Tuesday, March 22, 2005

A Rowdy PARSIFAL In Berlin

At the Berlin Staatsoper Unter den Linden, the new production of Parsifal, which premiered on March 19, was greeted with roars of boos from a shocked and angry crowd. Filmmaker Bernd Eichinger, who is directing opera for the first time, set Wagner's work in an Apocalyptic, post September 11 New York City. Using video projection extensively, the director's vision included Kundry as a homeless bag lady in Central Park, the Knights of the Grail as East Village punks, and the city as a nightmarish urban landscape of exploding skyscrapers.

For those familiar with this summer's Bayreuth production of Parsifal by artist Christoph Schlingensief, the use of video and prominent and frequent lapses in bad taste is nothing new. In that production, which is set in Africa, the conclusion of Act III features video images of a maggot-infested rotting carcass of a rabbit projected on a screen in the background as Parsifal brings a tribal spear to a group of tribesmen.

What next? Can the necrophilia Parsifal be far behind? My production of this work, which I always thought was a little out there, now seems downright tame these days.

The following is the review of the production from the Associated Press.

"Parsifal Draws Boos and Shouts in Berlin"

BERLIN (AP) -- A German film producer's version of Richard Wagner's Parsifal was greeted with boos and shouts from the audience and sharp criticism in newspapers Monday following its debut at Berlin's Staatsoper. Reviewers attacked Bernd Eichinger's production as dull and confused, singling out its use of video clips including the Earth seen from space and pagan temples. The capital's Berliner Morgenpost daily said Saturday's premiere was greeted by "a concert of boos.''

The staging included scenes in modern-day New York in an apparent reference to the Sept. 11 attacks, a marked departure from the traditional medieval Spanish setting. The contrast was very apparent with the depiction of exploding high-rises. Kundry, one of the main characters, is led around on a dog leash by the sorcerer Klingsor. The Berliner Zeitung reported that the applause afterward dwindled in a few minutes to about 30 people still applauding when the performers took their final bows.

Eichinger has been a prominent figure on Germany's film scene for decades, most recently producing "The Downfall,'' a portrait of Adolf Hitler's final days in his Berlin bunker. It was nominated in the best foreign language film category at this year's Oscars.

However, his excursion into opera met with little enthusiasm from domestic critics. "Eichinger showed a video for every state of the soul, degrading Wagner's music to the status of a soundtrack,'' the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung wrote.

It's the first time the Staatsoper has done Parsifal, Wagner's last work, in 13 years. The next performance of Eichinger's Parsifal is set for March 28.

Here is the full cast of the opening night performance:

Conductor: Daniel Barenboim
Production: Bernd Eichinger
Set Design: Jens Kilian

Amfortas: Roman Trekel
Titurel: Christof Fischesser
Gurnemanz: René Pape
Parsifal: Burkhard Fritz
Klingsor: Jochen Schmeckenbecher
Kundry: Michaela Schuster
Flower Maidens: Ekaterina Siurina, Adriane Queiroz, Simone Schröder, Anna Samuil, Carola Höhn, Katharina Kammerloher
First Knight of the Grail: Peter-Jürgen Schmidt Second Knight of the Grail: Yi Yang
Squires: Anna Samuil, Katharina Kammerloher, Peter Menzel, Gustavo Peña
Altsolo: Simone Schröder


Anonymous said...

We'll just have to go see the normal one at the Met next year with Pape and Heppner. That Berlin show sounds like stuff that would be a constant diversion from the music, libretto and general idea. Yuck.

Anonymous said...

I was at the March 28 performance and wrote it up at length for some friends. For what it's worth, here's what I said:

This new production was actually reported on in the New York Times, in a brief and inadequate summary of a news story from the German Press Agency (DPA). It was indeed booed by the first-night audience, though many of them were glamorous friends of Eichinger (a successful and well known film producer and sometime director), and Act 3 is indeed set in a wintry Central Park, New York. But there's more to it than this, and for all the failings of the director's ideas, some of them arise directly from significant and striking words in Wagner's libretto, and they might have led to a worthwhile production if adequately thought through and carried through.

