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The premier of “Parsifal”, 28.03.2015. Anja Kampe (Kundry), Andreas Schager (Parsifal). Photo: Ruth Walz

There Is No Indifference In Him 0

An interview with director Dmitri Tcherniakov

Margarita Zieda

Russia wasn't the only place this year where, right around the Easter holidays, battles were fought over one of Wagner's operas. As part of the traditional Berlin State Opera's Easter festival Festtage, the new production of “Parsifal” – conducted by Daniel Barenboim and directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov – premiered in front of an audience evenly split in the shouting of “Boo!” and “Bravo!”. Set free from miracles, magic and religion, Tcherniakov's interpretation of Parsifal's story gained unexpectedly human features, revealing the world of man in all of its frailty. To German critics, this sort of take on Wagner's last opera – a dedication to humanity – was unacceptable. In fact, they didn't even try to comprehend this latest production; in their mind, if there is no magic, then there is also no ceremony, no religion. Meanwhile, the British critics, who are not nearly as conservative, were thrilled that Tcherniakov found “room for some immensely moving human reflections” in Parsifal, going so far as to declare that this production will surely go down as a notable one in the history on interpretations of Wagnerian opera.

The opening night of “Parsifal”, 28.03.2015. Andreas Schager (Parsifal), Tómas Tómasson (Klingsor) and the Flower Maidens. Photo: Ruth Walz

Dmitri Tcherniakov is the only Russian director currently working in the world's big opera houses – Paris, Milan, London, Madrid, New York. It was conductor Daniel Barenboim and genius opera director and administrator Gerard Mortier (who passed away just last year) who introduced Tcherniakov to Europe. Tcherniakov has been awarded several times with the Russian National Theater's “Golden Mask” award, and has repeatedly been voted as “The Year's Best Director” by international critics in the German opera magazine Opernwelt. In 2009 he received the Franco Abbiati Italian music critic prize.

When Russian Orthodox Church activists began staging rallies against the production of “Tannhäuser” at the renowned Novosibirsk State Opera Theater, Tcherniakov publicly defended his attacked colleague and condemned this blatant censorship of art. We met with Dmitri Tcherniakov in Berlin, on the same day that the Russian news agency TASS published an article stating that Tcherniakov's production of “Ruslan and Lyudmila” (staged at Moscow's Bolshoi Theater four years ago) has been added to the list of acts constituting a “disfigurement of cultural legacy”, as construed by experts from the Likhachev cultural legacy  association. Tcherniakov declines to comment on this subject; he is still living in the world of “Parsifal”. He hasn't been in Moscow for four months, but will be going back in a few days.

According to Russian Orthodox Church representatives, your colleague Timofey Kulyabin's interpretation of Wagner's “Tannhäuser” in Novosibirsk offended the beliefs of Christians. Some German critics have said that your Berlin-production of “Parsifal” has completely taken away their religion. Why did you take this on?

I was really surprised when I was offered “Parsifal”. And for about a year I tried to get out of doing it. I knew that I would never direct this work. Because I know this opera. As a listener. And this knowing was what frightened me.

What was the reason for this fear?

This whole culture; the Grail is territory that my mentality is too far removed from. There's nothing like it in Russia. I can study it and learn about it, but it's not something that has been with me since childhood. For my German colleagues, it's something that's been with them almost since birth; it was a part of their education. It is a subject for them. In Russia, it is not a subject; “Parsifal” has been produced here only twice – once at the start of the 20th century, and again in 1998. And except for a handful of music specialists, no one knows anything about “Parsifal”. I don't speak German. I am not in this language's sphere, nor in this cultural sphere. I come from a completely different territory. And I kept asking them – “Why do you need me? You know this better than I do.” No one ever answered this question.

The premier of “Parsifal”, 28.03.2015. Photo: Ruth Walz

Daniel Barenboim continues to relentlessly work with “Parsifal” – to “crack” it. And it seems he's been doing this his whole life. At the Berlin State Opera alone this is the third “Parsifal” under his leadership. The last one was entrusted to film producer Bernd Eichinger, who has made it in Hollywood and whose motto has always been “Think big!”. But his “Parsifal” tanked. Your cooperation with Barenboim on Russian operas – “Boris Godunov”, “The Gambler”, “The Tsar's Bride” – were so creatively successful that he probably thought that, by coming from another culture, you could put “a new spin” even on a Wagner opera.

