The stuff Grail legends are made of

As soon as I read in a review somewhere that there was a disused railway line in English National Opera’s production of Parsifal, a vague memory was stirred. Sure enough, it was the myriad details of the production that brought memories of an earlier encounter flooding back: a tribute to the simple power of the staging.  The ramp in the first act under which the red-brown fur-clad Kundry disappears; Klingsor in his circular perch and the sensual/scary Flowermaidens of Act 2; and Act 3’s already-mentioned railway line are the principal ones.  1999 was six years into my opera-going ‘career’, and still the singing is a crucial detail I can’t recall for the benefit of comparison.

Lehnhoff’s production is complex but admirably clear in the story it tells.  This Grail plays, if not exactly against the text, then certainly with a less-than-straight bat, so that it is only in the most explicit lyrics that you are forced to consider this Grail to be the Grail of, well, ‘Grail legend’.  And that helps, because there is more to ‘grab hold of’ for an audience less likely to be steeped in the Christian symbolism of the Grail legend as was the author of the work.  I puzzled over meanings occasionally, though never irritably, and invariably I found such musings a welcome distraction during the occasional longeur.  And as I did so, slowly and surely the music was working its devious, subtle magic.  I am always a little torn about Parsifal, much as I recorded in my write-up of Tannhäuser, since I find it hard to ‘buy into’ the Christian narrative.  Well, not this production: I think it speaks loudly on whichever level you seek to engage with it, without ever feeling it is doing anything counter to the music and text – and that is its real strength.

There are details that could be sharpened up with, perhaps, more modern stage practice:  the Grail as a sheet of luminescent yellow through an opening in the scenery doesn’t quite have the impact it might, especially if perhaps you aren’t sitting centre-stalls.  The curious uplit skull-in-chain-mail for Titurel also doesn’t quite come up to scratch, and occasionally brought to mind images of the Muppets.  That pesky scene with the spear, thrown by Klingsor and supposedly ‘caught’ by Parsifal, as if by magic or divine intervention, doesn’t quite come off in the rather feeble tussle that ensues between them…  But these are relatively minor quibbles for  a staging that so convincingly provides a coherent telling of a relatively short narrative of nonetheless epic length.

On this, the last night, the singing was, in the main, first rate.  Sir John Tomlinson seems to be dividing opinion at the moment, with a number of people commenting on his vocal ‘wobble’.  I can’t say I noticed it significantly, or if I did, I’m afraid I could not find a single ounce of reservation in thinking his portrayal of Gurnemanz utterly captivating.  He has an authority that is riveting:  he adds character and nuance to every word, every line, every great paragraph of the text.  He was clearly audible and, for the first time since they were introduced, made me feel that the surtitles were a distraction, so good was his diction and projection.  In the interview in the programme, he describes Gurnemanz as “a warm bath” in comparison to the Wanderer in Siegfried: “It’s therapy in itself, like a vocal exercise”.  Well, certainly, that’s how he made it sound, and every resource left over to him seemed to be channelled into a detailed dramatic presentation.

Stuart Skelton was as remarkable a Parsifal as he had been a Peter Grimes.  His voice is clean and clear, and he carried the role deftly, growing suredly into the despairing questor for – and then confident inheritor of – the Grail responsibility.  The work’s early presentation of Parsifal – as callow heroic youth – is as difficult to bring off here as it is in young Siegfried, but the later, more authoritative scenes more than compensated.  This was despite what appeared to be an injured foot, which must have made picking his way tentatively across that railway line – particularly in the rather cumbersome knightly clobber – rather tricky.  Certainly, the opera world appeared to nearly lose one of its most promising heldentenors in a very long time, when he stumbled forwards in the direction of the orchestra pit as he went to applaud the orchestra…

There also seems to be much division on the subject of Jane Dutton’s Kundry.  Her mezzo-tinted tone suited the declamatory lower-lying passages better than the fearsome histrionics of the confrontation with Parsifal in Act 2.  At times there was a real feeling of her pushing her vocal boundaries as the score demanded from her an unrelenting – and, indeed, escalating – force.  Dramatically, though, it was a fine performance.  Act 1’s Kundry is a barmy sort of deal: she has to yelp, mutter, groan and flop about with no real coherence or sense.  Act 2 is a world away and takes in the sort of philosophical debate that is a regular feature of the Ring: this time it’s principally on the comparative and interchangeable role of mothers and lovers (nothing going on in Wagner’s subconscious there, then…).  Anyway, Dutton held these long spans with commitment and restless dramatic variation, as she reached an increasingly desparate climax.

Iain Patterson gave extrovert force to Amfortas’s anguish, and the scenes in which he seemed to be swept up and manhandled by the chorus of knights, starved of the Grail’s rejuvenating force, were intense indeed.  Tom Fox raged effectively as Klingsor, and the other cast members gave consistent and sterling support.

Wigglesworth’s conducting didn’t quite do it for me in the same way.  It had dramatic pulse, definitely, and overall it kept a coherent arc as the story developed.  This helped the building power of the overall performance, but it came at the expense of a clean, powerful account of some of the big moments.  As a consequence, some of the catharsis of the Good Friday music, for example, or the Act 1 transformation music was lost.  And when I say ‘clean’, I mean that sonorities seemed sometimes muddied and the co-ordination didn’t appear entirely spot-on.  In a work of this length and scale it’s not the worst fault, but it did take something away from an otherwise top-flight performance.  The orchestra may have missed that last ounce of ‘shimmer’ in some of the orchestral set-pieces, but they compensated with their responsive pulse.

After the Lucrezia Borgia film experiment, it was good to be at English National Opera (or, indeed, any opera house, given my last visit to Covent Garden), at which there was a straightforward commitment to performing one of the great pieces of the repertory, drawing on the best of the repertory’s traditions.  A powerful opera, performed with all the power that results from an excellent cast and an intelligent director’s vision.  Magical.

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