Parsifal, an opera in three acts by Richard Wagner, Staatsoper Berlin, April 8th, 2017. Director, Dmitri Tcherniakov: conductor, Daniel Barenboim: reviewed by Tony Cooper
As the audience entered the auditorium of the Schiller Theatre (the temporary residence of Staatsoper Berlin, while their house in Unter Den Linden is under restoration) they were confronted by an open curtain and a Gothic-style setting of the Great Hall of Montsalvat Castle, the home of the Knights of the Holy Grail. Built with a traditional German wooden-beamed roof, supported by four heavy-duty stone columns, it mirrored the original set design of the opera’s 1882 première at Bayreuth.
Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th-century poem – focusing on the Arthurian hero Parzival and his quest for the Holy Grail – is squarely based on Christianity. But the philosophical ideas behind the libretto of Parsifal also draw on Buddhism. Wagner described Parsifal – his farewell to the world – not as an opera, but ‘ein Bühnenweihfestspiel’ (A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage), thereby underlying the deeply-religious overtones of the the work. This fact is highlighted at the end of act one when the Grail King, Amfortas, with members of the Brotherhood gathered round him, partakes of Holy Communion (the Blood of Christ), with the cup from which Christ is supposed to have drunk at The Last Supper.
The Grail Knights, casually dressed, are going about their daily business. But then Gurnemanz, the veteran knight of the Holy Grail, arrives and stops them in their tracks, explaining by means of a slide-show (depicting a primitive drawing of the 19th-century set design from the Bayreuth production) the trials and tribulations that had befallen him and his fellow knights.
The role of Titurel was admirably sung by bass Matthias Hölle. And the Christ-like figure of Amfortas was magnificently and sensitively portrayed by the gifted Estonian baritone Lauri Vasar, whose voice – clear, precise and articulate – radiated around the capacious auditorium of the Schiller Theatre. Overall, the opera was well cast. René Pape delivered a strong and authoritative performance as Gurnemanz, while Andreas Schager (Parsifal) played his role in a somewhat naïve and carefree way, as a keep-fit fanatic and backpacker.
In the Flower Maidens scene that opens act two, the despised fallen knight and evil sorcerer, Klingsor, greasy-looking and be-spectacled, is nervously attending to the minute details of his dress. Tomas Tómasson was an inspired choice for this repellant character. His strong, dramatic and earthy voice was totally convincing. His charges, nicely turned out in eye-catching, flower-patterned, dresses, distract themselves by skipping or by playing with dolls and hula-hoops.
In the final act, we return once again to the Bayreuth production of 1882, in a slide-show retelling. But the Russian-born director, Dmitri Tcherniakov – who has worked with Daniel Barenboim on several productions at Staatsoper – added a twist to the plot in respect of Kundry’s downfall. In his realisation, Kundry (Anna Larsson) meets her end at the hands of Gurnemanz after being redeemed from her sins by Parsifal. So much for Wagner’s Christian beliefs! But ‘redemption’, of course, is the keyword in his operas.
In Wagner, the orchestra is as important as the singers. Under the baton of Maestro Barenboim, his charges in the pit rose admirably to the occasion. They were heard to good effect in the Prelude to act one, based on motifs heard in The Love Feast and The Spear as well as the ‘Dresden Amen’, representing the Holy Grail. The Transformation Music, likewise, was brilliantly executed. And let us not forget the members of the chorus, under the guidance of American-born conductor, Martin Wright, who put in some diligent and exciting work.
TONY COOPER is QR’s opera critic