Opera North 2022 Review: Parsifal
Brindley Sherratt’s Breathtaking Gurnemanz Shines in Semi-Staged ProductionBy Benjamin Poore
(Photo: Mark Allan)
Last time Opera North visited London’s Southbank Centre it was for an award-winning semi-staged Ring cycle, conducted by then music director Richard Farnes. They even made a gripping and hugely instructive recording for YouTube that shows the entire tetralogy from a camera placed right in front of the conductor. He returns to the Royal Festival Hall with the orchestra of Opera North for another Wagner – “Parsifal,” the ambivalent and mysterious “festival play for the consecration of the stage” that dazzles and perplexes with its heady brew of blood, sex, magic and redemption.
When this production opened at the Leeds Grand – the symbolic home of Opera North, who tour widely – it was in a substantial concert staging, with lighting, projections, costumes, props, and more involved movement. Sam Brown’s production has grown leaner on its journey down to London via Manchester and Newcastle and in this stripped-back presentation offers an illuminated grail in the choir behind the orchestra, and a row of blood-red chairs at the front of the stage, which diminish from six in Act one to two by the very end, as if to reflect the scattering of the knights and the diminishing of the Grail kingdom.
Even though it looked un-promisingly like stand and deliver, this was far from the case. The traces of the director’s hand remain in careful use of stands and sits, well-timed turns, expression, and movement. A couple of moments fall flat without the armature of the theatre – this is an opera about spectacle and illusion after all – notably the mimed spear-throwing at the end of Act two, which was crying for a prop, or some kind of signal in the lighting.
Luminous Musical Clarity
But what directors are able to skirt in terms of creating a coherent theatrical concept for this most baffling of Wagner’s works they gain luminous musical clarity, and here Brown is aided by an impressive cast.
Brindley Sherratt’s background is as a well-oiled singer of the Italian bel canto repertoire, but lately he has made a compelling sojourn into Wagner, first as a belt-and-braces Fafner in ”Das Rheingold” in the Festival Hall with Vladimir Jurowski pre-pandemic, and latterly as an inky, malevolent Hunding in Richard Jones recent “Valkyrie” at ENO. (A recent cameo as King Mark in last year’s “Tristan” at Glyndebourne was also noteworthy).
As Gurnemanz, he cements his reputation in this area of the repertoire. Wagner famously wanted his singers to deliver the music as if it were Bellini – legato, melodious, and certainly never parked nor barked. Sherratt delivered a masterclass in Wagner singing, both technically and dramatically. With a remarkable economy of gesture he renders Gurnemanz’s great narrations utterly gripping, with a remarkable precision in terms of intonation, attack, and consistency of sound, with vowels that are paragons of clarity and resonating potential. The strength in the voice comes from the purity and finesse of the diction, remarkably sustained over Act one’s span.
There was character in spades too: a careworn guilty quality in his shifty responses to the knights’ enquiries; tenderness in handling Kundry in Act three. A standout moment of real vocal daring and artistry came in Act one: “durch Mitleid wissend, / der reine Tor” was sung as a feathery whisper, at miraculously intimate volume, in a peerless moment of vocal artistry. Sherratt would sing the most sensational Hans Sachs, and let us hope he is engaged to do so soon – perhaps even by Opera North.
Derek Welton’s Klingsor proved another vocal highlight. His steely baritone made light work of Wagner’s dramatic Act two orchestration. His voice has a commanding – one might even say enchanting – fullness and heft that established his status and authority in this relatively spare staging, not least during a thrilling summoning of Kundry at the top of Act two. His physical presence and movement was more extravagant than that of other characters in this semi-staging, perhaps veering into silliness at times – arms raised aloft with Jedi-like Force powers – but Welton played his part with just enough wryness that it came off. One senses a costume might’ve helped tonally.
Mixed But Solid Results
Toby Spence sang the title role. He is a not a heldentenor, which cleared the ground for a less butch, swaggering vocal portayal, in considerable contrast to, say, the glinting brightness of a Simon O’Neill or burnished darkness of Jonas Kaufmann in the role. Spence is limpid and softer-hued in the role, which at times – not least on hearing of his mother’s death – created moments of real melancholy that felt understated and inward rather than breast-beating.
