Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, 2015
Daniel Barenboim, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Wolfgang Koch, René Pape, Andreas Shager, Thómas Thómasson, Anja Kampe, Matthias Hölle, Sonia Grané, Annika Schlicht, Stephen Chambers, Jonathan Winell, Paul O’Neil, Grigory Shkarupa, Julia Novikova, Adriane Queiroz, Sonia Grané, Narine Yeghiyan, Annika Schlicht, Anja Schlosser
Culturebox - 18 April 2015
So where does Dmitri Tcherniakov's production of Parsifal fit into the literal, conceptual or interpretative ways of presenting Wagner's final enigmatic opera? Not surprisingly, Tcherniakov places the work in a modern-day setting rather than in some ancient, mythological fantasy location, but what is surprising is how faithful and literal the controversial director actually remains to the letter of the libretto. There are few of the usual shock elements that the director is known for, revisions that have been known to completely overturn the original intentions of some operas. Tcherniakov's production of Parsifal even uses an actual chalice as a Grail (when was the last time you saw that?) and is almost reverential in its treatment. Well, up to a certain point, at least.
As far as the modern-day setting goes however, there is little here that feels out of place in relation to the context and the spirit of Parsifal. Tcherniakov's idea of modern is very much a stripped back one, the bearded Knights of the Grail shabbily dressed in loose woollen jumpers, wearing woollen hats, looking rather like they've just been released from imprisonment in a gulag. It's a familiar deglamourised look that you'll see in other Tcherniakov productions, in the populace of Macbeth, in the citizens of the Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, the Knights forming a fraternal parallel with the committee of nuns in the controversial Paris Dialogues des Carmélites.
The intention appears to be not so much to 'deglamourise' as 'humanise'. Whereas the lush swathes of music in Carmélites, in Kitezh and in Parsifal are essential to the spiritual side of the work, Tcherniakov clearly wants to relate it to a recognisable human condition. It seems reasonable to expect that a survivalist cult living in the woods might indeed look exactly as the shabby tramps do here in Act I, Gurnemanz relating the history of their charismatic elder Amfortas through a slideshow projection (it could have been a PowerPoint presentation if Tcherniakov really wanted to ruffle feathers). This works, but the challenge of updating the dark fantasy elements of Klingsor in Act II to a modern-day setting is rather more difficult.
If Tcherniakov determinedly rejects the religious imagery and fantasy elements of the work with such an approach, it's not entirely neglectful or disrespectful of the deeper spiritual undercurrents in the work, and not entirely without a conceptual side either. In Act II indeed it all becomes a little Herheim, but only for a moment in a flashback scene where a young boy Parsifal is introduced in a scene of sexual awakening with a young girl. The intention would seem to be to have this stand in for the idea of the loss of innocence, of shame at being discovered by his mother bringing with it all sorts of psychological implications. It's a minor diversion from the script, briefly returned to in Act III with a doll and a toy knight on a horse, but despite a charged performance from Shager and Kampe as Parsifal and Kundry, it doesn't really succeed in its attempt to touch on the human nature of the sentiments here.
It's a difficult balance to achieve, and in some ways Tcherniakov's production does go a little too far in 'demystifying' the work. It's also difficult to determine where the emphasis is terms of the weighing placed on the characters. Is this Parsifal centred around Kundry, Parsifal or Amfortas? What exactly is Gurnemanz's role in this version of the work? The balance between the characters actually seems fairly even, not highlighting the experience or the suffering of one above the others. There's no wild interpretations or unusual characterisation, the relating of the work uncomplicated, holding close to the intent of the original.
It's only right at the end of the work that Tcherniakov's individual interpretation comes into play and that the relationship of Amfortas and Kundry is seen as one of the more significant aspects of the work. Whether the right spirit of forgiveness is met in Gurnemanz's actions - stabbing Kundry in her embrace with Amfortas on the final notes of the opera - or whether it is a valid reaction to the treatment of women within the work as a whole, it at least sees Tcherniakov at his controversial best, making a valid commentary on the work. There's no question that this ending clearly makes a powerful impact.
If Tcherniakov runs the risk of demystifying the spiritual side of Parsifal, that side is fortunately more than adequately catered for in Daniel Barenboim's conducting of the Staatskapelle Berlin. The score is delivered in a more spirited fashion than some somnolent interpretations that have been heard recently, reflecting strongly the fury that is there in the work in the key Act II scene between Kundry and Parsifal. Singing too has a large part to play in the humanising of these characters and their journey to transcendental redemption, and this production might not have been quite as successful were it not for some truly outstanding singing performances.
In a uniformly strong interpretation, it's hard to single out one performer above another, however it's worth noting that René Pape continues to impress and establish himself as perhaps the finest Gurnemanz in the world today, improving with each production of this work that I see him perform. His Gurnemanz is authoritative, gentle, lyrical and resonant, his sentiments appearing to come from the deep emotional core of his character's faith and beliefs. It's only if you can sing it like this that you can really carry off the twist that Tcherniakov pulls at the last moment. Thómas Thómasson has similar challenges in his characterisation of Klingsor, but it's beautifully sung, exuding an indefinable edge of danger. Wolfgang Koch looks every part the tortured, charismatic cult leader, driven wild-eyed and crazy through his own personal torments and responsibilities. It's not uncommon to see such an agonised Amfortas, but it's rare to his pain and blood so greedily exploited by the knights.
While all those roles are very much contributory to the whole fabric and tenor of Parsifal, the success of any production traditionally rests on the performances and the interaction between Parsifal and Kundry. The Andreas Shager/Anja Kampe pairing here is fascinating, energising and compelling to watch. Shager is a powerful, lyrical heldentenor, almost perfect for the role. He's perhaps not yet the finished article as far as stage presence goes, but this is still an impressive performance that holds a great deal of future promise. Anja Kampe continues to impress, reaching a new level in completeness of performance in a role that offers so much. This is a finely pitched Kundry, appropriately restained but powerful. All the passion is there but contained and controlled, only hinting at the inexpressible depths beneath, but when she allows you to catch a glimpse of them at the right moments, it's hugely impressive.
Not everyone will find Tcherniakov's interpretation of Parsifal to their taste, but it works hand in hand with Barenboim (continuing a long and successful collaboration between the two in Berlin) in a way that explores the big themes of Wagner's final work. There is emphasis on role of the true artist to suffer for their art and nourish his followers and humanity through the giving of their own life-blood, compassion through suffering leading to healing and redemption for the masses. There's a danger that such sentiments can be overpowering, overblown and detached from reality, but the Berlin Staatsoper's production provides a very human, real and personal interpretation of what Wagner's final work really means.
Links: Culturebox, Staatsoper Under den Linden