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Wagner, ParsifalSoloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera/Mark Wigglesworth. London Coliseum, 16.2.2011 (CC)


Stuart Skelton - Parsifal

Iain Paterson - Amfortas

Andrew Greenan - Titurel

John Tomlinson - Gurnemanz

Tom Fox - Klingsor

Jane Dutton - Kundry

Adrian Dwyer - First Knight

Robert Winslade Anderson - Second Knight

Julia Sporson - First Squire

Stephanie Marshall - Second Squire

Christopher Turner - Third Squire

Michael Bracegirdle - Fourth Squire

Amy Karenza Sedgwick - Voice from Above


Director Nikolaus Lehnhoff


In a fine cast for the first night of this revival of Nikolaus Lehnhoff's production of Parsifal (a production first seen here in 1999), there was really only one star. John Tomlinson's Gurnemanz dominated the Coliseum. With the ENO orchestra in fine fettle (some occasional ragged wind and brass chords aside), this made for a memorable evening. There were some major players on the stage – that Tomlinson emerged so strongly is testament to the huge experience he brings to the part. Remember, he sang 18 consecutive seasons at Bayreuth (from 1988). He knows how to spin a tale – and Gurnemanz is Master Narrator bar none. Not a single hint of longeur here. If, in Wagner's vision, time and space become one (Transformation Music), there is another element to time: Wagner shatters its illusion with the aid of a fine interpreter. Half hours, hours speed away as the listener loses all conception of time's processional. Tomlinson alone achieved this, ably aided by Wigglesworth. Parsifal is there to achieve enlightenment and light all around him, but at the beginning of the piece Gurnemanz is the most enlightened of all on stage, able to chronicle and explore, if not explain, history. And even he does not recognise Parsifal as redeemer at first (he rejects him at the end of the first act). Tomlinson's hopeful moments, underscored by Wagner's luminous scoring, are magnificent. The moment he greets the spear (Act I) was simply transcendent.


Lehnhoff's vision is bleak. Uncompromisingly so. In the booklet notes to the Opus Arte issue of his production (there with Kent Nagano in the driving seat: OA 0915 D), Lehnhoff refers to Wagner's music telling us “mercilessly... of total loneliness”; here is a world where “everyone is an outsider”, an “empty world stripped of its former meaning”, where “lost souls wander aimlessly through time and space”. The setting is truly surreal. A boulder (I've heard it suggested a fallen comet) juts out into the stage, later to revolve and disassociate itself with its surroundings. The set for act one is relentlessly grey; the costumes for Gurnemanz and the Squires match and accentuate the prevailing oppression. The Squires actually seemed to be animated (or at least semi-animated) terractotta figures. Amfortas still holds out hope (“Durch Mitleid wissend” - Enlightened through compassion, he repeats) yet the major rituals of this piece have lost their spiritual depth (is Lehnhoff making a sideswipe at the rituals as they stand of churches the world over? – I hope so). The stage is deliberately vague as to place – this is an alternative netherworld set somewhere in the multiverse, maybe on a parallel earth with a different evolutionary history. The oppressive staging emphasises the hope in Wagner's Leitmotifs, and, indeed, their inner glow, the inner spirituality of the very music itself. The upward slope with its scattered chairs threatens our ability to perspectivise our surroundings; the men (chorus) that enter prior to Titurel turn to each other and hold each other in some sort of quasi-Masonic position; Titurel himself is a living, glowing, grotesque semi-skeleton.


The spear (Longinus'?) and Grail are holy elements here. They remain unassailable in their holiness (the Grail is manifested by pure white light, the archetypal symbol of Spirit, emanating from a central strip in the stage), but the rituals themselves we see are shorn of their magic. Kundry, the wild woman who acts as Grail/Klingsor go-between, attains enlightenment through the intervention of a pure spirit, Parsifal. It is important to show Parsifal as innocent and arrogant – not stupid, and in this Stuart Skelton succeeded magnificently. As an innocent, he sees the world as revolving around him, just as a child does. The staging of the ritual at the end of Act I sets the participants in a symmetric shape. It is Parsifal, the outsider, who wanders around them, curious as to what's going on. More, he symbolically upsets their tradition, both contradicting it and intertwining with it simultaneously. Uncomprehending he may be at this stage, but his dramatic function is without doubt.


As Kundry, Jane Dutton (who sang Amneris for ENO in 2007 and Santuzza in 2008) impressed by her spot-on pitching. Her sound is slightly edgy, perfect for the part, and she portrayed Kundry as mysterious, defensive yet vulnerable. No wonder the squires taunt her. Dutton had the full range the part requires, which stood her in perfect stead in the Herzeleide Narrative (special mention for Wigglesworth here, whose hushed pianissimi and perfectly timed lead-in were the stuff of gold). Her top level is wonderfully free, her lower register fully developed. Stage-wise, she begins behind a static costume before systematically shedding her layers (at one point it is like she emerges from a chrysalis). Lehnhoff's take on Kundry's multiple incarnations mentioned mentioned in the text (by Klingsor), I suppose. Dutton delivered the magical line “Gelobter Held” (here, “O noble lord”) beautifully. Wigglesworth paced Kundry's description of seeing Chist on the cross (“I saw him … and … laughed”) superbly; Dutton negotiated the huge interval on “laughed” perfectly. Skelton's Parsifal rose to the challenge of the long exchanges, his voice seeming to get stronger as the act progressed.


Andrew Greenan was a spooky Titurel, whose last breaths of authority (with an amazing depth and character of sound) were heart-wrenching. He in fact overshadowed the Amfortas, Iain Paterson. Amfortas' cries of “Have mercy” were not fully convincing, and Paterson did not hold the stage in the same way as his colleagues did.


Tom Fox, who sang Klingsor in the DVD mentioned above, was superb, a true embodiment of evil in the form of a “fallen angel”. He had all the requisite power the role demands, and more to spare. His appearance, in a somewhat insectile costume set inside a huge human skeleton (the pelvic area) was awe-inspiring. His Flower Maidens were seductive in a slightly nightmarish way, their arms extended by their costumes stamens. As a chorus, they made a huge sound where appropriate, and Wigglesworth's pace enabled them to waft seductively in the breeze.

The Squires, the true voices of the unenlightened in Parsifal, were ably sung. The chorus was its normal imposing, impressive self.

The translation used was rather clunky and awkward. Wagner's transcendent music triumphed over even this adversity, of course, but it is time for an overhaul. Holding it all together was Mark Wigglesworth. His affinity for Wagner was evident in the Prelude to Act I – specifically, the way the silences were held. These silences are, as in the music of Webern, an integral part of the music itself. Motifs reached through them, resonating in the listener's consciousness. The brass excelled (the so-called “Dresden Amen” rivalled anything that could be done across the way at the Garden). Wigglesworth let dissonances dwell. No mere voice-leading on the way to consonant arrival points, Wigglesworth was more than aware of the significance of held dissonant simultaneities in Act 1 – something that Wagner explores more fully in the second act (particularly at the moment of the Kiss). The holy aspect of Parsifal lies within the music, and even in the music's spaces. Wigglesworth ensured the essential role of silence was intact. On the other side of the coin, the opening of the second act seemed to be a distant echo of the storms of Walküre Act 1, yet they were obviously intelligently balanced orchestrationally. He lacked the final levels of depth a Goodall could achieve, but this was impressive conducting nonetheless.

This Parsifal remains a must-see. Worth noting also that the performance on March 8th will be recorded by BBC Radio 3 for “future transmission” (the programme was no more specific than that).


Colin Clarke

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