Yes, perhaps. After a year of discussing it, I decided I'd do it. Because I understood that it will be so hard, and that it is completely unclear to me what I can say in this regard and how to even tell the story; or if it's even worth working on. I watched every recording there is – from Ruth Berghaus's to Stefan Herheim's and Romeo Castellucci's productions. And if we're talking about its meaning, then there is so much in this piece – in terms of what is said, what is left unsaid, or in what was begun but left unfinished, or just barely hinted at. There is so much in it, that every director takes only that which interests him or her. I think it is virtually impossible to perform “Parsifal” so that every layer of meaning in it can be covered. And then I felt some relief. Because I understood that I cannot cover every existential issue in my production. In any case, it will be a very individual production. And I understood that there is much in “Parsifal” that resonates with my world and what I have to say. I read absolutely everything I could get my hands on. I had two aides in Moscow – academic musicians – who worked with me for five months. For two hours every evening. They speak three languages. I brought them a huge amount of literature and they translated it all for me; whatever seemed interesting to me, I wrote down in my notebook. I wanted to know everything, everything, everything! But this feeling – that all of it was foreign to me – never left. When I thought about the text, about the content, my inner self was resisting all of it. I kept thinking that in the text of “Parsifal”, as I understood it at the time, there is something inhuman. In the text itself.

But the music, when it begins, this emotional space takes on a hypnotic power that takes you completely away from your critical thinking; away from not agreeing with something, away from the feeling that some characters seem schematic. Away from the fact that you are unable to understand this strange construct that, in many ways, is inhuman. From the fact that you don't understand these calls for redemption. What is this Erlösung? I tried to come to an understanding with the meaning of this piece. It was very hard. But when the music started, it clouded over me. And the work seemed so wonderful. Simply wonderful! And it's like that for many viewers. Wagner's sound has such force and power that while the music is playing, you cannot be critical towards it – you are in its power. I tried to resist this. I tried to think.

The premier of “Parsifal”, 28.03.2015. Anja Kampe (Kundry), Andreas Schager (Parsifal). Photo: Ruth Walz

What, in your view, is inhuman in this opera? The British critics lauded your production specifically due to its moving reflections on what it is to be human.

I was constantly beset by the feeling that this group – this knighthood, this Brotherhood of the Grail – that this whole thing goes down the wrong path. I've never believed that the truth is within the power of the collective. All collective powers have always seemed suspicious to me, and it is something I fear. This ascetic in the name of which they renounce everything worldly. To serve an idea. But this idea itself is incomprehensible. But I was interested in the characters. I saw that many productions had transformed into schematic constructs. It was important to me to create a humanistic space from the whole thing.

But I don't want to speak critically of this opera. Because I feel great empathy. Mitleid. Which is extremely important in “Parsifal”. And which, among other things, I also feel is very artificial in this opera of Wagner's. But I wanted this sympathy, this empathy, to flow throughout the whole production. And in my production, this is expressed through the character that officially, on an ideological level, is rejected. She is the only woman in the world of “Parsifal”. Kundry. She is rejected for having strayed off of the path, for being wrong, for being mistaken, for being dirty, unworthy. As a second- or third-class person. But she, as we see, has no ideological constructs in her head. Her actions are led by guilt, the wish to right her mistake. We didn't make her into a deceitful seductress, not into a virgin from hell. Because she – without any sort of ideology in her head – somehow acts very correctly compared to all of the other characters.

In my reading, the main conflict is not between the Knights of the Grail and the evil magician Klingsor, but the ideological conflict between the Knights of the Grail and this woman – Kundry.

Wagner's last written work, which was left unfinished, is called “On the Womanly in the Human Race”. When you read it, you're quite horrified – about how Wagner categorizes everything, creates hierarchies, states what is right and what is wrong, what is honorable and what is dishonorable. He defines what a woman is and what is her place. Now we look at things differently; maybe in the 19th century such things were considered normal. Nevertheless, many of Wagner's own views elicit horror. But I tried not to assign this to the music.

The premier of “Parsifal”, 28.03.2015. Andreas Schager (Parsifal), Anja Kampe (Kundry). Photo: Ruth Walz

Wagner wrote “Parsifal” on the basis of liturgical canon, on church ritual. In Bayreuth and at the Berlin State Opera, the audience knows that you're not supposed to applaud, at least not after the first act. Wagner thought that applause did not befit this opera in general – not in the middle of it, nor at the end either. You have freed this opera from holiness and solemnity, and have thereby created one of the greatest stumbling blocks for the audience – some of them come to see “Parsifal” in the same state of mind as when going to a church service. Why is that?

