Parsifal - English National Opera, 16 February 2011
It’s not often these days that ENO let actual trained opera directors loose on their productions. This Nikolaus Lehnhoff revival is a reminder of happier days, but the welcome is a qualified one. Time may stand still in Monsalvat but it marches swiftly on in the world of opera. Cardboardy sets and holiday camp lighting lend the 1999 production an old-fashioned look unworthy of the thoughtful ideas behind it. It didn't help that the house lights were up high enough to read a book for the whole evening.
The giant wheel in which the central scenes are set evokes Schopenhauer’s (and by extension, Buddhist) influence on Wagner’s opera. This reveals the Grail kingdom and Klingsor’s realm not as polar opposites but as steps forward (or back?) on the same never-ending path. Costumes provide more eastern references, from Gurnemanz’s Samurai robe to Klingsor’s Kabuki wrap. Parsifal himself is transformed from a rough swan-hunting savage in animal skins to a black-clad Samurai warrior. The Grail knights are a dusty terracotta army. Rubble spills periodically from the wings at the start but it’s not obvious whether the quarrying is intended to create a route in or out of the knights’ rocky enclave. Or perhaps it’s just fall out from the meteorite that hovers behind the first scene. It’s no clearer in the final act, when a rail track appears from a hole hewn into the stone. But perhaps that’s the point.
The cast were all in the right place at the right time if not sooner – a certain anticipation of words and music was a drawback for all except John Tomlinson’s economically-played Gurnemanz, a hidebound traditionalist who at the end rejects the progress offered by Parsifal. The part sits well for him, showcasing his incredible diction and expressive powers without exposing too much of the increasing wobble.
Stuart Skelton’s Parsifal simply cemented the promise he showed in ENO’s recent Peter Grimes. Physically he tended to do five things where one would suffice, but vocally he has it all. The tone is sweet yet manly. The vitality and clarity plead or command or with equal ease. Richard Stokes’ solid but not always singer-friendly translation is particularly unkind to this role, but even an impossibly-held final ‘shrine’ didn’t sour.
It looks as if ENO aren’t going to tell us precisely why Iréne Theorin dropped out. Her replacement, Jane Dutton has a nice enough voice for Mozart but not nearly enough power or presence for Kundry. She battled gamely through costume changes which would have challenged even Lady Gaga, including a spectacular ‘hatching’ from a crinolined carapace into a clinging sheath whilst lying flat out on stage.
Iain Paterson’s frantic bandaged Amfortas was more Monty Python than tragic. While his diction could be improved, his singing was an elegant and musical counterweight to his unfortunately comic appearance.
The Flowermaidens too were hampered by ridiculous costumes. Supplemented by dancers they were an unalluring bunch in nun-like robes with vast droopy sleeves, and testicular appendages clamped to their wimpled heads. All soloists though were excellent, a lot better than I expected to hear.
Although Mark Wiggleworth drew some of the most technically accomplished playing I’ve heard from the ENO orchestra in ages, it lacked either an alertness to drama or a larger sense of purpose. For all the evident quality of detail, the bigger picture remained elusive.