In an ENO season that has led to a fair few grumblings regarding choice of directors, Nikolaus Lehnhoff's 1999 production of Parsifal returns to serve as an important reminder that specialist opera directors are far from the spent force the company management's decisions occasionally seem to imply.
This production is, of course, over a decade old, and Lehnhoff's own poor health has prevented him presiding over this revival (associate director Daniel Dooner takes charge). Co-produced with a handful of other houses, it has done the rounds since last seen in London. While some of its futuristic imagery has perhaps dated a little, it remains a supremely eloquent example of how provocative ideas can mix with an underlying concern with directorial Werktreue; above all, perhaps, it demonstrates to the opera novices increasingly favoured at the Coliseum the rewards of having complete faith in opera as a medium.
Characterised in the programme as 'Endgame in the Waste Land', Lehnhoff's vision sets up the grail kingdom as a desperate prison, bleached of hope and emotion. At its heart Amfortas stumbles in physical and psychological pain. Gurnemanz, meanwhile, is tetchy and resigned. There is no hiding from the failure of this community and its rituals. And, as if to demonstrate this, we are forced to confront a grotesque, skeletal Titurel in Act One, as he rises up at the front of the stage, rather than remaining concealed behind the veil of ceremony. These empty rituals, each with a hint of the military parade ground, are joylessly undertaken; few of those involved in them, it seems, have much more idea any more of their significance than Parsifal himself. The hope, meanwhile, that the Pure Fool brings is not regeneration but escape: a message that, for better or worse, seems to divest Wagner's work of much of its dangerous utopianism.
The basic structure of Raimund Bauer's set remains throughout the acts: heavily raked down-stage and curving up vertically at the back. For the first half of Act One this curve is invisible, and the action is encased by a bullet-pocked back wall, pierced by a large boulder. Klingsor—appearing in Andrea Schmidt-Futterer's costume as a creature located somewhere between Farinelli and the Phantom Menace—is suspended at the start of Act Two behind the projection of a pelvic bone.
Two dozen dancers join the Flower Maidens to make up his enchanted garden, the widened and elongated sleeves of their costumes simple but highly suggestive. It's a garden full of images of natural reproduction, mirrored by Kundry's emergence first from a cocoon, then shedding a further chrysalis-like layer of her costume. Act Three is dominated by a railway line leading out of the grail kingdom, offering, finally, a means of escape.
Presiding authoritatively over the outer acts is John Tomlinson's Gurnemanz. This, the programme tells us, is his first Wagner role at the Coliseum in nearly three decades. The intervening years—and all those Wotans at Bayreuth and elsewhere—have, of course, left their mark on the voice. Yet, while there are compromises to be made—the top is ragged, the rest is often boomy and unwieldy—Tomlinson's unrivalled gift for communication makes for a compelling portrayal. His performance, with every word audible, is as good an advertisement for opera in English as one is likely to see. Unfortunately, the effect is slightly undone by Richard Stokes's determinedly prosaic translation. Singable and eminently understandable though it may be, it retains none of the power or suggestiveness of Wagner's idiosyncratic poetry. This is perhaps less Stokes's fault than that of the English language, dare one say, which seems destined to do similar violence to the original as Klingsor does to himself: so much, at least, was suggested by such sensible but emasculated renditions as 'merciless chastisement', 'torment, torment, terrible torment', and 'wretchedness past enduring'.
Vocal honours for the evening must go to Stuart Skelton's powerful Parsifal. The voice is big, and there's a visceral thrill in hearing it get cranked up to full power. However, this was also an intelligent performance, charting the character's trajectory from impetuous inquisitiveness in Act One, via moving anguish in Act Two, to true nobility in Act Three. Kundry was to have been sung by Irène Theorin, but the Swedish soprano was quietly replaced by Jane Dutton—'artistic differences' is the official story, but rumour abounds. In the event, while Dutton has a good measure of the role, she failed communicate the sensuous danger she needed to in Act Two (the English language is perhaps a greater impediment for her than any other character, too). Here the production is little help. Placed far back in her cocoon for one long stretch, the voice struggled to project sufficiently. Things improved, however, when she was allowed greater interaction with Skelton at the front of the stage.
After being wildly miscast as Don Giovanni earlier in the season, Iain Paterson here makes an eloquent, moving Amfortas. He acts with often harrowing commitment, even if the voice—beautiful but a touch smooth—remains unsuited to the communication of tortured suffering. There was a fine, powerful Titurel from Andrew Greenan, while Tom Fox was clearly enjoying himself as Klingsor. His Flower Maidens occasionally lost contact with the pit, and weren't always ideally blended, but they, along with the other smaller roles, were generally excellent. The soloists' work was matched by magnificent singing from the chorus.
In the pit Mark Wigglesworth achieved astounding results. The ENO orchestra has rarely sounded more luxurious, the silky strings and sonorous brass in particular. While Wagner's score wafted intoxicatingly out into the Coliseum's vast auditorium, however, drama seemed rather too often to have been sacrificed to beauty, with the tempos occasionally dragging. There might not be much action in Parsifal, but there needs to be a greater sense of the searing internalised drama of the more Tristan-like passages. The score's grand ceremony was beautifully paced, however, the act-one transitions, taken at a more flowing tempo, in particular.
By Hugo Shirley
Photos © Richard Hubert Smith/ENO