Richard Farnes
Opera North Chorus and Orchestra
June 2022
Grand Theatre Leeds
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
AmfortasRobert Hayward
TiturelStephen Richardson
GurnemanzBrindley Sherratt
ParsifalToby Spence
KlingsorDerek Welton
KundryKaterina Karnéus
GralsritterIvan Sharpe
Richard Mosley-Evans

Wagner’s brilliant music conquers all qualms in Opera North’s Parsifal

Leeds Town Hall, the location for Opera North’s Ring Cycle six years ago, is now being refurbished, so a concert production of Parsifal had to take place in the similarly Victorian environment of Leeds Grand Theatre. It was a good move. The Grand bears some resemblance to the theatre in Bayreuth, where the work which Wagner entitled a Bühnenweihfestspiel (Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage) was first performed in 1882… but not like this. In Sam Brown’s concert staging, a large chorus of Grail Knights appears beside the audience and fills the orchestra pit, Flowermaidens in long red dresses crowd together in the boxes and the 90-piece orchestra, conducted by Richard Farnes, occupies much of the stage. It will be interesting to see how the production adapts to other venues.

Farnes, Music Director from 2004–2016, has long since established himself as a leading interpreter of Wagner and in this Parsifal he reminded us of his calibre from the very beginning, with a sprightly, carefully managed Prelude with its series of interlocking Leitmotifs signifying the main themes of compassion, fellowship, chastity, suffering, redemption and much else which might seep into an audience’s unconscious mind. In Act 3, the Good Friday Music could not have been more sublime, and the funeral ceremony of Titurel, former leader of the Grail Knights, with its loud bells and brass, inspired a kind of pleasurable fear.

Most of the action took place front stage and on the steps down to the pit. Costumes are fittingly symbolic, with the Grail Knights in grey hoodies, Parsifal in a white shirt and the seductress Kundry in a long blue dress. Titurel and the evil magician Klingsor have a military appearance. The theme picked out as dominant in the publicity was compassion, but it could just as well have been redemption, although this might not be fully grasped by a modern audience puzzled by the Christian iconography which Wagner appropriated.

Swedish mezzo Katerina Karnéus sang Kundry wonderfully, with great emotional conviction, her voice agile, her diction particularly good. She spent much of her time either sitting or slumped on the stage, but even so her character could still be seen as the most interesting one, and a theme of sexuality might have been emphasised through her more overtly. Demonically seductive Flowermaidens (who in this production are not very erotic), a self-emasculated magician and a chaste maternal kiss between Kundry and the heroic fool Parsifal which causes him great pain could provide plenty of material for psychologists, but Wagner’s music conquers all qualms and embraces all enigmas. In the key central scene, Parsifal (Toby Spence), wearing a white shirt still stained with the blood of the swan he shot in Act 1, immediately recoils with horror from Kundry’s embraces, clutching his side. Spence sang with a charming sweetness and at times switched on a winning smile. He became credibly regal in Act 3 as the new leader of the Grail Knights.

Bass-baritone Robert Hayward’s authoritative presence and powerful voice with its distinctive vibrato provided us with a credible Amfortas, the ruler cursed with a terrible wound, and another bass-baritone, Derek Welton as his nemesis Klingsor, was perfectly cast, obviously relishing the part and using his rich voice with precision. Bass Brindley Sherratt was a terrific Gurnemanz, a veteran performer playing a veteran knight, his voice with its slightly gritty quality and an impressive clarity perfect for narration.

Christian rituals are interpreted as violently fanatical. In Act 1, the Knights plunge their left hands into Amfortas’ wound and smear their cheeks with blood in a parody of a mass, and in Act 3 they swarm forward with knotted ropes held high, pausing for an almost comic few seconds of self-flagellation, and I was not altogether surprised that an uplifted Grail did not accompany Parsifal’s transcendental gaze but instead Kundry in her blue dress as Mary holding the infant Jesus, as in a medieval painting. A cult of chastity became a cult of the Virgin, but I was not convinced. The Grail, a female symbol, should surely have been retained, but Wagner’s brilliant music, played by Opera North’s orchestra, made all puzzles subsidiary.

Richard Wilcocks | 06 June 2022

The Guardian

The shimmering beauty of Wagner’s score shines

Richard Farnes and the Opera North orchestra take centre stage in Sam Brown’s staging of Wagner’s final opera, with Brindley Sherratt a compelling Gurnemanz and Toby Spence a thoughtful lead

Opera North’s Wagner journey, which began with the Ring cycle it presented between 2011 and 2014, continues with his final music drama. Unlike the previous instalments, though, Parsifal is presented not in Leeds Town Hall (currently being refurbished) but in the company’s home theatre, so that the staging is more elaborate than before; on tour it will be presented as a more straightforward concert staging.

As before, though, Opera North’s orchestra, conducted again by its former music director Richard Farnes, takes centre stage. Literally, in this case, as it fills the space of the Grand theatre, with the drama played out in front and sometimes behind it, and spilling into the auditorium for the choral set pieces. As one of the greatest glories of Wagner’s score is its extraordinary orchestral writing, that is no disadvantage at all, and Farnes’ control and shaping of four hours of music is as sure as ever. To those reared on Hans Knappertsbusch’s classic Parsifal recordings, his tempi may sometimes seem rather brisk, and there is perhaps more intense beauty to be wrung out of the third-act prelude than there was here, but in general the shimmering poetry of the score is wonderfully conveyed.

