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Seen and Heard Opera Review

R. Wagner Parsifal (new production premiere) soloists, Universal Opera, Glastonbury, 25th March 2005 (RoH)

With all of the irony that besets the arts these days, the UK’s newest opera company presented Parsifal in Glastonbury, home of the legendary Holy Thorn and summer rock festival on Good Friday. ‘Parsifal is by no means a religious work in my view,’ the production’s director said at her inaugural Press Conference, ‘but the festival arena has the facilities we need.’



Backed by government grants and National Lottery money, Universal Opera is a seriously ambitious project. Its Vision Statement (Real Opera, Real Stories, Real People) neatly sums up its purpose - non-elitist and affordable opera for all - and in the forthcoming year the company anticipates audiences of a million or more at strategically chosen venues. Admission prices are low (or gratis for the unwaged) and even greater numbers can view the performances from the company’s web site.

A controversial aspect of Universal’s work is its firm decision to stage all productions in their original languages but without surtitles. Audiences are issued with pocket PCs loaded with seventy translations of the libretti, to which more languages can be added on request. ‘It’s the best possible balance between inclusiveness and textual accuracy,’ Government Arts Minister Estelle Morris told Parliament on March 3rd when announcing new funding for Culture Online.

In keeping with its intentions, Universal Opera has also engaged young artists of proven quality from widely diverse social, national and cultural backgrounds and will be equally innovative with its repertoire. For the forthcoming two seasons, commissions have already been agreed for a new Cornish opera, Boscastle Rising, from Redruth - based composer Petroc Murrain, and for The Real Da Vinci Code by Australia’s Rochelle Beasley. Both will be premiered in 2006/ 07 along with Don Carlos, West Side Story and Sadko.


The Glastonbury Parsifal is not small beer. Directed and designed by Fiona Bombazine, the production has a large chorus and full orchestra, uses laser technology like the Kupfer / Barenboim Ring and is set mostly in a well-realised multi-storey car park. The Montsalvat Community is shown as a support group for disaffected men, left by their partners without access to their children and dressed in the super-hero costumes of Fathers for Justice. Amfortas is in a wheel-chair as a result of a hit and run accident and Gurnemanz is a dedicated community worker doing his best to sustain morale. ‘It’s a story of oppression and injustice,’ Bombazine says in her programme notes, ‘A morality for post-feminist society.’

Into this setting stumble Parsifal and Kundry. He is the witless product of single parenting by a chronically depressed mother and she is the stereotypical ‘Tart with a Heart’ torn by conflict between desire and duty. When Parsifal kills a chicken on the City Farm that the men have created from waste land, he is tried (uncomprehendingly) by the community, issued with an Antisocial Behaviour Order (ASBO) and is banned by Amfortas from the neighbourhood.

Within Klingsor’s realm, we find the Flower Maidens in charge. Dressed as supermodels, they have all had obvious cosmetic surgery, are holding an Anne Summers party and are wildly drunk on alcopops. Klingsor’s emasculation is represented graphically too: spearless, he feebly waves a limp whip and has clearly lost all charm for the women. Kundry (now dressed as Catwoman) taunts him with her question, ‘Bist du Keusch?’ (usually ‘Are you chaste?’ in English) and the PC translation gives this as ‘Gagging for it, are we?’ At the crucial moment of the Kiss, Parsifal’s memory stirs suddenly and in flashback he watches a video film of himself with his parents on a day trip to the beach.

Act III opens in the car park's basement, to which Gurnemanz has retreated in his later years. Sounds of a carnival are heard outside and when Gurnemanz investigates them he finds Kundry lying cold and apparently lifeless, but dressed as Lara Croft. As she whispers ‘Dienen, dienen’ (here translated as ‘My name is Kundry, how may I help you?’) Parsifal approaches, carrying Klingsor’s whip.

Hans-Peter Ringmann as Parsifal

After Gurnemanz sings his long narration, ‘Wir sind im Winterschlaf’ to explain how Amfortas and the community have lost all faith in themselves since Titurel died, it is clear that the coincidence of Parsifal’s return and the carnival festivities will bring everyone new hope. Assisted by Gurnemanz, the still nervous Parsifal displays all of his hard-won wisdom as he welcomes Kundry (a strong and attractive woman once again) into the community as a full member. As masculine and feminine principles are finally reconciled, the ‘Grail’ ceremony, at which the men exchange memories of their children and meditate on their futures, is celebrated eagerly and with renewed vigour.


Ms Bombazine has already stated that Steven Soderbergh’s 1989 film Sex, Lies and Videotape was an important influence on her artistic development. ‘I saw it when I was at High School,’ she said in a recent radio interview, ‘and thought that if a man could direct a feminist film, then maybe I should reciprocate. This Parsifal (my first opera production) seemed the ideal vehicle, especially in the light of recent events.’ She is prepared for a good deal of criticism however from those maintaining that she sells women short. ‘Look closer,’ she says to them in advance, ‘Strong women are wonderful, but old Dottie Parker could be wrong sometimes.’

Musically this is an excellent production. The latest Finnish prodigy Mikko Hiirenloukku has a grip on the score that belies his years and sustains a sense of architectural grandeur throughout. The Prelude is firm but fluid and the 'Good Friday' music is more than usually meditative. That Hiirenloukku understands this music deeply is beyond all question, and yet one of life’s true mysteries will be to wonder forever where the steel band effect comes from in Act III. Not a note is changed in the score, but the carnival melodies are clearly audible throughout, blending perfectly with the 'heavenly' childrens' voices as the 'Grail' music reaches its climax.


Grazia Plena as Kundry


As Kundry, Italian – born soprano Grazia Plena looks terrific (especially in her Lara Croft costume) and sings with astonishing power. Although her operatic experience is limited as yet (she has only done The Yeomen of the Guard so far) this is a hoch dramatisch voice in the making without a doubt. Hans-Peter Ringmann’s Parsifal is also splendid. Sounding like a cross between the younger Svanholm and Josef Locke, he is Wiener Kammersänger material almost certainly, unless seduced by the bigger heldentenor roles too early. Of the other principals, the American Max Brute makes a dignified and sonorous Gurnemanz, Alain Seraillier a French but audible Amfortas and Russian Artur Pnimm is an appropriately subterranean Titurel. It is a bold choice however, to have Klingsor sung by counter-tenor Ron Palermo with the vocal compass transposed upwards.


For a seasoned opera house this Parsifal would be a landmark; for the first production from a new company, it is a near (though non-religious) miracle. Do see it at all costs; they're minuscule.


Rosie Hughes



Universal Opera's web site: www.universalop.org.uk


Pictures of Glastonbury and Hans-Peter Ringmann: courtesy of

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