ParsifalRichard Wagner - Parsifal

Deutsche Oper, Berlin 2012 | Donald Runnicles, Philipp Stölzl, Mara Kurotschka, Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester, Albert Pesendorfer, Matti Salminen, Klaus Florian Vogt, Thomas Jesatko, Evelyn Herlitzius, Burkhard Ulrich, Andrew Harris, Kim-Lilian Strebel, Annie Rosen, Paul Kaufmann, Matthew Pena, Hulkar Sabirova, Martina Welschenbach, Rachel Hauge, Hila Fahima, Annie Rosen, Dana Beth Miller | 25 October 2012

Director Philipp Stölzl’s approach to the Deutsche Oper’s new 2012/13 production of Parsifal in Berlin is immediately and firmly established by the extraordinary setting for the work’s Overture. On a rocky recreation of Golgotha, Christ hangs from a cross in a meticulously detailed tableau vivant representation of the Crucifixion. Surrounded by onlookers freeze-framed in various states of anguish and despair, with Roman soldiers guarding the area, one significantly (as far as this opera is concerned) with a lance, the figures move in slow motion as Christ dies on the cross during the length of the overture, his side is pierced by the soldier’s spear and the blood that runs from it is caught in the chalice and respectfully coveted by his followers. It’s a powerful way to start a performance of this work, and when you have as beautiful a piece of music as the Overture to Parsifal, why waste it on something less than monumental? Solemn, respectful and dignified, the scene is however also completely relevant to the opera’s Passion play exploration of suffering and redemption through death and rebirth and appropriate in how those concepts are tied up by Wagner into the symbolic images of the Lance and the Holy Grail.

Any performance of Wagner’s remarkable final work should indeed be something of a spiritual experience over the course of its four and a half hour length, but there was a sense that Philipp Stölzl’s production here (co-directed by Mara Kurotschka) was perhaps a little too solemn and reverential - or perhaps somewhat too grandiose - to really touch on the transcendental elements of the work. If there’s a touch of kitsch to the production - something characteristic of this director - it’s appropriate to one where the iconography and glorification of Christ’s passion adheres to a certain Catholic tradition. You don’t need to look too far beyond the condition of Amfortas - the Knight of the Holy Grail in agony from a perpetual wound caused by the lance, his suffering deepened by each display of the Holy Grail that gives sustenance and renewed vigour to its followers - to recognise that it’s the question of suffering that is central to the work in how it can be a redemptive force. There was certainly plenty of pain on display in the Deutsche Oper’s new production - the opera house celebrating its 100th anniversary - but little sense of it leading to any kind of transcendental enlightenment.

Despite the prettification of the visuals, every ounce of the earth-shattering, curtain-tearing pain depicted in Christ’s Crucifixion and the despair in the faces of his followers (most notably in one Mary Magdalene/Kundry figure at the margins) is there in the opening scene and retained to be built upon by the events recounted by Gurnemanz and enacted in Parsifal’s journey to recover the Holy Spear from the hands of Klingsor. Stölzl recognises that all that suffering shown in the opening scene is going to be caught up in the musical themes established by Wagner in the Overture, and it consequently becomes impossible to disassociate the suffering of Christ himself every time those leitmotifs swirl and swell throughout the remainder of the work. And just in case the musical expression isn’t powerful enough (and under the baton of Donald Runnicles it often was, even if lacked any real character or vision), the director also uses every visual element to emphasise and add to the near overwhelming display of agony and despair.

