Parsifal, BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, August 2013

rah140x1051The Albert Hall was the first venue for a concert performance of Parsifal, at least in England, just two years after the Bayreuth premiere of 1882. At that time copyright protection restricted staged performances to Bayreuth, but who needs a full staging? This 2013 performance with powerful musical direction by Mark Elder, and subtle stage direction by Justin Way, was riveting.

At the start of Act I, we saw John Tomlinson as Gurnemanz sitting on the floor, and at the start of Act III seated on a box that later represented Titurel’s coffin. Low-key stuff, but effective, and when Tomlinson stood to deliver — wow! In Act III his wonderful concern for Kundry, morphing into facial expressions of annoyance and concern at the appearance of a knight in full armour, were as good as any staging. And after Parsifal has revealed the spear, Tomlinson delivered a gripping O Gnade (O Mercy) …, and his later Du siehst … Heut’ ihren Unschuldstag erwirbt (Today acquires its day of innocence) was sung with exquisite feeling. Not only was his voice and stage performance so expressive, Tomlinson’s diction was outstanding, as good in German as it was in English with the ENO in February 2011.

Wonderful diction too from Reinhard Hagen in the deep bass role of Titurel, and Detlef Roth (replacing Iain Paterson) as Amfortas. He gave a superb characterisation of Amfortas’s agony, and after the coffin is opened in Act III his wish that his brother knights of the grail may be revived was sung with huge feeling and beautiful tone. His performance matched Tomlinson’s Gurnemanz and Katarina Dalayman’s beautifully seductive Kundry of Act II. Wonderful subtlety here, and her Act I description of Parsifal’s mother’s death gave us a dramatic piece of staging as Parsifal lunges at her and Gurnemanz restrains him.

Lars Cleveman as Parsifal produced a well-paced performance allowing him to hold the stage in the final moments of redemption, and among smaller roles Joshua Ellicott sang with a lovely tone as the Third Squire, though Tom Fox made a rather dull Klingsor, lacking clarity of diction.  Mark Elder’s conducting thrilled me at various moments, particularly the initial prelude, washing away the clumsiness of the recent Bayreuth Ring, where even the preludes suffered grievously from insane staging.

Here music and performance were the essence, and glorious things were accomplished by the placing of the chorus: Hallé Youth Choir and Trinity Boys Choir up in the gallery, combined with the Royal Opera Chorus on stage. At least three assistant conductors were needed, with percussion instruments, including a thunder sheet, up in the gallery too. How they managed the rehearsals to bring all this to perfection I don’t know, but it worked brilliantly, and Covent Garden has a lot to live up to with their new Parsifal production in November/December this year.

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