Parsifal, New Theatre, Cardiff

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The Independent Culture

More and more - and particularly with esoteric operas such as Parsifal - one dreads the rise of the curtain, and Silviu Purcarete's designs for his own staging of Wagner's final masterpiece, which opened in Cardiff last Saturday after an airing by Scottish Opera last year, don't disappoint one's fears. The usual ugly clutter of clashing symbols afflicts the eye: the inevitable hospital beds, the scaffolding, the huge, brooding medieval knight with an inverted bucket on his head. Later, a good deal of pre-Raphaelite kitsch lightens the gloom, hints of Burne-Jones and Rossetti.

The strength of Purcarete's production lies not in its imagery but in its broad musicality and a striking coherence of style and pacing. It includes one huge triumph, unique in my experience. In Sara Fulgoni's brilliant, beautiful portrayal of Kundry, it manages to integrate a whole dimension of this fascinating but arcane drama, somehow retaining distilled elements of her sensuality and radiance into the often unconvincing episode of her baptism. Her effortlessly fresh singing (immaculate top B on "lachte", stirred but not shaky) greatly helps, naturally.

Purcarete's ensemble work, too, is stately and impressive, at least in the Grail acts. The grim closing procession is fully equal to the catastrophic music, in Wagner's funereal B flat minor. The flower maidens are well covered, in every sense. This is a slow Parsifal, and the staging keeps pace, though its remarkable Noh-like moments of stillness are now and then tainted by stage business or touches of Beardsley-esque absurdity, such as Kundry's mountainous red skirt that, triffid-like, swallows an armchair and regurgitates a hospital trolley.

Welsh National Opera has brought back Vladimir Jurowski to conduct, so memorable here for The Queen of Spades, but, as yet, a tentative Wagnerite. After a poorly shaped prelude, the first act failed to settle into any definite contour, and it was only in the second act, with the help of Donald Maxwell's just-not camp, crutch-clutching Klingsor, that one began to feel at ease with the shaping. But the playing was never quite in order: wind intonation and balance consistently wayward, ensemble chancy.

All this will improve. Alfred Reiter's Gurnemanz is already a consistent pleasure, dignified in line and posture, clear in articulation. Robert Hayward survives Amfortas's bloodstained nappy to paint a controlled, moving portrait of agony. Only Stephen O'Mara's Parsifal, though watchable, sounds out of place: hard-edged, one-toned, audibly un-German.

To Saturday, then touring (029-2087 8889)