sat 13/07/2024

Parsifal, English National Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Parsifal, English National Opera

Parsifal, English National Opera

Diehard anti-Wagnerian gives in to miraculous Lehnhoff revival

Andrew Greenan's spookily scaly green knight Titurel makes his entryAll images by Richard Hubert Smith

Some of you will know that Wagner and I haven't been seeing eye to eye of late. Last year's Tannhäuser I believed was the end of the road for the two of us. Not quite. With one of the most celebrated Wagner productions of the past two decades returning to the English National Opera last night - Nikolaus Lehnhoff's Parsifal - I decided to give him a final chance. My whole mind, body and soul was primed to repel it, yet I came out almost blubbing.

The revelation didn't come immediately - nothing in Wagner comes immediately - though it didn't take long for the music to start having its effect. I'd forgotten how gentle the score to Wagner's final opera is. How conventionally ingratiating it is. How it laps against you, lightly soothing, lightly stinging. How little it tries to suffocate or overwhelm like Tristan. When the music burns - and the English National Opera orchestra glowed gloriously last night in the hands of conductor Mark Wigglesworth - it is as a cinder: static, dark, concentrated. It's an altogether unique musical experience, quite unlike your conventional breathless Wagner - though the second act conforms more to type.

The quality of the singing, too, made itself felt early. John Tomlinson's Gurnemanz had us eating out of his hand, that familiar booming voice giving the most natural and convincing shape and fluency to his key early storytelling. Iain Paterson was a harrowing Amfortas, his song of woe sending him spinning across stage like a sot. Both Stuart Skelton's Parsifal (pictured below) and Jane Dutton's Kundry gained in power the more they were given to do. Tom Fox's Klingsor was perhaps the least memorable of the ensemble, partly because the Act Two setting - veiled by a giant pelvic screen - was so very memorable. Act Three was incredible, Tomlinson (pictured bottom), Skelton and Paterson singing and acting out of their skins as relationships reach their emotionally fraught conclusions.

Parsifal_Stuart_Skelton_5_credit_Richard_Hubert_SmithYet all of this would have been for naught if the toxic moral dichotomy thrown up by the libretto had not been tackled and undermined. For make no mistake, at its heart, this is a tale about goodies and baddies. And the goodies are the baddies and the baddies the goodies. No amount of special pleading can hide that fact. The He-Man costumes certainly didn't. In the good corner, you have an army of enfeebled Aryan Christians seeking an idiot savant to replenish their powers; in the bad, a bullied outcast, Klingsor, and a heathen (ie, Jewish) slut, Kundry, who is converted to Christianity but who, ultimately, (because she is heathen-Jew) must die. A potent (and influential) brew of misogyny, racism and Aryan triumphalism.

So Lehnhoff's complication of Wagner's directions is a relief and in the end a miracle of interpretation. Where do the war-weary army start their journey? In a gunshot-marked concrete chamber, demolished chimney holes eyeing us up from the top. Why are these German heroes in a concentration camp? Are they trapped by their present? Or their past? And what of the source of evil, Kundry? Lehnhoff tries to free her from the hysterical female straitjacket in which Wagner clearly wants to keep her and, in Act Three, even suggests her as a saviour - in explicit contradiction to Wagner's instruction for her to die.

It's not all hunky-dory. Parsifal is still an opera where it's better to forget causes if you wish to find conclusions moving. Even in this production, the first two acts are problematic. How can we applaud Parsifal's arrogance? How can we ignore the misogyny? How can we look upon this militaristic, racist Christian brotherhood as anything but a thoroughly nasty Waco-like cult? Lehnhoff somehow makes it possible.

Kundry is key. She begins Act Two with her body submerged to her head like Beckett's Winnie. The more she questions and explores her conscience and that of those around her - the only character to do so - the more human she becomes. From her solitary head, she gains a pupa, a chrysalis and then a full human body. Her self-realisation and self-sacrifice (she is both baptised and Aryanised, her hair turning from black to blond by Act Three) trumps Parsifal's heroics.

Parsifal_John_Tomlinson_swan_credit_Richard_Hubert_SmithParsifal's journey can only return the Knights to their parochial cultish preoccupations. What Kundry can offer them is true freedom: from religious strictures, from their past, from their leaders - now that their former kings Titurel (a spookily scaly green knight, Andrew Greenan) and Amfortas lie dead. The fundaments of this religious army are dashed against the rock of the true message of Good Friday that Gurnemanz proclaims to Parsifal so movingly and their realisation that Kundry's behaviour fits the self-abnegating messianic bill far better than Parsifal's.

So Kundry follows the railway tracks out of their concrete home, individual soldiers and Parsifal staggering behind. Are these half-dead Jews hobbling out of Auschwitz? Are these Germans finally breaking free of their past? Certainly, they are survivors, newborns, individuals, free of their fraternal responsibilities and prejudices. Would Wagner have approved? Absolutely not. Can the music take it? Without doubt. Should we encourage this sort of fiddling? Anything that can force a Wagner divorcee like me to eat this much humble pie - to admit that Parsifal is probably after all the greatest opera ever written - is doing something pretty incredible and very right. Hell, I might even go again.

Parsifal is still an opera where you had better forget Act One and Two causes if you are to find Act Three conclusions moving

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I *loved* it, and even the racism was cleverly countered by the production, making the Knights out to be fanatics and cruel. It was not at all what I expected as I've never seen Wagner before, but I am a convert.

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