PROM 18:The Third Thrilling Instalment of The Ring at The Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom PROM 18. Wagner Siegfried: Soloists, Berlin Staatskapelle, Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 26.7.2013 (CC)

Prom 18 Photo Credit: BBC/ Chris Christodoulou_1
Prom 18 Photo Credit: BBC/ Chris Christodoulou

Cast:

Lance Ryan (tenor): Siegfried
Peter Bronder (tenor): Mime
Nina Stemme (soprano): Brünnhilde
Terje Stensvold (baritone): Wanderer
Johannes Martin Kränzle (baritone): Alberich
Eric Halfvarson (bass) Fafner
Rinnat Moriah (soprano): Woodbird
Anna Larsson (contralto): Erda

 

Production:

Stage Director: Justin Way

The second day of the Ring – if one counts Rheingold as a “Vorabend” – a “preludial evening” – is given over to the youth, Siegfried. Siegfried is in some ways the most difficult part of the Ring – for listener as well as performers. Part comedy, it is nevertheless steeped in legend and thus takes on more of the character of a brothers Grimm tale. (Although the source for Siegfried is primarily the Edda, the fairytale element is unmistakable – a talking dragon, malevolent dwarves, a twittering but nevertheless understandable bird of the forest …). The Wanderer speaks of German Romanticism writ large, exploring the sub/unconscious (the symbol of the forest); the exultant, ecstatic finale brings about the (for now) fairytale happy ending when Siegfried couples with his (half) aunt, a mere whiff, of course, of the full-blown incest of Walküre. This heady mix is what makes Siegfried so unutterably, and eternally, fascinating. The trajectory of the music-drama is thus from the comedy of the opening scene (the boy who communes with a bear and torments Mime) via the philosophical explorations of the Wanderer through to the wild and unbridled exultation of the final scene (this latter in performance terms is one of the most unfair in opera: Siegfried has been singing his heart out for much of the evening and in walks Brünnhilde, fresh as a daisy).

Incidentally, if the relationships between the characters of the Ring seem confusing, there is a remarkable online resource for this.

The splendour, the glory, of this performance was the Staatskapelle Berlin, of which Barenboim was appointed conductor for life in 2000. The players seem to be an extension of Barenboim’s self, such is the rapport. Although I have never been a fan of Barenboim’s recorded Ring (which incidentally made it to Blu-Ray in March this year), there seems of late to be an interpretative blossoming. On the evidence of this Siegfried and the 2013 Proms Rheingold and Walküre, which I have been lucky enough to catch in broadcast, there is a new maturity to Barenboim. He thinks in large paragraphs, and yet the attention to detail is simply stunning. He is known to admire Furtwängler, a conductor who early on spotted the special in the young Barenboim, and at last he appears to have learnt from his master. The ability to think on the large scale imbues the music with its special sense of inevitability, while his attention to local detail was massively impressive. This was no ponderous Siegfried: Mime’s playfulness was beautifully done with the lightest of touches. The orchestral timbre shifted beautifully for the Wanderer’s lines and questions in the first act, deepening and becoming ever more burnished; Mime’s accompaniment, jumpy and agile in contrast, was similarly rendered with a feeling of complete truth. The whole first act seemed to move towards Siegfried’s answer to Mime’s question, “Was willst du noch heut mit dem Schwert?”/What would you do with the sword today? The two orchestral members who must surely be singled out though are the tuba player, Thomas Keller (magnificently malevolent) and the solo horn of Stefan Dohr, whose call was so memorable and delivered from the stage action area, where Siegfried could interact delightfully with him. It was nice of Barenboim to give Dohr a special round of applause at the beginning of the third act.

Lance Ryan’s Siegfried has already been considered on Seen & Heard, in a 2011 Frankfurt performance. He appears to be the Siegfried du jour, and he has the stamina, certainly. It is, perhaps, stage presence that he lacks, especially in comparison in the first act with his Mime, the excellent tenor, Peter Bronder. Mime is a difficult part to get right, and Bronder succeeded perfectly. Fussy and repellant, Bronder maintained a sort of hunched and bow-legged stance throughout that emphasised his wheedling aspect. The clipped vocal delivery was perfect. Bronder’s voice, shadings and grasp of the text – his diction exemplary – all supported a major assumption. He was not lacking in power when necessary, either (“O undankbares, arges Kind!”).

Ryan’s Forging Song was perhaps not the most Heldentenorisch, but it seemed to encapsulate the youthful innocence of the hero, and Barenboim was careful not to overwhelm him without losing any of the music’s power (Barenboim actually stopped conducting at one point), letting the music’s momentum carry itself forward). It was, really, in the second act when Ryan seemed to have warmed up, his reading perhaps reaching its climax in the forest scene around Waldweben (“Forest Murmurs”). The role of the Woodbird was superbly and freshly delivered by Rinnt Moriah who was positioned at the extreme top left of the auditorium and yet was instantly audible.

The vital role of the Wanderer was taken by baritone Terje Stensvold, impressively sonorous and yet a remarkably human god, one that we could sympathise with, and one that most definitely did not exude omnipotence. Stensvold’s movements were often rather stilted, though, which was a shame as the voice itself held plenty of dramatic awareness. His tormented Alberich was the superb baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle, miraculously dark of tone. Alberich’s meeting with the Wanderer found Stensvold’s responses somewhat wanting – more vocal gravitas perhaps should have been the order of the day; similarly, Stensvold’s exhortations to Fafner to awake were, well, rather weedy; in comparison, his final act “Weckruf” – Wotan’s alliterative response to Erda’s “Weiche, Wotan, Weiche” from Rheingold – was better. Fafner, offstage at first, was the brilliantly strong bass Eric Halfvarson, full of irritation and menace: as I say, where else would one find a petulant dragon but in a fairytale?. Anna Larsson was an impeccable wise-woman Erda, completely within the role.

As Brünnhilde, Nina Stemme was absolutely radiant of voice, powerful yet not shrill, impeccable of pitch, her open-throated “Heil euch, Götter” a true high point. It was clear that as she sang at full tilt, surely no orchestra on earth could drown her; and yet her tone did not break. Her rising ecstasy seemed to take Ryan to the top of his game. As the duet between Brünnhilde and Siegfried intensified, it was interesting to note Barenboim’s minimal gestures, as if to allow his vocalists full flight over the orchestra. As for the stage direction, bathing the auditorium in light is an old – and hackneyed – trick, but a forgivable one in context here, perhaps. A pity there was a slight aberration on Stemme’s final, crowning note, but in the context of the overall sweep of the performance this was a minor matter.

As far as the staging went, projections on the strip at the back of the stage changed from scene to scene, beginning with a green, forest-like aspect. Two tiny anvils graced the stage in Act 1, one on each side. A blue light shone onto the front of the stage for Alberich’s Second Act monologue (“Im Wald und Nacht”) – actually a Wagner stage direction after his first statement. The whole area of the stage and beyond was well used, as were the projections onto the back of the stage.

This was an astonishing evening in many respects. That this Ring is a major event is without doubt.

Colin Clarke