Twelve years have passed since ENO last presented Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s thoughtful, probing staging of Wagner’s last opera. The wait has been long, but given the paucity of ideas on show in recent seasons, this intelligent production of Parsifal was a salutary reminder of what this company is capable of. Singing, conducting and staging were all of a piece, resulting in a performance that would rival any opera house in the world and also confirmed that Lehnhoff’s vision of the opera remains the most exciting staging of this work that London has ever seen.
Within Raimund Bauer’s austere post-apocalyptic designs Lehnhoff creates a world of decay – a world in which the Knights painfully re-enact their ‘act of communion’ against the backdrop of abject nihilism. Seemingly impervious to Amfortas’ anguish their sect has become rotten to the core, and the saviour, in the form of Parsifal, can’t come soon enough.
When he does arrive, this particular ‘pure fool’ is a whirlwind of hyperactivity, oblivious or unable to absorb what he sees. Enlightenment only comes his way in the pivotal second act when, at Kundry’s kiss, he begins to understand Amfortas’ pain and suffering. By the last act he is transformed into a wise and worldly knight and here the final tableau of the opera, as Kundry and Parsifal head off towards a bright light at the end of a disused railway track does catharsis, both visually and musically arrive. It’s one of many arresting visual images and remains a poignant and fitting close to this most enigmatic of Wagner’s stage works.
This run of performances at ENO will be its final outing and it’s hard to think of a better send off. Mark Wigglesworth was conducting the opera for the first time, but you’d never have known it. His performance was superbly paced, relatively swift – Goodall’s recording of Act 1 touches the 2 hour mark, 20 minutes slower than here – yet his tempi always seemed perfectly judged. The strings had a wonderful luminosity to them, he secured a warm yet sonorous tone from the brass, whilst the solo woodwind contributions were outstanding. What gave the performance as a whole its sense of overwhelming power and authority was the way in which Wigglesworth managed not only to display Wagner’s orchestral palette in all its coruscating colour, but wove all the sections of the orchestra together to produce an aural tapestry that was balm to the ears. The orchestra’s playing was quite simply outstanding. They haven’t played this well since Peter Grimes.
You’d also have to go a long way to hear it sung better, as ENO has assembled one of its strongest casts in living memory. Sir John Tomlinson last sang Wagner at the Coliseum over a quarter of a century ago. Since then, he has conquered all the major opera houses in the world as Wotan, Hans Sachs etc., so his return as Gurnemanz was eagerly anticipated and nor did he disappoint. He made every word tell of Richard Stokes’ lucid translation and produced a constant stream of warm, refulgent singing throughout the long evening.
Iain Paterson was an angst-ridden Amfortas, producing an outpouring of impassioned singing whilst Tom Fox was an embittered, spiteful Klingsor. As Kundry Jane Dutton seemed happier in the lower reaches of the role but she was still a magnetic stage presence, no more so in her virtually silent presence in the last act. Andrew Greenan boomed effectively as Titurel and the augmented chorus were thrilling from start to finish.
In the title role Stuart Skelton was quite simply a revelation. He is a true Heldentenor – his cries of ‘Amfortas’ in the second act pinned you to the back of your seat – yet he never forces, is capable of much soft singing, phrases sensitively and is a consummate actor. His transformation from the ‘fool’ of Act One, through his emotional growth in Act Two, to the wise and worldly knight in Act Three was not only achieved through his acting but with the voice as well. Suffice it to say his is the most complete portrayal of the role I have ever seen.
There are only 7 more performances of this outstanding staging, so book now and catch ENO at its best!