The Mystery of “Parsifal”

Wagner’s last opera in performances of the Berliner Philharmoniker

1980: Peter Hofmann as Parsifal and Herbert von Karajan
(Photo: Siegfried Lauterwasser/Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)

A counterpoint to modern “Regietheater” was Herbert von Karajan’s aim when he founded the Salzburg Easter Festival in 1967. The annual opera performance, which forms the centrepiece of the festival, gave the then chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker the opportunity to realise his concept of a production style which served only the music. The music world waited with bated breath for the productions of the stage works of Richard Wagner in particular, as they deliberately offered an alternative to the provocative interpretations of the Bayreuth Festival. After the Ring des Nibelungen, Tristan and Isolde, the Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Lohengrin, Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker turned in 1980 to the last opera of Richard Wagner, to Parsifal. Karajan not only conducted, but also directed. With Peter Hofmann, one of the leading Wagner tenors of his time, the title role was prominently cast. The other roles were sung by Kurt Moll (Gurnemanz), José van Dam (Amfortas) and Dunja Vejzović (Kundry). The set was designed by Günther Schneider-Siemssen who Karajan had worked with since 1960. “This Parsifal is the keystone of Karajan’s view of Wagner,” wrote Karlheinz Roschitz, critic of the Kronen Zeitung.

Static staging but sensuous, magical sounds

“The music dictates the direction,” was Karajan’s motto. For his production, he decided on an oratorio-like interpretation: austere, static, subdued. The production – according to the critic Roschitz – stripped away all the evil, forbidden passions, neurotic compulsions and fateful connections recognisable in these Wagnerian characters. A particular gimmick was that in the second act, the singers among the flower maidens sang from the wings, while ballet dancers represented the floral beauties on stage. According to the press reviews, the staging was rather monotonous, but the musical interpretation was given undivided approval: the gloriously glittering sound, which the conductor and his musicians had developed over 40 orchestral rehearsals and played in slow tempi, delighted the public and press alike. “Anyone who looks back on a long life as a critic has to thank fate and Herbert von Karajan for this unforgettable Parsifal,” said Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The following year, the production was revived, and a complete recording of the opera was released on Deutsche Grammophon. Once again, this interpretation by the Philharmoniker and its chief conductor was acclaimed as an “orchestral mystery”. The most significant change compared to the previous year was that due to his poor health, Karajan split the performance: the first act was performed in the morning, and the second and third in the afternoon. “In this way, the lovely ladies women had the chance to change from day to evening wear and the men from lounge suits to dinner jackets,” commented Stuckenschmidt.

Grandiose farewell

Twenty years later, the Berliner Philharmoniker returned to Parsifal – this time under the direction of Claudio Abbado, who conducted Wagner’s masterpiece for the first time in his last season as chief conductor of the orchestra. Ahead of the production at the Salzburg Easter Festival, there was a semi-staged performance at the Berlin Philharmonie with Robert Gambill as Parsifal, Linda Watson as Kundry and Kurt Moll as Gurnemanz, who had already sung this role under Karajan. In Salzburg, the roles were then sung by Thomas Moser, Violeta Urmana and Hans Tschammer. The press reactions to the festival production were similar to those of the Karajan period: the direction of Peter Stein, who described himself as an anti-Wagnerian, was considered lacklustre and uninspired, while the musical performance was ecstatically received. However, Abbado pursued a very different interpretive approach than his predecessor: Apollonian clarity, lively, nimble, yet expressive. This Parsifal was an “impressionistic, filigree work”. The fact that Abbado waited until the end of his tenure to perform Wagner’s last opera with the Philharmoniker had consequences for his successor. In an interview for the Baden-Baden Festival Hall magazine, Sir Simon Rattle revealed: “No one knows that I actually wanted to do Parsifal at my very first Easter Festival with the Berliner Philharmoniker. But then my predecessor Claudio Abbado changed his plans and decided to do Parsifal in Salzburg instead of Modest Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina.” Simon Rattle now says his farewells with Wagner’s swansong while fulfilling a long cherished wish. A circle closes.

1981: The Parsifal recording of the Berliner Philharmoniker 2001: semi-staged performance at the Berlin Philharmonie
(Photo: Reinhard Friedrich)
Salzburg 2002: Violeta Urmana and Thomas Moser
(Photo: akg-images / Marion Kalter)
Salzburg 2002: Flower maidens
(Photo: akg-images / Marion Kalter)
Baden-Baden 2018: Rehearsal with Sir Simon Rattle
(Photo: Monika Rittershaus)
Flower maidens 2018
(Photo: Monika Rittershaus)