Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Parsifal review – Wagner’s final masterpiece casts a hypnotic spell in Berlin

25 February 2024


Deutsche Oper Berlin continues this season’s presentation of Wagner’s canonical works with a performance that is gloriously sung, played and conducted.

Parsifal

Parsifal (Photo: Matthias Baus)

Having been mightily impressed with the Deutsche Oper’s performances of Der fliegende Holländer and Lohengrin last autumn as part of the company’s ambitious project to present all of the composer’s canonical Bayreuth operas in a single season, I returned to Berlin to catch their revival of Parsifal. The only opera Wagner wrote specifically for his Bavarian opera house casts a unique spell, transporting its audience not only to a physically mythical realm of knights, and Holy Grails, but to a metaphysical world as well, and incidentally contains some of the finest, most glorious music this contentious figure ever penned.

This was my third encounter with Philipp Stölzl’s staging, and whilst one has to admire the way he refuses to shirk away from the work’s inescapable Christian overtones – we see Christ’s crucifixion and death during the prelude, replete with his side being pierced by the spear – the proliferation of directorial glosses soon becomes wearisome. It’s as though he doesn’t trust Wagner’s communicative skills, so has to give the audience constant visual interpretations of what’s happening in the text. 

Gurnemanz’s long narration in the first act is a case in point – each pivotal part of the back story is enacted – Kundry’s seduction of Amfortas, his subsequent wounding by the very same spear that pierced Jesus’ side, Klingsor’s act of self-mutilation, God’s messengers appearing before Titurel, and so it goes on. When you have a singer of Günther Groissböck’s calibre, whose story-telling and communicative skills are second to none as Gurnemanz, you really don’t need any visual distractions.

With the self-flagellation, and mediaeval costumes for the chorus replete with the Cross of St George, it feels as though we’re swerving perilously close to the world of Monty Python, which one assumes wasn’t Stölzl’s intention. Again, in the sublime final act a movement group gets in the way, their Zombie-like antics redolent of Dawn of the Dead. What was this supposed to mean? I really couldn’t work it out.

“The only opera Wagner wrote specifically for his Bavarian opera house casts a unique spell…”

Parsifal

Parsifal (Photo: Matthias Baus)

Luckily, the pivotal central act was allowed to speak for itself, although Klingsor’s realm was heavily indebted to the world of the occult – voodoo was writ large from the outset. Without any extraneous business to contend with, we were able to concentrate on the singers, and with Klaus Florian Vogt (Parsifal) and Irene Roberts (Kundry) on incandescent form, the sparks really flew. Vogt is the most Marmite of tenors – his unconventional tone is not one that you’d usually associate with this role – but here he sounded convincing. Having added both Siegfrieds and Tristan to his repertoire (Zurich and Dresden respectively) in the last 12 months, not surprisingly his voice has darkened, and projects more powerfully than I remember as Lohengrin at Covent Garden. His cries of ‘Amfortas’ as he rejects Kundry’s kiss certainly rang out thrillingly, although at times one misses the baritonal colours more conventional Wagnerian tenors bring to the role.

As Kundry, one of Wagner’s most complex roles – part seductress, part penitent – American mezzo Irene Roberts was nothing short of sensational. Evenly sung throughout the role’s formidable range – her free, athletic top combined with a smoky lower register gave notice of a formidable operatic talent. Most mezzos find the high-lying closing pages of this act a challenge, but not Roberts – her tone was as thrilling here, as it had been beguiling earlier on. In addition, she’s a natural stage animal, acting the role as if her life depended on it. She was rightly rewarded with the loudest ovation of the evening. I can’t recall being this excited at hearing a singer for the first time in years, and can’t wait to hear her reprise the role in Munich this Easter. On the basis of this performance alone I’d put my neck on the line and say she’s the natural successor to the great Waltraud Meier in this part – and praise doesn’t come any higher than that.

As touched on earlier, Groissböck was a tower of strength as Gurnemanz, although some of the role’s more declamatory passages, such as his anointing of Parsifal, now seem more effortful than they used to, but it’s a big sing, and it’s always a privilege to hear it sung so vividly as it was by this great Austrian bass. Jordan Shanahan, who’s on Klingsor duties in Bayreuth, here took on the more complex and demanding role of Amfortas, with thrilling results. He caught the pathos to perfection, was unflinching in conveying the character’s torment and anguish, and sang with a steady stream of burnished tone throughout the evening. Joachim Goltz was an incisive, powerful Klingsor, whilst Andrew Harris brought a sepulchral tone to the role of Titurel.

Donald Runnicles led a perfectly-paced, transcendental performance, securing exceptional playing from the orchestra, the ebb and flow natural, the overall effect overwhelming. The choral singing was fine, if at times too tentative, but not as glorious as I remember from previous performances here.

Even so, and a couple of niggles aside, this was a magnificent performance of this enigmatic work. There are only two further performances this season – get booking those flights to Berlin now!

• Details of upcoming performances can be found here.


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