It took Richard Wagner 25 years from conception to finish, and Parsifal turned out to be his final major work. The opera in three acts premiered at the Bayreuth Festival in 1882, with both music and libretto written by Wagner. It’s loosely based on a German 13th century epic poem set in the time of the Grail Knights and Camelot.
King Amfortas (Robert Hayward) is sick, suffering from a wound that won’t heal. A mystic woman, Kundry (Katarina Karnéus), arrives bringing the king a medication from the orient. One of the knights, Gurnemanz (Brindley Sherratt), recounts the story of the king’s wound; how the king’s father, Titurel (Stephen Richardson), assembled the knights to guard the Holy Grail and the Holy Spear, how Klingsor (Derek Welton) wanted to join but was refused and in revenge managed to steal the Spear and stab Amfortas. The only person capable of healing the wound is “a pure fool made wise by compassion.” Could it be Parsifal (Toby Spence), the swan-killing young man who just showed up?
This production was staged by Opera North and experienced live at the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham, UK. While originally fully staged in Leeds, the touring version was a pared-down concert staging. The conductor of the evening was Richard Farnes and the director was Sam Brown.
Grail Knight – Ivan Sharpe, Richard Mosley-Evans
Flowermaiden – Samantha Clarke, Kathryn Stevens, Victoria Sharp, Elin Pritchard, Miranda Bevin, Helen Évora
Esquire – Claire Pascoe, Molly Barker, Stuart Laing, Campbell Russell
Voice – Hazel Croft
This discussion contains spoilers for both plot and ending.
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Francis: Welcome to today’s special edition of Opera Chats. What makes it special? We’re talking about a show we didn’t watch together, and talking about the experience of going to the opera for the first time.
Traxy: Arguably first. I’ve been before, as we’ve already established, but this was deliberately going to see an opera, for the sake of seeing an opera live on stage.
F: And of all things you chose Parsifal.
T: Well, you say “choose” …
F: So how did you end up with tickets to a Wagner opera anyway?
T: Last August, a friend of ours posted on Facebook that she had booked tickets for her and her husband to see an opera next year, but she hadn’t discussed it with her husband first, and he wasn’t that keen on going, maybe. I replied saying that if he didn’t want to go, I’d be happy to go with her instead, and give her the money for the ticket, because hey, going to the opera!
F: Very nice.
T: But in the end we sort of ended up deciding to go on a double date instead, so Mr T and I booked tickets as well.
F: The more the merrier!
T: Our friend had bought tickets through a scheme set up by Opera North, the opera company in question.
F: Are they local?
T: They’re based in Leeds, which isn’t far, but they’re not local to Nottingham, no.
T: The scheme is created for people who are newcomers to opera, so more people can be introduced to it.
F: Can’t argue with that!
T: We had to call them to book tickets, because the website didn’t have the scheme as an option. Possibly to make it harder to abuse.
T: Tickets are only £20 each.
F: Ah. Yeah, people love a discount.
T: They do. But hey, £40 for two people going to see a live show, that’s not bad in this day and age.
F: Not bad at all, no. So you booked tickets in August 2021. For when?
T: June 2022.
F: Nearly a year in advance? That’s brave in these “interesting times”.
T: We were hoping things had calmed down a bit by then. Optimistic, I know.
F: You never know. It could have been fine. So, June finally arrived?
T: Yes, and we were apprehensive about sitting in an auditorium for five hours, but we had our masks on, and as far as we know we didn’t catch Covid.
T: The show itself was between around 4pm to maybe 9:20pm. So, we picked up our friends and drove into town, as we didn’t want to take the bus. Then we walked around town for a bit – something we haven’t done since maybe December 2019.
F: Due to the pandemic?
T: Well, we don’t go into town that often regardless, but yeah. Then we went to the Royal Concert Hall and went up to our seats on tier one, to the side of the stage, with a good view over it. You saw the picture I posted?
F: Sure did. I’m guessing it was in German with “subtitles”?