I'm not a church person. I don't belong to it and I can't speak for it. There are people for whom receiving the Eucharist is a truly emotional experience. For me, it is a very conditional concept. I understand what it's about, but I can't talk about it in such a profound way as a true Catholic can. The Christian underpinnings, the liturgical foundation of the first act – all of it, when placed in a theatrical setting, seems a bit funny to me. This new religion on the stage of a theater. Wagner wrote that the core of religion can only be preserved inside art. The mixing of these two ideas does not work for me today. I understand that it was a romantic idea; some sort of attempt. But having found out everything I could about Wagner, his Christian identity has always seemed questionable to me. There are many opinions. Some even think that the whole thing is a fake – this Christian foundation of “Parsifal”. Others take it as it is, without critique. I think it was a theatrical game for Wagner, much like it is in many of his other operas. Wagner was preparing to write the opera “The Victors”, which is permeated with Buddhist views. He didn't write the libretto, but an outline of its main ideas exists – it can be found in the archives of his writings.

There are many Buddhist motifs in “Parsifal” as well – Kundry's reincarnation and so on. But everything is really mixed up. Sometimes I think that the Christian foundation of “Parsifal” has no connection to real Catholicism. It's all a made-up construct. The whole thing was thought-up and written down by Wagner. When the first act is seriously perceived as a church service with the passing out of the Host – and after which the audience may not applaud – I always feel theatrically puzzled. I don't think that this can take place on a stage without some kind of distancing happening. It's always seemed to me that there's something not real there. But of course, the liturgical music of the first act's second scene is played regardless. I cannot rewrite the score, I cannot change the words, I cannot shorten anything. Everything stays. The only question is how do I position all of it. I didn't add anything on; I tried to find it within the work. Because there's a huge warehouse of ideas there. The theme of love was extremely important to me, and I worked it in throughout the whole production. And I put it in the characters, thereby taking away their schematics and humanizing them. Wagner does this as well with the big introduction, the Vorspiel, which has three musical themes. Wagner wrote about this in a letter to Ludwig – that there will be a musical intro with three themes: faith, home and love. And the first theme – that is the theme of love that permeates the whole opera from beginning to end. And I don't believe that it is divided among erotic love and agape love. It is a love in which everything is together. The problem lies in this division.

The premier of “Parsifal”, 28.03.2015. Photo: Ruth Walz

And still, your production does not end with the glittering Grail. Once Kundry regains her love, she is stabbed. The Knights of the Grail are now left without a leader, and falling on their knees in the gloom, they stretch their hands out towards heaven – like the blind. The hope associated with the Grail does not come into this space.

What are these hopes? No one is able to state what they are. I've seen many productions in which, at the end, the Knights of the Grail create a new leader out of Parsifal, one with a new idea. This seems very inhumane to me. And it's also a fallacy. I don't think there's anything that we can all be in agreement with – like a collective gathering around one idea. To me, the only true and real thing is the final embrace of Kundry and Amfortas. Only that. That is where the true meaning is – that is what the Grail wants to express.

And what's more – the whole third act, up to the final scene, takes up 80% of the time; the final scene itself is very short. And after such a dreary third act, the final scene doesn't seem convincing to me. It takes up such a proportionally small space that it looks like utopia. And it happens so quickly and it is so unprepared that it leaves only an impression of a utopia. Theodor Adorno also wrote about this – that the final scene doesn't invoke a feeling of trust. There's a long discussion about what this 'Redemption to the Redeemer' is. What is that about? This phrase has been debated for decades, and everyone has their own interpretation. And the Grail and the Spear themselves – in our production they are very ordinary things that can be bought at a flea market. They serve as instruments for self-inspiration. Parsifal gives up the Spear in the finale, and it seems as if this will solve all of the problems. But it doesn't solve any problems. In my production, Parsifal does it for Kundry, who needs it for Amfortas. Because Amfortas feels guilty about the loss of the Spear and so on.

Maybe the Spear will release them from suffering. Not in the sense of a wound closing up in a fantastical way, but like in Tarkovsky's film, “Nostalghia” – remember the man carrying the candle across the pool? He does it many times. And if he ever manages to carry the candle all the way across, the world will be saved.

This was your fourth time working with Daniel Barenboim...

(Dmitri Tcherniakov suddenly screams.)

What's wrong!?

A cramp in my arm. Don't worry. (Sits in pain for several minutes.) I don't need anything. It will soon pass. It happens sometimes.

What happened?

I don't know.

A pinched nerve?

Aha. Aaaaaa... Don't worry. It's nothing. It's nothing. (Laughs nervously.) It's over.

You really are ill.

Yes. Perhaps this is our last interview.

This is your fourth time working with Barenboim. What separates him from other conductors?

