Two Pure Idiots – Wagner’s PARSIFAL twice in one week, in Berlin.

Extracurricular is a regular feature which enables us to include items that are perhaps outside our normal remit . . . Our reviewer Yannick Eisenaecher has been on a busman’s holiday to the German capital and managed to see two different PARSIFAL’S in a week . . .

So what do you do, when you have a week off in Berlin? Well, you have a look, what the opera houses and symphony orchestras of the city have on offer. This week, both the Philharmonie as well as the State Opera are playing Wagner’s 5-hour epos Parsifal. Daniel Barenboim, the perhaps greatest living conductor of Wagner’s final work, conducts at the Staatsoper while Sir Simon Rattle, the innovative chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker mounts the Podium at Karajanstraße. It turns out that Nina Stemme sings Kundry in both productions, her shrill gasps can be heard on Sunday at the Staatsoper and on Friday in the Philharmonie. So let’s compare! Here are two fictional critics, comparing their experiences:

Berlin State Opera, Monday the 2nd of April 2018 (BSO): Made it! My seat is secretly the best one in the house. 1st floor on the right, row 2 seat 3. Although these seats are sold as “vision impaired” (approximately 5% of the scene is not visible), they offer fantastic proximity to the singers and a stunning view of the pit.

Philharmonie Berlin, Friday the 6th of April 2018 (Phil): Well, I certainly have a fantastic view here as well! For the first time I am sitting in block H (right, row 2), the orchestra has its backs to me. I am in spitting range of the Timpani and the heads of the choir. Let’s see if Sir Simon’s gestures will enlighten me tonight.

BSO: Over here we have another opportunity to experience Dmitri Tcherniakov’s incredible stage production. What a fitting mise en scène! Expressionist effects in act two, but never out of touch with the fiercely human proceedings of the music. Tcherniakov strikes a courageous, commenting tone, but never disintegrates into the (on some occasions quite appropriate) trash-level of true expressionists like Hans Neuenfels. What emotion, what movement on stage, that fitting, gloomy lighting! And Falk Struckmann gives us a Klingsor for the ages. The 60-year old bass is a perfect fit for the role and delivers a portrayal that I am unlikely to forget. Same goes for veteran René Papeas Gurnemanz. He wields such incredible power in his strong, uncompromising, soulful timbre, that it appears like Gurnemanz was written for him. As far as I am concerned, his presence and authority on stage is second to none.

Phil: Hold your horses! We also have an incredible (though quite different) Gurnemanz  at the Philharmonie tonight. Franz-Josef Seligtakes a much more lyrical approach to the character. His Gurnemanz does not breath authority through brute force on stage, but nonetheless takes your breath away with that incredible phrasing. Gurnemanz’s long monologues in both acts one and three never get boring because that diction never allows your thoughts to stray. You always hear and understand what is going on. Ten minutes walk from the Staatsoper, and you get a concert performance of Parsifal that is much more grounded but just as insightful. In a concert performance, the success of the evening is even more dependent on the singers, and Selig makes a success of it by truly breathing his character. In contrast, our Klingsor (Evgeny Nikitin) is slightly lacking in his diction (“Vieh,” quickly becomes “Fee” when he greets Kundry).

BSO: Well, no one is really lacking in diction here, but Nina Stemme needs some time to get a grip for the feel of the production. Her voice is in top form right from the beginning, but her acting is slightly dégagé in act one. In her defence, we must not forget that she has to fill the shoes of the legendary Waltraud Meier at the Staatsoper, who was the Kundry of this house through the last 25 years.

Phil: Well isn’t that interesting. At the Philharmonie, Stemme injects her burning presence as Kundry, the eternal devil, right from the first bar. Her shrieks are incredible jarring, in act 3 a horrified murmur runs through the audience. Sir Simon’s conducting might make a difference. Stemme has already done a Tristan with him, two years ago at the Met. Maybe the two discovered similarities in their artistic personalities there…

BSO: Well, speaking of “similarities in artistic personalities,” the greatest surprise about the Parsifal in the Philharmonie to me is, that Sir Simon’s wife Magdalena Kožena is not making her debut as Kundry tonight…

Phil: Now, now. Doesn’t Barenboim’s son Michael also play in his father’s Divan orchestra?

