Composer: Richard Wagner
Director: Sam Brown
Conductor: Richard Farnes
Parsifal is the latest in Opera North’s celebrated series of concert performances of large-scale operas (Wagner particularly), but it’s somewhat different from its predecessors. Leeds Town Hall is currently undergoing refurbishment, so it was moved to the Grand Theatre, with considerable changes of style. We missed the massed orchestral and choral ranks on the Town Hall risers, but the compensations were many. This is probably the best time to warn potential audience members that this production is strictly for the four performances at Leeds. What they will see on tour will be closer to an orthodox concert staging – the exemplary music standards will remain, of course.
At Leeds Grand Theatre, Richard Farnes’ 90-piece orchestra occupies centre stage, the action taking place mainly on four levels of forestage sinking down into the orchestra pit – also at the rear of the stage, in stage boxes and, magically, at the rear of the stalls. There is a moment in Act 1 where you could feel yourself surrounded by music.
Under Sam Brown’s endlessly thoughtful direction, at Leeds the cast act out their parts against the ingenious lighting and basic set of Bengt Gomer and dressed by Stephen Rodwell – nothing fancy, but enough to delineate one group from another – knights in grey hoodies, for example.
So, for those (like your reviewer) who were encountering the work for the first time, what is Parsifal? Running at something over 4 hours stage time, it tells the story of the Knights of the Grail. The castle of Monsalvat was established by Titurel as a sanctuary for the Holy Grail and the Spear that pierced Christ’s side. Titurel having retired in favour of his son, Amfortas, the order is plagued by a wound Amfortas received from the Holy Spear wielded by the magician, Klingsor, a wound that will never heal.
Enter a young man, a holy fool, later to be identified as Parsifal, who engages with Kundry, an enchantress, who charmed Amfortas before his defeat. As he receives her kiss, Parsifal experiences the pain of Amfortas and vows to cure him which he eventually does. The emotional and religious background is enhanced by Kundry having been cursed (with everlasting life among other things) for laughing at Christ and by the Good Friday setting of the final redemption. Musically this can lead to such wonderful music as the chorale-type settings of Act 1 and the final Good Friday music.
Musically where to start? Brindley Sherratt in simply stunning form as Gurnemanz. An ageing knight, considerably more ageing by Act 3, he serves as the narrator for much of what has happened – and Sherratt, always in magnificent voice and pointing his lines superbly, could not be bettered. Robert Hayward as Amfortas equally makes a huge impression, his wound dictating his stance, the agony of a physical and spiritual wound present in every phrase.
Toby Spence conveys Parsifal’s simplicity beautifully while fielding a resounding tenor and Katarina Karneus alternates near-silence with fierce attack as Kundry. It seems strange that in Act 3 Wagner neglects her, leaving her on stage with nothing to sing. Brown’s solution, with her ultimately taking a key role in the Good Friday service, seems sensible.
From Derek Welton’s malevolent Klingsor and Stephen Richardson’s dignified Titurel onwards, the supporting cast are admirable, bolstered by a keenly focussed chorus. The orchestra, on David Greed’s final appearances as leader, is superb, not even fazed when the mob of Knights of the Grail force a retreating Amfortas to share Richard Farnes’ podium. The point is made more than once in the programme that, though the opera is of typical Wagnerian length, the libretto of Parsifal is unusually short. The orchestra, in fact, carries much of the story from the 15-minute Prelude onwards and, under Farnes, brings the full range of sound from hushed chords to vast climaxes.