PROM 20: Barenboim’s Ring Reaches its Climactic Conclusion

29/07/2013

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 20, Wagner, Götterdämmerung: Soloists, Royal Opera Chorus, Staatskapelle Berlin / Daniel Barenboim (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London 28.7.2013. (JPr)

 

Prom 20  Photo  Credit BBC Christodoulo

Prom 20
Credit BBC /Christodoulo

Photo

Cast:

Nina Stemme soprano (Brünnhilde)
Andreas Schager tenor (Siegfried)
Mikhail Petrenko bass (Hagen)
Gerd Grochowski baritone (Gunther)
Anna Samuil soprano (Gutrune/ Third Norn)
Johannes Martin Kränzle baritone (Alberich)
Waltraud Meier mezzo-soprano (Waltraute/ Second Norn)
Margarita Nekrasova mezzo-soprano, Proms debut artist (First Norn)
Aga Mikolaj soprano (Woglinde)
Maria Gortsevskaya mezzo-soprano (Wellgunde)
Anna Lapkovskaja mezzo-soprano, Proms debut artist (Flosshilde)

Production:
Justin Way (stage director)

At the end of this Götterdämmerung, marking the close of the BBC Proms’ first complete Ring cycle in a single season, Daniel Barenboim addressed the Proms audience to thank them for ‘what you went through with us, this is something I never dreamt of … the communion between musicians and public depends not only on us but also on you, and you have brought so much silence!’ (To listen to his impromptu speech please visit: BarenboimSpeech.) So by not leaving the last word to the composer, this farewell from Barenboim to his year’s Proms confirmed this was almost as much his Ring as Wagner’s.

I only heard (and saw) Die Walküre (my review  and this Götterdämmerung: it was undoubtedly a stunning achievement for a London audience to be able to experience over a short period of time Wagner’s epic tetralogy at reasonable prices for the first time since 1998. Of course with Barenboim leading the exceptional Staatskapelle Berlin the music-making could only have been of the highest order and together they lived up to expectations once again in the pivotal moments, despite the horns maybe having a slightly off-night. Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, his Funeral Music or the incandescent musical absolution that is the ending of the work can rarely have sounded more glorious in the concert hall.

The mighty outbursts of the Gibichung vassals in Act II also was quite special because of the involvement of the lusty voices of the Royal Opera Chorus, however my best moments of the operas I saw were generally when the voices didn’t intrude to spoil it for me. As before, occasionally ennui set in from time to time, notably the brief orchestral interlude that dragged us from the hall of the Gibichungs back to Brünnhilde’s rocky summit. So whilst the orchestral playing was often quite exceptional – please do not buy into some of the hype that these were possibly the greatest Wagner performances ever.

Here at the end of the Ring there is a cleansing of the old order and the purging – though the power of love and the sacrifice of ‘the eternal woman’ Brünnhilde – of the curse which has mired humankind in misery. At this point of the evening the lights around the Royal Albert Hall came on more as if to emphasise the future is in our hands – the future of both the World we currently live in and will leave behind. It also emphasised how Wagner’s music is received now the horror of WWII – for which the long-dead composer was made guilty of by association – is even more of a faded memory.

When is a semi-staging a genuine one came mind, as with everyone fully committed to putting on a show the evening was, surprisingly, dramatically convincing? How much the stage director, Justin Way, had to do with this I’m not sure: experienced singers are fully capable of working things out like this for themselves but I guess someone needed to coordinate the lightning and the exits and entrances and so Way succeeded better here than in Walküre. Certainly as everyone has become more aware of the problematic acoustics of the Royal Albert Hall placing Siegfried and Brünnhilde behind the bust of Sir Henry Wood in the organ loft was a great idea and from there she sang her final address and took leave of the human world. Crucially this meant that especially during the final scene Barenboim could reign in his accompaniment and not drown out his singer in the ensuing tumult. Also, there had been some great interaction between the Rhine daughters who sang from the back of the platform with Siegfried searching for where the noise was coming from, at the front by the conductor.

