An extraordinary production followed by a tour to Manchester, Nottingham, Gateshead and London from 12 to 26 June.
Doubtless, the world would need fewer critics if it could ascertain what performers themselves truthfully think of their merits on stage. A frank self-assessment and evaluation of those with whom they work, a knowledgeable judgment of insiders trained to the last detail to be the finest exponents of their art, would surely make redundant the uninformed opinions of those drilled in little more than how to be gobby in print.
Listening on opening night to Toby Spence‘s Parsifal and Katarina Karnéus‘ Kundry in full cry in Act II, all passion and fury, with Richard Farnes and the orchestra on fire behind them, one sensed that, in portraying human emotions, opera could not get very much better than this. Surely, all concerned would consider it amongst their finest achievements, but who can tell without their direct say-so.
Before curtain up and the first strains of that gentle, noble melody on clarinets, bassoons and muted strings which begins the overture, Richard Mantle, Opera North’s CEO, explained that this production had been planned some years ago, but preparations were scuppered, presumed forever, by the Covid pandemic. With some luck, but also ardent artistic intent, those initiates – singers, conductor, designers, directors – had all managed to clear their diaries to resume work on the project. This, I think, is a measure of what it means to operatic folk to perform Wagner. Little wonder that Parsifal, Kundry and everyone else involved were on top form throughout the three Acts.
The orchestra numbered too many for the pit to accommodate, so the instrumentalists were all on stage, still looking decidedly cramped for space nevertheless, and the action took place in front and behind them. This arrangement took on the familiarity of how the Ring Cycle had been presented in Leeds Town Hall, even to the extent that chorus members appeared in the boxes to each side, what one clearly-satisfied audience member described as “surround sound”.
Wagner demands long solos from the principals and these were lovingly and intelligently performed by all. Brindley Sherratt, as veteran knight of the Grail, began by setting the scene in Act I. His luxuriant bass voice embodied all the gravity and grandeur of his calling, imparting adroit shades of colouring to each phrase. His is a Gurnemanz who had to be believed and, rightly, his were the loudest plaudits at the curtain calls.
Similarly, Derek Welton, as the villain Klingsor, had us by the throat and, once he had our attention, raged and threatened, a scintillating, venomous account of how the world should be, delivered in tones of primal power and penetration.
In an opera seemingly awash with basses, perhaps Robert Hayward‘s Amfortas, a character weakened by a wound refusing to heal, came off the worst. This ON veteran retains a thrillingly voluminous voice, a match for any sized orchestra, capable of expressing deep anguish and savage anger, but his technique on the night involved a sustained vibrato, wide enough to be distracting.
Katarina Karnéus’ Kundry transformed from goodly Act I assistant to the Knights, to the nefarious pawn of Klingsor in Act II, to redeemed sinner in Act III. She savoured each in turn, affectionate as a comforter, beguiling as a seductress, dignified, pious and pure as the fallen woman granted salvation.
Like Wagner’s Siegfried in the Ring Cycle, Parsifal is an innocent unencumbered by any scheming ambition. Unlike Siegfried, he manages to survive to discover what mission destiny has marked out for him. With little Wagner yet in his repertoire, Toby Spence’s heldentenor seems just right for the role, forceful and emotional with terrific drive.
The chorus was marvellous, the orchestra ravishing, Bengt Gomér‘s set and lighting – for the Leeds performances only – remarkably supportive of the narrative, despite the imposed minimalism.
Director Sam Brown was rightly applauded for bringing it all together so successfully.
Sung in German with English titles.
If you remain unconvinced as to what all the fuss is about, Opera North provides a short taster from the final rehearsals on their website. Sample it and make up your own mind as to whether to book tickets. With two scheduled intervals, the opera takes just short of five and a quarter hours to perform. Take something to snack on, if required, though food and drink can be ordered on-line in advance. Please note the 4pm start time.
Photography by Clive Barda. Feature photograph: Toby Spence as Parsifal.