PROM 57: Elder’s Majestic Parsifal Spoilt by Cast Weaknesses

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 57, Wagner, Parsifal: Soloists, Royal Opera Chorus, Trinity Boys Choir, Hallé Youth Choir, Hallé Orchestra / Sir Mark Elder.(conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London 25.7.2013. (JPr)

Prom 57 – Parsifal (c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Wagner: Parsifal

Lars Cleveman (Proms debut artist): Parsifal
Katarina Dalayman: Kundry
Sir John Tomlinson: Gurnemanz
Detlef Roth: Amfortas
Tom Fox (Proms debut artist): Klingsor
Reinhard Hagen: Titurel
Robert Murray: Knight 1
Andrew Greenan (Proms debut artist): Knight 2
Sarah Castle: Squire 1/Flower Maiden 3
Madeleine Shaw (Proms debut artist): Squire 2/Flower Maiden 6/Voice from Above
Joshua Ellicott: Squire 3
Andrew Rees: Squire 4
Elizabeth Cragg: Flower Maiden 1
Anita Watson (Proms debut artist): Flower Maiden 2
Ana James: Flower Maiden 4
Anna Devin: Flower Maiden 5

Justin Way: Stage Director

My first experience of Parsifal at the Royal Albert Hall was in 1999: I was teaching in Southend, Essex, and I left an after-school meeting and with little time left to get there for the start of that concert performance, arrived faster than I ever had before by car, in not much over one hour, I recall. I only mention this because I was reminded about it because of two former colleagues in Sunday’s audience and the fact that I had been very lucky to get there at all this time, because of a combination of just missing joining some stationary traffic, followed by a long detour throughout the lush verdant Essex countryside.

In 1999, despite evidence of more rehearsal time needed – it was the forces of the Kirov Opera under Valery Gergiev – the orchestra played well, the chorus sang out powerfully but some of the soloists spoilt the performance somewhat for me. Where have those years gone? Fast-forward to 2013 and it is a case of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (‘the more it changes, the more it’s the same thing’). By ‘it’ I mean those passing years!

What did Wagner want us all to understand from his Parsifal? Not long ago Kaspar Holten, currently director of opera at Covent Garden, explained that he cannot direct the opera because he is not a ‘believer’. So is the self-castrating Klingsor not a Jew now and just an evil sorcerer? If so Wagner’s final work can be reclaimed as a mixture of Christian symbolism, Buddhist philosophy and medieval myth rather than, at best, something worthy of Freudian interpretation or at worst, a treatise on ‘racial cleansing’. Which of the principal characters is redeemed at the end of the work is always a puzzle as it could be any of them especially if we accept it is all more Buddhist than Christian and they are all on the path from ignorance to enlightenment. Perhaps at the end of his life it is Wagner himself who was seeking redemption?

At its simplest it is the Grail with Christ’s blood and the Spear that pierced his side that are the relics the plot hinges on; brotherhood, chastity and sexual desire bring together the elderly and wise Gurnemanz, the wounded king Amfortas, his enemy Klingsor, femme fatale Kundry, and the naive Parsifal, each of whom have their own demons to conquer. With Wagner in concert the audience can concentrate more fully on the words and music as we are spared the concern of unravelling the whims of the latest wunderkind stage director: though concentrating on the words was only really possibly if you were familiar with the libretto as – even though it is 2013 – there are never any surtitles at the BBC Proms. Also, those in the audience who bothered to buy their programmes with the translation noisily turn pages in unison and the sound was as if the dove that is supposed to appear at the end of Parsifal had fluttered in prematurely from time to time!

Actually stage director, Justin Way, was again on hand to marshal all the singers onto, around and off the stage – as I understand he has for all of the Wagner operas at the Proms this season. To be honest, I suspect Way needed to do very little. John Tomlinson’s Gurnemanz was what I have seen him do in Munich, Vienna and London, Katarina Dalayman’s Kundry was familiar from the recent Parsifal broadcast from the Met and Detlef Roth – a late replacement for Iain Paterson – repeated his Amfortas from recent years in Bayreuth. Tom Fox’s Klingsor was probably like every other one he has sung. They were all dressed either in rehearsal clothes or formal wear but for some reason Lars Cleveman as Parsifal came on wearing a white tunic and looked like a celebrity chef, and occasionally his gestures did look as if he was chopping food.

