TOMLINSON A GREAT GURNEMANZ
Nikolaus Lehndorff's production of Wagner's Tristan, twice at Glyndebourne, was such a highlight, winning prizes galore and showing that a 'conceptual' interpretation could work if it showed sufficient imagination plus respect for the composer and librettists. So this Parsifal, seen at the London Coliseum in 1999 and now again this February and March, comes as a sad disappointment.
Or course, Lehnsdorff does not change the text, but sort of doing that, he has made this Parsifal as unholy as he can. There is no Christian atmosphere. The first scene, in fact most scenes, are of an unremitting greyness, costumes and sets. Initially we see the back a pockmarked wall, within it a huge chunk of fibre-glass (which moves). Scene two reveals what might be a ski-run descent; for the grail there appears a twenty-foot strip of yellow which chez Klingsor becomes orange (not very imaginative).
Kundry appears first looking like a bag lady, second as a big busted would be seductress who sheds her stiff skirt to lie prone on the floor looking like a ladybird that cannot get up off her back; in act three she is clad soberly in penitent's white garb. Parsifal (Stuart Skelton) sang well enough without showing much fire or charisma. Iain Paterson (he should be the main character) he sang well enough (what a mound of self-pity he is!)
But the star of the performance was John Tomlinson. Gurnemanz can often seem like a wittering old bore; not here though. Every word was clear, every note noble and sonorous, every gesture telling, and every inflection meaningful. Sir John is well into his sixties but this was a performance to salute and cherish, one of the great ones!
The choral singing and orchestral playing was more than adequate but less than memorable – Mark Wigglesworth the conductor. But the balance did not permit the off-stage chorus, the boys, to be sufficiently heard.
But oh! what a masterly score it is! How one waits for those grinding modulations towards the end of act one, the strings so meditative and moving in the act three prelude and the Good Friday Music – more seductive than anything chez Klingsor. Incidentally, there was a positive plethora of flower maidens, flipperly dressed as for a Noël Coward 1932 musical comedy. But there was no vocal seduction, the mezzo Kundry (Jane Dutton) was inclined to shrillness and her voice showed a disfiguring beat. A curious feature of the set of act three was a strip of railway track curving off upstage. Was that to show modern thought in the medieval age, a possible reference to Auschwitz or maybe that the whole cast was taking a journey to heaven by Grailway?
Isn't it curious that so many religious masterpieces have been written by composers not especially known for their adherence to the church: Beethoven, Verdi, Janacek, Debussy, Vaughan Williams, and Britten?