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08 Apr 2018

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Stuart Skelton, Nina Stemme, Franz-Josef Selig, Evgeny Nikitin, Reinhard Hagen, Gerald Finley

  • Richard Wagner
    Parsifal (247 min.)

    Stuart Skelton tenor (Parsifal), Nina Stemme soprano (Kundry), Franz-Josef Selig bass baritone (Gurnemanz), Evgeny Nikitin bass baritone (Klingsor), Reinhard Hagen bass (Titurel), Gerald Finley bass baritone (Amfortas), Iwona Sobotka soprano (Flowermaiden), Kiandra Howarth soprano (Flowermaiden), Elisabeth Jansson mezzo-soprano (Flowermaiden), Mari Eriksmoen soprano (Flowermaiden), Ingeborg Gillebo mezzo-soprano (Flowermaiden), Kismara Pessatti mezzo-soprano (Flowermaiden), Neal Cooper tenor (Esquire 3, Grail Knight 1), Guido Jentjens bass (Grail Knight 2), Iurie Ciobanu tenor (Esquire 4), Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey chorus master

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    Interview
    Sir Simon Rattle in conversation with Sarah Willis (31 min.)

“In Parsifal, the final effort of a genius which compels our homage, Wagner tried to drive his music on a looser rein and let it breathe more freely. We have no longer the distraught breathlessness that characterises Tristan’s morbid passion or Isolde’s wild screams of frenzy; nor yet the grandiloquent commentary on the inhumanity of Wotan. Nowhere in Wagner’s music is a more serene beauty attained then in the prelude to the third act of Parsifal and in the entire God Friday episode.” Claude Debussy, who wrote these lines in 1903, had visited the Bayreuth Festival in 1888 and 1889, and had what could be called a love-hate relationship with Wagner. He had, for example, the greatest respect for the groundbreaking harmonic innovations of Tristan and the “luminous beauty of the Ring”. On the other hand, he took exception to the way Wagner’s music aimed at nothing less than the “total seizure” of its listeners, and made fun of the “German obsession for pounding the same intellectual nail, again, and again, and again; the fear of not being understood which results in endless repetition”. It may at first seem surprising that Debussy admitted Parsifal of all works to be a “serene beauty”. After all, Wagner’s work, entitled a “Bühnenweihfestspiel” (festival drama for the consecration of the stage), which brings together Arthur Schopenhauer’s reception of Buddhist teachings with the concept of Christian salvation in a feat of religious art, is a puzzle to even diehard Wagnerians. Debussy, too, was perplexed by – if not opposed to – the “moral and religious ideas” in Parsifal, but could enjoy music that, in contrast to the leitmotif technique of the Ring, does not immediately attempt to provide an answer to every question.

Following his performances of the four parts of the Ring and of Tristan in the last few years, it will be fascinating to see how Sir Simon Rattle approaches Wagner’s opus ultimum this season. After three performances of Parsifal at the Easter Festival in Baden-Baden in a staging by Dieter Dorn, the Philharmonie now becomes the venue for the “Bühnenweihfestspiel” for two evenings. In these concert performances, in which the Berliner Philharmoniker under the direction of their chief conductor are supported by the Rundfunkchor Berlin, the title role is sung by the Australian tenor Stuart Skelton, who has already worked together with Rattle as Tristan. The Swede Nina Stemme, who takes on the role of the eternally damned seductress Kundry, has been one of the greatest soprano Wagner specialists for many years. Like Stemme, Franz-Joseph Selig, who sings the exhausting role of the wise Grail knight Gurnemanz, also has Bayreuth experience. The other roles are also prominently cast with Gerald Finley as the Grail King Amfortas, suffering an incurable wound, and Evgeny Nikitin as the scheming magician Klingsor (Debussy: “His malicious hatred is marvellous...”).