BSO: Ok, point taken. Let’s return back to the business of things. Right now, Gurnemanz is holding a powerpoint presentation. Another one of those great tweaks from Tcherniakov’s clever mind: Why hide the exposition in weird scenery-tricks or lighting effects? Just make a caricature out of it! Thanks to René Pape’s gorgeous singing, both knights and public eagerly follow the lecture on Titurel, Klingsor and past history.

Phil: While there is no presentation of history in the Philharmonie, we are getting a masterclass in how to play the timpani. Seeing the massive instruments in such proximity is an incredible experience that gives everyone in block h goosebumps. I didn’t check, but I’ll still guarantee it. Wagner is a true magician here. Switching between the hard (bells, timpani) and soft extremes of the sound spectrum (woodwinds, choir), the transfiguration music is the undoubted highlight of the evening, also because Sir Simon employs pleasantly moderate tempi. And then there is the Rundfunkchor Berlin, who sings the choir passage with such a precise diction and exquisite temperament, that you would suspect that they cloned Franz-Josef Selig roughly 30 times and made a choir out of his clones. Same goes for the women in the higher sections (not the cloning part).

BSO: Interesting, the choir is not quite as precise or foregrounded at the Staatsoper. But Rene Pape’s Gurnemanz literally shoves Andreas Schager as Hobo-Parsifal off the stage like he isn’t even there. The singers dive into the piece headfirst without let-up and have  completely internalised Tcherniakov’s vision of the piece.

Phil: Well, speaking of let-ups… What are you still doing sitting in the opera? Here at the Philharmonie we are already having our first interval! For roughly 15 minutes I have been standing in the foyer, leisurely enjoying the obligatory Prezel. I’m assuming that Barenboim is, once again, taking his time?

BSO: Yes, precisely. And it is truly mind-boggling. He is simply the best conductor for Parsifal alive today, period. What sound, what graceful, grand arcs of suspense! These nebulous, deeply religious textures! This the Parsifal you know and love, big thoughts and big music. As expected, the first act is steadily heading for the magic mark of 1:50 hours. And you never lose track of the music. The acoustics of the renovated State Opera house are proving their worth. We have a new world-class Wagner opera house in Berlin. While you hear every single instrument clearly, the sound is not as clinical or scientific as the new Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg. In Berlin, the warm sound of the orchestra envelops you and allows you to bathe in its many beautiful facets.

Phil: Well, you have a great break. I am already back at my seat for the beginning of act two. And now it is my turn to go bathing in the sweet scent of the flower-maidens. Sir Simon Rattle has a quicker, more Boulezian approach to the piece. He gets that wonderful energy out of the slightly rash, angered tempi. Rattle keeps the transparency in the orchestra, while the incredible woodwinds of the Philharmoniker do their part. This orchestra is, beyond any doubt, the best Wagner orchestra in the world. The perfect brass, the dark, soulful strings. How are you going to top that? And the acoustics in the Philharmonie are unique as usual. It’s a concert performance, so the orchestra is really quite exposed. The mythical process of sound-mixing, which Wagner managed to hide so effectively under his lid at Bayreuth, is completely laid bare at the Philharmonie. There is so much to listen to, so much to find that usually remains hidden. Rattle forms the beginning of act two with such energy and brute force that it is reminiscent of the beginning of Walküre, the following flower-maiden music is as sweet as sugar frosting on a cake.

BSO: While you may be hearing something sweet in the Philharmonie, I am also seeing something seriously sweet at the Staatsoper. Tcherniakov’s setting in act two is white and sterile like a hidden chemical cabinet of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory featuring the flower maidens as colourful candy and Klingsor as a (slightly paedophilic?), wool-cardigan wearing factory head. Tcherniakov also draws some fantastic emotion out of the piece by inserting a flashback into Parsifal’s youth (puberty and other things) during Kundry’s seduction. Cross Boyhood with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and you get the second act of Parsifal at the Staatsoper. And (perhaps the biggest surprise) it works phenomenally well.

Phil: At the Philharmonie, Klingsor’s castle has just been destroyed through the aid of the holy spear. Second interval. Stuart Skelton is singing the title role tonight and sports a beautiful mellowy-deep, colourful timbre, while mustering enough force for a strong “Amfortas, die Wunde!” In the flower maiden scene, he acts the role of the lost teenage boy with great authenticity and (necessary) immaturity. He is a great fit for this role, next year we will be hearing him as Othello with the Philharmoniker.