T: Yes, there were TV screens on both sides of the stage, and we were seated perfectly to see the screen facing us.
F: Parsifal has three acts, right? I’m hoping there were intervals in between?
T: Yes, the first one was 40 minutes long, the second about 20, I think. Something like that.
F: You knew this was going to be different, not a full production but a “concert staging”. What did you expect that to mean, and did it live up to expectations?
T: The Opera North website talked about it being a concert staging, and how it meant that the orchestra would be on stage with the performers, and you wouldn’t get scenery backdrops and such, but I thought it said they would still be in costume, even if everything else was scaled down.
F: And were they?
T: No. They were unable to for logistical reasons, apparently, but it also meant they had no props at all, and considering props are integral to the story I think they could have improvised a little. Like, there was a whole thing about a spear or a sword, but when they were miming holding it, you had no idea what the heck they were meant to be holding. A severed head? A piece of parchment? What? They could have gone to the cleaning cupboard and borrowed a broom or a mop or something to use as a stand-in, with a mug from the break room to represent the Grail. Or a leftover Starbucks cup!
F: Would you say the lack of even the most rudimentary props held back the storytelling?
T: Yes. Then the whole cast were dressed in black as well. The women had different cuts of dresses, and all had different hair, but when you have at least three guys of a similar build, with similar greying beards, and similar lack of hair dressed exactly the same, that was confusing.
F: I don’t suppose you got some kind of facial blindness?
T: I don’t think so, but when you have people who look roughly the same and they’re wearing the same style clothes, they all kind of blend together. How do you tell them apart?
F: So how did you tell them apart?
T: While they were all on stage you could tell them apart based on where they sat or stood. Like, the advisor guy was on this chair, the king was on this chair, and so on. When they all left the stage and only one of them came back, that’s when it got tricky, at least to start with. I only realised who it was because the king kept clutching his side, so when I realised the guy who returned on stage was clutching his side, it made sense for that to be the king.
F: Gotcha. Despite their confusingly similar appearances, were the performers good? Because that’s the main thing, right?
T: I mean, yeah, that’s the main thing. And they were. They were fabulous, and for well over four hours in total! The main cast were great, as was the big chorus, which they managed to fit on the seated tiers behind the stage.
F: They have seating behind the stage?! What’s this, the Royal Albert Hall?
T: Well, behind it but above. It was a clever use of a limited space if you ask me.
F: And the orchestra was seated on the stage?
T: Yup, with the performers on chairs at the front of the stage, where they would sit until it was their turn to sing. It wasn’t really engrossing, shall we say?
F: I can imagine. Your imagination has to do a lot of heavy lifting in a staging like that, and even more so when it goes on for five hours … and it’s Wagner.
T: I mean, the opera being in German wasn’t an issue. I like German, I’m trying to learn it, and besides, a translation was provided. I saw in the Facebook comments that the “subtitles” must be off-putting for newcomers, and I responded by saying that as a newcomer, the subtitles were absolutely crucial and not off-putting at all. That’s the only way to keep up with what’s going on, because without them we’re literally just watching an excruciatingly long foreign language concert.
F: Which you could have listened to at home.
T: Yes! If we’re sitting there watching them, of course we need to know what they’re saying and when they’re saying it, because we’re really watching a play set to music, we’re not watching a concert where the song lyrics are beside the point.
F: Even Wagner himself called it a “festival play” and not an opera.
T: Right. Well, there’s a narrative, and without subtitles we can’t follow it.
F: Parsifal ain’t known for being the easiest to follow either. If you know it inside out so you don’t need the translation to know where you are, that’s different.
T: Yeah, and no doubt there were some Wagner enthusiasts in the audience who could close their eyes and float away to Arthurian times just listening to the music. And let’s face it, the music was amazing, if a bit bombastic at times.
F: That’s Wagner for you.
T: Apparently. The instrumental parts – and there were many, and they were long – were stunning, I really enjoyed them, but the singing didn’t strike me as being … I don’t know how to express it.
