MUNICH — “Spring is here,” an old knight declares in the final act of Wagner’s “Parsifal.” Yet wintry night never ends in the grim, ashen new production of the work, which opened the Munich Opera Festival on Thursday. (It will be broadcast live at staatsoper.tv on July 8.)
The lights are dim. The sets — based on, and sometimes magnified reproductions of, melancholy ink drawings by the artist Georg Baselitz — are black and white. The performances of a superb cast, led by Jonas Kaufmann, Nina Stemme, Christian Gerhaher, René Pape and Wolfgang Koch, are sober, responsible, gray.
Pretty much the only color comes from a brief flood of sickly dark purple illumination near the end — from Kirill Petrenko, the music director of the Bavarian State Opera here, who conducts with visionary flammability.
It is the kind of dreary canvas that could have been the backdrop for a memorably stark, even brutal account of Wagner’s opera, in which a suffering company of knights guarding the Holy Grail is saved through the slow progress to understanding of an innocent young man.
But the production — by Pierre Audi, the artistic director of the Park Avenue Armory in New York, who will soon add the same role at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in France — never risks brutality; it never risks much of anything. Barely veiled by the somber setting, a marriage of Neolithic skeletons and contemporary fabrics by way of riffs on medieval armor, is a dully rote telling of this ambiguous story.
There are a few striking scenic moments, such as when a shadowy forest begins to collapse on itself. And there are flashes of insight: As the knights celebrate the communion-like ceremony of the Grail, they drop their hardy outerwear and reveal suits of exaggeratedly sagging flesh.
This staging’s Grail appears to be a kind of fountain of youth, grotesquely elongating the lives of the men who worship it for that reason. Parsifal, then, seems less a savior than an exposer of the artificial persistence of an aging generation.
This idea is initially not without a certain self-lacerating poignancy coming from Mr. Audi, 61, and Mr. Baselitz, 80, whose globby neo-expressionism is the subject of a current retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. But it goes nowhere. The final act is a listless shamble toward vague transcendence, with Parsifal bathed in light as the knights — sagging flesh safely covered — slowly spin in place, a Baselitz starburst looming over everything.
What does Parsifal learn? What does he, by the end of these hours and hours of music, teach? What happens to this tortured society? Just a gently happy ending? “Parsifal” can persuasively be a parable of ecological disaster, of tormented nationhood, of — as in the Metropolitan Opera’s far more interesting production — the great rift between the sexes. In Mr. Audi’s hands, though, it is a mellow, shallow ritual, with little to tell us at all.
The man who does have something to tell us — who is, in fact, fairly shaking us by the lapels with his ideas — is Mr. Petrenko. This is the first time that he, the incoming music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, has taken on “Parsifal,” and it is a vivid, truly essayistic reading that feels like the proper parallel to the febrile sketchiness of Mr. Baselitz’s ink drawings. (They’re better than his paintings.)
After starting the prelude with daringly careful slowness — many conductors today favor a swifter, more natural flow — Mr. Petrenko unleashes waves of spiky, sparkling sound. The strings are almost troublingly raw, perched on the edge of hysteria, over a yawning gulf to the deep base of the orchestra.
This is an evocation of the unhealing wound of Amfortas, the leader of the knights, and of the opera’s bitter power plays and nightmarish, incest-like seductions, which are more harrowing than anything onstage. It’s hard to forget even passing moments, like Mr. Petrenko’s choice to lean heavily on the nausea-laden rustle that ends the second act.
He is not afraid to be solemn and grand, even blaring, but he lightens the textures of much of the score nearly to chamber music; this is the rare “Parsifal” that never feels leaden, that is deliberate, yet propulsive. The mood is swirling, gently dizzying, as Gurnemanz, a veteran knight, describes the calling of the company; when Parsifal is unmasked in the final act, Mr. Petrenko carries the emotion through what feels like several full minutes of sustained intensity.
It is unsettled, and unsettling. And riveting. If the singers did not match it for moment-by-moment interest, that’s Mr. Audi’s fault more than theirs — and this was as solidly rewarding a cast as you can find in this opera today.
As Mr. Kaufmann did at the Met a few years ago, he wanders a bit emptily through the title role. But his voice seems less moored to its depths and hooded than it has recently, and it emerges without strain; he is serene, articulate.
Articulate, too, is Mr. Gerhaher, one of our greatest lieder singers, as a quietly bitter Amfortas, posing the text with clarity. Best is when, with Mr. Petrenko’s help, he can diffuse his voice to its uniquely haunting, smoky ruefulness; he is less fascinating when the role demands sheer power.
Mr. Pape, lacking only some heft in his lowest register, is a conscientious Gurnemanz. Ms. Stemme, singing the opera’s conflicted temptress with easy richness and pale mournfulness, is the rare Kundry who is more elegant than intense.
None of the performances is disappointing; none of them ultimately stands out for its detail or originality, either. Mr. Audi seems to have gently buffed them all to a straightforward sheen. He has inspired far more coolness than heat in an disappointingly cautious handling of the opera.
Mr. Petrenko didn’t get the memo. Remarkably, given the starry cast, but deservedly, the cheers for him at the curtain call were the most enthusiastic by far.
Follow Zachary Woolfe on Twitter: @zwoolfe.
Through July 31 at the Bavarian State Opera, Munich; staatsoper.de.