Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Parsifal @ Schiller Theater, Berlin

20, 25, 28 March 2016

Dmitri Tcherniakov’s unconventional, disturbing, yet ultimately illuminating staging of Wagner’s final enigmatic work ruffled a lot of feathers when it was unveiled as part of last year’s Festtage at the Berlin Staatsoper. We welcomed its seriousness of intent, and allied to an incandescent musical performance left us, as any even halfway decent performance of Parsifal should, weak at the knees and hankering after even the merest glimmer of redemption.

It’s a work that gets under the skin, so the chance of seeing it again in this challenging staging once more was one that we grasped with both hands. It’s hard to know how much rehearsal time there’d been either musically or dramatically, after all conductor Daniel Barenboim is a very busy man (rehearsing a new Orfeo ed Eurydice and directing the Vienna Philharmonic in Mahler), yet the evening never once faltered. Luminous playing which verged on the sublime in the last act and a virtually unchanged cast from last year combined to give as uplifting an account of this opera as you’re likely to encounter today. If anything Rene Pape was a more mellifluous Gurnemanz, Wolfgang Koch a more anguished Amfortas and Andreas Schager a more nuanced Parsifal, but the big change from last year was the appearance of Waltraud Meier, who was bidding a fond ‘lebwohl’ to the role of Kundry.

Since her sensational debut at Bayreuth in the role in 1983, when still in her twenties, she’s been every casting director’s Kundry of choice, having sung it at all the major opera houses and has committed her interpretation to disc on at least four separate occasions. Now, after over thirty years, these three Berlin performances for the company she calls home will be her last. It’s good to report that not only does she still exude a magnetic stage presence, but she sang the role fearlessly and tirelessly throughout the long evening. Her crucial encounter with Parsifal in the middle act was as fiercely intense as we remember from Covent Garden’s staging in 1988, and whilst the low lying reaches of the role are no longer projected as forcefully as they used to be, her ability to colour the voice and point the text remains undiminished. She is still a natural stage animal, and was rightly awarded a loud and heartfelt ovation at the end.

In his staging Tcherniakov poses more questions than he necessarily answers, but his vision of an inward-looking cult, destined to repeat its rituals with a sickening intensity, is compelling and disquieting in equal measure. When the production was new, Kundry died at Gurnemanz’s hand. Given everything that had gone before, this directorial intervention made total sense yet this time round she expired more conventionally in Parsifal’s arms. It’s a shame that someone has tinkered with the original ending but, despite this, the Russian director’s production still packs a powerful punch.

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More on Waltraud Meier
Parsifal @ Schiller Theater, Berlin
Meier / Breinl @ Wigmore Hall, London