fri 19/07/2024

Prom 57: Parsifal, Hallé, Elder | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 57: Parsifal, Hallé, Elder

Prom 57: Parsifal, Hallé, Elder

A shining inner light, and another great use of vast space, in the Proms' final Wagner opera

Lars Cleveman as Parsifal and Sir John Tomlinson as GurnemanzAll images by BBC/Chris Christodoulou

So for one last time this season the impossible colosseum of Albertopolis became the Wagnerian holiest of holies – to be precise, the Cathedral of the Holy Grail - and once again I fell in love with the beast transfigured.

Justin Way, the one artist common to all seven Wagner operas as their subtle semi-stager, should be the delegate to receive the award the Proms deserve for highest achievement of bicentenary year; and it seemed right to have Sir John Tomlinson, albeit by dint of another bass’s indisposition, giving his benediction as the witness of a final miracle.

No mere ghost of Wagnerian excellence past, this Gurnemanz; you always fear imminent heart-attack under pressure, but that’s been the case for years now, so pray for his continuing health as a long-life bass (they’re the lucky ones in terms of longevity). By the third act even this titan was flagging; but the pressure of emotion continued to carry it through. One of the pleasures for me of the Proms Wagner performances I count myself hugely privileged to have witnessed has been to discard the printed libretto-translation – still no supertitles for the Royal Albert Hall – and see how much meaning comes across. And with Tomlinson, it was effortlessly projected with physical ease and powerful gestures; vital since Gurnemanz is the chronicler of the brotherhood of the grail’s decline and its search for salvation in the shape of the pure fool made wise through compassion.

No-one was going to believe, outwardly at least, in Wagnerian veteran Lars Cleveman's Parsifal as a confused stripling, but he too left us in no doubt of a soul in search of enlightenment. The tenor voice is light-ish, like Robert Dean Smith’s in the Proms Tannhäuser and Tristan, but Cleveman is capable like Smith of staying the course and pulling out the stops, if not the darker colours ideally needed for Parsifal’s Act Three transformation as a knight of endless suffering.

Katarina Dalayman as Kundry in the Proms Parsifal by Chris ChristodoulouTotal assumption of the evening, though, was Katarina Dalayman’s as Kundry the undead (where was she last Thursday when we needed an idiomatic Wagnerian soprano for the  Wesendonck Lieder?) Refusing to abet Wagner’s ridiculous scenario, as in Tannhäuser, of sanctity equals good, sensuousness bad, she settled neither for pure penitence on the one hand and evil voluptuousness on the other but served up a woman of infinite variety. Way’s staging allowed us to chart her few-notes presence in Act One and her even more silent role in Act Three (Kundry, having been through the vampy mill once more as magician Klingsor’s seductress, returns to deracinated Montsalvat to see and understand; she sings only two words, or rather one repeated: “dienen, dienen” – “to serve”). How deeply moving this was, the Magdalene at Parsifal’s feet, the despairing Gurnemanz hardly able to believe his eyes, Cleveman’s stricken wanderer absolutely still between them.

Vocally, Dalayman was perfect. Mezzo, even contralto, chest voice connected to the rest; the middle range is pure Wagnerian-soprano gold and the top was fearless, and fierce in her Act Two desperation, where she changed before our eyes from poised diva in shimmering evening wear to a soul in hell.

Sir Mark Elder conducts Wagner's Parsifal at the PromsBut no Parsifal is going to succeed merely through individual performances; its religious ritual must convince. Sir Mark Elder’s control of the light within his excellent Hallé Orchestra and the absolute synchonicity of onstage knights – the Royal Opera Chorus, swelling to spine-tingling, tear-jerking effect – with “youths” above in gallery east and boys to the north (Trinity Boys’ Choir and Hallé Youth Choir, absolutely superlative) made the grail ceremonies more elevating than any I’ve previously heard. I have no issue with Elder being slower than most when Wagner simply writes “sehr Langsam”, but I do wish he’d sometimes be a bit more impetuously dramatic in the action-rushes. The model of Sir Reginald Goodall he so admires is fine for symphonic cohesion, but not always for music-theatre.

