Should you ever meet Richard Wagner in another life I suggest that you greet him by just saying ‘Hello’. I get the feeling that if you ask ‘How are you?’ you will spend a couple of days listening to his answer. He is the Cecil B DeMille of opera, taking as much time as he needs, and possibly a bit more, to tell his story. Having said that, in Parsifal I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
The opera is almost five and a half hours long, thankfully with two intervals enabling the audience to take sustanence. My home made pastrami, Jarlesberg cheese, French mustard and cornichon in poppy seed bagel, has never tasted so good. Look, I am a food writer as well, OK?
The kick-off time was 4.00pm, but before it began there was a fitting tribute by Richard Mantle, the General Director and CEO of Opera North, to Keith Howard who died last summer. Keith Howard was an incredibly generous benefactor who donated literally millions of pounds to Opera North, as well as a lot of his time and effort. You will see that a lot of the events I write about are held in Howard Assembly Room, need I say more.
Parsifal is based on a 13th Century epic poem, Parzival, by Wolfram von Eschenbach. The plot is concerned with The Holy Grail, a chalice, and the spear which pierced the body of Christ whilst on the cross, causing his blood to be collected in the vessel.
Titurel was given the artefacts and put together a regiment of knights, The Brotherhood, to guard them. One night his son, Amfortas, was the victim of a honey trap when he was seduced by a woman whose accomplice stole the spear and, to add injury to insult so to speak, stabbed him with it before making off. The wound inflicted can never be healed until spear and grail are reunited. According to a prophecy the spear can only be recovered by a ‘pure fool’ (the translation of Parsifal) enlightened by compassion.
The work opens with what would normally be considered to be a fairly long overture before we see the King, Amfortas, getting ready to take his morning bath. He is in a great deal of pain due to the wound which can never be fatal as it is a curse on him. An old knight, Gurnemanz, is leading two esquires in morning prayers when a woman named Kundry makes a dramatic entrance. She has a medicine for Amfortas which is administered and relieves the pain somewhat.
A knight named Klingsor who was rejected by The Brotherhood, and is the one responsible for stabbing Amfortas and stealing the spear, has built a castle and magic garden which he has populated with alluring women, known as Flowermaidens, designed to attract the knights away.
Gurnamanz and the two esquires are distracted by the sight of a swan plunging from the sky and see that it has been shot with an arrow. The young man responsible is captured and expresses shame but is branded a fool as he cannot provide any explanation as to why he shot the bird or even give his name or place of origin to the three men.
Titurel exposes the Holy Grail to fire up the knights whilst the strange young man is driven away. Klingsor has a double reason to be angry at the king and his men because one stipulation of being in The Brotherhood is that you have to be pure of thought and, as he wasn’t, he took the drastic step of castrating himself. The upside of this – there’s an upside? – is that he is unable to succumb to Kundry’s advances which gives him a psychological hold over her. He summons Kundry, who seemingly has no trouble in pulling men at will, to seduce the young fool as he can see where this is leading. He believes that if anyone is going to get the spear from him it will be a man who can resist her charms. The fool doesn’t fall for it and single-handedly slays Klingsor’s knights guarding the spear and returns it to Amfortas.
With the spear and the grail reunited, Amfortas is cured and everyone lives happily ever after, until the pandemic of course!
Even though that is just the bare bones of the tale, it does go on a bit so you can see how someone minded to make a huge production out of it can do so, and when it came to production this was epic.
This opera was originally planned to be staged at Leeds Town Hall before the pandemic and subsequent stops on the UK tour will be in more conventional concert halls, so the production we were privileged to see will not be replicated.
Because of the scale of the show with enlarged versions of both the Orchestra of Opera North and The Chorus, every inch of the magnificent Grand Theatre was utilised. The musicians were positioned on the main stage and singers occasionally grouped in the stage-side boxes, the Upper Circle and the rear of the stalls. The effect was mesmerising. The only two ways in which I found the constraints of the building to have a negative effect were; the siting of the screens on which the translation appears, they were too far back from the stage so you couldn’t see the display and the action at the same time; and the way that some of the action was played out on the floor of the auditorium where several rows of seating had been removed, and on tiers lower than the normal stage on which the orchestra was, meaning that it was obscured. I could see enough to follow the story although not in as much detail as I would have liked. There is a certain irony to this as, according to the programme, the piece was composed specially to be performed at Bayreuth ‘festival house’ because it had an orchestra pit sunk below the stage so as to focus the audience’s attention completely on the stage drama.
In keeping with a work centred on myth and legend, there was a great deal of symbolism involved in its staging. Colour was a big factor with most of the knights and esquires wearing grey, the kings in military uniforms, the Flowermaidens, whose job was to pander to the whims of Klingsor’s knights, were in red, echoing those worn by the women in The Handmaid’s Tale. Klingsor was dressed in a uniform of grey and red which I took to reflect his ambiguous condition. Kundry wore blue and Parsifal a white shirt covered in the blood of the swan he had killed. Yes, he was the mystery pure fool.
