Opera North’s Parsifal in Leeds

The publicity indicated that the performance of Parsifal by Opera North would be semi-staged. Although at other venues the work will apparently be presented more in a concert format, this description does not do justice to what the Leeds audience at the Grand Theatre encountered. While Richard Farnes and his orchestra were centre stage, literally and metaphorically, the production by Sam Brown, with designs by Bengt Gomér and Stephen Rodwell, was elaborate and highly dramatic. Indeed, the theatricalisation was, in my judgement, more successful than Opera North’s recent semi-staged Ring given at the Leeds Town Hall. No doubt, this partly reflected the greater complexity and diversity of scenes required by the latter but unquestionably the approach of the creative team for Parsifal was more imaginative and ingenious. For example, in the physical use of the available space, including the chorus invading the auditorium and the striking lighting effects which emerged from the very back of the stage. Then there were details in the playing out of the legend, such as the Knights of the Grail groping into Amfortas’ wound and tasting the blood, as if they were taking communion. Above all, the production scored by not over-interpreting the piece, emphasising the straightforwardness of the narrative, along with compassion as its basic theme.

The preparation of the individual roles had been meticulous, so that each character conveyed through movements, or particularly in Kundry’s case, stillness, their reaction to what was happening around them. Musically, too, this was a performance of great achievement. The voluminous bass of Brindley Sherratt rolled out untiringly throughout Gurnemanz’s long monologues. Stalwart baritone Robert Hayward displayed yet again total commitment as Amfortas, his anguished tones never losing their quality. Those of us who remember the high-spirited, nimble mezzo of Katarina Karnéus that was such a hit at the 1995 Cardiff Singer of the Year competition marvelled at how the voice and characterisation had strengthened and deepened to make her a truly remarkable Kundry. Derek Welton was a flashy, self-assured Klingsor, avoiding the barking often encountered with this part; and Toby Spence in the title role matched an acute understanding of his own simpleness – not a contradiction in terms – with purity of tenor sound.

But, at the centre of this resoundingly successful Wagner evening were Richard Farnes and the Opera North Orchestra. His tempi may have been brisker than those of some conductors but they did not appear to be so; that because the sensitive pacing and lingering plenitude of the motifs in the score were so satisfying.