The Proms' mammoth celebration of Wagner's bicentenary concluded with a performance of his final opera, Parsifal, on Sunday night. Alas, it was not the fitting climax it should have been. Bitterly disappointing on many levels, the performance was even more frustrating given that there were many flashes of brilliance which lifted the evening from the mediocre to the sublime, but there simply weren't enough of them, and in an opera lasting six hours you really need more than a few inspired passages.
The undisputed triumph of the evening was the playing of the Halle. It wasn't their fault that conductor Mark Elder had chosen to adopt painfully slow tempi, which mauled and fractured the musical line no more so than in the preludes to all three acts. The First Act prelude was interminable, the Second Act's sapped Wagner's explicitly sardonic writing of all its malevolence – there was nothing remotely scary about this particular Klingsor's domain - whist the prelude to the Third Act was taken at such a snail's pace that I thought it was going to grind to a halt.
Despite the erratic pacing of the music, the playing of it was superb, and at times sublime – especially in the Transformation Music of the outer acts, and the final scene of the first. There was a glorious sheen to the strings throughout, whilst there were some outstanding woodwind solos and as the first trumpet has a pivotal role in this particular score Andre Heuvelman's contributions were exemplary.
The singing of the three choirs was close to perfection. For the Royal Opera Chorus it was an excellent opportunity to have a run through before the company's new staging this autumn and the sound they made rattled the rafters. The Royal Albert Hall is perfect for delivering the spatial effects that Wagner requires yet seldom gets within the confines of an opera house. The Halle Youth Choir and the Trinity Boys Choir were placed antiphonally in the gallery, and the cumulative effect in the Grail Scenes was breathtaking.
But despite these plus points, the performance was let down by a bland group of soloists save for Katarina Dalayman's riveting Kundry (pictured). The role fits her voice like a glove and it was a joy and privilege to hear it sung by a soprano, as Wagner stipulates in the score, rather than a mezzo. The high-lying passages held no terrors for the Swedish soprano, nor did its lower reaches where Dalayman produced some wonderfully burnished tones.
As Parsifal Lars Cleveman was dry and ingratiating, and was just about able to summon the required vocal heft in the second act, but at the expense of the third where he was barely audible. Detlef Roth was a late substitution for an indisposed Iain Paterson, and was serviceable, no more. Tom Fox was a commanding Klingsor, if a little ragged round the edges, whilst Reinhard Hagen was outstanding as Titurel. Flower Maidens, Squires and Knights were all cast to the highest possible standards.
In the central role of Gurnemanz, Sir John Tomlinson was handicapped by a voice in tatters. It's sad to have to report that this once great Wagnerian snarled and barked his way through the role - anything above the stave was ‘sung' with such a pronounced wobble that having to listen to him was an ordeal from start to finish. Put plainly, he no longer has the vocal armoury this role requires and he should set it aside. Act III of Parsifal should be a transcendental experience, but with a dull, voiceless Parsifal, a hectoring Gurnemanz and a conductor on a go slow, this performance remained resolutely earthbound.