Parsifal review – the shimmering beauty of Wagner’s score shines

Grand theatre, Leeds
Richard Farnes and the Opera North orchestra take centre stage in Sam Brown’s staging of Wagner’s final opera, with Brindley Sherratt a compelling Gurnemanz and Toby Spence a thoughtful lead

Opera North’s Wagner journey, which began with the Ring cycle it presented between 2011 and 2014, continues with his final music drama. Unlike the previous instalments, though, Parsifal is presented not in Leeds Town Hall (currently being refurbished) but in the company’s home theatre, so that the staging is more elaborate than before; on tour it will be presented as a more straightforward concert staging.

As before, though, Opera North’s orchestra, conducted again by its former music director Richard Farnes, takes centre stage. Literally, in this case, as it fills the space of the Grand theatre, with the drama played out in front and sometimes behind it, and spilling into the auditorium for the choral set pieces. As one of the greatest glories of Wagner’s score is its extraordinary orchestral writing, that is no disadvantage at all, and Farnes’ control and shaping of four hours of music is as sure as ever. To those reared on Hans Knappertsbusch’s classic Parsifal recordings, his tempi may sometimes seem rather brisk, and there is perhaps more intense beauty to be wrung out of the third-act prelude than there was here, but in general the shimmering poetry of the score is wonderfully conveyed.

Interestingly self-aware: Toby Spence as Parsifal

Interestingly self-aware: Toby Spence as Parsifal
 Photograph: Clive Barda

There is no set, just an array of lights at the back of the stage creating different patterns and effects. Costumes (by Stephen Rodwell) are unspecifically modern – grey hoodies for Gurnemanz and the grail knights, quasi-military uniforms for Titurel and Klingsor. For the most part, too, Sam Brown’s production sticks to the basic narrative, and only diverges significantly towards the ends of the first and third acts. If his gloss on the final scene of Act One, having the grail knights smear themselves with the blood seeping from Amfortas’s wound, is reasonable enough, the image he conjures for the end of the opera introduces a jarring sense of kitsch: it is not the grail that is unveiled, but a baby, held aloft by Kundry, who is clad in Madonna blue.

Musically, though, the performance, built on the foundation of Farnes and the orchestra, never puts a foot wrong. It’s dominated by Brindley Sherratt as Gurnemanz, whose every word of his first-act narration is crystal-clear and compelling. Robert Hayward is an anguished Amfortas and Derek Welton an implacable Klingsor, and while Toby Spence’s Parsifal may not be the most heroic ever heard, he is interestingly self-aware, visibly bothered by what he does not understand of the grail ritual; that is until the third act, when Brown has him and Katerina Karnéus’s previously rather sisterly Kundry smirking at each other like soppy teenagers. In the scheme of things, though, these are minor irritations; the glory of Wagner’s score shines through.

• Further performances at the Grand theatre, Leeds on 4, 7 and 10 June, then touring to Manchester (12 June), Nottingham (15th), Gateshead (18th) and London (26th).

Contributor

Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
A knight’s tale: Brindley Sherratt on the stamina and storytelling of Wagner’s Parsifal
The bass is singing Gurnemanz in Wagner’s epic final opera. How do you get to grips with the challenges of such a demanding role – and still not get the best dressing room?

Brindley Sherratt

15, Jun, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
Parsifal – review

The remarkable power and conviction of Nikolaus Lehnhoff's disturbing Wagnerian world returns to London in triumph, writes Andrew Clements

Andrew Clements

17, Feb, 2011 @5:07 PM

Article image
Siegfried/ Götterdämmerung review – not just praiseworthy but wonderful
The power and greed of Wagner’s Ring have never rung more true than in this imaginatively staged and beautifully played production

Martin Kettle

04, Jul, 2016 @12:48 PM

Article image
Das Rheingold review – Opera North's back-to-basics Wagner feels like a liberation
This was a concentrated and riveting realisation of the first part of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, with Jo Pohleim’s Alberich and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s Loge particularly strong

Martin Kettle

29, Jun, 2016 @1:17 PM

Parsifal – review

Conductor and orchestra were fabulous, but key singing personnel weren't on form, writes Andrew Clements

Andrew Clements

01, Apr, 2012 @5:45 PM

Article image
‘About as big as it gets’: behind the scenes of Wagner’s The Valkyrie at English National Opera
ENO returns to live performances this season with a bold, ambitious choice: Wagner’s The Valkyrie. At the technical rehearsal we watched it take shape inside the Coliseum

Imogen Tilden, photographs by David Levene

18, Nov, 2021 @9:03 AM

Article image
Parsifal – review

A sublime performance, stripped of Christian references, of a totally involving if problematic opera impresses Andrew Clements

Andrew Clements

01, Dec, 2013 @2:10 PM

Article image
Parsifal: Wagner's 'Buddhist piece'
Parsifal has been seen as the most antisemitic and ideologically suspect of any of Wagner's works, but that's not how Nikolaus Lehnhoff's ENO production treats it, writes Tom Service

Tom Service

10, Feb, 2011 @10:00 PM

Die Walküre – review
Erik Nelson Werner and Alwyn Mellor are glorious in Opera North's "austerity Ring", which continues to enthral and amaze, writes Tim Ashley

Tim Ashley

17, Jun, 2012 @4:01 PM

Article image
Pleasure review – Lesley Garrett shines as the lady of the loo
Mark Simpson’s inventive new opera finds heartwarming emotion in the parade of colourful characters passing through the toilets of a gay club

Alfred Hickling

29, Apr, 2016 @10:21 AM