Leeds Grand Theatre
June 1, 4, 7 and 10, 2022; 5hr 30min
Wagner’s last opera is based on a legend about the knights of the Holy Grail. Their king, Amfortas, is suffering from an incurable wound incurred, in a moment of fleshly weakness, when he was seduced by a strange, wild woman called Kundry, who is herself under the spell of a sorcerer, Klingsor.
On the scene comes a pure young knight, Parsifal, who is both manly and naive: the great virtue he possesses, though, is compassion. He’s turned away from the knights’ temple by its guardian, Gurnemanz, for not appreciating the importance of their Grail ritual (in which Christ’s blood is said to appear, for real); then encounters the shape-shifting Kundry and other temptresses, but overcomes their temptations. Finally after many years’ wandering, Parsifal returns to the shrine on Good Friday, having got hold of the Holy Spear that first inflicted Amfortas’ wound – and his victory, purity and compassion heal Amfortas, save Kundry and bring salvation all round.
Into this, Wagner brings a representation of the rite of the Eucharist, and there are constant references to the “Redeemer”, or “Saviour”, and the idea that Kundry was once in some way present at the Crucifixion and laughed at Christ’s suffering.
Some find this jumble of Christian belief, mythical symbolism and Wagner’s ideas about sin and sex to be sacreligious and repellent. Others see it as a parable of the universal need for redemption (though without the need for human forgiveness, the point that Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale so vitally brings to that idea).
In Opera North’s first-ever production of the opera, director Sam Brown tells it as pure story, turning the Grand Theatre itself into a sort of temple, as (while the orchestra itself is on the stage) the pit has become a multi-platform construction on which some of the action takes place. The chorus also appears in the auditorium, both at stalls level and on high, to turn the whole space into one of sacred mystery, and the audience into a congregation.
Wagner would have liked that: he called the work a “festival play for a stage consecration”. Brown adds two visual ideas of his own: the close of Act One has the brotherhood of the Grail smearing themselves with blood from Amfortas’ wound, rather than simply joining in the Eucharist (symbolising unexpiated guilt?), and the ending has the saved Kundry transform into a Madonna-with-child, rather than be hovered over by the floating dove Wagner asked for (symbolising who knows what).
There’s a big, illuminated panel at the back of the performing area, which is made to glow more or less brightly at various times (generally rather reminiscent of a faulty motorway signal gantry), which I guess is supposed to indicate the hope of, and ultimately presence of, the miraculous.
Opera North has achieved great things with multimedia presentations of Wagner (and more) in concert halls, including Leeds Town Hall, in the past, but this time the company is back in its home theatre. The show will, however, be seen in concert stagings on tour, without the same costumes and lighting as in Leeds.
The real miracle in this work is the music. There’s more of that to the number of words in the script than with any other Wagner opera, and that’s why it’s worth experiencing, whatever the context. Richard Farnes, former music director of Opera North and architect of its multimedia concert versions of the Ring cycle, is in charge, and both orchestra and singers perform magnificently for him (with only a few, rare, signs of weakness in sustaining the marathon).
The principal singers are about as near to a dream line-up for the work as could be imagined. Brindley Sherratt is noble in tone and untiring in the massive role of Gurnemanz; Robert Hayward, with his power and wide tremolo, is ideal for the almost equally taxing task of acting and singing the pain-ridden, sin-burdened king Amfortas; Toby Spence, greatly in demand today as a heldentenor with huge intelligence, is ideal in his role debut as the pure hero, Parsifal. Most notable of all, perhaps, are Katarina Karneus in the one female principal role of Kundry, and Derek Welton, who brings huge energy and impact to that of the sorcerer, Klingsor.
Katarina (who, as I never cease telling anyone who’ll listen, made her stunning UK professional debut at the Tameside Hippodrome in Ashton-under-Lyne, long before her success in Cardiff Singer of the World) is possibly the superstar of the whole night. Her role, for all that it might be considered misogynistic today, has more depth and character interest in it than those of any of the men.
One thing that doesn't quite seem to work is the assumption of rictus-type beatific grins by both her and Toby Spence at the end – signifying the attainment of bliss, perhaps, but not really convincing.
*The concert versions are at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester on June 12; the Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham (June 15); the Sage, Gateshead (June 18), and London's South Bank (Royal Festival Hall, June 26). All performances start at 4pm.
More information here