Written by: Ben Hogwood
After more than a decade of universal critical acclaim, Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s production of Wagner’s Parsifal is in to its last run at English National Opera, with an extremely strong cast. Playing Parsifal is Heldentenor Stuart Skelton, a man of presence and stature revelling in his role.
When we meet the last day of orchestral rehearsals is in full flow, prior to the Dress. Is it difficult coming to a production that has been so successful? Does that breed a different type of pressure? “I hadn’t really thought about it, but I would say probably not. I think there is more pressure that you apply to yourself when you come into a role like Parsifal. This production is now twelve years old and has been everywhere, while the opera was written about 130 years ago. It’s one of those roles; it’s an iconic role in what was Wagner’s last work. When you go to a production that has been successful it is fascinating because of the history. You put pressure on yourself as a performer to always bring yourself to the role, and I think the pressure is always there to do a great job.”
In his particular discipline as a Heldentenor – a tenor capable of sustained and demanding high-register singing – there are no small roles. “That’s true”, he smiles. “I don’t do any roles where you can relax! That said Parsifal isn’t as demanding in terms of time on the stage, certainly when compared to Sir John Tomlinson, whose role as Gurnemanz is much more extensive than anything else in the opera. I don’t have a lot of roles where you can relax, but that comes with the territory I guess.” Of working with Sir John, Skelton is full of praise. “He is a legend. It’s absolutely amazing watching him work, and not only vocally – though that is such an impressive part of his ability – but the way he works as a performer, as a genuine thinking, singing actor. It’s not just about the singing, and he’s constantly thinking about how to improve things and make them interesting and original. He is also an excellent colleague, and incredibly funny in a very dry way. It’s been a first time for me, so I’m a bit star-struck, which is terrific!”
Stuart goes on to talk of why he loves Parsifal. “First and foremost I think this is where Wagner re-writes the rules of music. That’s the short answer at least! The long answer is that we know that had Wagner survived past this, if he had kept going, he was giving serious thought to stopping composing opera and writing a purely symphonic work. In a sense Parsifal is a symphonic suite, and that is also true of Götterdämmerung to an extent. If you take out the drama and keep it as a stand-alone piece of music, it’s almost classical in its adherence to form. In Parsifal there is a lot of music where nobody sings, and I think that’s partly what makes it so special. At this time Wagner was in thrall to Schopenhauer, and it was all about expressing sonically that which we were no longer able to do. He was exhorting else to go the same way, to join that musical experience.”
Significant to the success of the music is its relative lack of movement. “Although it is so still, even when people are on the stage and singing, it’s not static. The story and music don’t stand still but there is that great stillness, so when you do get the forward movement there is an inherent movement and a great contrast. For great stretches of Parsifal you can get to the point where you could almost close your eyes and totally indulge, although obviously you couldn’t do that in all operas.” The stillness becomes apparent early in the Prelude. “The thing that blows me away about that – and it’s not too dissimilar to Tristan in the way it starts with that solo string line and develops, with the orchestra joining in – is that although there is obviously a time-signature, there is a complete lack of sense of where that pulse is. The music just happens, and there’s no real sense of where you are until all things join in. You really don’t know where it’s leading to. The Prelude just hangs, suspended for such a long time, until you get a pulse – and Tristan does that too. It’s only later on you realise there is some sort of timekeeping”. Stuart is not directly affected, however. “Fortunately, by the time anyone gets to sing there is a genuine feel for the pulse. One of the things our conductor Mark Wigglesworth has been particularly good with, as should be the case in all Wagner, is getting the rhythmic values incredibly tight in all the rehearsals. Once you’re performing, as Mark has been saying, it is as nailed down as it can be, and the story, the phrase and the sentence can make sense.”
Skelton appeared at ENO as Peter Grimes two years ago – and, to his surprise, the production is still keenly discussed. “This is the thing I do not get, that people are still talking about it two years down the track. I’m just not that good!” he adds, modestly. “At the end of the day, to be fair, the confluence of events at that production – Amanda Roocroft, Gerald Finley, Felicity Palmer, David Alden the director and Ed Gardner, was truly one of those things, right through the cast down to the smallest detail. We still feel it, that production, with all of us together – and the fact that people outside the company still see it in that way, it blows my mind”.
Skelton’s performance as Grimes had a lasting effect, both on the audience and the singer himself. “David Alden got from me a performance I didn’t know I had. I had done it before, so knew some of the things I wanted to do and say as Peter Grimes, but David was able to find new things from me and to allow me to bring the physicality to the role. I was never going to bring contrition, I just don’t have that, but I could carry stuff, and run up and down ladders and hang from things. I’m really at home doing that sort of stuff, so to be able to incorporate that in the role was great. It was one of those things of a lifetime, and if it ever came back I’d be more than happy to do it.”
Later in 2011 he takes on another big role, the Drum Major in Berg’s Wozzeck. “I’m looking forward to that”, he says with feeling. “I learnt it once before, but have not performed it in public. That sort of music is not the sort that sticks like Puccini might do, you have to spend a long time learning it. It’s the sort of thing you want to go into 175 percent, especially as I am performing it with James Levine. Wozzeck is one of his things, and he is an incredibly powerful and passionate champion of that opera. That type of job carries extra pressure, particularly with it being my debut at the Metropolitan Opera. It’s exciting though! Hopefully it’s another role I’ll be able to add to.”
Skelton has only just recovered from a chest infection, but declares himself fighting-fit for and as Parsifal. The condition did, however, put his participation in the recent LSO performance of Elgar’s The Kingdom conducted by Sir Mark Elder in doubt. “I just felt terrible, and every time I sang it sent me back another day. Sir Mark and I talked about a couple of places where in a complete emergency we could do something slightly different, in case it imploded vocally, so we had some contingency plans. Fortunately we only needed to use one of them. They did have somebody – and I was super grateful about that – in the wings if needed. I knew I was going to have to give absolutely everything in order to get through, which is fine, but if it stops working you’ve got nothing left, nowhere you can go.”
In the event, the performance was a qualified success for Skelton. “As it turned out we said ‘let’s make a decision now to sing this phrase like this’ so that when it comes again later it doesn’t sound odd. I thought that was a very gracious thing for Sir Mark and the LSO to do – and they were extremely understanding. It would have been very difficult for anybody to say I’m prepared to stand by, as it’s a big and demanding piece of music, but that’s the sort of thing where you say to the person standing by, ‘I owe you a couple of pints’. I don’t cancel by a rule, but that was the closest I’ve been I think. I lost a couple of fingernails on the edge of my seat during performance, but we got there!”