Much to admire in Parsifal from Opera North despite staging and casting missteps

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner, Parsifal: Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North / Richard Farnes (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 26.6.2022. (JPr)

Toby Spence (Parsifal) and Katerina Karnéus (Kundry) (c) Mark Allan

Toby Spence – Parsifal
Katerina Karnéus- Kundry
Robert Hayward – Amfortas
Derek Welton – Klingsor
Brindley Sherratt – Gurnemanz
Stephen Richardson – Titurel
Miranda Bevin – Flowermaiden
Samantha Clarke – Flowermaiden
Helen Évora – Flowermaiden
Elin Pritchard – Flowermaiden
Victoria Sharp – Flowermaiden
Kathryn Stevens – Flowermaidens
Voice from Above – Hazel Croft
Also. Esquires. Knights and Flowermaidens

Director – Sam Brown
Chorus master – Oliver Rundell

What did Wagner want us all to understand from his Parsifal? During his tenure as director of opera at Covent Garden Kaspar Holten explained that the reason he could not direct it was because he was not a ‘believer’. So maybe the self-castrating Klingsor is not a Jew now and merely an evil sorcerer? If so, Wagner’s final work can be reclaimed as a mixture of Christian symbolism, Buddhist philosophy and medieval myth rather than, at best, something worthy of Freudian interpretation or at worst, a treatise on ‘racial cleansing’. The opera’s final words are ‘The redeemer redeemed’, yet which of the principal characters is redeemed at the end of the work is a puzzle as, for me, it could be any of them. This is especially if we consider Parsifal could be more Buddhist than Christian and they are all on the path from ignorance to enlightenment. Perhaps at the end of his life it is Wagner himself who was seeking redemption? However Richard H Bell in the Opera North programme posits, ‘Why and how is the redeemer (who I take to be Christ, and not Parsifal) redeemed? The answer is that the Grail into which Christ’s blood miraculously appears has been in the custody of the sinful Amfortas … Because the Grail is so rarely revealed, Christ is silenced … But when Parsifal can without hindrance unveil the Grail. Christ is again present in the community, manifest in the glow of the Grail and the descent of the dove.’

At its simplest it is the Grail with Christ’s blood and the Spear that pierced his side that are the relics the plot hinges on; brotherhood, chastity and sexual desire bring together the elderly and wise Gurnemanz, the wounded king Amfortas, his enemy Klingsor, femme fatale Kundry, and the naive Parsifal, each of whom have their own demons to conquer. With Wagner in concert the audience can concentrate more fully on the words and music as we are spared the concern of unravelling a director’s Konzept. Thankfully Opera North provided screens on which a clear translation was available for anyone unfamiliar with the libretto.

Described as ‘semi-staged’ there was the dispiriting sight of a row of chairs in front of the huge Orchestra of Opera North on the Royal Festival Hall platform but, thankfully, no music stands. At home in Leeds apparently there was a set and costumes, however, in London the singers were all formally dressed while, for some reason, Toby Spence as Parsifal came on wearing a white tunic with a mandarin collar and looked like a celebrity chef. I don’t know what happened in Leeds and if there was a stuffed swan, a makeshift bow (arrows optional) or medieval helmet, but I cannot understand, why the principal cast didn’t wear their Leeds costumes and a spear couldn’t be found to make the ending to the second act slightly less risible. Oddly, there was an illuminated Grail in a Perspex box between the chorus in front of the Royal Festival Hall’s organ.

Although this Parsifal had its moments – particularly in the Klingsor/Kundry, Kundry/Parsifal confrontations in Act II – there was a lack of dramatic realism to this staging. In the first act when characters might be addressing each other, Gurnemanz was by the conductor and Kundry and Amfortas couldn’t have been further apart on the platform and it was as if social distancing wasn’t the thing of the past as I hope it is. I have half a mind that director Sam Brown – who still seems to have been responsible for what we saw in London – might deliberately have left the first genuine physical contact between characters to when Kundry kisses Parsifal simply for its shock value, compared to what had gone before. For me, it was rather that Derek Welton brought all his experience from past Klingsors (including at the Bayreuth Festival) and produced a genuine performance, abetted by Katarina Karnéus, who is a compelling singing-actor in her own right.

The Royal Festival Hall does not make as good a ‘Grail Temple’ as the Royal Albert Hall. While the chorus was magnificent, the Grail ceremonies needed greater distancing – especially the female voices – to bring them more of a meditative atmosphere. Regardless, I loved the atmospheric bells from a valiant percussionist banging rectangular metal sheets. With the veteran David Greed in the leader’s chair for the last time after 44 years, the orchestra produced a wall of sound that, at times, enveloped – and to be frank sometimes overwhelmed – the first rows of the front stalls, though Richard Farnes, Opera North’s former music director, had the balance just about right as far as the singers were concerned.

The orchestra played with great commitment and there was deep plush string tone, mellow woodwind and wonderfully secure, burnished brass. There is nothing showy about Farnes on the podium but it is clear how the musicians and singers admire him, the tempos seemed spritely (for Wagner) and textures were transparent and Farnes gave every indication that he had an overarching grasp of the structure of the work. My only criticism was that the Prelude to Act III lacked the nth degree of the profundity it needs.

David Greed (leader), Brindley Sherratt (Gurnemanz) and Richard Farnes (conductor) (c) Mark Allan

I don’t have the words to praise Brindley Sherratt’s Gurnemanz highly enough, he was simply magnificent, his storytelling was exemplary and I was never wishing he would just get on with it as I have with others in the past. He communicated the text clearly thanks to his impeccable diction and was able to fill the vast auditorium with sound. Finally, I am not certain the late Norman Bailey ever sang Gurnemanz (someone might tell me if I am wrong) but if he had he would have looked and sounded exactly like Sherratt. I have known Robert Hayward since I awarded him my first Bayreuth Bursary as chair of the Wagner Society more years ago than either of us would care to remember and he was an intense and agonised Amfortas. Hayward’s stolid, slightly gruff, bass-baritone impressed but, for me, Amfortas didn’t seem a natural fit for him. Derek Welton was malevolence personified as Klingsor and Katerina Karnéus brought some standard over-the-top wailing and shrieking to Kundry but it was difficult to take one’s eyes off her whether she was singing or not. Overall, there was some controlled lyricism and never an ugly sound from Karnéus which made her visceral outcry on the final word of the phrase ‘Ich sah … Ihn … Ihn … und … lachte!’ – as she recalled Christ on the Cross – so much more chilling. Stephen Richardson sang Titurel’s baleful utterances from behind the choir. Esquires, Knights, and Hazel Croft as the Voice from Above, as well as the Flowermaidens, upheld the high standards of most of the singing.

Sadly, I thought that Toby Spence as Parsifal was the weak link in the cast. Not that he isn’t a fine singer, which he undoubtedly is and doesn’t really need me to tell him that. Spence is not a Wagner tenor on this evidence and his voice lacks the requisite freshness, heft and volume for Parsifal and he sounded – despite the shortness of the role – a little tired for his concluding ‘Nur eine Waffe taugt’ (‘But one weapon serves’) at the very end of the opera. Regardless of whether you are a ‘believer’ yourself this should really have been the summation of all that had gone before and these final moments should always have an element of transcendence to them. It was only due to the substantial efforts of Farnes, his outstanding musicians and the chorus that the end of this Parsifal soared heavenward and was as moving as I experienced it to be.

Jim Pritchard

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