Parsifal, English National Opera at Coliseum

Productions of Wagner s valedictory work are so rare in the UK that expectations ran high for ENO s only second ever production of the work. Wagner, as always, makes huge demands of all involved and stretches the resources of an opera company to the limits. I am happy to report that a night at this Parsifal is one of the most exciting, riveting and thought-provoking I have spent in the theatre for a long while.

Nikolaus Lehnhoff s staging attempts to take the mystery out of the work and debunk all the Christian overtones. Based on a poem by Wolfram von Eschenbach, the opera deals with the grail legend, the struggle for redemption and the power of spiritual pureness over evil. Needless to say, this can be open to many interpretations, but out of the three stagings I have seen of this work, ENO s is undoubtedly the most satisfying. The nihilistic pictures in Raimund Bauer s sets, Andrea Schmidt-Futterer s extraordinary costumes, and Wolfgang Goebbel s exquisite lighting make a strong case for the work being about a ‘journey ; physical and spiritual.

And what of the music? Mark Elder returns to the pit, to conduct Parsifal for the first time. The pulse, phrasing and pacing of this long work is without fault, and Elder never lets the singers be drowned, allowing almost every word of Richard Stokes interesting translation to come across. The orchestral playing is beyond praise; utterly superb. I don t believe I have ever heard them play so consistently well; the celestial closing bars could have carried on forever as far I was concerned.

The cast, too, is as strong as you ll find in this opera, and it seems unfair to single anyone out, but Kathryn Harries performance as the complex Kundry is mesmerising; she dominates the whole of the second act. Not only is her singing without fault, but she acts this difficult role with total conviction. In the title role, Kim Begley sings as well as any Wagner tenor I ve heard; Jonathan Summers is an angst-ridden Amfortas missing only perhaps some of the pathos required for this role. Peter Sidhom is a bitingly incisive Klingsor whilst Gwynne Howell brings gravely burnished singing to the role of Gurnemanz.

All in all a great night. If you can get your hands on a ticket, go and see this once in a lifetime, deeply moving musical and theatrical experience.

Keith McDonnell