The latter wasn’t his fault entirely and he certainly would have benefitted from someone – in the intervening years since this performance was actually scheduled – visiting a props department somewhere and borrowing a stuffed swan, a couple of spears, a medieval helmet and a large cup of some sort. Alongside a makeshift bow (arrows optional) that Parsifal can happily break, this is all you really need to bring a greater sense of dramatic realism to a semi-staging of the opera. Cleveman’s miming skill were sorely tested throughout the evening and I have to report that when he held his fist up holding his imaginary spear he reminded me more of someone pulling the chain to flush a toilet.

I suspect it was Sir Mark Elder who coordinated everything to do with the music and realised that the Royal Albert Hall makes a good ‘grail temple’. The boys’ and youth choirs were high up in the gallery (with some brass) whilst the always-reliable Renato Balsadonna directed the Royal Opera Chorus on and off the stage bringing a greater meditative atmosphere to the Grail ceremonies than I can ever remember. Something didn’t sound right to me with the electronic bells – but I am often never happy about them and wonder what Wagner wanted here. The Hallé has a good reputation with Wagner in Manchester and it was good to hear them in London; it must be remembered that Hans Richter – one of their first music directors – was a Bayreuth veteran. The orchestra played with great commitment and there was a velvety tone from the strings, mellow woodwind and some suitably burnished brass.

The batonless Elder seems to modelling his Wagner conducting style on the incomparable Reginald Goodall. His memorable slow tempi meant Goodall was able to elicit great clarity from the orchestra that revealed every detail and nuance in the score, dwelling upon it reverently without compromising the impression that he had an overarching grasp of the structure of the work. There was a lot that was similar with much else to admire in Elder’s well-prepared and majestic Parsifal but unlike any Goodall performance that, however slow, never seemed to drag, this performance marginally outstayed its welcome. Indeed it finished more than 25 minutes after the advertised time – not helped by two ridiculously long intervals!

There was a ska legend called ‘Buster Bloodvessel’ – and with my deep admiration for Sir John Tomlinson – he came into my mind as his grizzled Gurnemanz unfolded in its familiar fashion. It does seem to take a lot out of him, physically, but this is nothing new and I have followed Sir John’s career since he started. Now in his late sixties the lower part of his bass voice is in fine shape but there are higher lines to the music that he struggles with. He also was replacing a previously advertised singer, has recently been singing in Salzburg and may not have had sufficient rest in between. What remains a marvel is how he can communicate the text through his impeccable diction and has the ability to fill the vast auditorium with sound, as well as truly live the role of this Wagnerian patriarch: this is something all younger colleagues should aspire to.

Tom Fox in his suit and tie looked like a financial advisor but sang a well-projected and venomous evil magician, Klingsor, though I wish the ‘conjuring up’ of his magical realm in the prelude to Act II had been a little less genteel and more malevolent. For her ‘duet’ with Parsifal it was time for Katarina Dalayman’s Kundry to be, literally, centre-stage. She was obviously a favourite with most of the Proms audience but those who saw Petra Lang’s searing and blistering Kundry at the Proms in 2000 will never forget it and accept Dalayman’s anodyne portrayal of a scorned woman, more suitably to an ordinary Verdi heroine rather than Wagner’s protagonist. To her credit her voice did seem in better shape than some recent reviews would suggest: there was a realistic ‘kiss’ and she stayed in character – and on the platform – throughout the opening to Act III when she could just as easily have retired to her dressing room after her two words, ‘Dienen, dienen’.

Robert Murray and Andrew Greenan were a good pair of knights and Reinhard Hagen made his baleful utterances from the organ loft as Titurel. This leaves me with Lars Cleveman’s Parsifal that lacked the vocal heft, freshness and musicality required. He is someone who can get through the rather short – in Wagnerian terms – tenor role without tiring too much but that doesn’t make up for the fact that he is not a genuine heldentenor. ‘Nur eine Waffe taugt’ (‘But one weapon serves’) at the very end of the opera – regardless if you are a ‘believer’ yourself – should really be the summation of all that has gone before and bring an element of transcendence to the final moments. Despite the substantial efforts of Mark Elder, his musicians and combined choirs – because of Cleveman – it all remained a little dispiriting earthbound.

Jim Pritchard