Making its third consecutive appearance as part of the Staatsoper’s Festtage, Dmitri Tcherniakov’s remarkable Parsifal looks ever more destined to become a staple of the Berlin Easter calendar. Its return next year to Unter den Linden, with slightly modified cast from this year’s, has just been announced. This means, too, that this was the chance to have the rare luxury of hearing the piece, with that world-beating Wagnerian team of Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle in the pit, in the relatively intimate space of the 1,060-seat Schillertheater.

Andreas Schager (Parsifal) and Wolfgang Koch (Amfortas) © Ruth Walz (2015)
Andreas Schager (Parsifal) and Wolfgang Koch (Amfortas)
© Ruth Walz (2015)

And it’s Barenboim’s conducting that provided the foundations here for one of the most musically and dramatically powerful performances of Wagner’s great Bühnenweihfestspiel I’ve witnessed. In every bar the conductor’s rapport with his remarkable orchestra could be heard, his players making a sound that was limpid and lucid one moment then granitic and overwhelming in its intensity the next, alternately flexible and implacable. Through it all, and even during a first act that was often on the slow side, there was never a sense that the dramatic or musical thread being lost, of anything but a conductor and his musicians concentrating on their own quest to seek out the truth(s) to be found in Wagner’s notes on the page.

Of course, those truths can never be separated from those that might be found in drama more broadly, and Tcherniakov’s inimitably Russian, profoundly serious, unflinchingly pessimistic and fiercely concentrated and questing production finds its own. He emphasises the deep vein of tragedy that Wagner’s score, where heroism and happiness often seem but mere long-forgotten traces, perhaps hints at more eloquently than does the libretto.

The single set is some sort of run-down temple that has been taken over for meeting of a cultish religious group. What lies beyond its walls is unclear; one imagines, judging by the old overcoats and moth-eaten woolly hats of Elena Zaytseva’s costumes, that it could be some sort of post apocalyptic desolation. René Pape’s Gurnemanz – gloriously sung in big, generously rolling phrases – is tetchy, impatient with his Grail Knights and Squires. His narration is bolstered by a slide show of old Parsifalian images, hinting, one feels, at the how far removed they all are from this pre-history to their now joyless, automatic rituals.  

René Pape (Gurnemanz), Anja Kampe (Kundry) and Andreas Schager (Parsifal) © Ruth Walz (2015)
René Pape (Gurnemanz), Anja Kampe (Kundry) and Andreas Schager (Parsifal)
© Ruth Walz (2015)

The grail ceremony itself is a viscerally shocking piece of theatre: Amfortas is forcibly held up in a Christ-like pose, the blood squeezed from his wound passed around to the desperate chorus who then – whether through genuine religious experience or simply through habit and the persuasive power of repetition – are sent into spasms and twitches. Titurel, in leather trench coat, plays his own bizarre role by climbing into a coffin and being covered in the sheet.

Klingsor’s realm is perhaps even more disturbing. The set is spruced up in white and becomes a prison for dozens of young girls in twee flowery dresses, kept sweet by their master with confectionary. In Tómas Tómasson’s virtuosically acted portrayal, Klingsor himself becomes a painfully impotent jittery pervert with dodgy specs, comb-over and cardigan, his power, we are left to assume, derived from a knack for emotionally manipulating the broken children who form his entourage.

And the theme of broken childhood is another that Tcherniakov emphasises. During his long scene with Kundry, we see a re-enactment of Parsifal’s sexual awakening bring interrupted by his controlling mother. His childhood toy takes centre stage, while Kundry’s own doll appears in Act 3. We have a context, then, for Parsifal’s own journey towards his adult confidence, as well as for the unusual portrayal of Kundry as profoundly compassionate. This characterisation gives the opera’s final minutes an additional almost unbearable human beauty, all too swiftly stamped out by a Gurnemanz who is either himself incapable of forgiveness or unable, for his own psychological reasons, to face the prospect of a brighter future.

There are plenty of questions that remain, and it’s arguably difficult to tie together the settings for the outer act with that of Act 2. But it’s a powerfully persuasive vision of the piece: dark, disturbing but offering, despite it all, its own delicate green shoots of hope and redemption.

Tomás Tómasson (Klingsor) and the Flower Maidens © Ruth Walz (2015)
Tomás Tómasson (Klingsor) and the Flower Maidens
© Ruth Walz (2015)

Beside Pape’s near-ideal Gurnemanz and Tómasson’s shudder-inducing Klingsor, Lauri Vasar perhaps seems strange casting as Amfortas. He’s a terrific actor and gives a powerful theatrical performance, but the voice itself is far too light, having to be pushed and puffed-out much of the time. Anna Larsson’s Kundry is in some ways the opposite. Her contralto sounds plummier than one really wants in the role, and is stretched at the top, while her words often don't come across as clearly as they should. She’s a committed actress, if not a natural stage animal – certainly not on a level with Anja Kampe or Waltraud Meier, the staging’s previous Kundrys. Andreas Schager’s Parsifal is fearless, but his singing remains somewhat unflinching in his forced character.

But to take these performances in isolation is to ignore the way they come together so persuasively, the way that conductor and director and unite cast, the chorus and orchestra together into an unforgettable evening in the theatre. It’ll be a different theatre next year, admittedly, but this looks set to remain a Parsifal not to be missed.