Opera North travel south and bring Wagner with them.
Wagner’s final, and greatest work for the stage has been absent from London for way too long. It was last seen at The Royal Opera in Wagner’s bicentenary year, 2013, and although there was a rumour that a revival of Stephen Langridge’s staging had been planned for 2020, Tristan und Isolde appeared on the schedule in its place, which in turn was scuppered by Covid. The rest, as they say, is history. Parsifal’s neglect is hard to fathom – especially given its regular appearance at the majority of front-ranking European houses. Compared to other Wagner operas these days it’s not hard to cast either, and doesn’t require the orchestral forces of The Ring, so the reasons why we don’t see it more often remain a mystery.
Opera North’s originally announced semi-stagings were due to take place in 2020 at Leeds Town Hall, which had been home to their brilliantly devised Ring Cycle, but Covid and planned renovations of the venue forced a rethink. A happy compromise was found. Sam Brown’s staging, complete with costumes and lighting, opened to great acclaim at The Grand Theatre, Leeds – the company’s home – in June, followed by touring ‘concert version’ to cities where they perform regularly. The addition of London caused Parsifal-starved Londoners to salivate at the prospect of hearing Wagner’s enigmatic masterpiece, so not surprisingly the Royal Festival Hall was almost sold out for last Sunday’s performance.
And what a performance! The undoubted architect of its success was conductor Richard Farnes – the company’s former music director, returning after his sensational Ring Cycle in 2016. He coaxed glowing, luminous playing from the ever-attentive Opera North Orchestra, whose stamina never faltered from first note to last. Thankfully eschewing the morbidly dull, energy sapping tempi favoured by Reginald Goodall, and sadly many other British conductors since, Farnes’ conducting was alive to every nuance of the drama. His reading was fleet, yet never perfunctory, energised, yet never rushed. The ebb and flow of the work was perfectly judged while the transformation music in the outer acts had an inexorable emotional pull I’ve not experienced in a live performance before. Quite simply, this was Wagner conducting of the highest order, and by far the best conducted Parsifal I’ve heard in this country, the first being in 1985 at English National Opera conducted by Reginald Goodall.
It was also, in many respects, fabulously sung. Opera North doesn’t have the financial resources to cast at an international level, yet despite this no one would have left the Royal Festival Hall feeing short-changed. Far from it, as there were three performances that would have happily graced the world’s leading opera houses. The bedrock of the entire evening was Brindley Sherratt’s incomparable Gurnemanz. I’ve heard him give countless memorable performances in a wide range of roles, but he’s done nothing finer than this. His ability to act with the voice, allied to faultless diction, made his storytelling in the first act compelling – the audience hanging on his every word. Although the role is a big sing, he never tired – his richly coloured, beautifully sculpted bass as imperious as he anointed Parsifal in the final act as it had been remonstrating him in the first. It was hard to believe this was Sherratt’s role debut – I only hope we can see his Gurnemanz in a fully staged production before too long.
“The addition of London caused Parsifal-starved Londoners to salivate…”
Conversely, Australian bass-baritone Derek Welton has sung the role of Klingsor many times before, most notably in Bayreuth and in Berlin, and it showed. Not only was he thoroughly inside the character, but his singing was effortlessly produced. In a role that is so often ‘barked’ it was an unalloyed delight to hear it actually sung, and sung so well. I can’t think of a better interpreter of the role today – and he’s certainly the best since Donald McIntyre sang it in the late ‘60s. Having also sung Wotan (Das Rheingold) in Berlin, this prodigiously gifted young singer clearly is on the way to becoming a major international star.
Kundry is one of Wagner’s most complex characters – part seductress, part penitent, and although written for a soprano, much of the role lies low, so needs a singer equipped with a wide vocal range. Most mezzos can do justice to the majority of the low-lying vocal writing, but come a cropper in the closing pages of Act II, which is written in dramatic soprano territory. Katarina Karnéus certainly wasn’t fazed by what was required of her vocally at either end of the spectrum, but was particularly affecting in her seduction scene. That being said, her cry of ‘Lachte’ was hair-raising, as was her rejection of Parsifal in the final scene. She coloured the text judiciously, and even within the confines of this semi-staging, was a magnetic stage presence.
The obtrusive beat in Robert Hayward’s voice didn’t seem out of place for the anguish that the role of Amfortas embodies – in many ways it enhanced it. Some dodgy German pronunciation notwithstanding, Hayward cut a suitably tragic figure, his redemption all the more moving given the vulnerability of his interpretation. In the title role, Toby Spence’s musicianship was never in doubt, but he has neither the vocal heft, nor the vocal colours the role requires. It may not be a big sing, but any tenor taking on this role needs to be able to cut though the orchestra, and unfortunately Spence could not.
The augmented chorus was on magnificent form, although it’s a shame Wagner’s spatial effect of having the women’s chorus offstage was ignored. Knights, Squires, and Flower maidens were cast from strength, the latter mellifluously led by soprano Elin Pritchard. All in all this was a magnificent company achievement, of which everyone at Opera North should be enormously proud.
• The performance at the Grand Theatre Leeds was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 2 July. You can listen to it here.