Mark Elder and the Hallé surpassed any other account of Parsifal that Michael Tanner has heard

31 August 2013

9:00 AM

31 August 2013

9:00 AM



Paul Bunyan

Welsh National Opera Youth Opera, Cardiff

The Proms season of Wagner operas — pity they didn’t do them all; Die Meistersinger would have been specially welcome, since no one else is doing it either — concluded appropriately with Parsifal, conducted by Sir Mark Elder. The conducting at all these performances has been remarkably good, but in some respects Elder was the most striking of all. Working with his orchestra, the Hallé, he produced an account of this miraculous score which, for a combination of passion and precision, surpassed any other that I have ever heard. Without for a moment stinting on climaxes, Elder and the Hallé explored and expounded the refinements and economies of Wagner’s subtle masterpiece to a point that would have left Boulez open-mouthed with admiration. That meant that tempi were for the most part broad, but so sure is Elder’s grasp that that made the overall structure of the work all the more apparent.

It led, for me at least, to one revelation: the Grail scene in Act I can seem too extended, with the sacramental bread and wine being distributed, angelic voices accompanying, then a rather hearty song of knightly thanksgiving, followed by a drawn-out recessional as the knights withdraw and leave the irritable Gurnemanz to snap at bewildered Parsifal. In this performance, the effect was markedly different. The blessing and distribution of the sacrament were suitably ethereal, but then what followed was a stepwise return/descent to the everyday, with the knights confident of their renewed strength, while the orchestra showed how largely illusory that was, with Wagner musing, musically, on what kind of energising process the ceremony had really amounted to; and with the re-opening of Amfortas’s wound, rendered in hideously graphic dissonances, the answer seemed to be dismal. And Gurnemanz’s bad temper, a Shakespearean touch, just capped the demonstration of how transient any moments of grace that come our way are likely to be.

The overwhelming effect of this performance was achieved with a cast that was for the most part inadequate, the weakest in the series of Proms Wagner. The hero was taken by Lars Cleveman, who has a serviceable but dry voice, and uses it with little expressive intelligence. Gurnemanz, the work’s largest role, was to have been taken by Robert Holl, but in the event it was Sir John Tomlinson. There is no contemporary singer who has so deep a grasp of the role, who can inflect the marvellous narrations to such thrilling effect, and operate so effectively as a prism for the other characters’ feelings. Alas, he was in poor voice, not surprising given his unstinted generosity over getting on for half a century. That did mean that for lengthy stretches listening was nervous or painful, and the Good Friday Music survived only owing to the transcendent accompaniment. Amfortas was also a replacement, Detlef Roth substituting for Iain Paterson. It’s a role that needs careful handling, if Amfortas isn’t to seem pathetic in the wrong way. The Act I big monologue wasn’t a success, but the weary Act III counterpart came off very well.

The largest flaw in the casting was Katarina Dalayman’s Kundry, one of the least effective I have heard. Vocally overparted, she seemed too concerned to get the notes to have any energy or will for the innumerable fine points of interpretation. The enormous Act II battle of wills, for me the trickiest element in the work, where Wagner’s most audacious harmonic inventions and astounding psychological investigations nonetheless combine to produce a curiously old-fashioned effect, failed to make an impact. The two really distinguished vocal contributions were Tom Fox’s electrifying Klingsor, and Reinhard Hagen’s Titurel, a terrifying cameo. The various choruses and choirs were as fine as the orchestra. With an adequate cast, this would have been a performance for the ages.

I began easing my way from Wagner to Britten by going to Welsh National Opera Youth Opera’s production of Paul Bunyan, the early work that was a flop and withdrawn by the composer until he was encouraged to look at the score in 1974, and consented to its resurrection in a mildly revised form. Done expertly, with a first-rate cast of young actor-singers, as it was in Cardiff, the result was a most enjoyable evening, though one which wisely discouraged much thought. Bunyan is a mixture of musical comedy, meditation on what America might be, an experiment, perhaps, for Auden the librettist and Britten to discover how they felt about the country to which they had fled (but before the second world war, not during it, as the programme stated).

It was produced, cleverly, as being on a TV screen, watched by a young boy in bed, so any questions about datedness were forestalled. It’s an amiable, rambling piece, showing what two ultimate professionals can do when they’re not sure they want to do it. It’s such a team work that mentioning individuals would be unfair: one thing that impressed me was the convincingness of the American accents, surely unique in the annals of UK productions of transatlantic works. I last saw Paul Bunyan 16 years ago. That seems to be about the right gap between encounters with it.

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