United Kingdom Wagner 200th Anniversary Concert: Soloists and Philharmonia Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 22.5.2013. (JPr)
Wagner: Prelude, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Prelude and Liebestod, Tristan und Isolde – Susan Bullock (soprano)
Die Walküre, Act III
David Edwards: director
Susan Bullock: Brünnhilde
James Rutherford: Wotan
Mariya Krywaniuk: Gerhilde
Jennifer Johnston: Waltraute
Miriam Sharrad: Schwertleite
Katherine Broderick: Helmwige
Magdalen Ashman: Siegrune
Antonia Sotgiu: Grimgerde
Maria Jones: Rossweisse
Elaine McKrill: Ortlinde
In a brief ‘plug’ Sir Andrew Davis reminded the BBC Radio 3 listening audience and the rest of us in the Royal Festival Hall how on the bicentenary of the composer’s birth that this was the first event of Wagner 200, a low-key, London-centric series of events to celebrate the anniversary. It will continue with further concerts, screenings of opera performances, public masterclasses, symposia, a curated film season, an exhibition and a great deal more at leading venues, including the Royal Opera House, Barbican Centre, Royal Albert Hall, Kings Place and British Library. Sir Andrew remarked how Wagner 200 would explore ‘aspects of the composer that may not be so well-known’ as well as the ‘astonishing progression’ Wagner made from his second opera, Das Liebesverbot, to his last, Parsifal. He also took the opportunity to remind everyone not to forget that Verdi, whose 200th anniversary also falls this year, also made a parallel journey from his early Oberto to his valedictory Falstaff. He said many have succumbed to the ‘power and beauty’ of Wagner’s music and he hoped that some of this would be felt by those experiencing this concert.
Andrew Davis, as music director and principal conductor of Lyric Opera of Chicago, has been a relatively late convert to Wagner and I once remember being on a plane to Nuremberg with him in 2001 as he visited Bayreuth, the year before he conducted Lohengrin there for the first time. At that time he had conducted very little Wagner and was renowned as an English music – or Richard Strauss – specialist. Well, Elgar was not too far away from a from a lightweight account of the Prelude to Die Meistersinger that along will the rather bouncy movements of Sir Andrew on the podium made me think more of lambs gambolling on the Malvern Hills than a German guild of master singers. I didn’t want ponderous tempi or excessive bombast but there is a grandeur (possibly heroism) to it that could have celebrated Wagner’s 200th in better style. Woody Allen once said ‘Listening to Wagner makes me want to invade Poland’ – I don’t want to either but his music must always make you feel something other than rather bored.
The music of Tristan und Isolde is some of the most emotionally manipulative that has ever been written; the Prelude is all repressed love – actually of the composer for Mathilde Wesendonck – and the Liebestod is just spiritual transfiguration in music as Isolde’s earthbound existence ends. Throughout the evening it was difficult to fault the contribution of the Philharmonia Orchestra, an ensemble not really known for its Wagner, but here the Prelude seemed reined in without being allowed to give itself over to musical abandon. Susan Bullock’s rather quiet singing failed to ride the orchestra at certain crucial moments, her thin tone revealing none of the rapture that is inherent here – with her final poorly supported ‘höchste Lust’ particularly failing noticeably to spin.
At least we were spared a routine Wagner evening of his ‘greatest hits’ performed as ‘bleeding chunks’, as the second half of this concert was given over to Die Walküre Act III performed in its entirety from the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ to the ‘Magic Fire’ music. This was given a semi-staging by the always reliable David Edwards, though I suspect his efforts were limited by the need to have the singers always in the vicinity of a microphone. As a result everyone was restricted to the platform and therefore no one entered through the audience, though it would have been more appropriate at times.
I think it all might have been somewhat out of Edwards’s control but some coordination about what the Valkyries were wearing might have helped them move better, some were clearly struggling in their elaborate evening gowns. They shone handheld searchlights around the Royal Festival Hall that made their high jinks quite effective. Sieglinde (Giselle Allen) and Brünnhilde (Susan Bullock) entered and their moments together were dramatically compelling, ending in a true sense of euphoria from the very promising Giselle Allen over the news that she is carrying Siegmund’s child. Then disaster struck, no one seems to have told James Rutherford (Wotan) that this was a semi-staged performance and for much of his time on the platform he was dependent on the score in front him. Surely he was given sufficient notice about the concert in order to for him to prepare himself properly for it? This crucially undermined his contribution with his character’s disobedient daughter. Only when he got to the bit he had obviously learnt before and released an impassioned outburst of ‘Leb wohl, du kühnes herrliches Kind’ that the shackles came off and it all began to mean something.
There had been an enthusiastic gang of Valkyries, some better than others, with notable contributions coming from Katherine Broderick (Helmwige), Magdalen Ashman (Siegrune) and Elaine McKrill (Ortlinde) and since Susan Bullock still has a rather youthful sound she was much better in the dialogue where Brünnhilde attempts to justify her disobedience – and rails against the severity of Wotan’s judgement – than she was earlier in the evening. The Philharmonia was suitably rampant during the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ but was relatively becalmed during the earlier conversation between father and daughter when there was a lack of intensity. But now it took pole position again and under Sir Andrew Davis’s increasingly more assured direction gained from performing this in the opera house, together they supported and embellished the expansive vocal sweep of Wotan’s vocal line to greater emotional effect. Rutherford (a more natural Hagen or Sachs than Wotan) now redeemed himself somewhat with the warmth of his voice truly revealing his affection for Brünnhilde.
Finally, the fire was summoned and the orchestra was unsurprisingly bathed in a red glow – I suspect any strobe light flickerings might have created ‘Health and Safety’ issues – but that ‘flickering’ is present in the Fire motif and dominates the last pages of Die Walküre; there is an incandescent shimmer of broken chords in the violins and harps that fades rather than dies out just as if the listener follows Wotan as he moves away. Finally, Sir Andrew Davis and the Phiharmonia did Wagner proud – Happy 200th Richard!
For more about the Philharmonia’s forthcoming concerts visit www.philharmonia.co.uk.
Listen to this concert on BBC iPlayer Radio.
For more information about Wagner 200 visit www.wagner200.co.uk.