Review of Opera North’s Parsifal at the Bridgewater Hall

 

Richard Farness conducting the Orchestra of Opera North in Parsifal

The first of Opera North’s concert hall
presentations of Parsifal was a magnificent musical
experience, but, to anyone who saw the fully staged version in Leeds, it also showed
how much the resources of a real theatre were absent.

Of course you never miss what you didn’t
know about. The soloists – and, particularly, those with lesser roles now
honoured with red chairs of their own front-of-stage – were all keenly able to
convey character and emotion through simple gestures and intelligent
positioning alone, and the story was easier to follow in some ways by using one’s
own imagination than when interpreting a director’s spin presented as
graphically as this had been.

“Think, when we talk of horses, that you
see them …” said Shakespeare’s prologue to Henry V, and it was that sort
of exercise. Think, when Parsifal says he’s holding a spear, that he really is, and so on.

What’s more, the Bridgewater Hall acoustic
added a dimension of clarity and thrill to the sound of singers and orchestra
that few theatres could emulate. Wagner designed the whole work to be a kind of
quasi-religious experience, and the hall’s near-cathedral-like resonance helped
give that feeling.

But perhaps the leading Flowermaidens, seated
in black dresses, could not manage to be alluring quite as much as the
writer-composer might have liked, and the full chorus, powerful in numbers and
voice as they always are, looked the same in serried ranks, whether personifying
chaste knights, temptresses or the angelic host.

As in some other Opera North concert-hall
versions of operas, without even electronic projected settings (and they used
only the minimum stage lights, not the full available rig) the music was the
point, and the whole point. Richard Farnes, seen this time in a centre-stage spotlight,
was visibly the Wagner conductor par excellence, guiding every note and nuance,
pacing the whole huge structure with both dramatic excitement and meditative
depth, and the orchestra played wonderfully for him. They, and he, know that it
often matters to hold the decibels down a little bit so that voices can be
heard without strain, but when they (especially their warm and wonderful brass)
really opened up, the result was spine-tingling. And the chorus, too, made
glorious sound.

The principals, as I’ve said in another
place, are about as near to a dream line-up as you could get, and every one of
them was on form for this performance. Brindley Sherratt sustained his rich
tone throughout the marathon but also managed to grow older for the final act
by stance and demeanour alone; Derek Welton made Klingsor a really
vicious-looking but wonderful-sounding baddie; Robert Hayward was noble and
affecting as Amfortas, and
Katarina Karnéus conveyed remarkable depths of
psychology while singing superbly. Both she and Toby Spence (who filled the
space with some ringing top notes) seem to have abandoned the beatific grins of
the Leeds first night and found a subtler way of portraying blessedness: that’s
good.


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