Whilst on the subject of costume, designed by Stephen Rodwell for the Leeds performances, I was much impressed by those worn by The Brotherhood which were hoodies, what else for the brothers. This had the effect of making them look threatening when they were down but monastic when raised to cover the head.
Blood was also much in evidence at the end of the first act when the claret from Amfortas’s wound had been collected in a bowl next to where he lay and all of the esquires filed up to the stage, put their hand in the bowl and wiped the blood across their mouths. They then held the palms up to the audience before walking off. It reminded me of the players in a football team who had just won the cup, each taking a turn at raising it to the crowd. The difference was that there are only eleven players in a football team plus a few substitutes whereas, according to the programme, there are 36 male members of the choir. It seemed endless.
There was a variation on this theme in the second act when the Flowermaidens applied scarlet lipstick and then wiped their mouths smearing it to replicate the effect. Thankfully they did it simultaneously.
Apart from The Handmaid’s Tale I noticed another reference in that in one of the songs the four male performers were grouped together in a diamond shape with just their faces illuminated bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Bohemian Rhapsody video by Queen. Magnifico, perhaps Beelzebub has a Devil put aside for me.
That brings me to the performers. The Orchestra of Opera North was its usual magnificent self under the baton of Richard Farnes. This production is the final one in the illustrious career of David Greed who has been Orchestra Leader since its inception in 1978. He is obviously not winding down steadily, Bruce Springsteen and The Grateful Dead didn’t do five and a half hour gigs even in their pomp! May I wish you all the best in your retirement – when you recover.
The singers showed just what the human voice is capable of and I found the emphasis on the lower part of the register to be just right for this dark tale of evil and redemption.
Parsifal, sung and played by Toby Spence, was the only tenor, which reflected his character as the youngest man. He also has a fresh-faced look to emphasise the point.
Katarina Karnéus as Kundry is a mezzo-soprano adding the required sultriness to her seductress’ persona. She also had the knack of carrying herself so that she could transform from being a broken woman found sleeping in the undergrowth to sexbomb in next to no time.
Robert Haywood was Amfortas and his bass-baritone was strong and powerful, even when seemingly on death’s door. Oddly this didn’t look incongruous.
Another bass-baritone in Derek Welton, Klingsor, was menacing and controlling with a voice to strike fear into anyone who had the temerity to cross him.
Stephen Richardson as Titurel, another bass-baritone, had to do a lot of his singing from the back of the stage which tested his voice but it came through loud and clear.
Finally I come to the brilliant bass, Brindley Sherratt, who, as Gurnemanz was on stage for all of the first act which lasted an hour and three-quarters! His voice and acting were expressive being both scolding and compassionate to the hapless young Parsifal. I am glad that the beaker in which I had my drinking water was plastic rather than glass or it might not have survived the low vibrations from his voice.
The set and lighting design by Bengt Gomér (for the Leeds performances) was not brilliant insofar as the first part of his brief was concerned. As already mentioned, the action on the lower level of the stage was totally obscured from my vision, and even that which was performed on the level above involved a fair bit of neck craning to see. I am just shy of 6ft so normally have no problem whatsoever. The lighting, however, was superb with a grid of spotlights to the back of the stage forming pictures in the same way as pixels do on a computer. A glass coffin, outlined by led lights and lowered from the ceiling above the stage was breathtaking.
The opera was directed by Sam Brown.
In summing up I would like to say that, although a marathon, the time seemed to pass quickly, it always does when you are enjoying yourself, and, apart from my couple of gripes, I was. The music is also very accessible with a couple of long orchestral passages giving a break from the intensity of the arias. Although I am sure that the work could have been truncated, I am equally positive that it would have suffered as a result. I will illustrate the point by using another popular music reference – I make no apology for this as I write for the benefit of those who are not opera aficionados but wonder whether they should take the plunge. The cup presentation scene I mentioned earlier could have cut five or six minutes off the running time had only a couple of Brotherhood members bloodied their hands, by the same token Paul Simon could have cut The Boxer by a minute or so had he dispensed with a few Li-Li-Lis at the end, but that would not have reflected the relentless punishment that his character suffered. I rest my case.
I will finish on a light note. As I said, I had to keep turning my head to read the translation before watching the action. When I did so I noticed that the lady sitting next to me never took her eyes off the stage. At the first interval I asked if she was having trouble with the libretto display. She said that she wasn’t, she was on holiday in Leeds from her home in Vienna! She had the grace to add that the singers’ pronunciations were excellent.
So, there you have it, a review of a five and a half hour opera which goes on for longer than the thing itself.
Parsifal is being performed at the Grand Theatre Leeds on Saturday 4th June, Tuesday 7th June and Friday 10th June. All performances begin at 4.00pm. To book please go to https://www.operanorth.co.uk/whats-on/parsifal-2022/#book
It then visits Manchester, Nottingham, Gateshead and London. For full details and to book please go to https://www.operanorth.co.uk/whats-on/parsifal-2022-on-tour/#book
All images supplied by Opera North. Photographs by Clive Barda