F: Try anyway.
T: Like … with Verdi or Puccini, the singing always takes centre stage. That’s why you’re there. The music is there to accompany the singing, not the other way around.
F: Of course.
T: You don’t get a 15 minute long instrumental break here and there just because. You might get a little interval music, like in Carmen, or as an ouverture, like in The Barber of Seville or Così fan tutte, but not really as a part of the story itself. The music is secondary to the singing.
F: And I’m guessing the singers stayed seated during the instrumental parts?
T: Or they weren’t on stage at all.
F: Wow, okay. You know, I don’t think I would have enjoyed seeing this.
T: In fairness, you wouldn’t have bought tickets in the first place.
F: Entirely true, and I stand by that. What about the story itself?
T: I found a fun way of describing it when we got to the first interval. I’m not sure I remember it verbatim, because I don’t think I got around to writing it down anywhere.
F: You remember enough to paraphrase?
T: Maybe. It was something like how the first act consisted of a lady bringing bath salts from Arabia, then someone shot a swan while the king had a bath, followed by 40 minutes of religion.
F: Sounds riveting. What about the second act?
T: Uh. Bad guy was bad, more religion? I don’t remember. The bad guy was very good, though. You could totally get that he was the bad guy even before he started singing. Act three I think was mostly religion.
F: Did you realize it was going to be about religion that much?
T: No. I mean, it’s about some Arthurian knights, and the Holy Grail, but my gods it got preachy!
F: We both thought Fidelio got too religious, and if you’re saying the majority of Parsifal is all about religion, I can’t imagine getting much pleasure from it, regardless of staging.
T: Even Norma, which is specifically about a high priestess, didn’t go into religion that much. Tosca may be partially set in a church, but none of it feels preachy. You don’t get the Sacristan singing a whole song about “praise be to our Lord” either. Not like this.
F: See? Stick with the Italians, they’ll treat you right.
T: So far I vastly prefer Puccini’s storytelling to Wagner’s, it’s true.
F: The important question here, considering you had some opera newbie tickets, is whether you would go see more operas based on this first experience?
T: If I knew nothing else about it, then I probably wouldn’t, to be honest. If I was under the impression that opera meant black-clad people sitting on chairs occasionally getting up to sing – for five hours, not counting the intervals – I’d go home and think opera wasn’t for me, even though I enjoyed the music and the singing.
F: So the concert staging let it down?
T: Massively! If you look up reviews, you’re likely to come across ones about the performances in Leeds, where it was a full production, and think it sounds amazing – because the review I read was very positive. Then you go to the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham and only get the touring concert performance, where there’s no chance of losing yourself in the plot the way you would with a full production.
T: Very! They’re touring with La Traviata this autumn and Tosca in the spring, and I asked if they were going to be concert stagings or full versions, because I’d like to go back but I’m not paying for a concert staging again.
F: And are they?
T: They’re both going to be full productions.
F: Excellent! You booked tickets yet?
T: Haha, no, not yet.
F: But you will?
T: I’m looking into it. If I had to choose one or the other, I would really like to see Tosca on stage.
F: What do you make of Opera North as a company?
T: Great. Hence why I’d want to see them again. Ohh, when we got back to our seats there was a goody bag waiting for us! We had no idea we were going to get one, so that was a lovely surprise.
F: Cheaper tickets and a swag bag? That’s awesome! What did you get?
T: Some sweets, some printed materials about opera performances in general, and a little travel mug.
F: Ooh, cool. Bribes!
T: Haha, well, it gets even better! The print on the mug, which is red and white, by the way, has the Opera North logo and says “HA BA NEH RA!” It even says “Carmen: Habanera, Georges Bizet” as well. I think the canvas bag said “Figaro Figaro Figarooo” or something like that. It’s pretty cool.
F: Yeah! So, getting back to the plot, you weren’t convinced?
T: Parsifal was some kind of Jesus figure, that much was clear. He had a white shirt on.
F: Subtle as it goes.
