Richard Wagner’s sublime masterpiece Parsifal opened for the first time this season at the Deutsche Oper on April 5th, ushering in the Easter season. Starring Stefan Vincke, Hans-Peter Konig and Evelyn Herlitzius and led by Axel Kober in the pit, this was a Parsifal both dazzling and bewildering. It is not the solemn, orderly spirituality of the music that informs this production, but the potentiality for fanaticism that devotion to an order can bring.

Parsifal © Matthias Baus
Parsifal
© Matthias Baus

Saturday night’s Parsifal had two extremes: on the one hand, the music was incredible, the singers otherworldly. Stefan Vinke’s Parsifal was bold and heroic, an innocent who finds himself in a world he does not understand, but who is brave enough to fight for his destiny. His voice is warm and strong, a solid tenor with a ringing clarity that had no problem being heard over the often bombastic orchestra. As Kundry, Evelyn Herlitzius sang with a silver, sinuous soprano. Clad in a diaphanous black robe and silver hair jewels, she was exotic and sexy and wanton.

Gurnemanz, God of Backstory, was terrifyingly sung by Hans-Peter Konig. This Gurnemanz was neither warm nor fatherly, but a larger than life, often cold knight made weary by his long years of watching the grail knights’ slow decay. His powerful bass shook the house, but there was no warmth or mercy in his portrayal; he neither ministered to Kundry as she lay in a stupor nor had any patience with her when she ran to him to escape from harassment.

Parsifal © Matthias Baus
Parsifal
© Matthias Baus

Amfortus and Klingsor, sung by Bo Skovhus and Bastiaan Everink, respectively, rounded out the stellar ensemble. Skovhus gave a powerful portrayal of a weak man in a position far too lofty for him to bear, while Everink’s creepy Klingsor slithered and schemed like the villain you love to hate. The Flower Maidens, portrayed by Siobhan Stagg, Christina Sidak, Martina Welschenbach, Katarina Bradic, Elena Tsallagova and Dana Beth Miller, sang with seduction and great beauty. The Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, led by Axel Kober, was also in phenomenal form.

All in all, it was a world-class performance, not a note out of place, every character believable and sympathetic. Yet the singers were constantly undermined by Philipp Stolzl’s production. It is strange that a piece of music renowned for its uplifting atmosphere and undiluted hope could be fit to a production that leaves one feeling confusion and even helpless outrage. The opera opens with a depiction of the Crucifixion and we are shown the apostles and followers of Christ with the Grail and the Spear that are central to the narrative. We see Kundry laugh, not in derision, but in hysteria as the body of Christ is removed from the cross.

The barren rocks of Golgotha become the rocky slopes of Monsalvat; the Grail Knights wear the garb of the Knights Templar. Strange, then, that Parsifal himself appears wearing a modern suit and tie, like the guy in the comic who makes a wrong turn going to the kitchen and finds himself in fantasy land. Bewildered and shedding feathers from the swan he killed, Parsifal then watches a truly terrifying parade of penitents and knights in assorted rags stumble onstage, flogging themselves. In a scene more orgiastic than spiritual, Amfortas opens the Grail cask, and the knights, sanctified, begin to spasm on the ground and dance with their weapons. Small wonder that Parsifal has no idea what it was he witnessed.

Klingsor’s kingdom of Flower Maidens was vaguely Aztec in architecture. The Flower Maidens were dressed first as faceless creatures that would not have been out of place in a Miyazaki film, then as ribbon and flower wearing temptresses eating the heart of a sacrificial victim. It was an interesting parallel to Act 1’s Grail Ceremony. Men in religion, it would seem, become extremely violent when sanctified, while women become increasingly sexual. That did not explain why Kundry wore a burqa to seduce Parsifal, though it perhaps explained why Parsifal stabbed Klingsor in the back and took the Spear from him rather than catching the Spear in midair.

Parsifal © Matthias Baus
Parsifal
© Matthias Baus

However, it is Act 3 that bewilders. For a straightforward story (Wise Fool brings back Spear, Makes Everything Okay Again), it was remarkably convoluted. Time has moved forward to the modern era. Parsifal returns with the Spear to find Amfortas being literally beaten to death by the knights, who regularly force him to perform the Grail Ceremony. Kundry’s part here is completely undermined: it is the chorus that bathes and anoints Parsifal, and whom he baptizes, while Kundry sits in the corner and rocks. She is later forcibly baptized. Amfortas is executed with the Spear and as the Knights begin their orgiastic shaking and moaning, the curtain falls on Kundry covering her ears, mouth stretched open in a silent scream.

If Wagner’s message was that hope and faith will succeed in the end, it seems that Stolzl’s message is that all religion is terror and fanaticism, something to be feared, not desired. That it was performed by world-class singers giving it their all was impressive, but one wishes that the overall effect had been more hopeful and less terrifying.