Richard Farnes

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Guest Reviewer, Peter Reed

To judge from reports of Opera North’s semi-staging of Parsifal in Leeds at the beginning of this month, with costumes, a set, props and lighting, this pared-down concert staging for London was simplicity itself, and it has left a huge impression. The only Parsifalian prop was the Holy Grail in Acts I & III, placed in front of the organ console; all the cast and chorus wore black, except for Parsifal himself, in a white shirt and, for his mysterious reappearance in Act III, a dark hood. There was no spear, and no blood, and the action took place in front of Richard Farnes and the Opera North Orchestra. All the singers performed from memory, the various interactions and moments of connection were intense, and the performance registered as one that made you wonder at the scale of Wagner’s achievement.

Farnes (ON’s former music director) and his players created a formidably luminous relationship with the singers, which made the score’s grander moments resonate powerfully. It is no exaggeration to say that Wagner’s tapestry of themes, leitmotifs and orchestral timbre was every bit as fluent and meaningful as the sung text and played with hair-raising lucidity and immediacy. Unencumbered by any significant stage business, Farnes’s approach was mobile but unpressured, and he gave the score’s many tender moments a poetic, veiled sensuality. Everything he did was geared to minimising the gap between performers and audience.

With two exceptions, Parsifal is very much bass and baritone territory. Brindley Sherratt was a magnificent Gurnemanz, holding the long first Act together with an ardent, beautifully sung and paced realisation of the old knight’s humanity and failing grasp on hope. Robert Hayward’s wounded Amfortas was at times an unbearable expression of anguish and remorse, powerfully so in Amfortas’s collapse in Act III. Derek Welton gave us an unusually limber and mercurial Klingsor, sung with barely repressed savagery, and Stephen Richardson brought weight and presence to the role of Titurel.

Katarina Karnéus’s Kundry was a spellbinding reincarnation of the woman who mocked Christ on the way to his being crucified and the spurned seducer of the innocent fool that is Parsifal, wildly dramatic matched by high-voltage singing. Toby Spence is not a heldentenor, but he brought a spiritual innocence and wonder to the title-role, and his gradual and redemptive assumption of authority in Act III was, as it should be, overwhelming. As for the Chorus, it was on top, powerful form.

Minimalist as Sam Brown’s staging had become for this performance, it still conveyed Parsifal’s Christ-like role, and the moment when Kundry gives Parsifal his first, sexual kiss and he suddenly feels the stigmata of Amfortas’s wound was a telling piece of direction. The work Wagner described as ‘a stage consecration festival play’ had duly consecrated the stage of the Festival Hall.


Parsifal – Ein Bühnenweihfestspiel in three Acts to a libretto by the composer

Parsifal – Toby Spence

Kundry – Katarina Karnéus

Gurnemanz – Brindley Sherratt

Amfortas – Robert Hayward

Klingsor – Derek Welton

Titurel – Stephen Richardson

First knight – Ivan Sharpe

Second knight – Richard Moseley-Evans

Esquires – Molly Barker, Stuart Laing, Claire Pascoe, Campbell Russell

Flower-maidens – Miranda Bevin, Samantha Clarke, Helen Évora, Elin Pritchard, Victoria Sharp, Kathryn Stevens

Voice from above – Hazel Croft

Chorus & Orchestra of Opera North

Richard Farnes

Sam Brown – Director