Mark Elder
English National Opera Chorus and Orchestra
March 1999
Coliseum London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
AmfortasJonathan Summers
TiturelJohn Connell
GurnemanzGwynne Howell
ParsifalKim Begley
KlingsorPeter Sidhom
KundryKathryn Harries
GralsritterCraig Downes
Mark Richardson

The programme notes on this new production of Parsifal at the English National Opera describe the opera as “science fiction”, and the director Nikolaus Lehnhoff has emphasised in interviews its modernity, its characters’ uncertainty about who they are and where they belong. But, while clearly not aimed at Wagner traditionalists, the production is beautiful and deeply moving, and delivers the opera’s mythical power and emotion with austere coherence. The ending is painful and indeterminate, following the music rather than the text, as Parsifal leaves the crown on Titurel’s corpse and departs with Kundry back along a railway track which peters out at the Grail shrine. For the ENO, however, this is certainly a moment of redemption, even triumph, after a rocky season of pretty good revivals and uneven new productions.

Lenhoff starts from Wagner’s original conception of Parsifal as a work on Buddhist themes, and homes in on the idea of renunciation of attachment which overlaps with the Christian asceticism, or self-mortification, traditionally found in the opera. The decor and costumes reflect this blending of eastern and Christian-monastic elements, although the total effect could be called “Star Wars”, something evocative and coherent but alien.

The set is abstract, a single grey curved slope, with the steep part hidden by a wall before the act one transformation, and industrial-looking side buildings during act one. Strikingly, the wasteland strewn with rocks and rubble in acts one and three is also a Buddhist stone garden. The entrance to the Grail Shrine is blocked by a massive stone which rolls dramatically around and away in imitation of Christ’s tomb.

The Grail Knights wear monastic grey in act one, first world war greatcoats and gas masks in act three, perhaps a nod to T.S. Eliot’s wasteland. The flower maidens wear sweeping brown mediaeval dresses, with conical extensions to the sleeves. Their allure comes purely from the fluid patterns their dresses make, from pink lighting, and from their music. Kligsor, dressed as a Japanese potentate in red and white, the only non-neutral colours in the production, appears suspended in a circle behind a scrim depicting the pelvis of a skeleton, an image which is tasteless, slightly comic and powerfully appropriate. Titurel’s semi-skeletal remains are prominent in act three.

The parallel journeys of Parsifal and Kundry form the core of the action. In act one, both appear in rich brown, with red “masks” painted across their eyes. Parsifal looks like an exotic version of Papageno, until in act three he appears transformed into the holy-picture saintly knight who appears in the production publicity.

Kundry, whose path is more complex and original, appears in a range of guises, often sculptural. In act one she has a hairy body-suit (following images of the penitent Mary Magdalene grown hairy) and a nest-like shell which also resembles wings, suggesting a cocoon and perhaps her possible status as a fallen angel — her history of reincarnation recalls Gnostic Sophia, embodied as Helen of Troy and a sequence of other puzzling women. At the start of act two, as Klingsor reclaims her, she appears trapped under the fabric of the set with only her head and flowing hair visible, like the Pre-Raphaelite Ophelia. She appears to seduce Parsifal in a massive golden garment, walks out from behind it in golden baroque armour, and ends up in a golden slip-dress suitable for clubbing. In act three, she is a mummy with only her upper face and flowing hair visible, emerging from the wraps.

Musically also, this is probably not a production for purists but it is striking and powerful. Mark Elder and the ENO orchestra brought out the unease, and the extreme emotions, of the score in a way which at times recalled, not even Schoenberg, but the eastern-influenced minimalists. For example, the instantly hypnotic but impossible-to-analyse opening of the first-act prelude had the meditative focus of something of LaMonte Young’s. Elder seemed to move the music along between such interludes, frantically rather than confidently, until the anxious calm of the ending.

The singers, all ENO regulars with no big Wagnerian names, gave committed and striking performances without exception. Kathryn Harries as Kundry had a luscious voice, with a slowish vibrato, and a physical presence and questing sadness which made it impossible not to watch her, even when she was a silent bystander. Gwynne Howell’s singing doesn’t have the power and resonance it once did, but he was an emotional Gurnemanz, his confident narrative dissolving into irritation with Parsifal and then into complete confusion and silence in act three. Jonathan Summers as Amfortas and John Connell as Titurel were solid vocally and to the point dramatically, while Peter Sidhom as Klingsor sang resoundingly but acted, well, impotent as well as sinister.

