Magazine article The Spectator

Mocking Wagner

Magazine article The Spectator

Mocking Wagner

Article excerpt

Opera

Mocking Wagner

Parsifal

Staatsoper unter den Linden, Berlin

The latest vogue in Wagner production in Germany is to have the works directed by people who have had little or preferably no experience of opera before. I have no idea what the rationale for that is, though it could be that all the regular Regisseure are now so blatantly bankrupt of ideas that it seems to be the only way forward. Berlin's Staatsoper unter den Linden has recruited Bernd Eichinger, who has made many distinguished films, the most recent of which is the new Hitler movie Downfall, to try his hand at opera for the first time with Parsifal, a work which defeats all but the subtlest, most assured and musically aware of directors, and which also offers temptations to impertinence and wild irrelevance, as has been seen in many recent stagings of it. I haven't seen them all, and don't want to, but I find it hard to believe that any has equalled Eichinger's effort in absurdity, not to mention leaving the singers entirely to their own devices.

To my surprise, the first two-thirds of the Prelude were played without any visual distractions - and played badly under Daniel Barenboim, with notably poor instrumental blending in the important unison passages, and ragged brass playing just where it should be most confident. Then we saw the Earth photographed from Outer Space and revolving, getting closer until it dominated the stage. For the opening scenes of Act I there is a conventional forest effect, perfectly suitable but with little happening among the performers. Even René Pape, finest of contemporary bass-baritones, sang Gurnemanz with little sense of how riveting his narrations are, or what his relationship to the other characters on stage is. The most striking performance by far, in this and Act III, was the Amfortas of Hanno Mueller-Brachmann (substituting for Roman Trekel), clearly destined to be a major operatic presence. He conveyed both the physical and spiritual torment of the role to almost intolerably intense effect, especially when for the Grail ritual he reached inside his robe and pulled out a sizable lump of his liver, which the Knights of the Grail hacked pieces off with their swords. But he needed no gimmicks to make his mark, and provided the only unalloyed source of satisfaction of the evening.

Eichinger got into his stride with the transformation music, that most wracking passage in all Wagner's work, and one of the touchstones of musical grandeur and intensity. Almost no conductor shapes it adequately, but Barenboim here was wretched, while the goings-on of a cosmological order that were projected behind the set almost guaranteed that no one listened to the music. …

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