Prom 57: Mark Elder conducts Wagner’s Parsifal with Lars Cleveman, Katarina Dalayman & John Tomlinson [Hallé]

Parsifal – Bühnenweihfestspiel in three acts to a libretto by the composer [Concert performance; sung in German]

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

Trinity Boys Choir
Hallé Youth Choir
Royal Opera Chorus

Sir Mark Elder

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: 25 August, 2013
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Sir Mark Elder conducts the Hallé in Wagner’s Parsifal at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouThe baton-less hands of Mark Elder appeared to pluck wisps of sound from his players and fold them into diaphanous melodic shapes. From the slowest, most rapt of Preludes until the opera’s conclusion six hours later, the Hallé played like a company of angels – a saving grace in an evening that was otherwise low on celestial refulgence.

Wagner’s final opera, essentially a tale of redemption through suffering and the triumph of innocence, is sometimes described as a sacred piece (Wagner portentously termed it a “Festival Play for the Consecration of a Stage”), but in truth its mood of romantic fantasy is closer to Camelot than the Saint Matthew Passion. Parsifal, the “holy fool”, is that classic hero of fiction, the unwitting boy who saves the world and discovers himself along the way. What makes Parsifal a masterpiece (Wagner’s greatest, in my book) is the atmosphere of reverence and wonder that is sustained across several hours of music.

Lars Cleveman as Parsifal in Wagner’s Parsifal at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouParsifal’s abstruse spirituality fits it well for concert performance, and the Royal Albert Hall’s heavenly heights accommodated its spatial ambitions to often startling effect. The extended, cod-holy closing section of Act One was overwhelming in its scale and sonic impact as the distantly seraphic voices of the Hallé Youth Choir and Trinity Boys Choir, all outstanding, joined those of Renato Balsadonna’s immaculately-prepared Royal Opera Chorus for the Holy Grail communion scene. This sequence alone was worth the pilgrimage to Kensington Gore; you really needed to be there. If only the same could be said of the solo singers.

Of the principals, Reinhard Hagen gave the evening’s truest and most complete Wagnerian performance, rivalled perhaps by the rich vocal depths of Tom Fox, the American baritone and alumnus of English National Opera’s most recent revival of the opera. It says little for a cast of Parsifal, though, when the vocal laurels are claimed by Titurel and Klingsor. Hagen’s fellow-German Detlef Roth, a last-minute replacement for the ailing Iain Paterson, was another asset: he gave a clean, earnest account of Amfortas, venting great rage against the dying of the light, even though his voice lacked the amplitude to embody the full extent of his character’s suffering.

Katarina Dalayman as Kundry in Wagner’s Parsifal at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouTo judge by the wild applause at the end of Act Two, for most in the audience the shining star of this Parsifal was Katarina Dalayman as Kundry; and, indeed, the Swedish soprano displayed a rich, even voice that did not degrade even under intense pressure and filled the Hall with ease. That might have been enough were her character less complex. Kundry, though, is nothing if not protean, and a psychological approach to the role is essential – which is where Dalayman fell short. I detected no attempt to track her troubled soul’s journey from darkness into light, while in duo scenes (such as at “Hier weile! Parsifal!”) there was little sense of a dramatic connection with her counterparts. Such absence of character depth is always a hazard in concert performances, of course, but that is all the more reason for them to be avoided – or attended to in rehearsal.

Sir John Tomlinson as Gurnemanz in Wagner’s Parsifal at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouRobert Holl’s withdrawal from the dominant role of Gurnemanz, the wise old Grail knight, left a gap that John Tomlinson filled with his commanding presence and larger-than-life dramatic commitment. The great bass’s impeccable articulation of the text was an object lesson to several of his colleagues, not least Lars Cleveman’s underpowered though steadfast Parsifal; but Sir John’s voice was not what it was, loosely controlled in places and fraying under pressure, and it is probably time for him to follow his peer, Robert Lloyd, into less-taxing character roles.

The glories of this Parsifal were to be found elsewhere. A fabulous team of Flower Maidens, Knights and Squires made the ensemble scenes unforgettable, and the Hallé was quite simply world-class. Wagner’s imposing set-pieces came across with unforgettable power, despite the excessive volume of the amplified ‘Parsifal Bells’; and at the opera’s end, when all solo voices were stilled and the ensemble of Boys, Youths and Knights heralded a shimmering orchestral postlude, ecstasy returned and a notion of Heaven was there to be glimpsed.

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