Innocence and Experience

Jesse Simon
martes, 14 de abril de 2015
Berlin, sábado, 28 de marzo de 2015. Schiller Theater. Wagner: Parsifal. Dmitri Tcherniakov, Director. Cast: Wolfgang Koch (Amfortas), René Pape (Gurnemanz), Andreas Schager (Parsifal), Tómas Tómasson (Klingsor), Anja Kampe (Kundry), Matthias Hölle (Titurel), Paul O’Neill and Grigory Shkarupa (Grail Knights), Sónia Grané, Annika Schlicht, Stephen Chambers, and Jonathan Winell (Squires), Julia Novikova, Adriane Queiroz, Anja Schlosser, Sónia Grané, Narine Yeghiyan, and Annika Schlicht (Flower Maidens), Annika Schlicht (A voice from above). Staatskapelle Berlin. Daniel Barenboim, Conductor. Festtage 2015

The Staatsoper’s new production of Parsifal – which premièred as part of their annual Easter Festtage – was deeply unsettling, beautifully performed, and in every possible way a tremendous success. It also made a few people very angry. While expressing vocal displeasure with the director is almost a pro forma response these days (just once it would be nice to see the director of a non-traditional production greeted with unanimous cheers) there was a distinct hostility among those members of the audience who, like Parsifal himself at the end of the first act, were unaware that they had just witnessed something extraordinary.

Director Dmitri Tcherniakov – whose recent Staatsoper production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride transposed a sixteenth-century Russian story into a twentieth-century television studio and somehow made it work – created a psychologically astute reading of Parsifal that, for all its conceptual rigour, never lost sight of its dramatic obligations. It is no faint praise to say that this staging had the fewest longueurs of any in recent memory. The long, first act narrations of Gurnemanz, delivered with the help of an old Kodak slide carousel (a nice touch), never seemed like a history lesson; the ceremonial scenes in the first and third acts had a pleasing dynamism that nonetheless maintained a mood of reverence.

The setting, if not traditional, was hardly outrageous. Much of the action unfolded in a dingy room, a large octagonal space with arched pillars that could have easily been the basement of Wagner’s original grail hall from the first Bayreuth production. The grail knights had been replaced with a group of dishevelled misfits with few distinguishing qualities; they suggested a band of resistance fighters holed up in their hiding place, waiting for something that might never happen. The armour of the knights had disappeared, but the mood of isolation was as convincing as ever.

Yet if this Parsifal took limited risks with its setting, Mr Tcherniakov’s willingness to push characters and situations into unfamiliar, often uncomfortable places made for a staging that challenged almost any conventional interpretation of the work; and most of those challenges were aimed squarely at the mythology of the chaste hero on which the story is built. Indeed Mr Tcherniakov’s interpretation seemed intent on exposing the grotesque misogyny that arises when the chivalric virtues of medieval grail romances are projected into the modern world.

Parsifal intrudes into the world of the grail knights as a teenaged hoodrat backpacker with a cross-bow (surely the enemy of any civilised society), a piece of crude clay waiting to be moulded. By the end of the story, however, he has failed to establish himself as a figure of heroic virtue, although he has at least learned the chastity that will allow him to exist within the sexless milieu of the grail kingdom. Yet Parsifal’s chastity is born of disgust rather than compassion. When Parsifal flees in revulsion at the sight of Kundry’s body – a revelation that takes place off-stage – we are not, one suspects, meant to identify or even sympathise with his reaction. There is nothing heroic about it.

Titurel, the other figure in the drama who is meant to be unambiguously heroic, is even more problematic in this production. During the grail ceremony, blood is harvested from the wound of Amfortas and transubstantiated into sustenance for the assembly, which in turn allows Titurel – a stiff, maniacal figure with a shiny leather overcoat and white mad-scientist hair – to rise from his coffin and enjoy the veneration of his disciples. Once Amfortas has fulfilled his role, neither the knights nor Titurel seem to have much use for him. There is remarkably little knightly virtue to be found in this sadistic old man who tortures his son to keep himself alive.