Halfway through the prelude, the black void of the open stage is filled with stars and galaxies, and slowly the Earth comes into view, floating and revolving in the void. Kubrik's _2001_? Obviously, but the image also fits the floating music of the prelude. It also relates to a striking exchange between Parsifal and Gurnemanz as they set off for the Grail temple. Parsifal says, "Ich schreite kaum, doch wähn ich mich schon weit." (I'm hardly walking, but already I seem to have gone a long way.) Gurnemanz replies, "Du siehst, mein Sohn, zum Raum wird hier die Zeit."--You see, my son, here time becomes space." "Raum" is the German word for outer space, but more significantly, Gurnemanz's gnomic observation became prophetic when when Einstein, through his special theory of relativity, showed the interconnection of space and time. The year 2005 is the hundredth anniversary of that great discovery. Is _Parsifal_ to be re-envisioned in terms of today's understanding of nature and cosmology? Now *that's* a major-league idea, and it is indeed part of what this production is about.

As the prelude ends, Earth and the stars fade out revealing the forest of immense trees in which Wagner set the first scene, whose staging is closely faithful to the text. (We catch a glimpse of Klingsor through the trees when Gurnemanz is telling us about him, though we don't yet know it's Klingsor.) Kundry arrives dressed in black tatters. Amfortas is not carried on a litter but can walk only with the help of two aides. When he thanks Kundry for the balsam she's brought, they exchange a long significant look: he doesn't recognize the woman who seduced and ruined him, but of course she knows him and rejects his thanks. The body of the swan is carried on, Parsifal enters carrying his bow and arrows. We are seeing a very traditional _Parsifal_, the principals are singing superbly and the orchestra under Barenboim sounds both eloquent and beautiful, I'm wondering whether the first-night audience booed the show simply because it's so faithful to the work.

When Gurnemanz and Parsifal set off for the temple, however, instead of Wagner's diorama of a walk through the woods and mountain into the temple, what we see in projections is a wormhole in Einsteinian space-time through which we hurtle toward an unknown destination, with flashes of the ruined monuments of ancient civilizations (notably Egypt). Time travel is an explicit theme of this production; two essays in the program book speak of it, one of them with reference to Einstein. As the transformation music ends, the projections fade and we see a ruined temple with broken columns (they look like Luxor to me), with Titurel seated on a high throne in medieval royal robes and crown, the grail knights already drawn up in ranks across the stage--no antiphonal entrance as Wagner composed it, the crescendo is purely vocal--with spears and wearing helmets and body armor that for me evoke both Greco-Roman and Mayan statuary and robots as in Fritz Lang's film _Metropolis_. This is an implacable, frightening phalanx. Amfortas's white draped robe has a Greco-Roman look too, something like a toga. The temple is in ruins with its columns broken and toppled, open to the sky. When the chorus passes from the knights to the women's voices and then children's, which Wagner wanted placed at different heights of the temple, they come from nowhere to fill the air. What's missing is any sign of a physical grail.

And here's where the production goes off the rails. After Amfortas's lament, the invisible choir introduces the rite of the Eucharist (as the opera has it) with the words, "Nehmet hin mein Blut, nehmet hin meinem Leib"--take of my blood, take of my body, referring to Christ's words at the Last Supper in which he said that the bread and wine of communion are symbols of his body and blood, and thus of his sacrifice on the Cross. Amfortas reaches beneath his robe and brings out a hunk of bleeding flesh which he shows to the knights. A butcher block with a chef's knife is brought on, the meat is laid on it, and the knights file by, each slicing off a piece, then resume their positions though with their backs to the audience and presumably eat it.

Eichinger has taken the chorus's song of blood and body literally, and it may be that he also has other rituals and myths in mind: the Mayans' human sacrifices to the sun god (the heart being cut out of the living body), Prometheus's punishment with his entrails being torn out by an eagle but then restored so the torture can continue forever, and so on. And maybe Eichinger has some idea that Amfortas himself is the Grail, as at one point Parsifal asks Gurnemanz, "Wer ist den Graal?"--*Who* is the Grail? But this isn't some inspired insight of the stupid fool Parsifal then is, it's just an ignorant question, as before and afterwards everyone speaks of the Grail as an object and Gurnemanz describes it and its history in detail. John Graves and I were shaking our heads. Where can the production go from here? Klingsor intends to possess the Grail; what exactly is he after? When Parsifal returns to the temple and takes over the ritual from Amfortas, whose body and blood will the knights be given to eat? Amfortas's wound is supposed to be healed at the end of the opera, so it's not him; and there's nothing in the text to suggest that Parsifal's self-sacrifice goes *that* far. And so on. We assumed that there was some point to this radical departure from the story told by Wagner's words and music, and waited to see what it might be.

