27 Aug 2013

Prom 57: Wagner — Parsifal

Prom 57’s Parsifal (Mark Elder, the Hallé) brought us John Tomlinson, perhaps the greatest Wagnerian bass of our time.

Gurnemanz is one of his signature roles. Now, he might bark, but he still doesn’t “park”. Age skills are enhanced by age, not diminished.

When Titurel sounds in better vocal health than Gurnemanz, it’s worrying. But Gurnemanz is probably even older than Titurel. John the Baptist knew nothing of Christianity but baptised Jesus himself. Like John the Baptist, John Tomlinson’s Gurnemanz recognizes who Parsifal must be and anoints his mission. Tomlinson now portrays Gurnemanz as an Ancient, a witness to primeval mysteries that long predated formal religion. An Erda in male form!

The part is also huge, bigger even than Parsifal’s in many ways. Tomlinson still has stamina and stage presence, even if he makes us wince at his dry, constricted croaks, though they’re arguably in character. Tomlinson’s just back from singing The Green Knight in Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s Gawain in Salzburg. He’s tired, but he’s still giving us pointers in how to channel Gurnemanz. This Proms Parsifal was something to cherish because Tomlinson made us “feel” Gurnemanz’s soul, still idealistic, despite the ravages of time.

Katarina Dalayman’s Kundry, in contrast, was uncommonly seductive. Waltraud Meier’s wild animal Kundry remains a tour de force, defining the role at its most savage, but Dalayman’s more womanly portrayal is perfectly valid, bringing out the more human, vulnerable side of the role. This is important, for in Parsifal, Wagner reprises themes that persist throughout his career: motherhood, or the lack thereof, the distortion of sexual and family relationships, inter-generational power struggles and basic body fluids. Kundry is an outsider because she’s a sexual being in a repressed society. Dalayman blends the natural warmth of her voice with forceful delivery, so her crescendi rang out , reaching into the furthest recesses of the Royal Albert Hall. At times, she almost sounds like a Verdi heroine. But it’s a perfectly valid interpretation, which would benefit from a sympathetic staging which deals with the psycho-sexual emotional thickets that underpin the portentious pseudo-religiosity which has dominated Parsifal interpretation.

In Parsifal, there are three different Parsifals, just as there are three different Wotans in the Ring. We can’t gauge the whole Wotan from either manifestation. It’s a mistake to expect Parsifal to be glowing and luminous from the start . Like most Wagner heroes, he goes through a process of change. Lars Cleveman achieved this transition well. In the first Act, Parsifal’s a young Siegfried, instinctive and almost animal. He kills the swan because he knows no better. Lars Cleveman’s sturdy physicality suits this Parsifal . He’s cocky, confident and even sexy in a quirky way: a good foil for Dalayman’s mother/seducer Kundry. The second act brought forth the best singing of the evening, even from Tomlinson. Yet Wagner springs a surprise in the end. Once Parsifal is mature and takes on his mission, he doesn’t actually sing all that much. The mystical splendour of transfiguration comes from the orchestra. The Divine Presence is in the music. Parsifal kneels and listens, in awe.

And so to Mark Elder and the Hallé. We don’t hear them enough in London, and they’re very distinctive. The music in the first act is notoriously hard to pull off. Haitink, for example, stretched the tempi so one could feel the comatose Grail community, so desiccated that it’s become fossilized. But inertia and dramatic thrust don’t sit naturally together. Elder’s approach allowed details to be heard, such as the sour wail of the brass. One of the percussionists leaned onto her timpani to dampen the sound. With a huge orchestra and several choirs, this act must be a beast to conduct. Elder held the orchestra back, giving prominence to Tomlinson’s long monologue. But the overall effect was more symphonic than operatic. Fortunately, once the drama got going, the playing gained pace. Klingsor’s magic castle was nicely conjured up. Theologically. Klingsor is off the wall. His battle with Amfortas is kinky, when you really think of it. But the scene sets the tone for the Parsifal/Kundry dialogue, so central to the deeper meaning of the opera.

The Hallé showed their real strengths in the Third Act, where music even dominates the singing. The orchestra evoked the complex images in the narrative. Parsifal’s on a mysterious journey, whose nature we don’t really know. The angularity in the music cuts against the dream-like chromaticism, suggesting pain and suffering. The Knights are dying. The Hallé express the savagery without the need for words. They were splendid in the Good Friday music, augmented by metallic “Parsifal bells” resonating into space. Despite the Communion imagery in the text, these shouldn’t sound “churchy”. Good Friday is the one time in the Christian year when the Mass is not celebrated and communion not re-enacted on site. Wagner created new instruments for a purpose.The original “bells” used in Bayreuth in Wagner’;s time were huge cyclinders. The Hallé used a more modern version, which resonated through the vast auditorium.

Detlev Roth replaced Iain Patterson at short notice. I was pleased, because Roth is highly regarded and experienced in a broad repertoire, other than Wagner. His voice has more natural colour than a traditional Wagnerian, so he sang Amfortas with more flexibility that we associate with the part. There are a lot of heavy low voices in this opera, and Roth’s relative brightness was different, but not wrong. Picking Roth was a wise choice. He was an interesting counterbalance to Tomlinson’s Gurnemanz of the Ages.

Anne Ozorio

Cast and production information:

Parsifal : Lars Cleveman, Kundry : Katarina Dalayman, Gurnemanz : Sir John Tomlinson, Amfortas : Detlev Roth, Klingsor : Tom Fox, Titurel: Reinhard Hagen, Knights: Robert Murray, Andrew Greenan, Flower Maidens : Elizabeth Cragg, Anita Watson, Sarah Castle, Ana James, Anna Devin, Squire/Voice from above/Flower Maiden : Madeleiene Shaw, Squires : Joshua Ellicott, Andrew Rees, Trinity Boys Choir, Hallé Youth Choir, Royal Opera Chorus, Hallé, Conductor : Sir Mark Elder, Stage Director : Justin Way. Royal Albert Hall, London, 25th August 2013.