Some of my moaning about Walküre (and all opera at the Proms) could not be addressed at short notice such as a lack of surtitles that gets more ludicrous as the years pass – just think of how many trees were cut down to print the bulky librettos on the night – and even then the BBC often do not produce enough and frequently sell out so I am told. Then there is the matter of those lighting panels behind the orchestra that could have been used much more atmospherically in these operas – quite what glimpses of the Royal Albert Hall had to do with the Ring I wasn’t sure, but all we got were intermittent – and often arbitrary – changes to a panoramic starscape, a blue sky with while clouds, hints of water or flickering fire, as deemed appropriate. There was a total lack of imagination here which was disappointing considering how long ago these performance must have been planned. (With help I could have done a lot better – here I am if anyone wants me!)

I have never heard Andreas Schager before or read much about him but his performance as Siegfried was absolutely as great as Bryn Terfel’s Wotan a few evenings earlier. I had heard Lance Ryan sing the role in Berlin and his voice is more suited to Loge and although Schager is a former David in Die Meistersinger – and still has that sound – there is a depth and range to his voice that Ryan, for me, totally lacks. He bounded around with endearing wide-eyed enthusiasm often playing to the audience with raised eyebrows and a quizzical look on his face and he swept Gutrune into his arms at the first opportunity. His voice is lyrical, tireless but occasionally, for now, Schager gets a little too caught up in throwing himself into the story that he runs out of breath. As an Austrian he can communicate the meaning of every word and I certainly want to see him again. I hope he never changes this fresh approach to Siegfried that can go a long way to demystifying how difficult it is to act or to sing.

Surrounding him was some good casting and some miscasting. Firstly what an excellent trio of Rhine daughters we were presented with (Aga Mikolaj, Maria Gortsevskaya and Anna Lapkovskaja). Johannes Martin Kränzle’s Alberich has little to do and his voice seemed small for the Royal Albert Hall but he made a good impression. Waltraud Meier brought us some reminiscences as Second Norn and her commanding vignette as Waltraute of what an incomparable Wagnerian she was in her prime. Alongside her and also doubling as Third Norn and Gutrune, Anna Samuil, revealed an occasionally tremulous and fragile voice. Gerd Grochowski sounded too dark for Gunther and perversely Mikhail Petrenko was a rather light-voiced, blustery Hagen. (Note to casting directors: these two fine singers would be heard to much better effect if they swopped these roles.)

This bring me finally to Nina Stemme who acted impeccably whether it was the first flush of burgeoning love, scorn at Wotan’s plight, anger at her own predicament or her emotional leave-taking. However my Wagner goes back to the larger-scale and often more heroic sounds of Birgit Nilsson, Gwyneth Jones and Rita Hunter. These were true soprano voices with great reserves of power, a bit of steel and piercing high notes. More recently Deborah Polaski was another who excelled as Brünnhilde. For Paris’s Opéra Bastille in May Götterdämmerung brought to the stage Petra Lang’s Valkyrie for the first time. She has a marvellous range that goes from contralto depths to a youthful bright top that brings you to the edge of your seat through her totally involvement with the character. Nina Stemme’s vocal performance was more grounded in feminine, slightly thick mezzo-like tones with careful, totally secure, added top Cs. Stemme’s Brünnhilde took no risks and she seems temperamentally unable to go to that ‘edge’ and beyond in this role on stage, though it was all perfectly fine for this concert performance, or for a recording studio.

Anyway I suspect Wagner would never have really believed he could change the world with his Ring and equally I will not dispel all the hype surrounding these performances in one review. Having been chair of the Wagner Society in the days when performances of Wagner were few and far between (but often had the best singers) I am still thrilled by all this interest in the composer in his bicentenary year, through what has happened so far at the 2013 BBC Proms ..… with more yet to come!

Jim Pritchard

For more about the 2013 BBC Proms visit http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms .

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