That can be as simple as the Monsalvat set design sharing many of the rocky structures and contours of the opening Golgotha scene, but the subsequent scenes also reflect the opening, being mostly static in arrangement, each scene like a 3-dimensional engraving of one of the Stations of the Cross, a single image frieze set in slow motion movement. The set designs by Conrad Moritz Reinhardt and Stölzl moreover allow every element of the work to be examined in detail and every character to be explored for their own personal suffering that contributes to the collective pain. Even every element of the backstory narrated at length by Gurnemanz is depicted visually in mini scenes, as beautifully arranged and brutal as a Caravaggio painting, that are played out in the background on the tops of rocky outcrops. This production of Parsifal is as visually striking as previous Stölzl productions I’ve seen (Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini and most notably his production of Wagner’s Rienzi, also for the Deutsche Oper), beautifully arranged, lit and coloured, more than a little kitch but - within its own designs - it’s also much more respectfully faithful here to the tone of the work in question.

It’s actually perhaps a little too literal and respectful for a work that should also have a life in a spiritual dimension. (That might sound like a pretentious statement for any other work, but not for this one). There’s no doubt that this production - musically as well as visually and conceptually - is completely faithful to the spirit of the work, but it never seems to get beyond it to illuminate or elevate the underlying meaning. That’s evidently a tall order for a work that is wrapped up in Wagner’s complex and contradictory ideas and philosophies, but while Stölzl’s production is not without its own personal touches in its examination of these concepts, they don’t really amount to much and don’t resolve into any kind of satisfactory conclusion. The confusion is best exemplified within the role of Amfortas - the Christ figure of the work - who is not healed by the lance at the end here, but allowed to escape from his pain through death at its touch. This perhaps relates to the very specific Good Friday notions of death and rebirth in a work that the composer described as a Bühnenweihfestspiel - “A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage” - but quite where the necessary rebirth/transcendence is supposed to come from is less than clear. There is a suggestion however that the key to this interpretation could lie within the figure of Kundry.

More so than Parsifal or Amfortas, or even Gurnemanz, the focus in this production is very much on that contradictory element of Kundry, whose role is one of the ambiguities that the work principally revolves around - the saint and the sinner, the serpent and the agent of salvation. In this production she’s there at the crucifixion in the guise of Mary Magdalene, and is therefore the single element of continuity (other than the Grail and the Lance) that runs through the whole work, appearing in Gurnemanz’s backstory, being instrumental in bringing about Parsifal’s self-enlightenment, and in the end recognising her role to serve the new protector of the Grail. Here however, in the very final scene of the production, she seems to become terrified of the prospect of the worship and power that this inspires in Parsifal and the Grail’s followers, and where such Christian fervour might lead - a reference perhaps to future religious conflicts or perhaps, since it now seems almost obligatory to acknowledge in a Wagner opera, a premonitory vision of the rise of Nazism. As depicted by Evelyn Herlitzius in the role, Kundry remains a (female) figure of considerable interest and ambiguity, but quite how it all ties together must - perhaps necessarily considering the nature of the work - remain a mystery.

If the work never comes together musically or conceptually in a way that entirely lives up to the proposal put forward in the audacious opening scene, it’s through no fault of the singing performances. Now 67, Matti Salminen was simply superb, fulfilling everything that is required of a Gurnemanz, his deep, beautifully weighted sonorous tones providing the solid basis and solemn gravity that anchors the work in the real world while simultaneously hinting at timeless mysteries. One would think that Klaus Florian Vogt’s light lyrical tenor voice would not be as well suited to the Heldentenor role of Parsifal as it is to his angelic Lohengrin (even though the two characters are mythologically related), but yet again he brings another vocal dimension to a familiar role, demonstrating a capability of pulling those deeper resonant chest sounds out where necessary - such as in his cry of ‘Amfortas!’ at the recognition scene of the meaning of pain, suffering and love - and filling them with an expressive lightness and sensitivity. Dramatically however and in expression of his character, he was given little to work with by the director. Evelyn Herlitzius on the other hand had a rather more substantial personality as this production’s Kundry and rose to the challenge exceptionally well, emoting and projecting the sentiments of the work through some fine singing. Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester (Amfortas), Albert Pesendorfer (Titurel) and Thomas Jesatko (Klingsor) were more than adequate if they didn’t make quite as much of an impression as the principal roles, but there was also some lovely singing from the three Flowermaidens.