Conductors differ. There are very good conductors who work in the opera, but they are completely disinterested in theater itself. In theater as art. They never concern themselves with it. They never look at the stage, no matter what you may be doing on it. And I'm always amazed at that – because there is so much wonderful symphonic material out there. So why don't they work for the philharmonic instead of the theater, if they have no interest in it?

Daniel is the conductor who should work with the opera the most; I think he could even play a role on the stage. There is very much of the artistic within him. Barenboim often came to rehearsals, and about the scene with the Flower Maidens he said: “I'd like to play this little girl.” There is so much humor and the joy of the game in him. On some level, he is still a child, despite being 72 years old. He gets quickly carried away by ideas, and very excitedly; but he can 'go sour' just as quickly – become negative and unsatisfied. He is full of passion. His attitude is never impassive, detached or listless.

There is no indifference in him. And I always feel that he is supporting me. I always feel this. He is like family. Recently, during rehearsals, I was sick with the flu; I couldn't work for two weeks. He and his wife came to see me. They brought porridge, wrapped up in some sort of towels. They sat with me for a while. That was very touching. I always see him as being very humane.

Or like the first time I was rehearsing “Boris Godunov”... It was a very difficult day. He came to rehearsals for the first time. I was frightened of him: Daniel Barenboim, whom I had listened to performing with the Paris Orchestra in Moscow! I had been thirteen years old back then, and I did everything in my power to get a ticket – he was the famous Barenboim... And now we're working together, and I have those memories. So, rehearsal ends and he comes and asks me in Russian: “Are you hungry? Come on over. Lena will make something for you to eat.”

This is my first production of “Parsifal”. It's his one-hundredth. Barenboim has conducted this “Parsifal” not only in Berlin, but in Bayreuth and all over the place. He told me himself – at least 100 times. I listened to his earlier recordings in order to orient myself.

The premier of “Parsifal”, 28.03.2015. Tómas Tómasson (Klingsor), Anja Kampe (Kundry). Photo: Ruth Walz

Do his performances change?

Yes; now his conducting is slower and more constrained.

This last production is already super-slow; the singers can barely handle it.

There's this table of the various lengths of time in which “Parsifal” has bee conducted, from start to finish. Twenty years ago in Berlin, Barenboim's first act of “Parsifal” was 20 minutes shorter than this, his latest version.

Barenboim is a conductor of Wagner. I'm not especially fond of how he conducts “Yevgeniy Onegin” or “Don Giovanni”. But Wagner – that's his. And in the case of “Parsifal”, that is the truest Barenboim material there is. It's not mine, but it is his.

Has he explained or elucidated something through it?

We talked at length with him. But the conductor has a different approach. In any case, his vantage point is the logic of sound; rarely does he come from the point of discourse on the piece's intellectual content. There are very few conductors who discuss the content. Especially in the case of “Parsifal”, in which everything is so complex. We spoke a lot about the music. And I have to add that Barenboim is a very spontaneous person. His performances can differ from one to the next. Sometimes when I'm directing, I see on my monitor that he's doing something impromptu – he emphasizes some things, tones other things down. He's always within the process.

Your first operatic production was in Novosibirsk, in the same theater where “Tannhäuser” has been recently removed from the repertoire because it has been found to offend people's religious beliefs. What is your take on this?

The whole thing is awful. I haven't been in Moscow since 2 January. I was doing “Don Giovanni” in Toronto, and then I went straight to Berlin. Everything that's going on – what I read on the web and what I hear from friends – is completely crazy. It's like there's some sort of virus that has infected people's minds and it has destroyed their common sense. And it's growing in size like a rolling snowball. I can't see an end to it, and I don't understand where it will stop.

After the fall of the soviet regime, there were twenty-five very divergent years. There was the good and there was the bad, but after the soviet regime, they were years of relative freedom. Now there's this strange feeling – as if these years have left nothing in their wake. Nothing has become rooted, nothing has become firmly established. And the most surprising thing is that in the time span of a year and a half, it can all be thrown away and everything can simply be turned back twenty-five years. There's not a feeling that something has been accomplished in these 25 years. This is the most bitter thing for me. Not just about Novosibirsk and “Tannhäuser”, but about everything as a whole.

Today it was no less than TASS that came out with a statement in which your directorial work, “Ruslan and Lyudmila”, is mentioned as an example of disfigurement of the historical legacy.

I don't wish to comment on that. That production happened four years ago. Some sort of tension could already be felt back then. Even then. But compared to what's going on with “Tannhäuser” now...

But it was a scandal back then already...