Still, the malevolent prelude to Klingsor’s magic garden, soon abetted by Tom Fox’s impassively evil magician, suitably surged, and the agony of the incurable wound Amfortas received there had suitable intensity in the acting, if not entirely the lightish and not exactly distinctive baritone voice, of Detlef Roth, a later replacement than Tomlinson. His enactment of the grail ritual, arms held aloft (qi gong training?), very much helped us to believe in its supernatural quality.

Act 2 of Proms Parsifal by Chris ChristodoulouAmong the squires, Joshua Ellicott projected a bigger tenor voice than his light-lyric repertoire to date might suggest – a Heldentenor in the making? – and the Flower Maidens who toy with Parsifal in the magic garden (pictured right with Cleveman) were playful though hardly sensual, abetted by floral luminescence on the ever-useful back screen.

Did I believe in the final tableau, “Our Redeemer redeemed”? Not entirely – Wagner always seems happier in a state of irresolution rather than apotheosis, and the music tells us nothing more than it did in Act One – but the inwardness of the orchestral playing went as far towards conveying the metaphysical as we’re likely to get. Besides, it was the only possible conclusion to a magnificent Wagner sequence at the Proms which will remain among the lifelong highlights of anyone lucky enough to catch all, or some, of it live.


John Tomlinson's performance was a disgrace. Talk about the elephant in the room - it seems as though there's some pact between critics to keep convincing themselves and the opera-going public that Tomlinson is some kind of operatic behemoth that can do no wrong. Well, it's simply not the case. The role of Gurnemanz is simply beyond his capabilities these days, and for me he ruined this performance with his vocal wobble, the constant lunging at high notes and general bluster. Truly awful.

Meow, meow, scratch, scratch.

I'm wondering if you were there in the hall, Justin, or whether your impressions come from the radio broadcast. We all know the voice has suffered inevitable wear and tear, and there are roles I wouldn't want to see JT in again (never liked his, yes, blustery Boris or his overloud Sachs, though he was a shatteringly effective Claggart recently, unbeatably inky-black of hue). But in the Albert Hall, his riveting stage demeanour and the resonance of that true bass - there are few enough - more than carried any shortcomings for me and, I know, many others.

'Can do no wrong' is going a bit far, anyway - we all admit he was worn out and ran into a couple of vocal difficulties in Act Three. But this is a great singer, no question, near the end of a very distinguished career, so 'disgrace' and 'truly awful' seem a bit mean.

yes, I agree. Sad, but true. Time to retire.

Thanks for replying, David. I was in the RAH, and had a good seat in the Stalls, so was privy to JT's bluster at close quarters. I honestly believe that the adulation from both critics and audience is based on the fact that JT is nearing 70, has been the reigning Wagnerian bass for over 20 years and because of those two facts is beyond criticism. My first live Parsifal was with Donald McIntrye as Gurnemanz with WNO in the 80s, and since then I’ve been fortunate enough to hear Gwynne Howell, Robert Lloyd, Rene Pape, Attila Jun (as a stand in for JT in Munich this Easter), Georg Zeppenfeld, Matti Salminen, Kwangchul Youn and indeed JT at both Covent Garden and ENO, where incidentally he was on far better form than he had been for Haitink four years’ earlier. On Sunday, he came nowhere close to matching his best in this role, but I fear most people wanted to hear the JT of yore, than the actual performance he was giving on Sunday evening which was simply not of a high enough standard, vocally. And if it’s a grizzled stage presence people are after then maybe Brian Blessed would have fit the bill. I know I’m in a minority here, and that’s fine but JT should not be performing this role in his current vocal state.

Well, whatever our divergent feelings (and no concessions from you there), it's surely now time to bring on the younger Gurnemanzes; there's no reason why he should be a grizzled sage. Some will again accuse me of bias, but I've never heard the role more conversationally done, with a relatively small orchestra, than it was by Peter Rose in Graz's lovely opera house (stupendous D Alden production, much the best I've seen). And after the Tannhauser I can't wait to see Estonian relative newcomer Ain Anger in the role. Haven't checked, but I have the feeling we get Rene Pape in the forthcoming Royal Opera production - can't wait for that.

Yes - Rene Pape is fantastic news, it's just a shame we get Simon O'Neill again. I do wonder if Peter Katona realises that there are other Wagner tenors out there apart from O'Neill?

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters