Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Deutsche Oper Berlin: Parsifal

Any good Parsifal should ask as many questions as it answers. Philipp Stölzl’s at the Deutsche Oper definitely does that. The first one probably being: why is Klaus Florian Vogt’s Parsifal in modern dress – coincidentally the same slim black tie, white shirt and black trousers combo that he wears in Hans Neuenfels’s Bayreuth Lohengrin – when the rest of the production seems to be about graphic, painterly recreations of historical tableaux.
(photo © Matthias Baus)

We see the Crucifixion during the prelude, while Act 1 is peopled with weary knights, with a mini castle perched upstage right on one of the rocky outcrops that form the set – I couldn’t help thinking of Monty Python, of both The Life of Brian and The Search for the Holy Grail.

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As the evening progresses, though, at least that first question is answered, as time itself shifts forwards. The second act features (and here it’s shades of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) what looks like some sort of Inca temple, which is home to a shaman-like Klingsor. But then we return to that first landscape, several centuries later; the castle is in ruins, and everyone’s dress is now contemporary with Parsifal’s.

Plenty of other questions remain, but there’s no doubting the production’s overall seriousness, my low-brow cultural reference points notwithstanding – a long essay in the booklet provides a much more sophisticated account of the influences. The skill of Stölzl’s stagecraft is never in doubt either, the sure hand with which he directs, in particular, the outstanding Deutsche Oper chorus, often requiring them to keep still for demanding but theatrically striking tableaux.

The end of Act 2 is a bit of a cop out, but several other individual episodes are extremely powerful. The direction of Thomas Johannes Mayer’s brilliantly acted Amfortas is outstanding, particularly in the final act, while the Crucifixion scene is powerfully done, and cleverly fills in the backstory by showing Kundry’s ur-laugh. What these aesthetically powerful moments really added up to wasn't always entirely clear. Perhaps they aren’t really supposed to add up to anything specific at all.

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I also wondered to what extent the mixture of realism and – in the case of the non-illusion of the distant castle – effects that were almost kitschily unrealistic was being ironically framed. Further viewings might or might not make this clear. But happily this is a production that presents its ideas without enforcing a particular interpretation; I’d imagine everyone watching understands and interprets it differently.

Stölzl is also a supremely musical director, the action he presents always complementing what’s emanating from the pit. And in this case that was a wonderfully instinctive and patiently paced account of the score from Donald Runnicles, played with a beauty alternately seductive and piercing. Here was a very respectable cast, too, if not as starry as some that have graced this production since it was unveiled almost exactly four years ago.

Anchoring it all was the imposing Gurnemanz of Stephen Milling. His interpretation is a little neutral, perhaps. The voice can be a bit craggy as it goes up and he doesn’t yet enliven the words as some can – and there are, of course, lots of words. But he sings seriously, and his big burly bass fills the theatre with ease. Klaus Florian Vogt’s Parsifal is a known quantity: reliable and ethereal-sounding, better at communicating wonder than the erotic tensions of Act 2. Mayer, as Amfortas, is vocally maybe a size smaller than ideal for this house – an impression emphasised by the voice’s soft edges – but his was nonetheless a powerful and moving performance.

Klingsor's domain (photo © Matthias Baus)

Daniela Sindram’s Kundry was extremely impressive. She acted compellingly throughout and had all the notes, even if her rich mezzo timbre seemed to lose a bit of its sharp focus as Act 2 progressed. Derek Welton sang imposingly as Klingsor – perhaps rather too much so, pushing his velvety voice harder than it needed to be pushed. To round it off, Andrew Harris’s was possibly one of the healthiest sounding Titurels I’ve heard.

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