Kim Begley was recently reported as saying that he does not like singing the role of Parsifal in English, because Wagner’s music is so closely tied to the German text. (In this production, the music has controversially been adapted slightly to fit English speech rhythms. There were, though, still passages where the word setting wasn’t exactly idiomatic.) If Begley had reservations about this production, they didn’t show. He is a fine actor, and gave an apparently straighforward account of Parsifal’s journey from a gauche, stupider-than-Siegfried, youth to a hero matured by his experience of suffering. His encounter with Kundry in act two was a heart-wrenching study of need and disgust. Above all, Begley’s singing tonight was absolutely clear and forceful, appropriately heroic and completely musical.

H.E. Elsom

The Guardian

Wagner called it a Buhnenweihfestspiel – a ‘festival drama to consecrate a stage’ – and performances of Parsifal have been special events ever since. ENO’s new production is the first in Britain for 11 years, and the first in two generations here that gets anywhere near to measuring out the full complexity of this unclassifiable work.

There is profound thoughtfulness behind every detail of Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s staging, while under Mark Elder the music takes on the numinous glow that Parsifal uniquely demands, and the cast led by Gwynne Howell’s masterly Gurnemanz, Kathryn Harries’ intense Kundry and Kim Begley’s lucid, unforced Parsifal, has no weak links whatsoever.

Lehnhoff purges the work of many of its Christian trappings: there is no grail, no rite of communion at the end of the first act. The knights belong to an unnamed cult that seems to have transported itself to the alien, threatening world conjured up in the bleak masonry of Raimund Bauer’s sweeping set; Parsifal’s appearance, with his war paint and animal skins, suggests he comes from a native people, part of the outside world from which the grail knights have removed themselves.

Not everything in that long, intense first span of narration (articulated by Howell with immense intelligence and care for the meaning of every word of Richard Stokes’s exemplary translation) quite works; details sometimes jar. Why, for instance, is Amfortas’s wound in his side, pointing up the Christ parallel when so much else plays down such symbolism, and why, as Gurnemanz tells Parsifal about travelling through space and time to the Grail Hall, do they sway together in time with the music like two old soaks on a boozy night out?

After that, though, the grip on the dramatic trajectory is as clear as Elder’s control of the musical one. Klingsor’s Flowermaidens are a frumpy, unsexy lot – in grey, shapeless frocks with petaloid sleeves and curious headgear which might be more botanical imagery but equally could replicate the testicles that Klingsor (Peter Sidhom, commanding of voice, slightly camp of demeanour) has traded to gain his magical powers.

But the whole act builds effortlessly towards the confrontation between Kundry and Parsifal. Harries here is magnificent: she too is hampered by her costume – curious carapaces, which she sheds periodically as her efforts to seduce Parsifal get more desperate, yet which seem designed to minimise her allure – but every phrase is invested with such passion, and her stage presence is so consistently vital that the most complex and troubling character in the whole of Wagner for once gains a whole human dimension.

When Parsifal destroys Klingsor’s magic kingdom, only wasteland remains, and the third act becomes an endgame of Beckettian bleakness. The grail knights’ disintegration is complete; Gurnemanz keeps watch by a pit that holds the mummified remains of his colleagues, while a railway track leads off the stage into infinity. Even Parsifal’s arrival offers no quick fix – he may be crowned king, and Amfortas (Jonathan Summers, committed if a bit histrionic) is released from his suffering, but the final moments make it clear that this is only a temporary remission.

As Parsifal places his crown on the rotting corpse of Titurel (which Amfortas has desperately cradled earlier in the act), he signals that the knights have lost their leadership for ever. As the curtain falls, he and Kundry lead them all off along the railway track into oblivion – her future now seems entirely dependent on his, and their steadily evolving relationship has been one of the most fascinating and moving aspects of the third-act ritual.

Every element of this imagery feels right, and takes on enormous significance. For once in this opera, what happens on stage provides a real counterweight to the power of the score. And Elder’s unflagging control of all that musical apparatus – the offstage instruments, the extra choruses dispersed around the Coliseum, the lustrous tone he draws from the orchestra, the natural pacing of every section – puts the seal on one of ENO’s most notable achievements in recent years.

