High Standards of Musical Performance and Dramatic Intelligence In Staatsoper Berlin’s Parsifal
Wagner, Parsifal: Soloists, Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus master: Martin Wright), Staatskapelle Berlin, Daniel Barenboim (conductor), Schiller Theater, Berlin, 25.3.2016. (MB)
Amfortas – Wolfgang Koch
Gurnemanz – René Pape
Parsifal – Andreas Schager
Klingsor – Tómas Tómasson
Kundry – Waltraud Meier
Titurel – Matthias Hölle
Squires – Sónia Grané, Natalia Skrycka, Michael Porter, Roman Payer
First Knight of the Grail – Paul O’Neill
Second Knight of the Grail – Dominic Barberi
Flowermaidens – Julia Novikova, Adriane Queiroz, Anja Schlosser, Sónia Gráne, Narine Yeghiyan, Natalia Skrycka
Voice from Above – Natalia Skrycka
Dmitri Tcherniakov (director, set designs)
Elena Zaysteva (costumes)
Gleb Filshtinsky (lighting)
Jens Schroth (dramaturgy)
This was, most likely, the best Parsifal I have ever heard. Perhaps it was not quite the best I have seen, but it was not so very far off. Stefan Herheim’s Bayreuth production remains – well, its unanswerable self, or rather its self which permits of so many questions and answers that it continues to develop in the mind long after it was last seen in 2012. Dmitri Tcherniakov’s staging is a masterpiece, too: very different, of course, as it should be. Indeed, of the post-Herheim stagings I have seen, it is unquestionably the greatest. Returning to it, following its 2015 premiere, Tcherniakov has, in good Werkstatt Bayreuth fashion, made some changes. I am not convinced that they are all for the better, but then nor was I with Herheim. They nevertheless keep one on one’s toes, or keep one’s eyes on whatever they should be on, and forestall any disastrous lapse into ritualism.
Not, of course, that the audience by and large noticed. The preposterous prohibition on applause was still being enforced by those who may know some Wagner but understand nothing of him. Protecting a ritual which has long lost its justification, if ever it had one; mindless veneration of a sinister cult: yes, look around you and see our present-day guardians of the Grail. One does not even have to have a developmental view of an artwork to appreciate the utter folly of treating the first act as a Christian rite. One simply has to listen to the words. What Wagner presents is heretical in the extreme, as much a Feuerbachian inversion, even a black mass, as anything else. And it is a representation, a dramatisation, not the thing itself. Is that so difficult for someone sitting in a theatre to understand? Do people attending a performance of Don Giovanni think the singer playing the Commendatore has really just been murdered? Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren, this is not the St Matthew Passion, for which there are perfectly good reasons to behave quite differently; you are not part of a congregation. By all means, feel no need to applaud; that is your prerogative. However, you have no right to enforce your uncomprehending choice upon others; even Bayreuth has given up on that. If you doubt me, read The Master himself: his Religion und Kunst.
The great irony is, of course, that a few moments’ attention to Tcherniakov’s staging would have told them the same too. Here we have a religious community of a decidedly Russian nature: a community of Old Believers, possibly. Khovanschina certainly comes to mind. Yet it is clearly a sham. To us, to the leaders, perhaps to those participating; that latter point is unclear, productively so. But Titurel’s ritualistic staging of his own death in the first act and re-emergence from the coffin once ‘it’ is all over stands at the very heart of the drama. He is a sinister, charismatic dictator: the cult leader we all know and fear. Moreover, his sadism in insisting, for whatever reasons, that his son, Amfortas go through what he must time and time again, chills to the bone. The identification between Father and Son of the (un-)Holy Trinity is clear, not least through Amfortas’s Christ-like stance. Where Wagner’s Third Act makes the still extraordinary claim that it is necessary to prevent Christ from ascending to the Cross in the first place, here we see the consequences either of that failure to prevent – perhaps, or, as we shall find out, chez Tcherniakov, perhaps not, to be reversed – or of a descent into meaningless from something that perhaps once was achieved. The child, even when grown adult, is the victim. For Hegel and his followers, amongst whom we should certainly count Wagner, the agony of the god-man on the Cross was a paradigmatic case in every sense. As with most great productions, we find, dialectically, fidelity in infidelity: perhaps all the more so experiencing the work on Good Friday.
Freud is, of course, never far away in Parsifal; nor is he here. That abuse is paralleled, echoed, even prefigured in the extraordinary Second Act. Where Tcherniakov’s sets had previously offered the backdrop for Gurnemanz’s slide-show of past Parsifal glories, Wagner’s own inspirations coming back to life (possibly deceptively, not unlike a visual game of Call my Bluff), now they seem literally to have been whitewashed, as the nightmare of child abuse is re-enacted and intensified. Kundry, who has a past not only with Amfortas, not only with the others mentioned when Klingsor summons her, but also, most intriguingly and frighteningly, with Gurnemanz too, brings Parsifal to the realisation that he had no choice but to kill his mother. In the show enacted before him and us, the girl we see – sister or girl-next-door? – arouses him, he touches her, and then Herzeleide walks in. The girl having been struck by his mother and banished, he tries it again with her. Does he know what he is doing when touching her breasts? Herzeleide certainly does, and so she must die. Orchestrating the show is, of course, Klingsor, whose paedophilia and exploitation of paedophilia are shockingly clear – perhaps shockingly too from our instant reaction to his stereotypical ‘weirdo from around the corner’ costume. Is our initial rush to judgement part of the problem? Perhaps; perhaps not. Flowermaidens with dolls, themselves dolls, initially having been the objects of potential rescue by our have-a-go hero, Parsifal, yet casually forgotten still more quickly, perhaps, than Herzeleide had been, Kundry was always going to have to take centre-stage with her bag of tricks, clutched close to her during the preceding act. I am not quite sure that the more conventional method of seduction on offer this time around was so successful, Kundry, as so often, shedding her outer layer; that coat having been left on all the time in 2015, it is now shed to reveal a blue dress. Startling yes, unlike everything else, but perhaps more of a tradition that Tcherniakov had initially seemed willing to resist.
