A completely satisfying operatic experience: Opera North’s Parsifal reviewed

18 June 2022

9:00 AM

18 June 2022

9:00 AM


Leeds Grand Theatre, and touring until 26 June

Samson et Dalila

Royal Opera House, until 19 June

When Parsifal finally returns to Montsalvat, it’s Good Friday. He’s trodden the path of suffering but now the sun is shining. Confused, he turns to the aged and broken Gurnemanz: why, on this day of utmost grief, does not the whole of nature mourn? Gurnemanz gestures at the woods and meadows, glowing, as Wagner tells us, in the morning light: ‘You see, it is not so.’ At this point in Opera North’s new concert staging, Parsifal (Toby Spence), Gurnemanz (Brindley Sherratt) and Kundry (Katarina Karneus) are sitting on the lip of the stage, as if having a quiet chat and – with a gentle relaxation of the shoulders, the smallest widening of the eyes – somehow embodying between them all the wonder, tenderness and slowly dawning hope of some of Wagner’s most profoundly compassionate music.

It’s in scenes like these that Wagner is supreme. Wotan’s final embrace of Brünnhilde, the quintet in Die Meistersinger: the action still has some way to run, but the emotional narrative has reached its resolution, and after a moment of intimate, ecstatic shared realisation, the story strides on to its fulfilment, transfigured by the glow of that understanding. The universe is suddenly greater than you ever imagined. Four hours in, Sherratt was singing with undimmed nobility and richness, while Spence’s everyman Parsifal sat in his bloodied white shirt, comprehension spreading across his features like spring sunshine. And Karneus, blue-clad like the Madonna, turned slightly into the light where we could see her face – which had somehow aged and de-aged by decades over the course of the evening – suddenly relax, for the first time, into simple joy.

And that’s without mentioning her singing: the rasping pain, the dark-throated streams of passion, the aching sorrow. If Karneus and Sherratt stood out for their emotional commitment, it’s equally true that everyone present was selfless in their approach to the drama, from the bared flesh and stentorian declamation of Robert Hayward as a hollowed-out Amfortas to Derek Welton’s oily, pervy Klingsor. Vocally, Spence lacked the sheen and wattage of a conventional Heldentenor, but in the context of his determinedly unheroic interpretation, that didn’t particularly matter. Sam Brown, the director, presented Kundry’s redemption as the central narrative, and leaned heavily into Wagner’s proto-Freudian insights. (Klingsor is done to death by his oppressed flower maidens; the reunion of spear and Grail is – literally – a fertilising moment.)

The odd thing is that Brown’s staging was dotted with the kind of currently chic directorial clichés that normally set the teeth on edge. Props descending in vitrines. Any organised group of male characters (here, the Knights of the Grail) presented as feral thugs. Hoodies. And, of course, that hateful practice of sticking a bank of spotlights at the back of the stage and blasting them straight in the audience’s retinas. Then there’s the nagging anxiety that Opera North’s ongoing, admittedly excellent, series of semi-staged concert productions adds up to an admission by one of our national companies that essential parts of the operatic repertoire are now beyond their capacity to stage in full.

But these were worries for the drive home. Many of the visual touches – mist and gauzes masking the onstage orchestra; a flickering wall of golden light (the lighting design was by Bengt Gomer) – were beautiful in their simplicity and evocative power. And the whole drama was bathed in the molten glory of the Opera North orchestra under Richard Farnes – a soaring, caressing interpretation that occasionally erupted from below in massive nightmare surges, only to dissolve, miraculously, in woodwind playing of intense sweetness and expression. The chorus floated its benediction from the heights of the Grand Theatre in the final scene; this was a cumulative achievement that swept away any and all reservations, and one of the most completely satisfying operatic experiences that I can recall, at least recently.

By contrast, ten days after seeing Richard Jones’s new production of Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila (and without referring to my notes) it seems to have left almost no lasting impression at all. Pappano was energetic in the pit; Elina Garanca was a sensuous and unnerving Dalila (even dressed in what looked like the contents of an Oxfam bargain bin) and there was a colossal blue cartoon head to represent the god Dagon. The set features one of the sinister-looking flatpack bungalows that feature in many of Jones’s productions, and the turning points of the action (flagged in 50 shades of purple by Saint-Saëns) are implied rather than shown. SeokJong Baek’s Samson does nothing as vulgar as destroying the temple; he merely loosens a couple of joists. Jones can be a revelatory director, but right now he’s going through a bad patch. During the intervals audience members were buried in their programme books trying to work out what they’d just seen, which is rarely a good sign.

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