Shorn of any directorial ‘Konzept’, concert performances of Wagner’s music dramas can focus on the real drama in the music. The key work in the Mariinsky’s Holy Week UK tour is, appropriately enough, Parsifal, whose Act III ends on Good Friday. The company’s publicity machine made much of their SACD recording in their promotions leading up to this performance at the Barbican. That recording was very well received in most quarters, although cast with some key non-Russian soloists – most notably René Pape’s Gurnemanz – so how would a roster of singers drawn entirely from the Mariinsky’s ranks fare in Wagner ‘sacred stage festival play’?

Valery Gergiev’s Wagner has often been received pretty scornfully in the West, particularly on the grounds of a questionable production of The Ring, which I successfully managed to avoid. It was no surprise, however, that his unorthodox but strangely hypnotic repertoire of conducting gestures (physical and vocal) conjured up some wonderful sounds from his orchestra which suited both the mystical elements of the score while powering the more dramatic moments on urgently. His Mariinsky Orchestra was by no means large – only around 75 players, with just six double basses – but, my word, the intensity of sound is remarkable. The Act I Prelude started with an icy chill in the strings, pierced by a trumpet solo of tremendous precision and attack, before giving way to Mediterranean warmth. Indeed, the brass playing throughout the evening, apart from a tired fluff or two from the horns in the Good Friday Music, was of a superb standard, Sergey Kryuchkov’s trumpet playing in the closing pages crowning a remarkable evening. Under Gergiev’s eagle eye, the orchestra whipped up an impassioned Act I transformation scene that was then utterly ruined by the crass use of synthesized bells for the arrival of Parsifal and Gurnemanz at Monsalvat. One didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

There were other clangers in the presentation, not least in the bizarre platform arrangement which had the singers in two groups seated either side of the stage. Baroque enthusiasts will be able to picture the scene: soloists seated either side of the band, making their way to the front to deliver recitative and aria before toddling back to their seat. Not here. The singers remained firmly planted at the sides of the stage, fenced in by their music stands. I had a greater chance of being entwined in the arms of the Flowermaidens than Parsifal, who was rooted on the opposite side of the platform. Some singers made use of the exits, leading to the funniest moment of the evening, when Gurnemanz turns to Parsifal towards the end of Act I and exclaims, ‘Was stehst du noch da?’ (Why are you still standing there?) when Parsifal had buggered off ten minutes earlier. Kundry didn’t even bother turning up in Act III, delegating her ‘dienens’ to a volunteer from the chorus. On the positive side, Gergiev made good use of his insider-knowledge of the Barbican’s performing space, having Vladimir Felyauer’s Titurel up in the balcony, from where the Tiffin Boys’ Choir also delivered its excellent contributions.

Familiar contributions from the Mariinsky recording came from Evgeny Nikitin and Nikolay Putilin as Amfortas and Klingsor. Both of them were extremely good, indeed Nikitin must be as fine an Amfortas as there is at the moment. Although there was a music stand between him and the audience, there was no evidence of a score. Sung in clearly articulated German, he conveyed Amfortas’ feverish pain while remaining in truly heroic voice. Putilin had the perfect power and snarl to portray Klingsor’s menace in Act II, his bass-baritone still remarkably strong. Felyauer was a sonorous-sounding Titurel.

The standout performance of the evening was also the most controversial. I confess that during Act I, I disliked Larisa Gogolevskaya’s Kundry intensely. Heavily accented and in a dark, rasping, hollow voice, it had no attractive qualities to recommend it. I qualified my doubts by expressing that such vocalism wasn’t inappropriate for the ‘wild woman’ Kundry. By the end of Act II, those dubious qualities remained, but the level of her dramatic conviction was so outstanding, that I was bowled over. This was an eye-rolling, hell-for-leather, sod-the-consequences performance which steamrollered everything in its wake and we emerged gasping for breath.

I’ll draw a veil over the fact that the Gurnemanz of Yury Vorobiev was much younger than Parsifal, and instead offer praise for a beautifully sung account, without a hint a wobble you can so frequently hear from certain other basses in the role. Vorobiev seemed genuinely involved in – and moved by – the music, although his semaphore bordered on the unintentionally comic. For such a young singer to vocally portray the veteran Grail knight so nobly was a pleasure to hear. The six Flowermaidens, led by Viktoria Yastrebova (warming up for the Verdi Requiem the next night), were enchanting.

All of which left the title character. Sadly, Avgust Amonov’s Parsifal was totally eclipsed by his colleagues; an anonymous portrayal. He sang well enough, albeit that his tenor doesn’t have anywhere near enough clout for such a role, but was relentlessly score-bound and offered no real characterization. However, in Gergiev’s dramatic reading, this didn’t leave as gaping a hole as I’d feared it would; the conviction from the rest of the cast and the tremendous playing from the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra turned this Parsifal into quite an event.

3.5 stars

Mark Pullinger

Opera Britannia