Not to worry: much remains to provoke, not least the offstage kiss. What happened? We shall never know. It traumatises, though, damaging yet another human life, just as the panoply of events, ‘real’ and ‘remembered’ has been doing during both acts – and will continue to do so in the third. That, I think, might be the reason for the relative lack of ‘drama’ in that final act. What might be taken as running out steam is part of the point. It lulls us into a false sense of security, only to be cruelly woken up by Amfortas’s searching the coffin for the missing Titurel, and finally for Gurnemanz’s closing murder of Kundry. Whatever it is that has been going on has led, once again, to the most extreme of measures; Parsifal might be doing the right thing in carrying her away, but is he as clueless as he was before, whatever the claims of durch Mitleid wissend? Kundry now, unlike 2015, appears already to be dying, before Gurnemanz reaches her. Has she tricked him, tricked us; has she actually found agency through premature death? Or does that not just return us to Wagner’s highly problematic insistence upon female sacrifice? That I found an intriguing addition to the production; I was less clear why she does not take the doll out of her bag again in this act. I need to see it again, I think: just as well it is programmed for Holy Week, 2017.
None of that would make so searing an impact, of course, without outstanding performances from all concerned. Daniel Barenboim’s conducting of the superlative Staatskapelle Berlin confirmed that he is surely the greatest Wagner conductor alive, or at least at work. (I think we can sadly presume that we shall hear no more Wagner from Bernard Haitink, although we can hope to hear much else, in the concert hall.) Barenboim’s command of line was here beyond reproach, but never at the expense of drama, of ‘deeds of music made visible’ – or here, in a further dialectical twist, made once again audible. It is his near-Furtwänglerian ability to combine so many musico-dramatic imperatives that most impresses, or rather that one hardly notices, so ‘right’ does it seem. And so ‘right’ does this great orchestra sound, its dark German strings guardians, or better developers, of tradition. They know, and so do we, that Mahler, Schoenberg, Boulez, et al., have extended our ears; they know, and so do we, that Mahler, Schoenberg, Boulez, et al., could not have done so without Wagner. Wagner’s orchestral Greek Chorus deepens the deception onstage and its implications.
Once again, then, the dialectic between fidelity and infidelity thickened, yet also clarified, the plot. The actual chorus was magnificent too. Tcherniakov’s blocking is that of an Old Master – almost literally, in the not-quite-Biblical scenes we see painted onstage, especially at the horrifying close. They look outwards, frozen, perhaps in fear: what are we to make of it? Their singing was equally impressive; indeed, there was no distinction readily to be made between the visual and aural aspects of their work, which is just as it should be.
Andreas Schager’s Parsifal was truly a thing of wonder, without question the greatest I have ever heard. The beauty and strength of tone to be heard from this truest of Heldentenors, is joined by perhaps a greater variegation still than last year. His acting the gawky adolescent was again uncanny (unheimlich, one might better say). So too was the transformed man of peace (or of fanaticism?) of the third act. What did it mean, the way he was looking at, singing at, Kundry? There was much for us to ponder, those of us who cared to look and to listen. René Pape, despite the occasional verbal slip, made still more of his words than last year as Gurnemanz. (Again, I hasten to add, that is not a criticism of 2015, more a judgement that this was better still.) His beauty of tone is the stuff of legend, and so again it was here. He clearly benefited greatly from Tcherniakov’s direction, just as Tcherniakov greatly benefited from his artistry. Wolfgang Koch was, I think, certainly of healthier voice than last year; hearing a Wotan, who sometimes sounded just like a Wotan, in the role offered all manner of interesting critical possibilities. Moreover, one felt, almost literally, his agony. The nastiness, the sadism, in their different yet ultimately similar ways, of Tómas Tómasson’s Klingsor and Matthias Hölle’s Titurel were crucial elements of the unfolding drama; theirs were no ‘minor’ roles.
Waltraud Meier’s Kundry was always going to be special; I heard her penultimate performance, her last hurrah reserved for Easter Monday. As ever, there was no gainsaying her commitment, especially during the second act, in which she threw everything she had, and then some, into what seemed like the performance of a lifetime, however many performances of a lifetime she had actually given. Comparisons with Anja Kampe last year would be superfluous, even if Kampe had not been ill; both are great artists, but the occasion of bidding farewell to a role with which Meier has been for so long been so closely associated was something of which no one would have been unaware. No one who attended this Parsifal, who watched and listened, will forget the almost incredibly high standards of musical performance and dramatic intelligence from all concerned.