Sunday 13 March 2011

Parsifal at English National Opera, or A Blast from the Past

The Nikolaus Lehnhoff production of Parsifal was one the earliest Wagner operas I saw, and also my first Parsifal (I reckon I have now seen it more frequently than any other Wagner). As far as I can recall it has never been revived at the Coliseum since it's original outing in 1999 (if someone could confirm or dispute this I would be interested to know since the Coliseum's publicity about “last revival” strikes me as a bit misleading if it is also only the first). I had powerful memories of that original experience, and those swayed me to attend despite serious misgivings (on the back of hearing him several times at the Royal Opera in the last couple of seasons) about whether John Tomlinson could possibly manage Gurnemanz in a way which would be bearable to listen to. It turned out on that score I was worrying needlessly, as I shall explain, but equally I did not have the overwhelming evening which seems to have been the lot of many fellow critics.

The production itself had rather more infelicities than I had remembered, and I have a sneaking suspicion that they may have been submerged originally by the overwhelming impact of hearing the music for the first time (in 1999 I was totally blown away by the conclusion of Act One). The most serious such infelicity is the dyno-rod flowermaidens. I have only ever seen one production of this opera where the flowermaidens were voluptuous and enticing and on the strength of the impact of that way of staging the scene (and the fact that every other time it has failed to work for me) I have concluded that it really is the only solution. This problem I had remembered. The main one I had forgotten was the complete disjunction between text and staging in the Good Friday scene, as Gurnemanz and Parsifal sing of natural beauties while sitting in a barren concrete wasteland. On the whole these are outweighed by the many powerful images – the railway line curving away into the distance at the start of Act Three, the barren grey landscapes inhabited by the knights. Most of all, this is not a production which is afraid of the still tableau in which the music is allowed to speak for itself – an attribute that too many of Berry's commissions this season have shown no grasp of at all.

Turning to performances. As I've already noted, and contrary to all my expectations, I was as mesmerised by John Tomlinson's Gurnemanz as just about everybody else has been. The current state of the voice seems to be admirably suited to Gurnemanz – particularly his Act One narration which was spell-binding. His diction puts many others (particularly the Chorus) to shame, and he knows the value of stillness and the small gesture. At curtain call the bravos were deservedly loud and long. Also very fine is Stuart Skelton's Parsifal. His cry of “Amfortas” and “the wound” in Act Two jerked things sharply back to life and, like Johan Botha in the Royal Opera Tannhauser, he sustains the quality of tone and the power of delivery all the way through to the end. Completing a trio of fine performances is Iain Paterson's Amfortas who here redeems all the promise which I felt was slightly tarnished by below par performances in Faust and Don Giovanni earlier in the season. The fact that I wanted to shout “Oh do get on with it” when he started bemoaning his plight in the final scene of Act Three was not his fault at all.

The other two principal parts are less successfully taken. Jane Dutton, who replaced Irene Theorin as Kundry for reasons as yet unexplained, started well in Act One but proved unequal to the demands of Act Two, although Wigglesworth's tempi may have contributed. The long scene leading up to the kiss with Parsifal dragged badly, and diction and quality of tone faltered before the demands of the act's conclusion. Also weak, and therefore compounding Act Two's problems, was the Klingsor of Tom Fox whose tone was nasal, diction poor, and dramatic presence generally lacking.

The orchestra, chorus and Wigglesworth have also received rave reviews, again my reactions were more mixed. The orchestral playing was, I think, finer than anything else this season – and sustained its quality from start to finish. The other two elements suffered by comparison with Semyon Bychkov's recent Wagner performances at the Royal Opera. Wigglesworth just did not have the same sense of drive and overall vision of the score that Bychkov brought to both Lohengrin and Tannhauser. Something has frankly gone amiss in the pit when it feels as if each of the 70 minute Acts Two and Three are longer than the 100 minute Act One. While there are issues with Wagner's score which in Parsifal to my mind just does not have the inventiveness and inherent musical interest of many of the other operas, a truly great interpretation can overcome them. For me, the key example was the Abbado/Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester performances at the Edinburgh International Festival where both Acts Two and Three were overwhelming. Here I was reminded of Anna Russell's soubriquet regarding Wotan - “the trouble with Wotan is he's a crashing bore.” I have never felt this about Wotan; I did feel it about this Act Three – indeed I increasingly found myself wondering a) whether we were ever going to get inside the temple and b) having got inside whether Parsifal was ever going to turn up. At crucial points Wigglesworth was just too slow so that all forward impetus seemed to disappear. Most disappointing, from a musical perspective, were the ENO Chorus. In the final act I tried the experiment of not looking at the surtitles at all during their big section – the result confirmed my judgement of their lousy diction (on which I have already commented several times this season). Volume was often surprisingly weak considering the number of people on stage (the women definitely outperformed the men) and the tenors had a rather depressingly nasal quality. I don't know quite what chorus master Martin Merry is doing in rehearsals but it plainly isn't getting them up to a really high standard. I repeat what I said after Lucrezia Borgia: forceful and effective action is needed now on diction, precision and quality of tone. The standard from the chorus tonight was acceptable, but not much more than that.

Overall I was glad to have the chance to see this production again, it is a privilege to see and hear Tomlinson, Skelton and Paterson's performances and there is some very fine orchestral playing. The chorus however is still not performing at the level they should be, and Wigglesworth's interpretation of the score didn't carry me away.

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