This is the wound that will never heal

Three Aspects of Parsifal

I. Becoming: Wagner’s Wolfram

In 1845, Richard Wagner reads Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival in a recently published modern rendering (rhymed) by Karl Simrock, with commentary by San-Marte (Albert Schulz). It is probably the most consequential reading in opera history, inspiring in this creative genius a long-term perspective that would lead to the Ring, Lohengrin, Parsifal, Tristan, even Die Meistersinger. The deeper Wagner delves into the fascinating object of the Grail story, the more critical becomes his attitude to the Middle High German Parzival. He is particularly disparaging of Wolfram’s “confusion” of content, of his endless stringing together of incidents. “And I am supposed to take this on – even make music for it? – No, thank you!” Wagner proceeds to create clarity: the Grail is the goblet used at the Last Supper in which Joseph of Arimathea caught the Saviour’s blood on the Cross; the bloody spear is the relic “thrust into the struggle by the Guardian of the Grail himself in greatest distress”, lost there and used as a weapon against Amfortas. Wagner also clarifies the etymology of the hero’s name: Parzival must become Parsifal, nothing to do with the Old French Per-ce-val but rather with the Arabic fal parsi, “pure fool”. Wagner has picked this up from Joseph Görres’s Lohengrin essays: wrong philologically but apt dramatically, which is what matters here. Wagner is neither etymologist nor philologist: he is a dramatist and, as such, a genius. The sufferer Amfortas is clearly more interesting to him than the pure fool as an instrument of redemption. His Parsifal is at first no more than a “gander” (an insult taken from Wolfram) and becomes dramatically interesting only when tested in the second act: “I must compress everything into three climactic situations of extreme intensity, so that the work’s profound and ramified content emerges clearly and distinctly. Working and representing things in this way is the very nature of my art.”

II. Motifs of suffering

Among the Parsifal score’s miracles is that and how almost everything here hangs together. To begin with, the first three basic ideas, the so-called Love Feast, the Grail, and Faith –already expounded in the Prelude – are crucial to the leitmotivic complex of Act I. The sacred sphere is pitted against Klingsor’s world, which, although it does not appear on the stage until the second act, is constantly being alluded to in the first: through Kundry, who moves between both worlds, through Gurnemanz’s narration of the backstory, and through Amfortas’s suffering during the Grail Ceremony as he recalls his fall from grace. Leitmotivically, in the literal sense, the “Prophecy” – “enlightened through compassion” (“durch Mitleid wissend ...”) – returns again and again, setting up a tension between the desolate time of the action and the hope of redemption through a “pure fool” (“... der reine Tor”). That the future redeemer is a foolish young man – a “gander” – is reflected in his “motivic endowment”, which remains rather indistinct.

Act II belongs to Klingsor, whose world is established musically by his flexible “Magic” motif and “Klingsor” motifs in various transformations. New here are the caressing and beguiling strains of the Flower Maidens, music of seduction and artfully formulated deception. This is represented above all by Kundry – Klingsor’s instrument, his “rose of hell” – whose “Fallen” motif is heard most often. Her seduction scene with Parsifal begins like a psychoanalytic session; when it turns sexual, his eyes are opened: the “recognition” is, for one thing, an ability to distinguish between maternal and sexual love. In rebuffing the sexual, he is able to comprehend Amfortas’s sin and find his own mission for redemption. Here again, there is a long flashback in the middle: Kundry tells of her original fall from grace when she mocked the Saviour and was condemned to eternal wandering. The Love Feast, Grail, Wound and Spear also play a major leitmotivic role in this context.

After the second act’s strongly integrative musical treatment, Act III brings a surprisingly large amount of new material. Although Wagner rarely shies away from repeating his central motifs, he’s also enough of a dramatist to know that the ear now expects other colours. The Prelude begins in a tone of grave resignation: the Desolation motif governs the act’s first half, and the “Straying” motif is also essential. This gloomy domain of desperatio is set against that of “Good Friday’s Magic”: Nature, the blooming meadow as an image of hope, antithesis of the inner wasteland. Both are combined in the motif of Good Friday: tranquil Nature (as an earthly miracle, just as the Grail offering is an unearthly miracle) and the Passion, the Saviour’s suffering.

The Grail King’s anointment and Kundry’s baptism are occasion for delicately painted sacred-musical imagery. This, too, is allotted its counterpart: the strikingly sombre funeral procession, with the Grail knights’ adamant “Du musst” (You must uncover the Grail). The act of Redemption: Amfortas’s wound, healed by the holy Spear brought back by Parsifal, and the enigmatic “Redeemer redeemed” are an opportunity for harp-supported loftiness and intertwining the three main themes in the finale – as content, a question mark; as music, a strong exclamation mark.

III. Amen

When religion becomes “artificial”, Wagner writes, “it is left to art to save the core of religion”. This notion, found in his 1880 writing Religion and Art, makes a rather enormous claim. But he goes on to say how art should be capable of accomplishing this, because “it grasps the mythic symbols which religion wants to believe are true in a real sense in terms of their symbolic values, so that the profound truth hidden in them can be recognized through their ideal representation.” One could spend a long time contemplating this idea – and be left reeling in the process. The passage at least helps us understand why there is so much talk about the Saviour in Parsifal; why Amfortas’s suffering from his wound simulates the Passion of Christ; why so many Christian objects and ideas (Wagner: “myths”) are bandied about.