There is no set, just an array of lights at the back of the stage creating different patterns and effects. Costumes (by Stephen Rodwell) are unspecifically modern – grey hoodies for Gurnemanz and the grail knights, quasi-military uniforms for Titurel and Klingsor. For the most part, too, Sam Brown’s production sticks to the basic narrative, and only diverges significantly towards the ends of the first and third acts. If his gloss on the final scene of Act One, having the grail knights smear themselves with the blood seeping from Amfortas’s wound, is reasonable enough, the image he conjures for the end of the opera introduces a jarring sense of kitsch: it is not the grail that is unveiled, but a baby, held aloft by Kundry, who is clad in Madonna blue.

Musically, though, the performance, built on the foundation of Farnes and the orchestra, never puts a foot wrong. It’s dominated by Brindley Sherratt as Gurnemanz, whose every word of his first-act narration is crystal-clear and compelling. Robert Hayward is an anguished Amfortas and Derek Welton an implacable Klingsor, and while Toby Spence’s Parsifal may not be the most heroic ever heard, he is interestingly self-aware, visibly bothered by what he does not understand of the grail ritual; that is until the third act, when Brown has him and Katerina Karnéus’s previously rather sisterly Kundry smirking at each other like soppy teenagers. In the scheme of things, though, these are minor irritations; the glory of Wagner’s score shines through.

Andrew Clements | 02 June 2022

Parsifal is the latest in Opera North’s celebrated series of concert performances of large-scale operas (Wagner particularly), but it’s somewhat different from its predecessors. Leeds Town Hall is currently undergoing refurbishment, so it was moved to the Grand Theatre, with considerable changes of style. We missed the massed orchestral and choral ranks on the Town Hall risers, but the compensations were many. This is probably the best time to warn potential audience members that this production is strictly for the four performances at Leeds. What they will see on tour will be closer to an orthodox concert staging – the exemplary music standards will remain, of course.

At Leeds Grand Theatre, Richard Farnes’ 90-piece orchestra occupies centre stage, the action taking place mainly on four levels of forestage sinking down into the orchestra pit – also at the rear of the stage, in stage boxes and, magically, at the rear of the stalls. There is a moment in Act 1 where you could feel yourself surrounded by music.

Under Sam Brown’s endlessly thoughtful direction, at Leeds the cast act out their parts against the ingenious lighting and basic set of Bengt Gomer and dressed by Stephen Rodwell – nothing fancy, but enough to delineate one group from another – knights in grey hoodies, for example.

So, for those (like your reviewer) who were encountering the work for the first time, what is Parsifal? Running at something over 4 hours stage time, it tells the story of the Knights of the Grail. The castle of Monsalvat was established by Titurel as a sanctuary for the Holy Grail and the Spear that pierced Christ’s side. Titurel having retired in favour of his son, Amfortas, the order is plagued by a wound Amfortas received from the Holy Spear wielded by the magician, Klingsor, a wound that will never heal.

Enter a young man, a holy fool, later to be identified as Parsifal, who engages with Kundry, an enchantress, who charmed Amfortas before his defeat. As he receives her kiss, Parsifal experiences the pain of Amfortas and vows to cure him which he eventually does. The emotional and religious background is enhanced by Kundry having been cursed (with everlasting life among other things) for laughing at Christ and by the Good Friday setting of the final redemption. Musically this can lead to such wonderful music as the chorale-type settings of Act 1 and the final Good Friday music.

Musically where to start? Brindley Sherratt in simply stunning form as Gurnemanz. An ageing knight, considerably more ageing by Act 3, he serves as the narrator for much of what has happened – and Sherratt, always in magnificent voice and pointing his lines superbly, could not be bettered. Robert Hayward as Amfortas equally makes a huge impression, his wound dictating his stance, the agony of a physical and spiritual wound present in every phrase.

Toby Spence conveys Parsifal’s simplicity beautifully while fielding a resounding tenor and Katarina Karneus alternates near-silence with fierce attack as Kundry. It seems strange that in Act 3 Wagner neglects her, leaving her on stage with nothing to sing. Brown’s solution, with her ultimately taking a key role in the Good Friday service, seems sensible.

From Derek Welton’s malevolent Klingsor and Stephen Richardson’s dignified Titurel onwards, the supporting cast are admirable, bolstered by a keenly focussed chorus. The orchestra, on David Greed’s final appearances as leader, is superb, not even fazed when the mob of Knights of the Grail force a retreating Amfortas to share Richard Farnes’ podium. The point is made more than once in the programme that, though the opera is of typical Wagnerian length, the libretto of Parsifal is unusually short. The orchestra, in fact, carries much of the story from the 15-minute Prelude onwards and, under Farnes, brings the full range of sound from hushed chords to vast climaxes.

Ron Simpson | 02 June 2022

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 48.0 kHz, 558 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast (BBC 3, delayed broadcast 2 July 2022)
A production by Sam Brown (2022)
Possible dates: 1, 4, 7, 10 June 2022