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Tenor Stuart Skelton Talks About Parsifal

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London has been lucky with Stuart Skelton.  Two years ago, audiences witnessed his superlative performance as Peter Grimes in David Alden’s astonishing ENO production and before that he had shone as Laca in Jenufa, also directed by Alden.   Since then, there's been another Janacek (Katya Kabanova) and now the growing number of his UK admirers can look forward to the heldentenor’s Parsifal in the returning Nikolaus Lehnhoff production of Wagner’s opera.

I meet a relaxed Skelton a week before opening night, and he talks articulately and passionately about the work and the role. “It’s a very strong production,” he says, “it’s achieved iconic status to some extent because it’s been performed so widely.  It started here, then went to San Francisco, Chicago, Barcelona and Baden Baden, where it was videoed.  It’s visually so arresting, a beautiful production.”

Lehnhoff’s post-apocalyptic vision didn’t appeal to everyone but it was an undeniably powerful interpretation when last at the Coliseum, some 12 years ago, benefitting from brilliant conducting then by Mark Elder.  Now, Mark Wigglesworth wields the baton, a conductor Skelton has found himself working with numerous times in the last few years.

“We’ve got an amazing cast this time,’ he says, “Sir John Tomlinson as Gurnemanz (I just run out of superlatives) and Jane Dutton who is sensational as Kundry.  Then there’s Tom Fox as Klingsor and Iain Paterson (Amfortas), who’s no stranger to Coliseum audiences.”

The great Canadian tenor Jon Vickers, who played Parsifal many times and was renowned for a somewhat pious attitude to his work, famously branded it “the most blasphemous work ever” and it’s an opera that can upset people, whether religious or not.  Skelton has no such problems with the work.  “I don’t know why Vickers had that attitude,” he tells me, “but I’d imagine it was the idea of Redemption of the Redeemer, which can be a problem for a Christian because it’s not the Redeemer but us that needs redemption.”

“There have been attempts to excise Christianity from the opera but it’s clear that’s not what Wagner wanted.  To make it devoid of Christian imagery or mythology doesn’t work because it’s blatantly there – the spear, the crucifixion, the grail.  We know, from what he was reading at the time, that it’s not just about Christianity though. Wagner was immersed in Schopenhauer and even Buddhism at the time so it can’t be called a purely Christian opera.”

“What’s also significant is that it’s clear that Wagner probably wouldn’t have written any more operas if he’d lived but was moving in the direction of orchestral work. Parsifal has the most amount of music but the shortest of his librettos, so there’s a lot of orchestral music there.”

Skelton is singing Parsifal more and more now and Siegmund also features prominenrtly in his schedule. He tells me that he sees Tristan as “inevitable” but Siegfried may never happen.  “I have a very clear idea of what Siegfried should sound like and that’s not me.”  I ask him who he’s sees as ideal for the role.  “Windgassen or Manfred Jung (who played the role in the famous Boulez/Chereau Ring at Bayreuth).”

“Vickers would have been a great Siegfried but guys like James King – fabulous Parsifal, fabulous Siegmund and wonderful Strauss singer – are too baritonal, with a wonderfully bronzy quality which is just not right for Siegfried.  It needs to have a real steel in the voice from top to bottom.” 

What’s impressive about Skelton, apart from a striking stage presence, is the combination of heft, reminiscent of Vickers, and a gentleness that almost recalls Philip Langridge.  He’s not keen on the word lyrical, although it’s an apt one for him.  “It has connotations of lack of size,” he says, “but it doesn’t really mean that.  I’m very lucky that I’ve had very good teachers. Richard Cassilly told me once to preserve the prettiness of my voice and that’s so important.  It’s not just about belting it out for five hours.  You want to keep it beautiful, as well, and I’ve really worked at it.  Siegfried would work against that.”

It’s inevitable we talk about Peter Grimes, another role that Skelton is now performing regularly.  He sees the London run in 2009 as a highlight, a coming together of all the components – singing, direction, design, conducting – that was almost miraculous (“Serendipity’” he says).  Few would disagree. 

He talks fondly and in obvious awe of his Ellen Orford, the British soprano Amanda Roocroft, who he considers a mega-talent.  They had worked together in the earlier production of Jenufa and he talks of her as a treasured colleague and is also full of praise for David Alden who directed both productions.

Skelton returned to his native Australia last year to sing Grimes in Sydney, although he hasn’t lived or worked there since his mid twenties.  He didn’t have to break through in his home country, having moved to the USA on a scholarship before his career really took off.  He’s now based in Florida, although only spends a few weeks there each year.  “It makes it like a real holiday when I’m there,’” he laughs, “all the sunshine. You can really relax.”

He greatly enjoyed returning to Opera Australia but fears for the company’s future, given that it gets so little funding.  This means endless runs of Boheme, Carmen and Tosca (“all fabulous operas of course but confining”) and then can’t plan as far ahead as they should, meaning that singers like him, booked years in advance, aren’t available. 

The next few years are packed, with plenty of Parsifals and Siegmunds, and a new role during 2011 with the Drum Major in Wozzeck in Santa Fe.  Another new role, Hermann in  Queen of Spades, is also imminent. 

He’s very discreet about what he’s doing, not wanting to say anything that hasn’t already been announced by the companies but, reading the veiled signals, I speculate that he’ll be back at ENO in Peter Grimes over the next few years and will also do the role at the BBC Proms next year.  There’s a possibility of him doing Otello at ENO, a mouthwatering prospect for an opera the company hasn’t done for many years.

For now, the run of Parsifal is being touted as the last for Lehnhoff’s production in London.  That, plus the luminous presence of Stuart Skelton as the guilty innocent, makes it a must-see for any discerning operagoer.

Stuart Skelton sings the title role in ENO's revival of Parsifal from 16 February. www.eno.org.

- Simon Thomas


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