Opera North (Parsifal)
Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham
June 15 2022
Review: William Ruff
Five hours of thrilling intensity and musical beauty from Opera North
Wagner’s Parsifal, his final opera, has had to wait to 141 years for its Nottingham première: not in the Theatre Royal with props, costumes and scenery but in the Royal Concert Hall. If you weren’t there for Opera North’s sublime performance, this may sound like cheating but those who were there will now know, more than ever, that the best pictures come from your imagination. And there’s quite a lot in Parsifal which is perhaps best left to the imagination, such as the passing swan which is shot and has to land on stage and the spear hurled by the villain which the hero has to catch.
Everything about Parsifal is on the very grandest scale. It’s scored for a vast orchestra, must have the most impressive chorus ever and a line-up of soloists who must have two sets of vocal chords, one made of steel, the other of velvet. And they have to be able to save their best for the end of a performance which typically lasts over five hours. And the subject matter isn’t for those who like a bit of light entertainment. The story happens in a mythic world of heroic knights who guard the Holy Grail – except that some have gone seriously astray and have been tempted to sully their purity by consorting with seductive ‘flower maidens’ supplied by a local magician who’s as bitter as he is twisted. It’s a very complicated plot but it involves recapturing the spear (from Christ’s Crucifixion) and using it to heal a nasty wound sustained by the knights’ leader whilst he was being a Very Naughty Boy with the ‘flower maidens’. And yes, Parsifal is your man for capturing spears and doing a spot of ultimate healing.
Like all Wagner’s operas it’s serious stuff with weighty themes including compassion, fellow-suffering and the necessity to withdraw from the world the better to realise your spiritual potential. But if all this sounds like a grim and gloomy way to spend five hours, then you’d be wrong.
Opera North’s may have been ‘only’ a concert performance but it was full of the most intense drama and the sort of thrilling, high-definition music making which gives the hairs on the back of your neck plenty of exercise. And in some important ways it was better than any fully staged version could be because in the RCH the orchestra was at the centre of the drama, not hidden away in a pit, so that every detail could shine and make its full impact. The conductor, Richard Farnes, was a joy to watch throughout, his direction elegant, precise, never showy but responsive to every musical and dramatic nuance. I have said in the past that ON’s orchestra play like angels: in this Good Friday ritual of an opera the analogy is even more appropriate.
The Chorus were also on resplendent form, highly effective at both ends of the spectrum whether being holy knights or unholy temptresses. They brought huge strength and conviction to their role as guardians of the Holy Grail in scenes of sacred ritual.
The lion’s share of super-human music making is entrusted to a handful of singers whom Wagner asks to do the impossible. Brindley Sherratt as Gurnemanz was one of the central pillars, central to the story-telling, noble and authoritative both as singer and actor. The role of Kundry must be one of the most complex as well as one of the most taxing which Wagner ever created for a woman. Katerina Karnéus was riveting throughout with a voice which cut through the orchestral texture on its journey between emotional extremes. Derek Welton was brilliantly cast as the magician Klingsor, dark-voiced, evil-eyed, giving the kind of performance which pins you back in your seat as soon as he walks on stage. Robert Hayward was Amfortas, the ruler of the Kingdom of the Grail, whose moral weakness has led to a horrible wound and a whole lot of trouble. His was a performance which projected dignified remorse whilst generating sympathy for his all-too-human failings.
And then there is Parsifal himself: Toby Spence as the innocent fool who has the job of making everything OK once more. It was an ardent yet appropriately introspective account of the role: touching in its initial naiveté yet capable of reaching spiritual maturity. As is often the case with Wagner, singers are expected to leap to a summit after hours of exhausting endeavour. If Toby Spence didn’t have quite enough vocal energy in reserve at the end, he made Parsifal’s touching vulnerability even more evident.
Parsifal was once famously described as ‘one of the loveliest monuments of sound ever raised to the serene glory of music.’ Judging from the standing ovation which Opera North’s performance earned, I doubt whether anyone there would have disagreed.
Cast and creative team:
Parsifal Toby Spence
Kundry Katerina Karnéus
Gurnemanz Brindley Sherratt
Amfortas Robert Hayward
Klingsor Derek Welton
Titurel Stephen Richardson
Grail Knights Ivan Sharpe
Flowermaidens Samantha Clarke
Esquires Claire Pascoe
Voice Hazel Croft
Conductor Richard Farnes
Director Sam Brown