On the other hand, it is a smaller voice and with an uncovered orchestra there was just not enough of it at times – his confrontation with Klingsor at the climax of Act two was a little damp, though the earlier climaxes had sufficient power and gravitas to really land – not least his great cry of “Erlöser!” His slighter voice meant that top notes were pushed and occasionally squeezed, distorting the vowels and losing the wonderful qualities he showed off in more intimate moments. By Act three he began to tire and his final monologue felt a little embattled, though he sang tastefully throughout.
His costume – a flash of white shirt in an otherwise black and suited staging – probably didn’t help with the impact, as its particular length and cut made him look rather like a waiter. Some Wein und Brot for the table, sir?
Katarina Karnéus sang Kundry. She was brighter and steelier than other accounts of the role, which turn up the volume on its sensuality and voluptuousness. Her voice brings more blade and edge to the role, which adds to the fraught emotional atmosphere, a toxic mix of shame and despair. She had all the top notes that one might want, and never wavered during the treacherous and taxing passengers that grow in volume and virtuosity – fearlessly leaping across Wagner’s vertiginous changes in registration. As with Farnes’ conducting – more on that later – detail and accuracy were key, singing a thrillingly anguished “und lachte…” in Act two.
Robert Hayward’s vibrato may veer a little wide, and the knock-on effect it sometimes has on intonation can clouded some of the higher-lying passages as Amfortas. Nonetheless in his Act one sequence Hayward impressed with a soft-grained and slightly gravelly tenderness and delicacy in his narration; at the other end of the spectrum, the singing in the climactic monologue in Act three was powerful and exacting, with top notes given their full due.
Stephen Richardson’s Titurel sang from the very rear of the choir stalls, achieving most of the effect we’re accustomed to in productions of the piece, and had a similarly careworn – though more monumental – quality to Hayward.
A lustrous group of Flower Maidens completed the lineup – Miranda Bevin, Samantha Clarke, Helen Évora, Elin Pritchard, Victoria Sharp, and Kathryn Stevens. Vocally they took an incisive approach, with harder edges and plenty of articulation – less shrinking violet and more Venus flytrap, ready to ensnare poor Toby Spence.
Their semi-chorus was supported by superb work from the Opera North chorus proper, prepared by Oliver Rundell. A few ensemble problems from the women placed at considerable apart in the choir stalls for Act two, they offered explosive support for the soloists out front, including a brilliantly acidic “Tor!”
The tenors and basses shone in Act three, with a murky, beautifully-covered sound in a glowering “Geleiten wir im bergenden Schrein.” The tenors in particular maintained a baritonal burnish throughout the increasingly agitated sequence, as they urge Amfortas to unveil the Grail. The final minutes – “Erlösung dem Erlöser!” – were impressively burnished and luminous the Festival Hall’s dry acoustic.
Stars of the Night
The stars, perhaps, are the Opera North orchestra under Farnes’ direction. His approach to tempi and pacing are what stood out most: a sense of pace and internal movement – he beat the opening in eight rather than four, animating its syncopations and dotted rhythms – but never pressing or rushing, allowing the score’s miraculous luminosity to grow and bloom. No risk of the glacial accounts of Karajan or Reginald Goodall, but plenty of attention to detail too.
A special shoutout should go to Opera North concertmaster David Greed who gave his final performance with the orchestra that night, after 44 years of service – he was greeted with a huge ovation at the final tuning before the beginning of Act three, an apt summary of an illustrious career with the orchestra, and summed up in his exquisitely sinuous violin solos in Act two.
The final minute of Act two saw a remarkable excavation of Wagner’s orchestration, showing us just how rich it is, framed by startling interjections from timpani, with what felt like harder sticks than in traditional accounts. Playing throughout was pungent and heady, with ferocious attack from the strings, who gleamed throughout, and brass playing that was fulsome and rich though never brash and blaring.
Farnes is one tipped to succeed Antonio Pappano at the Royal Opera House – on the strength of this performance we may well expect to see more of him in London.