Purcarete's finger on the pulse

Parsifal, Scottish Opera, Edinburgh | Towards the Millennium, Royal Festival Hall, London | Bedford Premiere, Symphony Hall, Birmingham|
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The Independent Culture

Religious art is one thing; art as religion is quite another. For Wagner, though, the two were inseparable, especially in Parsifal, which would lay the grounds for nothing less than mankind's redemption. He labelled the piece Bühnenweihfestspiel, which Scottish Opera's programme translates as "stage dedication festival play".

Religious art is one thing; art as religion is quite another. For Wagner, though, the two were inseparable, especially in Parsifal, which would lay the grounds for nothing less than mankind's redemption. He labelled the piece Bühnenweihfestspiel, which Scottish Opera's programme translates as "stage dedication festival play".

In a programme essay, John McMurray substitutes "consecration" for "dedication," which is closer to Wagner. This was the opera to consecrate Bayreuth, temple of the Wagner cult, where performance became religious rite. That's why applauding Parsifal was frowned on, and why the Wagner family wanted to retain performing rights long after the composer's death: if Parsifal escaped the temple, why, it might become simply an opera.

The achievement of Silviu Purcarete's new production is to make Parsifal a humane telling of a human story, an opera, in other words. The Grail Knights belong to some decaying cult, their sanctuary a shabby dormitory that Kundry scrubs on hands and knees. So bereft are they of resources, both physical and mental, that when Parsifal faints away, Kundry revives him with water from her cleaning bucket. Amfortas, meanwhile, is wheeled around on a hospital trolley, swaddled in blood-stained rags like the victim of a particularly mean war: when he sings, "Let me die" he means it.

This could simply be one set of vague portents substituting for another, but Purcarete's stagecraft is precise, his imagery clear and, not least, his singers superb. He doesn't make the opera palatable in the sense that he sanitises it; it is still woman-fearing, probably anti-Semitic, distressing in its implications. But our distress modulates into sympathy for the characters - no, not characters, people - whose travails we are watching. Where that leaves us at the end of the opera may be a matter of personal conviction. I can't see this yokelish Parsifal as anybody's redeemer, although others may take a more Wagnerian view.

That Parsifal emerges here as both philosophical confrontation and absorbing drama reflects well on Purcarete (who also provides the designs) and on conductor Richard Armstrong, who ensures that pulse and momentum fill even the most attenuated passages. Each of the singers benefits, none more so than Manfred Hemm, who brings a storyteller's intimacy to Gurnemanz's long (in other circumstances, interminable) orations.

Matthew Best embodies Amfortas's suffering with gaunt heroism, and if John Murray's Parsifal doesn't have full Wagnerian heft, that, too, could be part of the production's humanising tendency. As for Anne-Marie Owens, her Kundry is at the centre of the drama, but without distorting Wagner's view (itself distorted) of her. Whether scrubbing floors or drying Parsifal's feet with her hair, she is an abject figure who gives the lie to Wagnerian notions of consecration and redemption. This is opera at its most thoughtful and theatrical.

Apparently, last-minute demand for tickets delayed the recent final performance of Mark-Anthony Turnage's The Silver Tassie at English National Opera. Now opera that causes a stampede for tickets is great news for opera. I can't help feeling, though, that the need to write for voices blunted Turnage's originality, which was more clearly displayed in Wednesday's performance of his work for orchestra and three jazz soloists, Blood on the Floor.

Turnage's love of jazz is well known, and this is the nearest he has come to writing it. It isn't, though, a jazz piece, but a symphonic work that takes account of the colouristic and rhythmic possibilities jazz offers. Its use of strings is fully integrated into the textures, not grafted on the way a jazz string section usually is, and Turnage spreads his invention across the whole orchestra while allowing his three soloists (guitarist John Scofield, drummer Peter Erskine, saxophonist Martin Robertson) room to fly.

When the work had its London premiÿre in 1996, Ensemble Modern amplified it as if it were a rock concert. Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra used the amplification more temperately, and the whole performance breathed less tensely. The work has an elegiac programme, but here it seemed more exuberant than sombre. It has its faults, length perhaps being one: it runs to 70 minutes when 50 might do; and some of the jazzier moments are rather old-fashioned; but there is so much energy and colour that doubt evaporates.

The performance opened the final season of Rattle's Towards the Millennium series, in which each programme includes a new work. On Wednesday it was Magnus Lindberg's Gran Duo, which deliberately evokes the sound-world of Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments: a richly textured but volatile amalgam of woodwind and brass that Lindberg divides into separate choirs calling to each other across the platform. The very first notes provide a nearly exact echo of Stravinsky, but thereafter Lindberg occupies his own ground: thick layers, rumbling aggression, an odd, quasi-pastoral interlude for flutes. The even-tempered progress of the piece might perhaps be usefully broken by occasional moments of Lindbergian spikiness, but its 20-minute duration is never short of musical adventure.

Any performance by Evelyn Glennie usually offers plenty of adventures, and Tuesday's premiÿre of David Bedford's Percussion Concerto was no exception. The composer provided Glennie with a cornucopia of instruments, not all of them strictly percussive. Through some passages she wore a corset of bells that tinkled every time she shimmied across the stage, in others she knelt and studiously cranked up four spinning tops while filling out some ethereal and jazzy glockenspiel runs.

At such moments she might have been a shaman enacting some ritual, or a child in her playroom, utterly absorbed and therefore utterly absorbing. With such exotica as batonka (an arrangement of plastic drainpipes) and rain-pipe also playing their part, eye and ear were perpetually engaged. Unfortunately, the orchestra (the English Sinfonia under Nicolae Moldoveanu) had less distinctive music to make, as if Bedford didn't want us to miss anything that Glennie did. Perhaps it was less a concerto than a percussion solo with orchestral accompaniment.

Scottish Opera's 'Parsifal' is at Theatre Royal, Glasgow (0141 332 9000), 4.30pm Wed Mar 15, 1pm Sat Mar 18

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