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.
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
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.
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.