Tuesday 1 November 2016

Parsifal, Elemental Opera, 27 October 2016

St Michael and all Angels, Chiswick

St Michael and all Angels
Amfortas – Stuart Pendred
Titurel – Louis Hurst
Gurnemanz – Adam Leftwich, Gerard Delrez
Parsifal – Brian Smith-Walters
Klingsor – Peter Brooke
Kundry – Cecilia Bailey
First Knight of the Grail – David Padua
Second Knight of the Grail – Matt Duncan
Squires – Tanya Hurst, Gemma Morlsey, Gregory Hill, Robin Pietà
Flowermaidens – Tanya Hurst, Laura Monaghan, Gemma Morsley, Bryony Soothill, Rosie Middleton, Jennifer Westwood
Chorus – Grace Nyandoro, Janet Forbes, Elizabeth Deacon, Arthur Bruce

Friðþjófur Þorsteinsson (lighting)
Mark Burns (director)
Jonathan Dodds (organ)
Naomi Woo (piano, assistant musical director)
Stella di Virgilio, Victoria Baek (violins)
Ariane Alexander (viola)
Alison Holford (cello)
Adam Oscar Storey (double bass)
Michael Thrift (musical director)

Parsifal in Chiswick? Perhaps not so immediately fitting as Ariadne auf Naxos? I recalled visiting Milton Keynes for Boulevard Solitude, wondering, as I crossed endless ‘boulevards’, whether I had been the victim of a hoax. I had not, and Welsh National Opera’s Henze offering proved estimable. Nor was it anything but a pleasure to encounter the extraordinary enterprise of Elemental Opera in presenting a fully-cast – give or take the size of the chorus – Parsifal, simply yet effectively staged, with reduced instrumental forces. My only regret was that work commitments left me unable to stay for more than the first act.

What I heard worked far better than one might reasonably have imagined. A string quartet, double bass, piano, and organ supplied the notes, but more than that: under the wise guidance of musical director, Michael Thrift, a well-shaped performance, without awkward corners, emerged. Wagner’s melos, the ebb and flow, was realised, reimagined, with a timbral palette which, at its best, not only looked forward to the instrumental reductions – or better, reinstrumentations – of the Second Viennese School; it also sometimes highlighted how close, harmonically, Wagner and Brahms could be. There was some splendidly expressive cello playing from Alison Holford during the Prelude; but all contributed to what we heard. Indeed, during the passages for organ solo, I realised I should have been quite happy for once simply to hear the orchestral part in that guise. Liszt reared his head more than once, as indeed he did in solo piano passages. Congratulations to Thrift, then, both for his realisation and for its communication.

The singing was more than creditable too. (I should remind you that I only heard a single act.) The double act of an ailing Adam Leftwich and Gerard Delrez from, if not the wings, a side lectern, shared the crucial narrative role of Gurnemanz. Both had dark, if differently dark, authoritative tones. Leftwich’s stage – or foot-of-the-altar – presence was impressive too, even when it was Delrez’s voice we heard. Most of Brian Smith-Walters’s portrayal of Parsifal would have come later, but there was no denying his knowledge and understanding of the role’s demands here, nor his ability to communicate them. He certainly has the power of a Heldentenor, without any suspicion of a ‘bark’. Cecilia Bailey’s Kundry spoke, even during this first act, of complexity of character and compassion. Stuart Pendred’s wounded Amfortas evinced physical agony whilst maintaining vocal line, the Titurel of Louis Hurst a stern, full-voiced taskmaster to his son. All of the smaller roles were well taken, finely observed of gesture as well as tone, to use a properly Victorian Wagnerism.

For, if the English translation was very much of that ilk – occasionally, but only occasionally, being lost in the generous acoustic – it was, to a surprising extent, at least to me, enhanced by Mark Burns’s keenly observed Personenregie and Friðþjófur Þorsteinsson’s sensitive lighting. The Anglo-Catholic interior of St Michael and All Angels combined with the language and costumes to offer an intriguingly High Victorian, yet far from inappropriate, slant upon Nietzsche’s furious accusation that, in this work (which he had never heard), Wagner had prostrated himself before the Cross. To quote the church’s informative website history: ‘On the day of its consecration, a letter addressed to the Bishop of London was printed in the Acton, Chiswick & Turnham Green Gazette, accusing Reverend Wilson of “Popish and Pagan mummeries”. Signed by Henry Smith, churchwarden of Chiswick, it listed his supposed transgressions: marching in procession round the church, prostrating himself before the consecrated elements, making the sign of the cross when giving the elements to the people and singing the Agnus Dei. The controversy raged for months in the paper, which sent its own reporter who observed that the service was very “high” and reminiscent of a Roman Catholic Church.’ The fog of incense that greeted me was most welcome in itself, and for its husbandry of such resonances.

I suspect that I should have learned more in the second act, for, according to Burns’s programme note, he had considered ‘how the relatively small Chinese community in London’ of the time ‘were vilified and how Opium habits were viewed amongst the various social classes,’ whilst of course, hypocritically partaking of what was on offer. This had ‘sparked many ideas about how our enemy camps in Parsifal are inextricably linked but so very separate at the same time.’ Although I did not really have opportunity to see how that worked out, the concept has certainly set me thinking: always a necessity when we defend Wagner from Nietzsche’s (rightly) despised Wagnerians, for whom the music of the ‘Master’ was but a narcotic.