Parsifal, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, February 2011

Easter comes late this year but Parsifal is early, and stepping into the warmth of the London Coliseum from a washed-out winter’s day was a treat. As the first bars came out of the orchestra, Mark Wigglesworth’s conducting showed the clarity and quality Wagner’s music demands, and sent tingles down my spine.

Gurnemanz and knights, early Act I, all photos by Richard Hubert Smith

Act I opens to a scene like something from ancient history. This was the Sumerian KUR, the distant land of the dead, where all is clay. The knights of the Grail are grey in costume and skin, as if made of clay, and into this ancient land beyond the normal world I almost expected the Sumerian goddess Inanna to come breezing in, as she does in the saga of Inanna’s Descent. But it was Kundry who arrived — the only splash of colour in this wasteland, until Parsifal himself enters.

Journey to the Grail in Act I

When Gurnemanz decides that perhaps this young man, who can’t even remember his own name, is the chosen fool who will bring redemption, he takes him to the ceremony of the Grail. Here Parsifal and Gurnemanz are beautifully lit, swaying side by side as if walking, while Parsifal marvels at how swiftly he moves though scarcely taking a step. I love Gurnemanz’s reply, “Du siehst mein Sohn, zum Raum wird hier die Zeit” (You see my son here space turns into time). It was rendered here, as in other translations, by “You see my son here space and time are one”, though Wagner produced this opera in 1882, before the theory of relativity. However, I liked the translation by Richard Stokes, and John Tomlinson sang Gurnemanz with such wonderful diction that the surtitles were superfluous.

In fact all the singing was clear, and when Stuart Skelton as Parsifal sang the word spear in Act III he gave it a tremendous power and lyricism, turning the simple fool of Act I into a truly heroic tenor. Iain Paterson gave Amfortas real heft, both vocally and physically, and Andrew Greenan gave a rich bass tone to Amfortas’s father Titurel in Act I. Both the first and third acts were superb, though Act II suffered slightly by comparison, with Tom Fox as Klingsor and Jane Dutton as Kundry. But the real heroes in this performance were John Tomlinson, and Mark Wigglesworth with the orchestra. I don’t know how Tomlinson does it, but his rendering of Gurnemanz was so gripping that he made the long monologues seem short.

Amfortas with the body of Titurel in Act III

Of course Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s production helps enormously. As that huge boulder rotates during the walk to the Grail in Act I it reveals a bluish light from behind, giving a cosmic feel to the movement of Gurnemanz and Parsifal. And when Parsifal acquires the spear in Act II and uses it to strike the ground, he brings demolition to Klingsor’s magic realm. Then in Act III there is a wonderful moment as Amfortas reaches into the pit inhabited by figures of clay, and drags out the body of his father. This is just before Stuart Skelton’s gloriously sung Parsifal mentions the spear, cutting through the death-like immobility of the knights. Only Parsifal, Gurnemanz, and perhaps Kundry, show any sympathy with Amfortas, and when Kundry and Parsifal walk off, beautifully lit, into the distance they have created the redemption that ends Wagner’s final opera.

The audience reaction was thunderous applause, and in case the ENO do not revive this production again, it’s well worth the price of a ticket, and train ticket if you live outside London. Performances continue until March 12 — for more details click here.

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