The ENO’s production of Parsifal, which opened last night, is a revival of their 1999 staging, directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff and conducted by Mark Wigglesworth. This is Wigglesworth's first Parsifal, and he's made a triumphant start. The fifteen minute prelude was like listening to a symphony all by itself, and I was grabbed from the very first note. For the whole evening, the orchestra gave a wonderful account of Wagner’s complex variety of textures and harmonies. Simple string lines and vocal chorales shone through with clarity, while Wagner's brass-laden passages were stirring or authoritative as the occasion demanded, almost always perfectly balanced to the level of the voices.

Stuart Skelton as Parsifal shows the Holy Spear to the chorus of Grail knights © Richard Hubert Smith, English National Opera
Stuart Skelton as Parsifal shows the Holy Spear to the chorus of Grail knights
© Richard Hubert Smith, English National Opera

Parsifal was Wagner’s last opera and is a work that can be read on many levels. At its simplest, it’s a good old-fashioned Arthurian legend: knights of the grail, an evil sorcerer, a beautiful enchantress, a pure knight wandering the world on his quest. One level of abstraction up, it's a study in the nature of suffering and man’s empathy for the suffering of his fellows, with the associated religious theme of Christ the Redeemer. The opera also explores the gap between Western and Oriental philosophies: Wagner had been reading about Buddhism during the opera's conception. You can find philosophical musing on the nature of mortality and the human condition, or, if you wish, unpleasant ideas of racial purity and the survival of the master race.

But above all else, Parsifal is a phenomenal piece of music. In The Roots of Tragedy Friedrich Nietzsche, a great friend of Wagner’s before they fell out, explained one of Wagner’s guiding principles, that there is a level at which music communicates with the brain directly in a way which cannot be expressed in words. Whether or not you are grabbed by the characterisation or story-telling in Wagner’s libretto, the music moves and stirs you in precisely that non-verbal way that Nietzsche describes.

That’s particularly the case when the performance is up to the quality that the ENO treated us to, with two performances that blew the roof off the house. John Tomlinson is one of the world’s great Wagnerian basses, and he was quite magnificent as the elderly knight Gurnemanz. His voice is rich and resonant, his diction remarkably clear (it’s the first time he has sung the role in English, which apparently took some serious hard work) and his overall performance captivating. In the title role, Stuart Skelton just about matched him. It's a classic "heldentenor" role, requiring a heroic voice with strength and richness; as the opera progressed, Skelton increased the power and authority in his voice just as the power of the character Parsifal grows. In the scene in Act III in which Parsifal takes control of proceedings and heals the ailing King Amfortas, he was simply sensational. As the enigmatic and multi-faceted heroine Kundry, mezzo-soprano Jane Dutton may not quite have reached the same heights as the two male stars, but it was still a fine piece of singing and acting, particularly her powerful telling of Kundry’s accursed predicament in Act II. Iain Paterson impressed as the anguished King Amfortas.

Generally, I liked the staging. Costumes evoked a mediaeval aesthetic without attempting to dress everyone in replica suits of armour; colour schemes and lighting showed the faded powers of the Grail knights as the lapse into greyness, the East-West struggle was represented by oriental-style armour of the evil magician Klingsor. While the setting was generally effective, there was the occasional misfire, to my mind: the Act II scene in which Kundry and the flower maidens attempt to seduce Parsifal was as dull and monochrome as everything else, whereas that part of the opera surely requires a bit of brightness and sensuality to contrast with the asceticism of the Grail kingdom.

Like most Wagner operas, Parsifal is very long: it’s a five and a half hour evening, with over four hours of music. But the time flew past: my attention hardly wavered. Wigglesworth and the orchestra received a bravo-laden ovation as they settled into the pit for the start of Act III, and the applause at the curtain calls was rapturous. It's a privilege to have seen Tomlinson in this role, and it may be a long time before I hear better bass singing or a better overall orchestral performance.

*****