United Kingdom Prom 15: Wagner, Die Walküre: Soloists, Staatskapelle Berlin / Daniel Barenboim (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 23.7.2013. (JPr)
Bryn Terfel bass-baritone (Wotan)
Eric Halfvarson bass (Hunding)
Simon O’Neill tenor (Siegmund)
Anja Kampe soprano, Proms debut artist (Sieglinde)
Nina Stemme soprano (Brünnhilde)
Ekaterina Gubanova mezzo-soprano (Fricka)
Sonja Mühleck soprano (Gerhilde)
Carola Höhn soprano, Proms debut artist (Ortlinde)
Ivonne Fuchs mezzo-soprano, Proms debut artist (Waltraute)
Anaïk Morel mezzo-soprano, Proms debut artist (Schwertleite)
Susan Foster soprano, Proms debut artist (Helmwige)
Leann Sandel-Pantaleo mezzo-soprano, Proms debut artist (Siegrune)
Anna Lapkovskaja mezzo-soprano, Proms debut artist (Grimgerde)
Simone Schröder mezzo-soprano, Proms debut artist (Rossweisse)
Justin Way (stage director)
I did not review Das Rheingold the previous night but this was the second of the four concert performances of the Ring operas this season that presents them as a ‘cycle’ for the first time in the history of the Proms. Most of the reviews you will read about this were probably written in advance because Barenboim – performing triumphs notwithstanding – is a legendary figure because of his other tireless work; whether it is for reconciliation in the Middle East, for performances of Wagner in Israel, or against the perceive elitism of music.
Making their Proms debut is one of the world’s greatest orchestras who finally revealed to a British audience what the Ring should sound like and it is a level of performance for this work not heard in this country since Bernard Haitink at this same venue for the Royal Opera in 1998. Once again I must remind readers that I have to go back to 1984 when Reginald Goodall, in his twilight years, conducted an exciting and emotionally gripping Die Walküre in Cardiff for Welsh National Opera: these are my ‘musical benchmarks’ for my experience of this opera and nothing I heard here surpassed that.
Wagner knew what he wanted from his ‘Artwork of the Future’ and I am sure he never envisioned singers performing mostly behind the conductor’s back in a venue that is not well-known for having the best acoustics and in the most rudimentary semi-staging (from Justin Way) that had all the singers make up their own all-purpose semaphore gestures. Add to this, because of the continuing absence of surtitles, a third of the audience had their noses buried in a bulky libretto, with a further third having no idea what was going on … and the rest Walküre veterans like me! It was like this in 1998 and nothing has changed 15 years on. The youngest of those present were genuinely distanced from getting the most of the evening by not being able to follow the enfolding story. The LED boards behind the orchestra were not used very imaginatively and could easily have displayed the translation and with a few extra TVs elsewhere around the auditorium, no one should have been at a loss as to what Wotan was droning on about in Act II.
I am not going to be entirely negative I assure you, but while I am ‘on a roll’ as to how long the BBC Proms have known about these performances; I suspect it must be five years or more. I felt for Simon O’Neill when he held his empty fist up in the air and exclaimed ‘dies Schwert’, he looked embarrassed because there was no sword – and so was I. We do not need a full panoply of horned helmets but a semi-staging of a Ring cycle possibly needs at least a ring, one or two spears, a ‘tarnhelm’, a ‘forge’ … and a sword: it is not a lot to ask for. Though I suspect for some nothing is better than some of the directorial clutter at Covent Garden recently.
The singers for the four evenings seem to have been brought together on the basis of who is the best available on the night, there are different Wotans as there will be two Siegfrieds: I suspect most have worked previously for Barenboim either in Berlin or at La Scala. The common denominators are the conductor, his wonderful orchestra and just a few singers. The warm strings, expressive woodwind, totally secure brass and the overall precision of the glorious sound must make the Staatskapelle Berlin – not forgetting the always reliable ad hoc annual Bayreuth orchestra – one of the world’s best ensembles to perform Wagner. Such a great Wagner conductor could not fail to give the audience a visceral thrill in many familiar orchestra highlights, such as the Prelude, the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ and ‘Wotan’s Farewell and Fire Music’, but Barenboim seemed conflicted at times about overindulging in the glories of all this music with the tempi seeming to veer from perfectly judged to somewhat listless without any real musical justification. I have certainly heard him lead more dramatically nuanced performances of this opera in both Bayreuth and Berlin.
Also, I was surprised how his singers seemed the least of his concerns from time to time and they were occasionally overwhelmed or cast adrift, such as when Nina Stemme forgot some words near the end and Barenboim didn’t seem to realise … or care. It took a whisper from her Wotan, Bryn Terfel, to get her back on track. And what was the reason for the ‘heated discussion’ between the conductor and his concertmaster, Wolf-Dieter Batsdorf, at the end of Act II? Perhaps the stifling heat in the hall was getting to 70-year-young Barenboim as such things should really be left backstage.
Regarding the singers I was most impressed by Bryn Terfel’s authoritative Wotan who was in much fresher voice than for the recent Ring cycles at Covent Garden. Terfel uses his rich and full bass/baritone voice to imbue this role with fierce pride, self-loathing, and fatherly concern in his dealings with Fricka and Brünnhilde that is more totally human than god-like. His has great control of his wonderful voice though I wonder how many of his whispered passages that were full of genuine import in the stalls were heard in at the back of the circle seats in the vast Royal Albert Hall. For me the other standout performances were from Eric Halvarson as a brutish, glowering, Hunding and Ekaterina Gubanova’s nagging Fricka who certainly shows Wotan who is boss and brings him, literally, to his knees in reverence before her.
I didn’t feel any real chemistry between Simon O’Neill’s Siegmund and Anja Kampe’s Sieglinde who often found themselves on opposite sides of the platform. O’Neill was the least engaged in the semi-staging singing out and up to the farther reaches of the vast auditorium in front of him most of the time. Surprisingly on this occasion his tenor voice often sounded a little too light and bright for Siegmund and lacked a little heroic warmth the character needs, but his Act I ‘Wälses’ were gloriously full-throated and he was totally believable in his vehement protection of Sieglinde in Act II. At least I could understand every word he sang, unlike Anja Kampe’s Sieglinde whose German was often indecipherable to me – though this is not an unusual occurrence for a German singer singing in their own language. She will sing this role in the new Ring at Bayreuth this summer and it will be interesting to see how it is received there. Kampe sang well as far as I could hear but never brought Sieglinde to life in the way I have seen others do in the past. I am also surprised that Barenboim could not have fielded a more vocally secure and commanding gaggle of Valkyries and that probably explains why he had them high up behind the orchestra and was more content than ever to let his music do the talking at the start of Act III often drowning them out completely – at least from where I was sitting.
This leaves me with Nina Stemme’s Brünnhilde to consider and I think I will leave the final verdict until after Götterdämmerung next Sunday (there will be a review of Siegfried before that, but not by me). My initial thoughts were that as Wotan’s favourite daughter she sounds a little too matronly and similar in many ways to Susan Bullock at Covent Garden, though Stemme has far better top notes. Again her diction surprisingly was not entirely clear and many of the words were lost. The foundations of her Walküre Brünnhilde is a gloriously rich, if rather mezzo-ish, chest register that I don’t think will work well in the more strident passages in Götterdämmerung when the psychologically complex role should take her over completely – but I look forward to being proved wrong … and will say so if I am.
Die Walküre is where the Ring becomes human and this performance exuded humanity – with Barenboim on the podium could it have done anything else? – but it was only a good performance without ever reaching the heights I hoped it might.
For more about the 2013 BBC Proms visit http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms .