Celebrating the Wagner centenary in 1913, the Hallé Orchestra gave a concert performance in Manchester of Acts II and III from Wagner’s epic final masterpiece Parsifal. Directed by their then principal conductor Michael Balling, a former viola player of the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and protégé of both the former Hallé Orchestra conductor and Wagner expert Hans Richter, the concert was reviewed in the Manchester Guardian as “ranking among the finest things the Hallé forces have ever done.” In recent years the Hallé and their musical director Sir Mark Elder have rekindled this flame in a number of highly-acclaimed Wagner performances and recordings, and, at the Royal Albert Hall (RAH) 100 years later, they toasted the Wagner bicentenary with the Holy Grail and a performance of Parsifal that will not soon be forgotten.

Sir John Tomlinson © Chris Christodoulou
Sir John Tomlinson
© Chris Christodoulou

The concert was directed for the RAH stage by Australian director Justin Way, who conceived a low-maintenance but very effective flow of action that significantly aided the performance much more than if the singers had simply lined up and sang motionless into the arena. Some singers responded with greater enthusiasm than others to invisible props, but the general effort made by all was appreciated, and in the absence of surtitles the action did much to clarify the plot.

Regarded as one of Wagner’s most expert orchestrations, the Parsifal score ranges from subtle, ethereal, meditative and reflective to throbbing, intense, mighty and powerful, though you will find none of the bubbling lightness of Die Meistersinger, nor the gross pomposity of the Ring cycle, and from page one to the end of the full score, Elder was thoroughly in control; crafting an experience where the importance of every phrase is considered down to the last bar, resulting in a performance that breathed and flowed organically, with rhythmic and musical precision. In his endeavours for perfection, Elder is aided by a sensitive and sympathetic orchestra that he has trained to respond to every inflection.

Throughout the whole opera, the score presents many exposed melodic lines, and the clarinets, bassoons and trumpets were especially impressive. Furthermore, the harp’s glittering and sparking representations of the swan and the spear, played by Marie Leenhardt and Eira Lyn Jones, pierced the orchestral texture, whilst the larger body of strings shimmered and swelled in varying moods of intensity, anguish and beauty. There was some confusion as to whether the orchestral bells were real or electronic and, though in their first appearance I was unconvinced that they were genuine, by the end they seemed more intense.

Of the principal cast Sir John Tomlinson, a seasoned Wagnerian, brought to the pious Gurnemanz all the qualities inherent in his character – age, wisdom, patience, control and discipline. Naturally, at nearly 68 years old, his voice is not in perfect condition and notes in the upper register are less secure, but when presented with a performance of such dignity and poise – who cares? Tomlinson also made much greater use of the space, making the stage his own as far as he was able. Katarina Dalayman and Lars Cleveman as Kundry and Parsifal respectively both sang excellently with drama, intensity and sensitivity. Dalayman’s strong voice cut above the orchestra with unforced clarity, while Cleveman’s ever-confident approach resulted in a tender moment in Act III with Kundry kneeling silently before the redeemed “innocent fool.” Reinhard Hagen’s dying Titurel was profound and, though concealed from view, his deep bass voice rang out around the hall with impressive resonance.

Finally, with the appearance of Klingsor and his six siren Flower Maidens, Tom Fox carried himself with an imperious defiance in confrontations as both commander of Kundry and enemy of Parsifal. Singing with a directness and solidarity of evil resolve, Fox amply filled the arena with dark overtones. Each of the six Flower Maidens were balanced beautifully against the female chorus in explicitly seductive strains – Elizabeth Cragg floated perfectly above her siren sisters, and Ana James also stood out, but the fairest vocal blossom of Klingsor’s garden was Madeleine Shaw (also singing Second Squire and Voice from Above) who sang with a beauty of tone and diction so precious that I hope the Hallé will engage her further. The Royal Opera Chorus were secure in tuning and diction and furthermore did much to restore the pitch quality of the younger choirs (Hallé Youth Choir and Trinity Boys Choir) whose singing, though often beautiful, was sometimes uneasy and lost purity of tone in Wagner’s demanding, high melodic lines.

Save for the ambiguous bells and occasional slips in pitch of the younger choral voices, I don’t think Wagner could have asked for a more dedicated or moving performance – on or off stage.

*****