is among the most eminent Wagner singers of our age. Similar comments can be made about Jochen Schmeckenbecher’s Klingsor – strong, expressive, and intense – and Wilhelm Schwinghammer’s TIturel, sung from behind the stage — an example of a fine combination of vocal youthfulness (Titurel should in fact not sound like an aged man) and firm expression.

The conductor and his orchestra. The outstanding musical character of this performance is guaranteed by Trinks, who clearly knows his Wagner by heart. At the beginning, with the famous half note pause, the sound appears, slowly, almost inaudibly, as though coming from a void of the beyond, and gradually develops into a wide majestic greatness of sound which is rarely heard in Wagner conducting nowadays. In conjunction with the world premiere’s orchestra, which was the Bavarian State Orchestra at Bayreuth in 1882 under the baton of Hermann Levi (then the musical director of the Munich Opera House), he conquers realms of sound that otherwise can be heard only in Bayreuth. It has to do with the Wagner orchestra par excellence (this orchestra gave six world premieres of Wagner’s operas, including the 1882 Parsifal). However, as vital as tradition may be, an orchestra also needs a learned hand to awaken the sound that potentially slumbers in the orchestral body. It is a sound that was not groomed by Kirill Petrenko, the dominating musical influence over the last decade, which some (younger) musicians in the orchestra struggled to follow. However, in this April 4 performance, the conductor’s will and the orchestra’s ability clearly merged more and more, resulting in a true Bayreuth sound which at the moment, due to the lack of apt conductors, cannot be heard in Bayreuth. With a duration of 4 hours and 11 minutes, this interpretation is not excessively slow (compared to Toscanini’s alleged, albeit unbelievable 4h47, or James Levine’s customary duration around 4h30), but naturally cedes to a more solemn pace and grandeur when the score demands it. Trinks does not rush through the work in the interest of a falsely understood dramatic fluidity, a practice fairly common today, but which strips the work of many of its more subtle and otherworldly beauties. His 4h11 largely corresponds with Wagner’s own legacy of Levi’s 1882 time (4h04). In view of the poor quality of the Bayreuth conductors last summer (see Wagner Notes, September 2023 issue), the only logical conclusion to be drawn from this Munich Parsifal is that Bayreuth needs musicians like Trinks in order to retrieve and continue Wagner’s sound and style and thus to assure the composer’s relevance in the 21st century.

Hermann Grampp,

a Bayreuth native, studied history, economy, and political science in Berlin, Cambridge (UK), and Paris. A freelance historian and music critic, he researches French Wagnerism and other Wagner-related topics.