After a run of poor shows, at last the English National Opera has something to celebrate, and very welcome it is too.
Wagner’s “Parsifal” tells the story of a knight who saves a religious military brotherhood from decay after he renounces sex and finds a holy spear. As you do.
If that all sounds unduly ascetic, Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s powerful interpretation is set in a cold rubble-strewn wasteland where no actions are reduced to simplistic interpretations.
ENO has presented a series of dead-duck productions recently by inexperienced, blundering directors with more foolhardiness than talent. So it is heartening to welcome back a complex staging (first seen at ENO in 1999) by a man who has chalked up dozens of superb realizations of opera. The sad news is that he’s ill: the good news is that this closely duplicated revival is directed by his assistant Dan Dooner.
There are two sides to every coin here: The religious- military knights, who are presented as gray-clad Japanese warriors, seem cultish and insular. Their rituals are also shown to be beautiful and spiritually inspiring. Heaven be thanked for a director who allows an audience to make up its own mind about what it sees.
Stuart Skelton (Parsifal) has a thrillingly heroic tenor voice, and his beauty and power are matched by Jane Dutton as Kundry, his self-loathing temptress. John Tomlinson proves once again what a fine Wagnerian actor and singer he is as the narrator-figure Gurnemanz, and Iain Paterson makes a great impact as the wounded king Amfortas.
Mark Wigglesworth’s conducting keeps the tension high, and still allows for moments of ecstatic luxury.
In Act 1, a white couple in suburban Chicago in 1959 face resentment from their neighbors when they sell their house to a black family. Act 2 is set in the same house fifty years later, when the majority-black area is facing white gentrification. A prosperous young white couple meet simmering hostility from their black neighbors.
Norris is a master at pulling the rug from under your feet. Just when you think you’re in for an issues-based scene about race, he’ll throw the situation sideways and you’ll be laughing about gender politics. Then sexual frustrations are revealed to be rooted in the consequences of America’s military past. And so on and so on, all beautifully layered. Pathos mingles with laugh-out-loud, squirm-inducing jokes.
Did I mention it’s funny? Really, really funny? The Act 2 scene in which the black and white couples swap racist jokes climaxes in a line so filthy and so taboo-breaking, that on the night I was there, there was some choking among the shocked screams of laughter. Under Norris’s forensic gaze, nobody comes out clean, and the humor and drama are all the better for it.
“Parsifal” is in repertory at English National Opera until March 12.
Information: http://www.eno.org or +44-871-911-0200.
“Clybourne Park” is at Wyndham’s Theatre. Information: http://www.clybournepark.co.uk or +44-844-482-5120
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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