Alone among Wagner’s operas, Parsifal was written with the design of Bayreuth’s Festspielhaus specifically in mind. That structure places the orchestra pit entirely out of sight below the stage, and so the music was intended to drift up to the audience from below. Although in this concert performance from the Hallé (the last of seven Wagner operas to be performed in the 2013 Proms season) only those in the gallery and circle might have experienced that particular effect, in many respects the Albert Hall proved a highly suitable venue for the work.
In its scale and grandeur the building is like a cathedral, which made it the perfect setting for the Temple of the Holy Grail. Wagner’s original stage directions reveal that the Youths’ sound should come from “halfway up the dome” and the Knights’ own “from the summit of the dome”, and so placing these two choirs at different points in the gallery felt entirely appropriate. Even Gurnemanz’s assertion that “time here becomes space” had resonance since the Albert Hall’s vast interior has so much to offer of the latter.
Under the baton of Sir Mark Elder, the Hallé was on wondrous form. While it strove predominantly (and quite correctly) for a breathing, organic, fluid sound, I was struck by just how much strict rhythmic unity it still achieved. Many very good orchestras have sacrificed (and been justified in sacrificing) far more of the latter in pursuit of the former than the Hallé ever needed to do. The performance was very subtle and nuanced, and the wealth of musical detail meant that nothing ever felt too stark or conversely too weak. Even when the brass were at their most forthright they maintained an engaging tone, while the most sensitive string playing still possessed a strong sense of direction and purpose. Interestingly, the Prelude, coming in at just over fourteen minutes, was taken quite slowly (although at a pace more comparable with Bernard Haitink than Reginald Goodall) and yet as I listened it did not seem to be so.
Although the performance was officially semi-staged, director Justin Way made the stagecraft feel light while actually embellishing the performance with some very effective details. For example, when Parsifal and Gurnemanz witnessed the Act I ceremony they sat as two tiny figures next to the Knights of the Grail (the Royal Opera Chorus). With this poignant visual image set alongside the sound coming from the gallery (courtesy of the excellent Trinity Boys Choir and Hallé Youth Choir) it became easy for the audience to feel overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude and intensity of the occasion because the entire Albert Hall suddenly became the stage.
The principals adopted a variety of acting styles. As Gurnemanz Sir John Tomlinson appeared to make his movements larger than he has ever done in the role at either the Royal Opera House or Coliseum (where he is also weighed down by heavier robes) as a way of compensating for the overall lack of visual elements. As Kundry, conversely, Katarina Dalayman probably took her gestures down a notch in response to the absence of staging. Surprisingly however, both approaches seemed to complement each other well, and there was never a time when a mismatch of styles felt jarring.
As Parsifal, Lars Cleveman, making his Proms debut, had a strong and pleasing tenor voice with an interesting level of detail The standout performance, however, came from Dalayman who was exceptionally vibrant and precise vocally, and proved as adept at playing the madwoman as she did the temptress or penitent sinner. Tomlinson’s voice was sometimes less accurate or polished than it has been in the role of Gurnemanz, but the Hallé can feel very fortunate that he was able to take over when Robert Holl had to drop out. Indeed, his still strong vocal performance, deep understanding of the part and undoubtedly brilliant acting were enough to ensure that he received possibly the largest applause of the night.
Standing in at even shorter notice for Iain Paterson, Detlef Roth proved a highly effective Amfortas while Reinhard Hagen and Tom Fox were tremendous in the roles of Titurel and Klingsor respectively. Barring a performance of the Overture to Die Meistersinger on the Last Night, the Proms’ exploration of Wagner in his bicentenary year is now at an end, but it could not have finished in any more impressive a fashion.
Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (Prom 19) will be broadcast on BBC 4 on 1 September. For details of this and all BBC Proms click here.