The “Dresden Amen” by that city’s court composer Johann Gottlieb Naumann (1741–1801) – an ear-catchingly terse, upward-striving formula to which the congregation sang the Amen during the service – is integral to the motivic nexus of Parsifal’sscore, serving as a musical cipher. No other motif runs so prominently through all of Wagner’s work. In the 22-year-old composer’s 1836 opera, Das Liebesverbot, the nuns of the convent of St. Elizabeth in Palermo sing it in their “Salve Regina coeli”. Ten years later the Amen crops up in Tannhäuser’s “Rome Narration”, where it stands for the pope and the hero’s bitterly disappointed anticipation of papal grace. In 1876, Wagner hears it again in Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony. Its prominence in the Bühnenweihfestspiel (“sacred stage festival play”) of Parsifal, going beyond institutional Christianity (cloister, pope), can be understood as a practical application of the art-religious programme: to make the underlying truth recognizable through an “ideal representation”. Probably also worth mentioning here is how Wagner repudiates the interpretation of his minion Hans von Wolzogen, who sees in Parsifal a “reflection of the Saviour”: “I wasn’t even thinking about the Saviour”, he tells Cosima (on 20 October 1878), putting the subject to rest.

No obfuscating could help him against the keen-eyed Nietzsche, who chiefly saw Parsifal as “a work of perfidy”: “this priestly hand-dilation, this incense-fuming excitation!” Yet Wagner, even on sacred ground, was also capable of irony. In Ecce homo, Nietzsche relates how the composer sent him the text of Parsifal with a facetious inscription, one that Nietzsche could no longer savour: to his “dear friend Friedrich Nietzsche from Richard Wagner, Superior Church Councillor”.

Holger Noltze

Translation: Richard Evidon

Stuart Skelton, a native Australian, was first trained in Sydney and graduated at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music in 1995. Since then, an international career has led the tenor, who was named Male Singer of the Year at the 2014 International Opera Awards, to the major opera houses and concert halls throughout Asia, Europe and North America. Stuart Skelton has appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, English National Opera, the Opéra National de Paris, Zurich Opera, the Semperoper in Dresden, Deutsche Oper Berlin and at the state opera houses in Vienna, Munich, Hamburg and Berlin. His repertoire encompasses Wagner roles such as Parsifal, Lohengrin, Erik and Siegmund, as well as Beethoven’s Florestan, Strauss’s Kaiser, Max (Der Freischütz), Dvořák’s Dimitrij and Britten’s Peter Grimes. Moreover, the tenor is invited to appear as a soloist with the most prestigious symphony orchestras. Stuart Skelton works together with conductors such as Edward Gardner, Philippe Jordan, Donald Runnicles, Michael Tilson Thomas and Franz Welser-Möst. He gave his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in December 2011 as soloist in Mahler’s Lied von der Erde, and last appeared with the orchestra in March 2016 in the role of Tristan, in concert performances of Wagner’s opera conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

The Swedish soprano Nina Stemme is one of the most sought after Wagner singers in the world today. While initially studying economics in her home town of Stockholm, Stemme also took singing lessons. Following her opera debut as Cherubino in Cortona (Italy) in 1989, she decided on a singing career and went on to study singing. In 1993 she won the Operalia Competition, which also made her known internationally. This was followed by invitations to opera houses such as the Wiener Staatsoper, the Semperoper in Dresden and Zurich Opera. Her repertoire includes roles such as Mimi (La Bohème), Marie (Wozzeck), Leonora (La forza del destino), the title roles in Tosca, Madama Butterfly, Ariadne auf Naxos, Arabella and Salome plus all the major soprano Wagner roles. Since her acclaimed debut as Isolde (Tristan und Isolde) at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2003 the part has become one of her signature roles which she has sung in Bayreuth, London, Munich, Vienna and New York. More recently, she also appeared as Turandot at La Scala, the Met and Zurich. In September 2015 she sang in the world premiere of Hans Gefors’ Notorious in Gothenburg. In 2017, she made her debut at the Wiener Staatsoper as Kundry in its new production of Parsifal. A winner of multiple awards (the Laurence Olivier Award, Premio Abbiati), she is a member of the Royal Academy of Music Sweden and a Swedish Court Singer; in 2012 she was appointed Austrian Kammersängerin. These concerts mark Nina Stemme’s first guest appearance in Berliner Philharmoniker concerts.

