Dmitri Tcherniakov’s 2015 production of Wagner’s Parsifal recorded at the Staatsoper in Berlin in 2015 left me emotionally drained as I don’t think I’ve ever been after watching a recording. I can only imagine what it must have been like to experience this live. The combination of the production, exceptional singing and acting and Daniel Barenboim’s conducting is quite exceptional. It’s not going to be easy to unpack it all coherently but here goes…
There’s no medieval Germanicness here. The Grail Knights are a scruffy lot inhabiting a space half way between castle and industrial plant. The aesthetic is very Russian. The knights seem ill disciplined; even a bit thuggish. Gurnemanz, sung here by René Pape, alone has gravitas. Parsifal, when he arrives, is a young backpacker in shorts and a hoodie. Andreas Schager perfectly personifies the “innocent fool”. He is convincingly clueless. The Grail ceremony is weird and disturbing. Titurel’s coffin is brought in and he lies down in it. Amfortas is stripped to his undershorts and his wound unbandaged. The blood for the ceremony is taken from the wound while he is held up in a crucifixion position. In close up it’s quite hard to take but it works dramatically. Kundry (Anja Kampe) flits in and out of the drama. Clearly she is despised by the knights, apart from Gurnemanz who defends her, but she gives off an air of compassion that is tangible. Parsifal’s air of “not getting it” is equally palpable.
Act 2 takes place in the same space but now brightly lit and white. The Flower Maidens include some who are disconcertingly young. Klingsor is an odd, awkward nerdy guy. Is he meant to be a paedophile? In any event he looks less like an evil sorceror than Mr. Anchovy; the accountant who thinks he wants to take up lion taming. We see Parsifal’s past acted out. Herzeleide catches the young Parsifal with a half naked girl and drives her away. Young Parsifal makes out with his mother and plays with a toy version of his father. No wonder the young man has issues. The Parsifal/Kundry seduction is intense and physical. We see Parsifal transformed by the knowledge his channelling of Amfortas brings.
Act 3 is incredibly intense. Gurnemanz has aged tangibly. Both Parsifal, now clearly an adult in cargo pants and leather jacket, and Kundry are manifestly exhausted physically but there’s an overwhelming tenderness between them. They unpack for each other. Parsifal has his father toy and Kundry a Flower Maiden doll. The tension builds towards the final scene. Amfortas and the knights scuffle and brawl watched impassively by Parsifal. As he steps forward to stake his claim as the future of the Grail, the knights shuffle forward on their knees, arms raised. It’s intensely Russian. Amfortas and the now redeeemed Kundry embrace. Passion? Reconciliation? Everything seems resolved until Gurnemanz steps out and kills Kundry in Amfortas’ arms and withdraws. Parsifal carries the corpse tenderly off stage. Is this revenge or the ultimate compassionate release?
Whether this would all work with lesser performances or lesser performers I don’t know but the singing and acting across the board is breath taking. There are probably few better things in opera today than Pape’s Gurnemanz and Schager gives him a run for the money with superb acting and an unforced truly heroic tenor. Anja Kampe’s ability to convey emotion and her bright, ringing soprano make an unusually sympathetic Kundry. So much so that the final scene is truly shocking. Wolfgang Koch is an effectively stricken Amfortas and Matthias Hölle is perfectly sound as Titurel. Tomas Tomasson manages the rather tricky Klingsor persona with fine singing and considerable acting skill. The chorus, flower girls and other minor parts are fine too. Then there is Barenboim. This is a very slow Parsifal but the sense of structure is never lost and the pacing contributes to the build up of emotional tension. I wonder if there has ever been a performance of the work to beat this musically.
It gets a really good recording too. The video direction by Andy Sommer is excellent. I didn’t feel I was missing any of the crucial stage action or picture. I watched the DVD release (there’s Blu-ray too) and the picture is very good indeed and the sound is really good. The DTS 5.1 track is atmospheric, full and detailed and even the PCM stereo is decidedly better than average. There’s nothing on the disks or in the booklet to help with unpacking Tcherniakov’s production; just a synopsis and track listing. Subtitles are German, English, French and Korean.
I guess this production might not be for traditionalists but for those who are open to having their preconceptions challenged it has tons to offer. My words here don’t do its emotional intensity full justice. Until travel plans for the year changed I was planning to see this on Good Friday in Berlin. I doubt I would have made it out of the theatre in a solid state.