Mike Tilling, Arts Correspondent

Opera North’s Parsifal: An Achievement Of Considerable Grandeur

Toby Spence as Parsifal. All photos by Clive Barda
Toby Spence as Parsifal. All photos by Clive Barda
Whether an opera lover or not, you probably have an opinion about Richard Wagner.

Wasn’t he the favourite composer of Adolf Hitler?

Yes he was.

Wasn’t he that paranoid anti-Semite?

Yes he was.

Didn’t critics in his own time describe his music as ‘immoral’, ‘poisonous’ and ‘degenerate’?

Yes they did.

However, wasn’t he also one of the greatest musical theorists of the European tradition?

Yes he was.

Didn’t he design and build his own theatre for the staging of his works, one that still operates today?

Yes he did.

Didn’t he generate so much devotion among his fans that some commentators have labelled it ‘Wagnerolatry’.

Yes, they have.

A man of contradictions then, and those contradictions make him a fascinating figure.

Opera North’s production, thankfully, makes no attempt to give Parsifal contemporary ‘relevance.’ I suspect this is largely because Wagner set his work in a land of myth and legend, deliberately eschewing any contemporary reference points. His aim was to tell universal truths that do not inhabit any specific time or place.

In this respect, Director Sam Brown got it absolutely right. The themes shine through the music, the singing and the acting with no need for any ego driven interventions from a director. Despite being a semi-staged production, such intelligent use was made of the space in the theatre auditorium that is felt like a fully mounted experience.

Parsifal draws on the legend of The Holy Grail. It is guarded and worshipped by a cadre of knights under their King. However, the King has been wounded by an evil sorcerer and the land of The Grail is damaged. What is needed is a holy fool who will redeem the land a free the King from his affliction – enter Parsifal.

The cast assembled by Opera North is a splendid one.

It is difficult to pick out a few outstanding performers among so many, but Toby Spence as the eponymous hero looked and sang just as Wagner might have wished. He moves from the naive youth of the early scenes to the commanding redeemer of the last, effecting appropriate physical changes on the way. Applause for him at the curtain was strangely muted. He deserved better.

Katarina Karnéus as Kundry
Katarina Karnéus as Kundry
Katarina Karneus also has a tricky artistic odyssey. She has to arrive onstage as though instantly transported from another realm; provide Parsifal with news of his mother; tempt the hero to engage sexually and then be the bearer of the actual Grail. The transformations are difficult to follow (as are other aspects of the narrative) but her agile soprano voice illuminated Wagner’s score.

Stephen Richardson as Titurel
Stephen Richardson as Titurel
However, it would be negligent to overlook the most important character in the whole opera.

Wagner’s early theories dictated that every element in a staging should play an equal role. But by the time he reached this, his last opera, he had come round to the view that only music could penetrate to an audience’s innermost core and should play the starring role.

In Opera North favourite, conductor Richard Farnes, we had the perfect guide to the twisting paths and obscure byways of the score. And what a feat of concentration and endurance from the orchestra who were on stage and playing for a total of four hours.

Opera North’s Parsifal is an achievement of considerable grandeur.

Parsifal is at Leeds Grand Theatre until 10th June, then touring to Manchester, Nottingham, Gateshead and London.