Yes, but that scandal was of an ethical nature. The audience yelled: “Shame on the Bolshoi!” Even though it was a legitimately done work. There was absolutely nothing in it that could provoke. It didn't even try to take up some sort of position of conflict with Russian opera traditions. The production told a story that everyone could connect to civilly.

Glink's opera was written hurriedly – in the libretto, there are places where the ends don't match up; it is a dramaturgical catastrophe. The music is great! But there are great problems in the structure of the story itself. And the opera has little in common with Pushkin's poem. It's something different. That's why, if someone says that this production is an offense to Pushkin, I don't agree – objections must be addressed to Glink because he is the one who changed Pushkin's work. Our production was already the third iteration. We created the whole production around two characters – the evil sorceress Naina and the good sorcerer Finn. In our production, this whole fantastical, otherworldly outer shell was done away with. They were living people from today's world who were having a discussion on whether love even still exists. Is it something real, in which we believe – or is it not? Since Naina's whole life has been nothing but a string of disappointments in which she never received what she wanted, she eschews love. Everyone will betray each other. But despite Naima being such a hellion, Finn has always had deep feelings for her. He has conceded these feelings, and he is ready to forgive her much. And it is this discussion through which the production develops – “I believe in the reality of love, but you do not.” Ruslan and Lyudmila are a pair of young lovers, they are well-situated, and all of the first act was played out in a solid, Russian style with elaborate decorations. Kind of like in those “Russian-style” restaurants we have today.

Was the scandal about restaurants and the modern day?

No. Don't even try – you'll never guess as to why. Because it is also backwardness. That is at the core of all of these scandals. I'll tell you what happened.

Ruslan and Lyudmila are a young couple full of hope; they believe that they love one another. And Naina and Finn decide to test them. All of the situations are created very realistically so that Ruslan and Lyudmila believe that they are really true. They are tested as to whether or not they will still be able to love one another if they are frightened to death; is he ready to go through the horrors of war, death, fear and physical pain for her sake? Or will he not take those risks? Then Ruslan finds himself in the garden of magical maidens which is full of beautiful young women. Will he be able to resist temptation? Does he really need Lyudmila? When he sees the alternative, will he dismiss her? Ruslan and Lyudmila believe in everything going on; they don't know that it is all staged. Throughout this, we see on large screens the faces of the two sorcerers as they study the two protagonists. And their argument goes very deep. Lyudmila almost looses her mind as Chernomor tries to convince her that Ruslan has abandoned her – by showing her various Ruslan impersonators with different women. And Lyudmila approaches them, unable to believe what she's seeing. Naina then paralyzes Lyudmila – will Ruslan stay with such a “vegetable”? Yes, Ruslan worships her. And in the finale, they return to their wedding. Naina has lost, and Finn has won. But Ruslan and Lyudmila are no longer young inside; they have gone through so much. They no longer want a grand wedding, and they quietly leave. They take off their fancy clothes, put on some sort of Alaskan parkas and tell everyone to sod off; and they leave together. It was a completely enlightened production. As per its conclusion. But the audience went crazy. It was the grand reopening of the Bolshoi after renovations. Was it too radical in its meaning? The decorations were very beautiful; there wasn't even any contemporary design involved. The decorations were made like decorations. When they attempted to seduce Ruslan in the garden and there were two naked women on the stage, the audience raised a scandal. 'Nakedness on the stage of the Bolshoi!' No one took in its true meaning. Everybody could see that this was not the “Ruslan and Lyudmila” that we knew from our childhood cartoons. 'Shame on you!' It became a madhouse, completely discrepant to the gist of what had really taken place on the stage. So that's what happened.

Dmitri Tcherniakov. Publicity photo

In the April issue of Opernwelt magazine, the interviewer asks you if you've begun to take on political opera. As a powerful example of this, he points out the Berlin State Opera's production of “The Tzar's Bride”, in which all of the intrigue is set off by an e-mail correspondence among the oprichnik [the Tzar's 'henchmen']. But you don't want to call yourself a political artist...

I do not reject political opera. Let every flower bloom. I just don't do political opera myself. It's not my thing. That's not my language. I'm somehow more interested in... In Alban Berg's production of “Woyzeck”, I even took out the whole theme of social inequality – poverty, the fact that everything happens the way it does because there's no money. And I carried all of the problems over to people who live in a big city, like Moscow or Berlin.  I carried them over to problems that exist regardless of whether one is poor or rich.

And that's what Ingmar Bergman also said – that in art, what is truly interesting is to work with human relationships in which material problems have been left behind. Woyzeck's problems are easy to explain away in that he has sunk into a quagmire in terms of social conditions – he has no money and he is disgraced. But if you gave him money, would things get any better for him?