‘Erlösung dem Erlöser’ – the Redeemer, redeemed. The themes of redemption and salvation form the crux of Wagner’s final opera, or ein Bühnenweihfestspiel (a Festival Play to Consecrate a Stage) as he called it, and whilst it’s possible to empathise with critics who find the opera’s messages of racial purity and sexual abstinence difficult to swallow, it contains Wagner’s greatest music. Indeed, it’s some of the most intoxicating and glorious music ever penned, so assimilating such a beautiful sound-world with a text containing many sinister undertones can prove a challenge.
Dmitri Tcherniakov’s staging, which was unveiled at the Berlin Staatsoper last month, refuses to shirk from these challenges, and forces the audience to confront some extremely unsettling ideas. The first night was a noisy affair with plenty of booing, and whilst there was none on the night I attended, the lukewarm applause after each act was indicative of an audience that was resisting Tcherniakov’s vision of the work, reluctant to follow the director’s path.
Uncompromising, uncomfortable and unorthodox are just three adjectives that best describe the Russian director’s take on the opera, yet these were all positive attributes rather that negative. Set in the present day in a subterranean bunker, Gurnemanz and the Knights are part of a cult or sect, shut off from the outside world. Their world is turned upside down with the arrival of Parsifal, here depicted as a backpacker, whose presence as an outsider highlights the macabre and unsettling vision as members of this sect draw blood from Amfortas’ wound before passing it around and drinking it with a sense of euphoric frenzy.
The setting for Act II is visually the same but bleached of all colour. Within this deceptively pure all-white domain Klingsor, a Josef Fritzl lookalike scampering around in slippers and cardigan, presides over his Flowermaiden children. Little girls cavort with dolls alongside their older sisters, all in floral dresses, and the effect is chilling. The Kundry/Parsifal confrontation is brilliantly handled, with Tcherniakov giving us a visual back story to Parsifal’s youth that illuminates the story to superb effect.
Act III takes place in the same bunker as the first act, Gurnemanz and Amfortas are suitably aged, and the ending, when Gurnemanz stabs Kundry in the back, is properly shocking and totally unexpected. Redemption, it seems, is only an illusion.
What may sound prosaic on paper is thrilling in the theatre, with Tcherniakov drawing faultless performances from a cast that can scarcely be bettered. Rene Pape and Wolfgang Koch are experienced interpreters of the roles of Gurnemanz and Amfortas, yet every utterance, every movement felt crafted anew, and both were in superb voice. Pape achieved vocal nirvana with his third act peroration, whilst Koch genuinely touched the heart by highlighting Amfortas’ pain and suffering to such moving effect. Tomas Tomasson’s Klingsor was bitingly incisive and thankfully never resorted to bluster.
Andreas Schager confirmed the excellent impression he’d made as the Götterdämmerung Siegfried at the Proms in 2013, as a virile and forthright Parsifal. Never resorting to hectoring, his muscular heldentenor was equally at home in the reflective passages of the last act as it was in the more declamatory second act.
Singing through illness on the first night, and withdrawing from the second performance, Anja Kampe as Kundry was here restored to full vocal health and gave the most mesmerising, convincing and beautifully sung performance since a young Waltraud Meier sang the role for the Royal Opera in the late 80s. Glorious high notes, a beautifully bronzed lower register and a vivid stage presence make her Kundry peerless today.
All the supporting roles were well taken and, as with the superb chorus, became vivid characters courtesy of Tcherniakov’s deft theatrical hand. Daniel Barenboim led a voluptuous, excitingly paced account of this magisterial score and the orchestra of the Staatskapelle Berlin played like lions for him. The staging returns next April and, apart from Meier replacing Kampe, the cast remains the same. Unmissable.