Spear pressure: ‘Parsifal’, Opera North

‘Here is where time becomes space’: this is one of the most famous – and mysterious – quotes from Wagner’s final opera, ‘Parsifal’, which at its best can make that scientific impossibility seem real. Unhurried, epic storytelling punctuated with moments of overwhelming beauty or horror that somehow transcend a mere auditorium in what feels like a fraction of the four-hour running time.

Concert performances of operas, particularly large-scale ones, are nothing new, of course. They are a sound solution (literally) to obstacles like budget, staging practicalities and so on that allow smaller ensembles to tackle works that might otherwise be the sole preserve of the massive houses. However, by coining the phrase ‘dramatic concert staging’ for its Wagner productions, Opera North has challenged itself to find a different approach, making virtues from the necessary limitations.

Many of you will remember their acclaimed presentation of the Ring, created year by year, before touring in complete cycles during 2016 (I caught the London week). The orchestra were centre stage, soloists out front, but with video projections at the back providing all the other information necessary – setting the scene, moving on the action, building atmosphere, even displaying key text. (You can still watch the entire Opera North Ring cycle on their website: https://www.operanorth.co.uk/the-ring-cycle/.)

To their credit, Opera North haven’t simply repeated the same device. I imagine video must have been tempting, with the prospect of creating an ethereal, alternative universe, a spectral Grail or a flying Spear. This time, every effect is created onstage through colour and use of props, bolstered by an ingenious grid of circular lights at the back that flicker into suggestions or depictions of images, a much more symbolic method (with a crucial exception – more later) that feels more suited to the range of interpretations this elusive work can provoke.

Toby Spence, Katerina Karnéus and Brindley Sherratt, with Richard Farnes conducting the Orchestra of Opera North (photo: Clive Barda)

It’s possibly foolish to attempt a ‘plot’ summary of ‘Parsifal’, but for those unfamiliar, here goes. Amfortas, king of the Knights of the Holy Grail, suffers from an incurable wound in his side, inflicted on him by Klingsor, a would-be Knight who could not keep the required vow of chastity. In desperation, Klingsor castrated himself, only to be rejected by the order for committing self-harm. The outcast now has his Flower-maidens lure any approaching Knight into dissolution.

Meanwhile, a simple young wanderer encounters Gurnemanz, an old Grail Knight, and immediately annoys him by shooting a swan on holy ground. However, the old man recalls that Amfortas can only be cured by a ‘pure fool’ (‘Parsi-fal’), ‘enlightened by compassion’ and wonders if this boy is the one.

The opera then presents three crucial stages in Parsifal’s journey towards his destiny. In the remainder of Act I, he witnesses the Grail communion ritual which nourishes the Knights – carried out by a pain-wracked Amfortas following the abdication of his father, Titurel. He also encounters Kundry, an enigmatic woman who carries out impossible acts of goodwill towards the Knights, most notably sourcing futile cures for Amfortas in far-flung places. After the ritual, Gurnemanz takes the youth’s silence as ignorance, and sends him away.

Act II takes place in Klingsor’s castle. Kundry has in fact been cursed to immortality for laughing at Christ on the cross, and under Klingsor’s power, she prepares to seduce and corrupt Parsifal on arrival (once he gets past the Flower-Maidens). However, in almost succumbing to Kundry, Parsifal unlocks his compassion and realises his true purpose. Klingsor attempts to kill him with the spear, but Parsifal merely catches it and re-directs its power to destroy Kingsor’s castle. In Act III, Parsifal returns to the order, to find it at the point of collapse. Amfortas can no longer bear to administer the Grail, gravely weakening the Knights and bringing about Titurel’s death. It is both Good Friday and Titurel’s funeral – Gurnemanz, recognising Parsifal, leads him to fulfil his duty. With the Holy Spear, Parsifal heals Amfortas’s wound. He then replaces him as king of the Knights, rejuvenating the order. Kundry, also redeemed and released from her curse, is generally accepted to sink to the ground, ‘lifeless’; although not in all productions (as we shall see).

As I’ve probably demonstrated, ‘Parsifal’ resists definitive explanation in terms of storyline, character and location. It seems to take place both in and outside the real world it, and it doesn’t obey the rules of ‘real time’. Clearly a religious work, is it parable or allegory, or vehicle for Wagner’s own singular ideas? The composer himself described it as ‘a festival play for the consecration of the stage’ – in other words, a piece of art with so much impact, it effects a change on the environment where it’s performed. So it might look and taste like an opera but it doesn’t necessarily behave like one. A ritual within a ritual, ending with a new beginning, it’s entirely natural to come out of ‘Parsifal’ wondering what you’ve just seen and heard.

