Fine musical performance of a somewhat tired Deutsche Oper Berlin production of Parsifal

GermanyGermany Wagner, Parsifal: Soloists, Chorus, Men of the Extra Chorus, and Children’s Chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Opern-Ballet, Statisterie, and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin / Sir Donald Runnicles (conductor). Deutsche Oper, Berlin, 9.3.2024. (MB)

Deutsche Oper Berlin’s Parsifal (previous cast) © Matthias Baus

Director – Philipp Stölzl
Co-director – Mara Kurotschka
Revival director – Silke Sense
Set designs – Conrad Moritz Reinhardt, Philipp Stölzl
Costumes – Kathi Maurer
Lighting – Ulrich Niepel
Chorus masters – Jeremy Bines and Christian Lindhorst

Amfortas – Jordan Shanahan
Titurel – Andrew Harris
Gurnemanz – Günther Groissböck
Parsifal – Klaus Florian Vogt
Kundry – Irene Roberts
Klingsor – Joachim Göltz
Knights of the Grail – Patrick Cook, Youngkwang Oh
Esquires – Sua Jo, Arianna Manganello, Kieran Carrel, Chance Jonas-O’Toole
Flowermaidens – Flurina Stucki, Sua Jo, Arianna Manganello, Hye-Young Moon, Mechot Marrero, Marie-Luise Dressen
Voice from Above – Marie-Luise Dressen

Memory plays all manner of tricks: major and minor. I could have sworn I had seen Philipp Stölzl’s Deutsche Oper Parsifal twice before this, distinctly recalling having revisited it. I actually have no record of having done so and am reasonably sure I would. I was also more enthusiastic the first time I saw it, in 2014 (review click here), than now, describing it – admittedly for the vocal performances as much as the production – as ‘a Parsifal demanding both to be seen and to be heard’. Now it seems to me that it fulfils its repertory role but is looking somewhat tired. What has happened in the meantime? The tempting answer would be Stefan Herheim’s Bayreuth production, which transformed experience and understanding for so many. I myself have thought of it as akin to Patrice Chéreau’s Ring; things can never be the same again. I still do, but in this case the chronology does not fit, Herheim having been seen for the last time in 2012. It may have had a role in raising expectation and achievement across the board. Ironically, a major production from the intervening years, Dmitiri Tcherniakov’s Parsifal for the house across town, has in retrospect a few points in common with Stölzl, perhaps more in terms of appearance than substance, yet it remained by some way the bolder experience. (Click here for a brief comparison of Herheim and Tcherniakov.) Maybe this just needs more time devoted to revival (a well-nigh insuperable problem with repertoire houses). Or perhaps all this talk of comparison is a little decadent, and we should simply concentrate on what lies in front of us.

What, then, lay in front of us here? In broad terms, Stölzl’s concept, insofar as I understand it, presents Monsalvat as a Templar-like community that has not only become tired, but deadly in preservation of long since dead rituals. Fanatics keep alive certain external forms, albeit in the form of weird tableaux vivants, which tellingly freeze rather than develop. Control, as in the typical secular claims against ‘religion’, is all—of the self and others, bloody (self-)flagellation included. These doubtless just about keep things going, but whatever it may have been that animated the community in the first place, presumably in some sense the Grail or related to it, has long since vacated the premises. Klingsor’s anti-Monsalvat is not merely the same: the cave within clearly hosts a different cult. There is something disquietingly orientalist to it, if not nearly so blatant as Uwe-Eric Laufenberg’s Islamophobic farrago at Bayreuth; that may, of course, be deliberate, in playing with our conceptions. There is, though, I think, a strong implication that they ultimately have more in common than separates them. And the way the Flowermaidens emerge from the stone, becoming something otherwise through minimal shedding of costumes and clever lighting, is a nice touch.

Deutsche Oper Berlin’s Parsifal (previous cast) © Bettina Stöss

Presumably the whole thing, though, is a delusion: anti-religion claiming its title, against Wagner, though in common with many who have admired him. Talk of renewal, let alone that extraordinary – almost always ignored or underestimated – third-act claim of taking Christ down from the Cross, is probably just mumbo-jumbo; it certainly seems to be a lie. When Parsifal returns, Amfortas impales himself on the spear: a way out for him, though not necessarily for those left behind. Perhaps, as I noted last time, Stölzl heeds John Deathridge’s warning against resolution in ‘high-minded kitsch’, for redemption is an alien concept, one that never arises. The problem for me was not so much the grim framing, as the danger that by now the production had become its own ritual, in danger of succumbing to something not a million miles away from what it claimed to portray.

Donald Runnicles led a performance not so very different – as memory serves – from Axel Kober ten years ago, though probably still more secure. He and the splendid Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper (the chorus too) put not a foot wrong throughout. This was not the sort of performance one might characterise as a particular ‘reading’; Runnicles’ collegial brand of music-making is not about that. Instead, he drew on what is, by now, clearly deep knowledge and understanding of the score to present it as faithfully as he could, neither merely framing nor inciting the action, yet considerate of the competing demands that go towards performance of opera (even, or especially, one calling itself a Bühnenweihfestspiel). If there were times when I might have preferred the orchestra to take the lead more strongly, there is room for various approaches here.

Runnicles’ musicianship unquestionably allowed the cast, entirely new from ten years ago, to shine. Klaus Florian Vogt’s voice is, to my ears, more suited to some aspects of Parsifal’s character than others. He comes across, like no other, as father of Lohengrin (whilst still tempting Nietzsche’s mischievous question: how did he manage that?) There were a beauty and clarity to line and verbal projection that are not readily to be gainsaid, though ultimately I missed a sense of development. (One might, I suppose, argue that that is less needed in this production than in many.) Günther Groissböck’s Gurnemanz intrigued, not so much because he looked younger than many, but because he acted younger, particularly in the first act, there being a creditable distinction between both portrayals. Here was a charismatic leader, not some old bore, with interesting implications for those who listened and followed, and the life of the community as a whole. Jordan Shanahan proved an unusually likeable Amfortas, although he certainly had us share his pain too. As Kundry and somewhat like Runnicles, Irene Roberts seemed more concerned to bring out the text than present a strong ‘reading’ of her own. This she did with great skill, as did the cast as a whole.

What was the problem, then? Perhaps there was none after all, or rather it was mine.

Mark Berry

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