BSO: Skelton may be getting bravi and applause, Andreas Schager gets a few (very isolated) boos at the end. Opinions among opera fans are a little divided on him, just like Stemme he too needs some time to get going. His tenor has a rather metallic timbre and a truly bursting force. Hearing him as Tristan must be quite an event. Even in the loudest fortissimo passages, Schager manages to surpass the orchestra in terms of dynamic force. Skelton is most likely more naive, filled with feeling, regret and vulnerability, more Kaufmann-like. But in exchange, Tcherniakov gives Schager the emotional flashback in act two, and with that some highly emotional acting to explore.

Phil: Emotions are also running high over here, that’s the second interval done. The Philharmonie is still filled to the brim, only very few audience members have left. That is no surprise, given the performance we are witnessing tonight. As always with Parsifal, the third act is over in a heartbeat. It feels like as soon as you sit down, the Good Friday Music has just finished and the grail is about to be presented. The only point (in the entire evening) where I feel that Rattle might be rushing things a little bit, is when Gurnemanz finds Kundry directly at the beginning. But as soon as Franz-Josef Selig gets to do his magic in the Good Friday Music, sporting incomparable variation and perfect diction, every tempo from before is forgotten.

BSO: Pape’s Good Friday Music is a different interpretation, but in no way inferior. Pape’s Gurnemanz is defeated by time and ensuing events, sporting a long beard and hobbling across the stage in a state of shock. And out of this wounded body comes a sound that is truly from another planet. Pape’s bass fills the hall, Barenboim’s conducting does the rest of the magic. Perhaps the Good Friday Music is the highlight at the Staatsoper. Lauri Vasar might be a slightly passive Amfortas, but the Choir sweeps around him so menacingly, that one feels reminded of Willy Decker’s fantastic handling of the Vienna State Opera Choir swarming around Anna Netrebko as Traviata 2005.

Phil: In the Philharmonie, the orchestra sweeps around Gerald Finley.He is an interesting Amfortas: His baritonal timbre is lighter than most and works for a beautifully lyrical Hans Sachs. As Amfortas, Finley has more fighting spirit and life than most bass-heavy interpreters of this role. In his voice, we can hear clearly: This Amfortas has not given up all hope yet. That is something different form the norm, and it works together with Rattle’s modern, transparent conducting. Finley is also the only singer, who (generously) remembers the public behind him and does a slow pirouette in the loudest passages to project his sound to the audience members sitting behind the orchestra as well.

BSO: While no one is dancing pirouettes at the Staatsoper, we still get the usual eccentricities that every stage director somehow always manages to sneak in. First of all, Kundry and Parsifal appear to get romantically infatuated with one another in act three. As the two already have a bond through the flashback from act two, that makes sense. In the final chorus however, Kundry starts a heavy make-out session with Amfortas (for some reason) and is then stabbed in the back by Gurnemanz (for some reason). Be that as it may, in the end we have a fantastic Parsifal at the Staatsoper featuring an emotionally gripping stage production that allows the title character to be so much more than usual. Barenboim conducts like the traditionalist veteran that he is, one of the all-time greats gives his unique, complex and brilliant view of one of the most beautiful operas ever written. In all likelihood, Barenboim will not be conducting this piece too many more times, his Wagner productions next year feature the reprisal of Tcherniakov’s new Tristan production as well as Meistersinger, staged by Andrea Moses. If you have any chance to see this Parsifal again with Barenboim conducting, you should buy the ticket without a second thought.

Phil: Same goes for the Philharmoniker, but for different reasons. The Parsifal at the Philharmonie truly inspires deep thoughts, because it does not confirm to old ideals. Constantly moving, never standing still, the interpretation and the singers never even come close to boredom or a halt. The Philharmoniker can perfectly transcribe Rattle’s approach into music, where the public is never able to relax but is always held on the edge. This is part of Sir Simon’s legacy as chief conductor. Be it in his Beethoven cycle or in his Wagner-interpretations, he always wants you to think. While not everyone likes that approach (and it also may not always fit perfectly to the score), Parsifal is perfectly suited for it. Rattle delivers a long list of questions, an invitation to rethink, reflect and changes the public through the power of art. Signs of a true artist.    Yannik Eisenaecher      May 2018


Yannik Eisenaecher is the publisher of the blog FreshEarsClassics