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.
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
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.