T: Act two got very loud for a while, which my ears didn’t appreciate. It became cacophonic. I don’t even know if that’s a word, but you get the idea.
F: I do, and it is.
T: The bell ringing was a nice recurring theme, even if there were no actual bells, and just sheets of metal. But yeah, the story seemed rather convoluted.
F: Famously so.
T: You’ve seen it?
F: I’ve listened to a recording or two, but I don’t speak German. Its reputation precedes it. To be honest, it probably ain’t the best one for beginners either because it’s so convoluted, but would it be fair to count yourself as a beginner? Honestly?
T: I’m definitely a beginner when it comes to Herr Wagner.
F: But at this point you ain’t that much of a newcomer to opera as a medium. Together we must have watched like ten of them now. Some of them you had already seen without me, and we re-watched them together so we had something to talk about. But yes, it’s your first Wagner. Will it be your last?
T: I’m a glutton for punishment, I guess, because I still kind of want to see the Ring Cycle.
F: At a theater?!
T: Oh, gods, no! At home! Where I can put my feet up and take breaks.
F: That’s more like it. The Ring Cycle is like a marathon.
T: Yeah, I don’t want to see it live, realistically, but it would be interesting to have seen in some form at least once. Have you seen it?
F: I’m a busy guy, what can I say? No, I’ve heard but not seen. Plan on keeping it that way, or are you saying I have to join you for the sake of this project?
T: Well, yeah? Preferably? But we still have plenty of Italians to get through first, so you’re off the hook. For now.
T: Hey, we’re here to expand your horizons too, remember? And you have largely ignored the Germans. And the English, and French, and …
F: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So I’m single-minded. Italy is the birthplace of opera. There are enough composers to go around and I got shit to do, ya know?
T: If you love the genre, wouldn’t you want to experience as much of it as you could?
F: I’m in it for the music and the drama, and I know what I like. That’s why I listen to it. I don’t need to know about the technicalities of singing opera, which would be the “full experience”, right?
T: Yeah, I guess.
F: I have ears, the singing is pleasant to listen to, it evokes emotions, that’s all that matters. I don’t sit there wondering about the tessitura, or coloratura, or whatever, you know? If I like it, I like it.
T: Yup. That’s fair.
F: Everyone has their own musical preferences. Some are into rock or rap, I’m into opera. But it don’t make me an expert on the technicalities, if you know what I’m saying. I never studied music, but I enjoy listening to it.
T: Like me. Well, I did piano lessons for a while when I was ten, but … Let’s just say I wanted to be good at playing the piano. Having to go through the faff of learning how to play wasn’t part of the plan.
F: And while you were busy dodging piano practice, I played sports.
T: It’s funny that we’re such cultural plebs on the one hand, and really into opera on the other, considering opera is often thought of as only for the cultural elite.
F: Yeah. My approach to this operatic adventure of ours is that I’m like the dude who’s really into 70s rock and I have brought you my prized vinyl collection to listen to, so we might have fun playing air guitar together and talk about what a great bass player someone is.
T: Except instead of Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple, it’s opera, and instead of the bass player it’s Puccini.
F: And the air guitar is … okay, I don’t know exactly, I haven’t thought this through. But I don’t plan on starting a Creedence tribute band, so it don’t matter.
T: What about air conducting?
F: Yes! That’s our air guitar! I like it! We’ll pretend to conduct an orchestra, but if we continue this conversation much longer we risk becoming as long winded as Wagner, so let’s wrap it up.
T: Agreed. To summarise, both Mr T and I and our friends enjoyed a night at the opera. We really liked the music and the singing, but the concert staging was a massive let-down.
F: And while you could do with more Wagner in your life, you’re happy to keep it casual.
T: If by casual you mean watching it at home on TV, yes. Definitely. The interesting thing is that I have seen another concert staging now, on TV, and I thought it worked a lot better.
F: Maybe that’s what we’ll talk about next time.
T: Yes, that might be a good idea.
F: And until next month, a presto!