I remember having read a long time ago in an Italian dictionary an anecdote about a group of monks who gave shelter to some women in a very cold night. In the morning, they were found sleeping in the same room because it was the only one sufficiently warm. As the abbot found them and demanded an explanation, the answer was “tutto è permesso agli innocenti” (everything is permitted to the innocent man”). After a puzzling second act during which stage director Dmitri Tcherniakov gave me more questions than answers, this story did occur to me in the beginning of act III and inspired me to an interpretation of a staging that seemed outright incoherent until then.
To say the truth, act I was not problematic. This is not my first Parsifal in which the grail ceremony involves extracting blood from Amfortas’ wound for the consumption by the congregation. Claus Guth’s staging seen in Barcelona and Tokyo turned around a very similar ritual in a concept that turned around blood (also in the sense of “family ties”) and I somehow expected a similar development this evening. But that was my mistake. Here Klingsor is some sort of goofy schoolmaster in a school for girls. The sets were identical to act I, but now they were full white. As Kundry seems to be some sort of counsellor, I could not help thinking of Sabina Spielrein’s Dyetski Dom, the methods of which have been accused of stimulating the premature sexuality of children. In the beginning of her long scene with Parsifal, Kundry’s “professional” approach and Parsifal’s insight about his mother angrily interrupting his first sexual encounter with a girl seemed to confirm this interesting psychoanalitic view. Wagner’s text serves the purpose: Kundry directs Parsifal into self-discovery until the kiss. Although Spielrein’s own experience involved a romantic affair with her psychoanalist (i.e., Carl Jung), the comparison started to fall apart then. Parsifal sleeps over and only in the morning has the epiphany about Amfortas. From that point on, Kundry contents herself to behave like a rejected lover. If I still wanted to defend the Spielrein-angle, both she and Kundry have been “diagnosed” with hysteria. But to say the truth, by then even this point of view seemed uncomfortable and artificial.
This takes me to my own “epyphany” in act III. As in every production of Parsifal, act III shows a decayed version of the sets of act I until the moment when Parsifal shows Kundry the toy knight involved in his traumatic episode with his mother, while Kundry shows him a doll just like the ones the girl in the white school had. It is true that the male/female symbolism of the grail and the spear are in the core of this libretto, but the toys here gave it a whole new level of understanding. The main theme of this staging actually is the destruction of innocence by the establishment of prohibitions. The whole purpose of the grail knights was to achieve purity (i.e., innocence) by following a set of rules and vows. From that point on, a line had been drawn between guilty and innocent ones. Then there is Klingsor, who cannot fit into either side and decides to act out innocence. His white school is the theatre of innocence, the illusion of innocence. That is why he is more childish than the girls around him – he has to be more innocent than innocence itself. This is what Parsifal realizes – that there was no guilt in Amfortas. As much as the young Parsifal was accused of depravity by following a natural inclination, Amfortas was tainted by his encounter with Kundry. And we can infer that he had very little notion of what was going on there until he was charged with sinful behavior. Therefore, the moment when Parsifal say “sei heil – entsündigt und entsühnt!” is more than rhetorics. Innocence is not the aim, it is the starting point. One has to BE innocent to achieve enlightenment: everything is permitted to the innocent. He or she needs no rule, because everything is redeemed by innocence. That is why the redeemer is redeemed – the simple conviction of innocence makes everything permissible. The very institution of the grail knights makes redemption impossible: it just creates guilty ones.
All that said, the closing scene could be somewhat testing. When we see Kundry and Amfortas openly kissing, we understand why she had to seduce Parsifal: to regain her own innocence, which she seemed to have found when she was confronted with Amfortas’ innocence. But that is the moment Gurnemanz stabs her to death (she does not die “naturally” here as it is described by the libretto). The fact probably is that Kundry has to die. Although she truly wants to be innocent again, her very nature is to seduce. If she is not a seductress, than she is nothing. As she herself probably knew from her desire of “peace” and “rest” , death is her path to innocence, the state in which she can do no harm. Is this a sound analysis? Probably not, but then the staging is so overambitious and unclear and all over the place that one is allowed his or her share of misunderstanding. Although I very much like the idea that institution is doomed to destroy what it was supposed to protect and that the idea of purity could be interpreted as some sort of empowerment (instead of the usual negative agenda almost inevitably associated in the context of the Wagner family and the pre-war Bayreuth festival), I am not sure if this staging serves this idea as efficiently as it should. Also, although Tcherniakov usually offers scrumptious scenery and costumes to make powerful visual statements, I find this staging rather tame and uneventful in this department.
The sense of emptiness was actually highlighted by Daniel Barenboim’s idiosincratic conducting. After a prelude of unusual structural clarity, the performance seemed to collapse under its own ponderousness. Although one could see that the aim was achieving a Furtwänglerian timelessness in which every note would sound to produce its complete sense, one would feel instead the blanks between these notes. Only an impatiently built Verwandlungsmusik suggested some sense of unity. Act II sounded particularly disjoint and lacking building tension, an impression made more evident by the conductor’s keeping his dynamic range under leash to help his leading lady. In any case, the Staatskapelle Berlin’s consistent beauty of sound offered some compensation.
Anna Larsson’s incursion in soprano repertoire is an undeniable sign of courage. She must have nerves of steel to keep producing high notes in every dynamic range so consistently in spite of the very obvious effort. The problem remains that – although she can keep a sense of line even when things turn out really unfavorably to her – intonation could be hazardous, the tonal quality was often very breathy and colorless. In any case, it is a voice of unusual warmth, and that prevented her from producing ugly sounds. If there were some exceptional theatrical intelligence and charisma à la Waltraud Meier, she could have got away with it. As it was, this was rather an experiment of discutable success. The same cannot be said of her Parsifal. It is true that Andreas Schager is not a stage animal, but he showed himself fully engaged in fulfilling some very strange directorial choices. And his singing was just exceptional. He phrases with unusual clarity, musicianship and variety and also produced consistently youthful, bright and firm sounds that projected forcefully into the auditorium. This was Wagnerian singing of very high standards. His scenes with René Pape’s masterly Gurnemanz were the apex of this performance. The German bass was at his best, pouring forth exquisite, voluminous sounds in all registers and also featured the textual intelligence of a Lieder singer. It is curious that the first Gurnemanz I have ever seen live, Matthias Hölle, was this evening’s Titurel, his voice still big and dark. Stage directors seem to have an increasing fancy in undressing the baritone in the role of Amfortas and it seems that the amount of skin shown is directly proportional to the level of miscasting. This evening, the throatiness and graininess were another evidence of that rule. Finally, Tomas Tomasson was a firm-toned, rather metallic Klingsor, very much at ease with the director’s curious choices for this role.