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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Parsifal – Andreas Schager
Kundry – Anja Kampe
Amfortas – Wolfgang Koch
Gurnemanz – René Pape
Klingsor – Tómas Tómasson
Titurel – Matthias Hölle
Staatskapelle Berlin, Staatsopernchor/Daniel Barenboim
Dmitri Tcherniakov (stage director)
rec. live in HD, Staatsoper im Schiller Theater, Berlin, April 2015
BD50 16:9; PCM Stereo & DTS-HD MA 5.1; Region Code A, B, C
BEL AIR CLASSIQUES Blu-ray BAC428 [252 mins]

Dmitri Tcherniakov’s vision of Parsifal is dark, thoughtful and, at times, quite troubling; but it’s also fascinating, and an invigorating reimagination of how the work can look for today.  When it was new in 2015, the aspect that drew the most comment was the second act, where Klingsor is reimagined as a Josef-Fritzl-type character, who keeps his young Flower Maidens locked away in a dungeon.  Kundry is his reluctant wife, who can come and go as she pleases, but she is clearly the unwilling victim of his perverted desires, and the story of her redemption is really about teaching her to come to terms with her abuse and relate to others emotionally again.  This, in fact, is one of the most moving things about the third act, when we see her washing Parsifal’s feet with her hair, but also figuring out how appropriately to relate physically to another man again, perhaps for the first time in years.  When she sees Amfortas at the end of the Third Act, they embrace and kiss passionately, as if rediscovering a genuine passion that they had been forced to put aside for years.

Against this, the Grail Knights live in squalor and abject poverty.  At the start of the first act they are tattily dressed and often unshaven, a situation that has deteriorated even further by the third act.  The interaction with Gurnemanz in the first scene shows that the Squires have forgotten how to do their rituals properly, and Gurnemanz illustrates his retelling of the Brotherhood’s past using a pull-down screen and a slide projector (which shows, cheekily but wittily, stills of traditional Parsifal productions, including those of the 1882 premiere).  During the temple scene, Titurel walks on and puts himself into a coffin, where he stays throughout the ceremony.  For the ceremony itself, Amfortas’ wound is exposed and, to his evident agony, blood is squeezed out of it and mingled with the holy water, which is then given to the knights to sustain them (a “reverse transubstantiation”, as one critic put it).

Klingsor’s dungeon is a sterilised, whitened version of the Grail Knights’ realm, suggesting that their deepest desires and purposes are more disturbingly similar than anyone is willing to admit.  The strongest hint of that comes at the very end when (SPOILER ALERT) Gurnemanz cold-bloodedly stabs Kundry during her embrace with Amfortas, not to put her out of her misery but, it seemed to me, to be revenged on her.  It’s a shocking final scene and, of course, totally out of step with Wagner’s message of redemption through compassion; but it’s in keeping with Tcherniakov’s dark, searching vision of the work, and I found it very compelling, and quite disturbing.  It’s one of the many things about this production that have stayed with me, much more so than the DVD of Covent Garden’s recent staging, fair enough in its own way but, ultimately, lacking in something genuinely interesting to say.  You can hate Tcherniakov’s vision, and no doubt many will, but you can’t dismiss it as uninteresting. I’ve homed in on only a few aspects of the interpretation but, I suspect, this will be one of those rare operatic interpretations that will yield up new treasures every time you watch it.

It helps, too, that this is the best sounding Parsifal on disc in many a year, and I’m not just referring to the first rate surround recording (or, by extension, to the crystal-clear BD picture quality, or the intelligent screen direction which is always enlightening and never distracting).  Andreas Schager is pretty much perfect in the title role.  He bounds onto the stage as a backpacking hipster in Act 1, setting the cat among the fuddy-duddy knights at first, but then maturing into a war-weary soldier by the third act.  Young-sounding and fresh-faced, he inhabits the part ideally, with a golden, light voice for the first half of the opera, which he then effectively darkens for the second half, turning in a wonderfully insightful duet with Kundry and then a richly mature performance as the new Grail King.  His is the best Parsifal I’ve seen in years, and you can tell from his curtain calls that he knows he has done well.

He is matched by René Pape in this, his fourth recording as Gurnemanz (according to my calculations), and on every hearing he grows into the role with dark beauty and rich authority.  He’s just wonderful, perhaps the finest Gurnemanz since Kurt Moll.  Tómas Tómasson sings his creepy Klingsor with malevolent wit.  Wolfgang Koch is a solid Amfortas but, ultimately, doesn't do much more than sing the notes well, keeping himself slightly distant from the part and the production.

The other star, however, is Anja Kampe, whose Kundry is so central to the production.  She gamely throws herself into everything Tcherniakov asks her to do, and her acting is extremely moving.  Her singing is wonderful too, though, giving us a rich, ripe voice that is both sensuous and deeply moving, as well as capable of eliciting deep sympathy.  She manages the laugh in the face of Christ with thrilling clarity, and the shrieky elements of the part are all there, but she manages great sensuous beauty in the second act, and her transformation in the third is powerfully moving.

Daniel Barenboim’s vision of the opera has sped up dramatically since he recorded it in the studio for Teldec, but he controls the work’s great span utterly convincingly, and as a psychological storyteller he is hard to beat.  This recording confirms his reputation as perhaps our greatest living Wagnerian, and his Staatskapelle play for him like gods.  There is sensational drama in the music for the second act, but the sacred and ethereal music glitters, sounding pellucid and shimmering, a treat for the ears.

Die-hard traditionalists need not apply, and they can find satisfaction in the Metropolitan Opera’s ultra-trad production from 1992, or from several old Bayreuth productions; but if you’re looking for a fresh take on the opera that will challenge and provoke you, then I strongly recommend this one.  The musical performance is first rate, and the visuals will give you a lot to think about.

Simon Thompson



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