Franz-Josef Selig graduated in church music from the Cologne University of Music before changing to the vocal classes there by Claudio Nicolai. Early in his career, he was a member of the ensemble at the Essen Aalto Theatre for six years. Today, the freelance singer appears regularly in opera houses all over the world – such as the Vienna State Opera, La Scala in Milan, Opéra National de Paris and the Metropolitan Opera New York – and at the Aix-en-Provence, Bayreuth and Salzburg festivals in the great bass roles of Gurnemanz, King Marke, Sarastro, Rocco, Osmin, Daland and Fasolt. Franz-Josef Selig has worked with conductors such as Semyon Bychkov, Marek Janowski, Philippe Jordan, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Antonio Pappano and Simon Rattle. Despite his numerous concert and opera engagements, Franz-Joseph Selig finds time for recitals, where he is also to be heard as a member of the ensemble “Liedertafel” together with Markus Schaefer, Christian Elsner and Michael Volle with Gerold Huber at the piano. Numerous CD and DVD productions document the artistic versatility of the singer. The bass made his debut in Berliner Philharmoniker concerts in December 2013 in Robert Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, conducted by Daniel Harding. He last appeared with the orchestra in December 2017 in performances of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, conducted by Christian Thielemann.

1381 Zeichen, Übers. Innes Wilson

Evgeny Nikitin was born in Murmansk and played drums in a rock band as a teenager. While still studying at the St. Petersburg State Conservatory, he was offered his first engagements at the Mariinsky Theatre, where his roles included the title role in Boris Godunov,Prince Igor and The Flying Dutchman, and worked with Valery Gergiev. This was followed by invitations to prestigious festivals in Europe and the USA. He has also appeared at the opera houses in London, Paris, Vienna, Zurich, Berlin, Madrid, New York, Chicago and Tokyo. Nikitin’s repertoire includes the roles of Tomsky (The Queen of Spades), Don Pizarro (Fidelio), Fasolt, Wotan, Gunther (Der Ring des Nibelungen), Klingsor and Amfortas (Parsifal), Philip II. (Don Carlo), Orest (Elektra), Jochanan (Salome) and the title role in Don Giovanni. In concert, he has sung, among others, Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death at the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival, Mahler’s Eighth Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra and Oedipus Rex with the Munich Philharmonic. He first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in June 2006 in the concert performance of Wagner’s Das Rheingold in the role of Fasolt, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. He last appeared with the orchestra in April 2017 as Baron Scarpia in a concert performance of Puccini’s Tosca.

Buchstaben mit Leerzeichen: 1208 – Übers. Innes Wilson

Gerald Finley, born in Montreal, was educated at the University of Ottawa, at King’s College Cambridge and at the Royal College of Music in London. His worldwide career has taken him to the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Opéra National in Paris, the Wiener and Bayerische Staatsoper and the festivals in Glyndebourne and Salzburg. After Gerald Finley first appeared all over the world in Mozart roles (such as Don Giovanni and the Conte di Almaviva), he devoted himself to the work of Richard Wagner for several years, including the roles of Hans Sachs at Glyndebourne and the Opéra de Paris, Amfortas at Covent Garden, and Wolfram at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The bass baritone’s multifaceted repertoire also includes roles in operas by Rossini, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Korngold, Britten, Adams, Saariaho and Turnage. The artist has also gained international recognition in the concert hall and as a lieder singer. Composers like Peter Lieberson (Songs of Love and Sorrow), Mark Anthony Turnage (When I woke) and Kaija Saariaho (True Fire) have written for him. He regularly works together with conductors such as Bernard Haitink, Mariss Jansons, Andris Nelsons, Sir Simon Rattle and Esa-Pekka Salonen. Gerald Finley has been a regular guest in Berliner Philharmoniker concerts since his debut in September 1994 under the direction of Pierre Boulez. In his most recent appearances in early March 2018 he presented songs by Franz Schubert in orchestral arrangements conducted by Daniel Harding.

Reinhard Hagen studied at the University of Music Karlsruhe. An award winner of many international competitions, his stage career began at the theatre in Dortmund. He was brought to the Deutsche Oper in Berlin by Götz Friedrich in the 1994/1995 season, where he has performed the great roles of the basso profundo repertoire. Since autumn 2011, he has worked freelance as a guest at leading opera houses all over the world (e.g. in Munich, Hamburg, Brussels, Paris, London, New York and Los Angeles) and at festivals (Bayreuth, Salzburg, Glyndebourne and Tanglewood) as well as with the world’s major orchestras. He made his Berliner Philharmoniker debut in a series of concerts of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis in February 1998 (conductor: James Levine). He subsequently performed with the orchestra on many occasions, most recently in concert performances of Strauss’s Salome under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle in March 2011.

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