No excuse for the hyperbole: this really is one of the great Wagner productions of our time
You all know by now – well some of you may know, and a few of you will have been there too – just how outstanding English National Opera's revival of Nikolaus Lehnhoff's staging of Wagner's Parsifal is at the moment. I've been lucky enough to see it twice, and while the show was already wonderful 10 days ago, last night was another of those exceptional, transcendent evenings where the operatic gods conspire to produce something infinitely greater than the sum of its parts. And one operatic god in particular: John Tomlinson was Gurnemanz last night. I mean, he wasn't just singing the role or playing the part or acting the character, or anything so mundane: he was channelling some mystical essence of belief, faith and power that went beyond theatrical illusion and communicated to the minds and bodies of all of us who were watching last night. His great monologues in the first and third acts were the towering highlights of last night's performance, and were almost unbearably raw and moving. Tomlinson managed that miracle of dissolving the distance between him, the music, the character, the orchestra, and the audience so that we were all taking part in Parsifal's mysterious drama of desolation, compassion and renewal. His Gurnemanz has been special throughout the whole run, but yesterday it felt as if he was pushing himself to the limits of his powers, bringing all of his vast experience of singing Wagner's music together in a single performance. The same was true of Mark Wigglesworth's conducting and the playing of the ENO orchestra, who cast an echt-Wagnerian spell from the first bar of the prelude, a complete musical world that you didn't want to leave even at the end of five and a half hours, and the performances of the other principals – Stuart Skelton's magnificently focused Parsifal, Jane Dutton's controlled and seductive Kundry, and Ian Paterson's thrilling, pain-wracked Amfortas – were all heightened by the alchemy of the moment.
Thing is, there are some prosaic reasons for all this hyperbole: as the second-last night of the last ever run of one of the great Wagner productions of recent decades (the final performance is on Saturday, and there are still tickets available), it's no wonder that this Parsifal has become more and more special throughout its run. And it's often a truism that the best night to see any opera is likely to be the last show rather than the first, something that's even more likely with Parsifal, a piece whose subtlety and richness can only benefit from the cast, orchestra and conductor learning over weeks and months how to work with one another. Added to which, Radio 3 was recording last night's show, which must have made everyone involved feel that they were setting down their interpretation for posterity. This is a performance of Parsifal to compare with any of the greats. It will be broadcast on Opera On 3 on 21 May, which means that, thankfully, you will have the chance to hear this exceptional night at the opera for yourselves – and to see if you agree with the purpleness of my prose.
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