Sir Mark Elder’s Parsifal took the splendor of Kings College Chapel to new heights for HARRY DADSWELL
Kings College Chapel, 8.15pm, Saturday 28th January, £10-32
In order to keep his last opera, Parsifal, out of the grubby clutches of ‘mere amusement’ he decreed that its performance be confined to the austere stage of Bayreuth, designed and built by Wagner to stage his operas in an ambience of the most heightened solemnity.
Yet having watched this performance of the opera’s final act in King’s College Chapel, I can say that Wagner was wrong to believe that only his opera house could provide an ambience worthy of this masterpiece.
What struck me most about the performance as a whole was Sir Mark Elder’s ability to illuminate the cathedral-like architecture of the act, careful to reserve the orchestra’s potentially thunderous dynamic strength for just a few climatic pinnacles. The intensity of Parsifal rests on the emotional restraint generated by its intense, perpetually driven, yet overwhelmingly subdued music. With little in the way of dramatic action, any performance of this work relies on the conductor’s stamina and control to retain the cohesion of its lengthy emotional moods. First comes the anxiety of a returning Parsifal, encountering the once proud Knight of the Grail Gurnemanz, now turned sorrowful old hermit by the misfortunes of the Order.
This is followed by Gurnemanz’s joy that Parsifal, whom he had dismissed as a fool at the start of the opera, carries the elixir to the Order’s troubles: the redeeming spear that pierced Christ. Then comes the despondency of Titurel’s funeral, with the wails of his sick son, the king Amfortas, begging the gathered Knights to end his wretched life. Finally Parsifal enters in majesty alongside Gurnemanz, curing the king with a touch of his spear before unveiling the Holy Grail to the joyful strains of Erlösung dem Erlöser (salvation to the saviour).
I was particularly impressed by the mid-way transition to the Hall of the Grail, with off-stage brass, church bells and ominous ostinatos from cellos and double bases culminating in the dramatic entry of the male chorus, marching in massed ranks under the organ and onto the stage. Bass-baritone Robert Hayward swiftly set a dark mood for Titurel’s funeral, conveying through his posture and vocal timbre the agony of wounded king Amfortas. Simon O’Neill, every inch the heroic tenor, gave a tremendously self-assured performance as Parsifal, the steely edge of his voice filling the chapel to rise above the orchestra even when the latter was at its greatest dynamic intensity.
Faults within the concert were minor. The piece chosen to begin the evening, whilst daintily performed by an all-female chorus and female soloists, was for me a rather forgettable affair. La Damoiselle élue (The Blessed Damozel) is an inoffensive early cantata by Debussy setting the words of Dante Gabriel Rossetti about a woman in heaven grieving over her separation from an earth-bound lover. As for Parsifal, I felt that perhaps some of the dramatic energy of the soloists was dissipated by the bass Robert Lloyd’s use of a score to sing from. When set alongside the other soloists, who threw their all into their parts by gesturing and acting as if they were on the stage of an opera house, the one-armed gesticulations of Lloyd’s Gurnemanz were more reminiscent of the lecture theatre. It also took the bass section of the strings a while to warm up, failing to provide the ominous intensity which Sir Mark Elder gestured for in the brief opening orchestral prelude.
Overall however the student choristers and musicians under Elder’s command deserve praise for being the first in living memory to pull off the enormous challenge of performing a Wagner opera at this University. I left King’s with my mind reverberating with the concert’s blissful closing bars: the majestic return of the Grail motif set to gentle harp arpeggios. It is perhaps testament to all of those who took part in performing Parsifalthat all the fellow audience members with whom I have spoken have told me of how moved they were by the performance. This includes some who lacked a knowledge of the plot and a programme to follow the action. Instead they, like me, were reeling from the experience of hearing Wagner’s sublime music performed with such feeling in the sacral surroundings of King’s College Chapel.