It’s probably the perfect choice for Opera North’s ‘dramatic concert staging’ method, suspended somewhere in the hinterland between concert and opera, just like the Knights exist between two worlds. Thanks to the compact structure of Leeds Grand Theatre, even as an audience we spent some of the time suspended within the opera, as Chorus members gave us ‘surround-sound’ from behind and above us.

Given that ‘Parsifal’ contains some of Wagner’s most ravishing music, the Orchestra of Opera North make up much of the visual fabric, performing at a raised level (above the singers but below the lighting grid – so very much glueing the ‘look and feel’ together) and animated by the unstoppable figure of conductor Richard Farnes (Opera North’s former music director who also helmed the Ring). Handling vast forces in a contained space, his combination of energy and precision drew out all the sonic detail one could take in, while creating a sense of urgency that dealt with the piece’s potential longueurs, and matched the overall spirit of director Sam Brown’s arresting vision.

Toby Spence as Parsifal (photo: Clive Barda)

And this vision was extreme: visceral, certainly, controversial even – although ‘Parsifal’ comes with a certain amount of that automatically. There was an overwhelming focus, properly and consistently thought-through, on blood imagery. Almost from the outset, Parsifal is covered in the blood from the swan he kills, wearing the stain of his sin for all to see until he is ‘purified’. The Grail ritual turns Amfortas into a living sacrifice, as one by one, the Knights plunge their hands into their king’s wound (the full body horror of this is skilfully shielded from the audience) and smear his blood on their face in a literal communion, transfiguration made human. It also made me think of ‘Doubting Thomas’, placing his hand in Christ’s wound, evoking the fragility of the order that depends so heavily on this central rite. This is echoed queasily in Act II when the Flower-maidens – dressed from head to toe in sinful crimson to start with – smear their lipstick across their faces in exactly the same way. Klingsor’s costume drapes his inside legs in red, horribly recalling his self-mutilation. The production presents Klingor’s defeat by showing the women – partly his creation, partly his captives – surround and kill him, warpaint presumably intact.

At no point did the production shrink from some of the murkier areas of the psyche you might expect to find in a heady cocktail of sex, death and religion. Parsifal seems at his weakest when Kundry (dressed in Virgin blue) fuses mother and lover, on the point of seducing him as much as a replacement for the former than as any kind of the latter. However, once redeemed, our final glimpse of Kundry has her holding a new-born child, an image amplified by the lights which, with shades of ‘2001’, sketch a graphic of an infant cradled in their black rectangular frame.

Is the baby merely a symbol of re-birth, as Parsifal is crowned king and the order re-activated? Are the baby and Parsifal one and the same, and possibly the Grail? Certain mysterious lines in the opera suggest that Parsifal has the Christ-like ability to know where he will end up, where he is needed. Who – not what – is the Holy Grail? he asks. And at the end of Act II, when Kundry has cursed him to wander endlessly without returning to the Knights, he says directly to her: ‘you know where you can find me’.

I think the overall achievement of this superb production is to preserve whatever elusive, otherworldly qualities lie in ‘Parsifal’ – the role of the music, for the sake of argument – and set them against direction and performances grounded in scientific, psychological reality: rejection, suffering, tenderness, envy, regret, ecstasy, kindness.

Curtain call (photo: AA)

The soloists all gave determinedly vivid, three-dimensional portrayals. Brindley Sherratt was a superb Gurnemanz, fleshing out the ‘loves the sound of his own voice’ chronicler into a rich, poignant portrait of sorrow becoming joy. Toby Spence in the title role took us step-by-step from confusion to confidence. Katerina Karnéus clearly charted Kundry’s journey from an almost feral, physically demonstrative witch-like presence, to the serene, if silent, redeemed sinner, every look an emotion or reaction. Derek Welton’s Klingsor made a wracked, wrathful impression, while I would especially commend Robert Hayward’s extraordinary Amfortas, sung with both anguish and strength, combined with distressingly realistic physical work to convey the king’s constant pain: an absolute tour de force.

Get a ticket if you can, before time becomes space.

AA

At the time of writing, ‘Parsifal’ has two performances left in Leeds, on 7 and 10 June. It then visits four other venues in June for single performances only:

Bridgewater Hall, Manchester on 12 June

Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham on 15 June

Sage Gateshead on 18 June

London Southbank Centre on 26 June

See the Opera North website for more details / links: https://www.operanorth.co.uk/whats-on/

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