Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Parsifal: A feast for the musical senses in Berlin

27 March 2022

Wagner casts a unique spell at the Deutsche Oper.

Many productions of Wagner’s final work for the stage tend to play down the Christian elements, replacing them instead with a range of disparate visual metaphor. These sometimes allude to Wagner’s peculiar take on Christianity but are rarely explicit. In his staging for the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, director Philipp Stözl takes the opposite approach – laying the Christian symbolism on with a trowel. During the prelude the curtains part to show Christ on the cross – a centurion thrusts a spear into his side, blood flows from the wound, which is then collected in a cup by Joseph of Arimathea. Both Marys look on, as does Kundry from a discreet distance.

This tableau sets the tone for the rest of the evening, as Stözl continually feels the need to add an additional, visual layer of narrative to the proceedings. As Gurnemanz explains the back story to the knights and squires, key episodes are acted out on top of Conrad Moritz Reinhardt and Stözl’s craggy, mountainous set. We see Kundry seduce Amfortas, Klingsor’s self-mutilation – none of which add anything, but rather distract from Gurnemanz’s narration.

In the first act transformation music, there’s no scenic change. As the bells of Monsalvat ring out, self-flagellating, loincloth wearing penitents appear, along with the chorus and countless extras. The stage is so busy your eyes don’t know where to focus. And it has to be said – the above had more than a whiff of Monty Python about it.

Act II was far more restrained so the whole staging suddenly came into focus, as there we no additional characters to distract from the pivotal seduction scene between Kundry and Parsifal. Alas, the sublime third act, bathed in sickly green light throughout (lighting design, Ulrich Niepel), was let down by the movement group which simply got in the way. Despite reservations about the staging, musically and vocally there was plenty to enjoy.

“The stage is so busy your eyes don’t know where to focus”

Anja Harteros was originally billed to sing her first Kundry, which caused quite a few raised eyebrows when announced, but she withdrew, and was replaced by Marina Prudenskaya. No one could have felt short changed by this substitution, as Prudenskaya was vocally and dramatically the linchpin of the evening. She possesses a gloriously rich, resonant mezzo instrument that coped superbly with Wagner’s extraordinary vocal demands. Beguiling in her seduction of Parsifal, terrifying as she recounts her encounter with Christ, and suitably enigmatic throughout, her performance was superb from start to finish.

She was well partnered by Thomas Blondelle, promoted from playing mainly character tenor roles, and here making his role debut. Not only does he look the part of the ‘pure fool’, but he also displayed a well-schooled tenor voice that rose to the challenge admirably. While much of the role calls for full-throated, voluminous, vocal projection he never shouted or hectored, moulding Wagner’s vocal lines with skill and finesse. True, there were a couple of occasions – his cry of ‘Amfortas’ in the second act, and his entrance at the opera’s close, ‘Nur eine Waffe taugt’, where one sensed he was singing at the very limits of what his voice was capable of, but this was an auspicious role debut, and he certainly covered himself in glory. Watching him grow into the role will be fascinating.

Stephen Milling is an experienced Gurnemanz, and while he sang warmly and eloquently, his bumpy phrasing in the first act came as a surprise, especially given his long association with the role. Things had settled down by the last act, and he was noble and moving in his evocation of Good Friday, the crucifixion, and his anointing of Parsifal. Noel Bouley was a suitably anguished Amfortas, his pain very real, while Joachim Goltz was a properly chilling Klingsor. Knights, squires and flower maidens were all cast from strength, while the chorus was thrilling in the outer acts, especially the ethereal, offstage women’s chorus in the grail scenes.

The orchestra was on top form and played out of its skin for conductor Axel Kober, who directed a fine, warm, glowing account of this miraculous score. In the wrong hands (Goodall, Levine), this enigmatic work can come across as ponderous and dull, which is the exact opposite of what it is. Kober certainly didn’t linger, yet it never felt rushed – every tempo was perfectly judged. Despite some misgivings, it was a joy to see this opera performed live again after a three year hiatus – and it certainly cast its strange, unique spell.

• Further information on this production can be found here.

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Parsifal: A feast for the musical senses in Berlin