There were a couple of changes in personnel as the Berlin Phil made their way back from Baden Baden to present their annual Easter Festival opera in concert at the Philharmonie. Dieter Dorn’s staging, of course, was left behind in the spa town. Nina Stemme, fresh from performances in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s Staatsoper staging, stepped in as Kundry; Stuart Skelton sang Parsifal.

Nina Stemme, Simon Rattle, Stuart Skelton and the Berlin Philharmonic © Monika Rittershaus
Nina Stemme, Simon Rattle, Stuart Skelton and the Berlin Philharmonic
© Monika Rittershaus

In the event, their contributions played an enormous part in making this one of the most gripping and moving performances of Wagner’s great Bühnenweihfestspiel I’ve seen – concert or otherwise. Skelton’s Parsifal, indeed, counts as one of the most moving performances of any operatic role I’ve been lucky enough to witness in recent years.

The Australian tenor’s recent larger-scale Wagnerian assignments seem to have led to a slight loss of sheen in the voice, but it remains an instrument of astonishing visceral power. He offers a generous swell of sound rather than a steely blade, but with it is capable of the utmost sensitivity. And here that was allied to detailed, big-hearted acting: here was a pure fool eager to please and easily upset, every emotion churning away inside visible on his face. The voice remained fresh to the end, his final phrase coming across as the most affecting of all.

Stemme’s Kundry was hardly less fine, rich in her lower reaches and powerful, if occasionally a little cloudy, at the top. Her acting, alongside Skelton’s, made for a supremely gripping second act, their exchanges achieving an unusually visceral intensity. Gerald Finley, angst and anguish etched into his brow, presented an astonishing Amfortas, whose tragedy was only underlined by the smoothness of the superior vocalism.

Franz-Josef Selig was a noble, eloquent Gurnemanz who lived every twist and turn of his monologues, the slight cragginess in his big rounded bass adding a moving intensity and vulnerability. What Evgeny Nikitin occasionally lacked in refinement as Klingsor, he made up for in incisiveness. Reinhard Hagen rang out impressively from on high as Titurel. In the smaller roles, tenor Neal Cooper stood out doubling as Squire and Knight.

<i>Parsifal</i> at the Philharmonie © Monika Rittershaus
Parsifal at the Philharmonie
© Monika Rittershaus

It was a cast that it’s difficult to imagine greatly bettered today, and happily it received the support from orchestra and conductor that it deserved. Wagner’s final work has popped up regularly in Simon Rattle’s repertoire over the last dozen or so years – and certainly more regularly than any of his other operas – and the conductor has developed an interpretation that is relatively swift, beautifully balanced and richly detailed. So much one might expect. But with this orchestra Rattle is also able to gain suddenly increased intensity, to conjure up, at a moment's notice, a dramatic maelstrom that it’s impossible not to be drawn into. Such a moment came as early in Act 1’s Transformation music: Wagner veers off harmonic course and Rattle here surged forward with single-minded purpose, his players following every shift and turn. The result was thrilling and moving in equal measure. 

Klingsor’s realm was a not a place for hanging about, and his garden – boasting an unusually fine collection of Flower Maidens – was a well pruned affair. And, in general, Rattle’s Parsifal is not quite as evocatively spiritual as some; the steely brilliance of his orchestra, underlined in the Philharmonie’s direct acoustic, offers a different sound world to that, say, conjured up by Daniel Barenboim’s yielding, flexible Staatskapelle.

But the sheer quality of the playing attains its own sense of spirituality: in the perfection of the strings’ long lines right from the Prelude; in the sonorous bite of the brass; in the infinite dynamic range and endless melody of the winds – Dominik Wollenweber’s melancholy cor anglais stood out, as did oboist Jonathan Kelly’s wonderful contributions in an heartbreakingly beautiful account of the Karfreitagsmusik.

One shouldn’t forget the contribution of the Rundfunkchor Berlin, either, whose men were on especially incisive, and in Act 3’s moments of highest despair, searing form. It all added up to a very special Wagnerian occasion, a stunning Parsifal of rare power and a performance that will stay long in the memory.