Matthias Hölle, Wolfgang Koch y Coro

With Parsifal and Titurel recast as unpleasant figures and even kindly old Gurnemanz revealed, at very the end, to be governed by similarly sinister motives – he is responsible for the most shockingly brutal act of the evening – it is Kundry who becomes the moral centre of the production. Both she and Amfortas spend the duration of the drama being punished for their sexuality by a society that believes itself to be governed by higher virtue; but while Amfortas is locked into a ritual of punishment masked as filial obligation, Kundry still has enough agency to fight back. Yet she is an outsider wherever she goes, unwelcome in the celibate male world of the grail kingdom – her very presence makes the squires uncomfortable – but equally adrift among the perpetual innocence of the flower maidens in Klingsor’s castle. Her largely futile attempts to make a place for herself within these two hermetically sealed communities transformed this Parsifal from a drama of redemption into something closer to a modern tragedy.

The argument of Mr Tcherniakov’s reading was aided considerably by the tremendous Kundry of Anja Kampe. Ms Kampe was suffering from ill health on the evening – there was, apparently another singer waiting in the wings, just in case – and one could certainly hear some strain in her voice, especially at the end of the second act, which is punishing even for a perfectly healthy singer. But she gave an heroic performance, singing the part so well that it was easy to imagine how great she would have been at full strength; and the illness had seemingly little effect on her acting, which was as commanding as one might ever hope to see on an opera house stage.

Andreas Schager y las muchachas en flor

The production, however, seemed to bring out the best in all the performers. Andreas Schager was excellent in the title role, his large voice brash and blandly heroic at first, but gaining in depth and nuance as the story progressed. He was especially successful, in the first act, at registering the news of his mother’s death: after his brief outburst, he collapsed on a bench letting his arms hang limp, unsure what else to do. His ability to affect such convincing teenage mannerisms, combined with his clear, enthusiastic tenor, suggested he would also make an extraordinary Siegfried; with any luck, the Staatsoper will keep him in mind when they bring back their Ring.

René Pape, whose smaller Wagnerian roles – King Marke, Landgraf Hermann, Veit Pogner – are always a highlight of any evening was absolutely superb in the all-important role of Gurnemanz. A dull Gurnemanz can derail even the best production, but the charismatic and seemingly tireless Mr Pape brought considerable vocal authority and an unwavering sense of purpose to the character. The care he gave to each sentence of his lengthy monologue in the first act made the recounting of the back-story seem every bit as important as the grail ceremony itself; and when he sang quietly, even the orchestra sounded as though they were hanging on his next word.

Andreas Schager y Anja Kampe

As the wounded Amfortas, Wolfgang Koch tore at his bandages with suitable vigour, but the anguish of his physical performance did not always translate to his voice, which seemed unemphatic in some places and strangely drawn in others. But if some of his exclamations during the ceremony lacked the explosive quality of which Mr Koch has elsewhere proven himself capable, he nonetheless did an excellent job of conveying the cruel futility of Amfortas’s situation. The Klingsor of Tómas Tómasson was more comedy evil than genuine malevolence, a performance in which each word was underlined and each sentence ended with an exclamation point; if not especially subtle, he was at least effective.

Daniel Barenboim, who has spent much of the present decade transforming himself from a great Wagner conductor into a superlative one, continued his streak of extraordinary performances with a reading of the score that maintained a terrifying level of focus for the whole of Parsifal’s nearly five-hour duration. There are few conductors who could take the Vorspiel at such a slow pace without sacrificing any of its intensity; there are even fewer who have such a keen sense of how each moment fits into Wagner’s larger dramatic architecture. If there were a few minor signs of orchestral fatigue during the final scene, there was never a lack of excitement.

The evening’s performance was broadcast live on Radio Brandenburg, and the quality of the orchestra and the soloists would have certainly made it a joy to hear. However this is very much a Parsifal that demands to be seen. While remaining almost wholly faithful to the structure and tone of Wagner’s drama, Mr Tcherniakov managed to create a fully coherent and profoundly original vision that enriches our understanding of the story by forcing us to question our most fundamental assumptions about it. The fact that his vision provoked such a hostile response from certain parts of the audience rather suggests he must have done something right.

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