Andrew Clements | 15 February 1999


Wisdom through compassion

IT MAY come to be known as the Protestant Parsifal; a grey day for the Grail. But Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s provocative, intelligent, and finally very moving production of Wagner’s perplexing masterpiece dares to ask questions for which there are no easy answers. In a sense, it is the agnostic Parsifal. It wants to believe, but it needs to know.

This, says Lehnhoff, is an opera about loss of faith, loss of direction, loss of humanity. Loss. The world into which it plunges us is a world in decline, a world so preoccupied with the trappings of Christianity – the symbols, the rituals, the piety that means everything and nothing – that it has forgotten the true meaning of the word. Man’s inhumanity to man has come full circle. Our evolution has hit the buffers. It’s the end of the line.

Indeed it is. In the final act of the opera, Lehnhoff’s set designer, Raimund Bauer, presents the metaphor literally: a length of railtrack going nowhere or somewhere, depending upon which way you look at it. Salvation railroad. It’s the lifeline, if you like, to new beginnings. The way in, and the way out. It’s the track along which Parsifal enters a warrior – a black samurai (a marvellous evocation from costume designer Andrea Schmidt-Futterer) – and exits a redeemer, leading the way for all those who would follow.

So there is hope in Lehnhoff’s wilderness. In the beginning, and in the end, time and place are indeterminate. Different cultures, east and west, different periods, are suggested in the costume designs. The knights in act one hail from medieval times, in act three they are ghosts of the Great War, gas masks pushed back over their heads in terrible grimaces. But the sanctuary of the Grail is a constant, the steep incline of its grey walls suggesting a civilisation thrown off its axis. A huge rock – the rock of ages – has ruptured its fortification from the outside world, and through that rupture (which we might also see as a metaphor for Amfortas’s wound, the wound of all humanity) the wild and wilful figure of Parsifal first bursts like a force of nature.

For once he is, in every sense, the primitive. The surprise of his first entrance is but one of several tiny revelations that Lehnhoff brings to his reading of the text. Another is the clear parallel he makes between the knights and their female counterparts, the flower maidens, in act two. Sex and violence as powerful motivators in the cycle of human folly. Lehnhoff and his designer have us view the opening of this second act through a gauze bearing the pelvic region of a female skeleton, and, more than any production I have seen of it, makes the physicality really tell. Slender arms become a myriad stigmas. Kundry sheds costumes like petals.

Lehnhoff is an accomplished practitioner. His stage compositions, his eye for movement, his respect for stillness and space is really expressive. Not all the big moments here quite measured up to the magnificence of the musical realisation: the walk “through time and space” to the Grail sanctuary, the unveiling of the Grail itself were rather too Protestant. But the luminosity and splendour of the sound Mark Elder achieved with the English National Opera Orchestra and Chorus in these moments (extra brass summoning from the rear of the theatre, angelic voices from on high) truly opened up the imagination. Like all great readings of this music, this one created its own time and space.

A fine cast inhabited it. Gwynne Howell’s Gurnemanz may now lack that last degree of vocal authority, but he weighs his words and wears his compassion with great dignity. Jonathan Summers’ Amfortas wears his anguish wearily, perhaps too wearily, but the pain is heartfelt. To Kim Begley (Parsifal) I owe an apology for once suggesting that he was not the stuff of which Heldentenors are made. The greatly improved middle-voice is now the source and support for some really beautiful singing. And Kathryn Harries is a simply electrifying Kundry. From fallen angel (her crash- landing makes for a spectacular entrance) to fragrant seductress, she affects amazing transformations in her voice. Almost as amazing as Wagner’s in the orchestra.

But above all, you come away from this Parsifal with an indelible sense of its “wisdom through compassion”. Lehnhoff’s painterly images of Gurnemanz, and later Parsifal, cradling Amfortas, are not easily forgotten. They are the most eloquent of endgames.

Edward Seckerson | 15 February 1999

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
224 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 396 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast (BBC Radio 3, 2 April 1999)
Sung in English (translation by Richard Stockes)
A production by Nikolaus Lehnhoff
Possible dates: 3, 6, 13, 16, 19 March 1999