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Deutsche Oper Berlin

In Review Berlin Parsifal hdl 113
Outlandish elements: Stölzl's new Parsifal for Deutsche Oper Berlin, with Salminen and Vogt
© Matthias Baus 2013

Expectations ran high for Deutsche Oper Berlin's new production of Parsifal, the company's contribution to the Wagner bicentennial being marked this season by opera houses worldwide (seen Oct. 21). The director, Philipp Stölzl, made his house debut two years ago with a superlative Rienzi that reimagined the Roman tribune as a fascist dictator. Unlike that intelligent and bold staging, his Parsifal was a curious blend of traditional and outlandish elements that didn't add up to a coherent vision. Berliners signaled their disapproval with loud boos at the final curtain. 

The set, codesigned by Stölzl and Conrad Moritz Reinhardt, was a desert-like quarry with a miniature Montsalvat in the background that brought to mind Monty Python and the Holy Grail ("It's only a model"). The barren earth and jagged rocks depicted Golgotha during the prelude, in a tightly choreographed crucifixion scene that, somewhat unnecessarily, illustrated the origins of the grail and the spear. More effective was the Passion Play that accompanied the Act III Verwandlungsmusik, with Amfortas carrying the cross. The only way I can parse the director's choice to set Act II in a Mayan temple is that he was suggesting a similarity between pagan human sacrifice and Jesus hanging on the cross. 

More often than not, Stölzl and his team sought to illustrate the opera as a fairy tale rather than engage critically with a work laden with problematic religious and racial overtones. For instance, the ample storytelling embedded in the opera was represented visually as flashbacks performed in a manner reminiscent of silent film. These vignettes were well pantomimed but wholly superfluous. One of the moments at which Stölzl seemed to have something to say was in Act III: instead of Parsifal's converting a willing Kundry, she was forcibly baptized by a fanatical mob. 

Luckily, the singing was of a far higher order. The cast included many Bayreuth veterans, including Klaus Florian Vogt, last seen here as Lohengrin in Kasper Holten's new production in April. Here, he sang the title role — one of his calling cards — with his characteristically bright tone. Although he seemed curiously detached for most of Act I, he perked up once surrounded by half-naked Flowermaidens and remained in top form for the balance of the evening, filling the house with his lustrous and supple voice. 

One of the evening's treats was hearing the sixty-seven-year-old powerhouse Matti Salminen as Gurnemanz. He essentially carried the whole of Act I on his shoulders. It was a commanding feat that was underserved by the low, slumber-inducing lighting. Salminen sang with majestic conviction, shaping his phrases with a maximum of dramatic intensity with his dark, granular voice, which only began to show signs of weariness by the final scene. The audience awarded the Finnish bass one of the evening's loudest and longest ovations. 

Thomas Johannes Mayer made a compelling, sympathetic Amfortas, even if he sacrificed some vocal precision for dramatic effect. The fierce Titurel of Albert Pesendorfer was a perfect counterpoint, barking his righteous fury through incisive and cutting tones. 

Evelyn Herlitzius was a pitch-perfect Kundry, capable of alternately projecting her character's agony, seductiveness and defeat. It was only in moments of wild abandon that she sounded vocally unhinged and a touch too tremulous. 

German bass-baritone Thomas Jesatko didn't let his ridiculous get-up as a Mayan priest interfere with his fiendish performance as Klingsor. On the heels of such a fully diabolical turn, it was a pity that Stölzl decided to have Parsifal simply sneak up behind him and stab him in the back. 

This was DOB's second premiere during Dietmar Schwarz's tenure. Although the house has a new website and logo, Schwarz has a lot of work ahead of him to redefine the mission of the 100-year-old house, whose identity over the past years has been in danger of blurring with that of the Berlin Staatsoper. It seems fair to say that at present, the DOB's greatest strength is general music director Donald Runnicles, whose contract was recently extended until 2018. In the pit, he led a dramatically overwhelming performance, notable not only for its full-blooded and accurate brass section but for the delicate interplay of the winds and strings during Kundry and Parsifal's Act II duet. Runnicles was aided by the magnificent resources of DOB's expanded chorus, which deployed offstage voices to chilling effect. spacer 


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