But there is no point to it. When Parsifal enters the temple as the new king, he merely parks the spear next to himself, sits down, and waits for the opera to end. Amfortas is not healed, he doesn't move, it may be that the grail knights (now in black leather with clubs and chains) have beaten him to death. The knights are given nothing to eat, there is no ritual at all. After a little while, Kundry, who at the beginning of the act had been all stark white and bald, reappeared in an ordinary street dress, sporting flowing red hair we hadn't seen before, and sat down next to Parsifal. Are they engaged?? Essentially Eichinger has shrugged his shoulders or thrown up his hands and abdicated as director. No wonder the first night audience booed him. If he'd taken a curtain call on Monday night, I would have booed him too.

Of course there is much to the production that I haven't even mentioned, including setting Act 3 in present-day Central Park. (But why not? One of the givens of the production is travel through space-time, and Wagner has given Kundry a biography of more than a thousand years--in an earlier incarnation she laughed at Christ.) But the real problem with Eichinger's production, the problem that he created and failed to resolve, is the omission of the Grail and the replacement of the symbolic Christian ritual of the Eucharist with a literal, pagan cannibalism. The story that Wagner's opera tells can't be carried forward from there, and Eichinger failed to devise some other story, consistent with the words and music, that would resolve the expectations and tensions he deliberately and gratuitously set up. He had to fail, because I don't believe there was any way he could have succeeded.

With all this, we were grateful that the musical elements of the performance were so excellent. René Pape's virtues are well known, and he will be Gurnemanz at the Met next season. Michaela Schuster as Kundry has a strong mezzo voice that is somewhat strained when her part goes high and loud, but I liked her singing and stage presence, and maybe we'll be seeing her here sooner or later. Burkhard Fritz's bright, sturdy tenor and vigorous presence filled the bill for the title role, though he seems little wiser or soberer after Kundry's kiss than before it. Jochen Schmeckenbecheras Klingsor, dressed in a devilish red leather outfit and controlling Kundry with a dog leash (well, he is dominant and she is submissive...), was an effective bad guy and appeard to be enjoying all the fiendish laughter Wagner gives him, and maybe a little more of his own. He is, of course, a former member of Music Forum, and we had a very enjoyable dinner with him a few days before the performance--lots of stories and good talk. The flower maidens sounded excellent, festival quality; the grail knights, esquires (including two who sang flower maidens), and indeed Titurel were rather below this standard.

The Staatskapelle is not a virtuoso band such as we now have at the Met, nor do they have the distinctive character of the pit orchestra at the Vienna State Opera when it's the Philharmoniker, but in this score their playing was both assured technically and quite beautiful to hear. The entire orchestra, in their formal dress and with their instruments, appeared on the stage for a curtain call, Barenboim stepping out from their midst to take his bow; something I've never seen anywhere, the Met orchestra is too eager to go home. Barenboim's interpretation is neither consistently slow or fast, he paces the music according to the stage and musical events of the moment, so that the opera seems less like a ritual (pace Knappertsbusch and Levine), more like a theatrical drama.

Well, now I've sampled Eurotrash live and first-hand on its own turf, and seen some of the best and the worst that this great musical city has to offer, in the very same evening. How long this production will stay in repertoire, no one can say; this is the third _Parsifal_ at the State Opera since Barenboim took over, the previous two by Harry Kupfer getting maybe 20 performances each before being replaced, and this one doesn't seem likely to have more staying power. So if anybody wants to see _Parsifal_ with time travel and cannibalism, don't wait too long! And if not, we may not have to wait long before it's gone.

You can actually see a TV news report of the premiere, with several brief clips from the production, at the Rundfunk Brandenburg-Berlin web site: