Intriguing Pairing of Wagner and Rachmaninoff Fails to Work in Practice

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner and Rachmaninoff a semi-staged concert directed by Annabel Arden: Soloists, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 21.1.2015. (JPr)

Natalya Romaniw: Woglinde
Rowan Hellier: Wellgunde
Harriet Williams: Flosshilde
Sergei Leiferkus: Alberich/Baron
Vsevolod Grivnov: Loge/Albert
Maxim Mikhailov: Wotan/Servant
Peter Bronder: Froh/Moneylender
Albert Shagidullin: Duke/Donner
Annabel Arden director
Lucy Carter lighting designer
Joanna Parker designer


Wagner – Excerpts from Das Rheingold
RachmaninoffThe Miserly Knight (opera in three scenes)

The London Philharmonic Orchestra’s principal conductor and artistic advisor, Vladimir Jurowski, wrote in his introduction in the programme how the works we were to hear (part of the ongoing Rachmaninoff: Inside Out series) might be connected: ‘There is a direct parallel between Rachmaninoff’s Baron and Wagner’s Alberich – the man who curses love in order to obtain riches and then perishes as a result of that curse. Of course there are massive Wagnerian influences in the orchestration too, which – particularly in the Baron’s central scene – is dominated by low woodwind and low strings, and bursts with dark, gloomy colours. The harmonic language is appropriately dark too, full of dissonant clashes, which is also typical of the musical vocabulary of Das Rheingold.

 At the end of their honeymoon in 1902 Sergei and Natalia Rachmaninoff arrived in Bayreuth and saw Der fliegende Holländer, Parsifal and The Ring. The next year he began to write The Miserly Knight setting to music – almost word-for-word – one of what are described as Pushkin’s ‘little tragedies’. Wagner was clearly on his mind and his compositional style was more symphonic with greater prominence being given to the orchestra. There are the shimmering tones in the introduction that hint at the otherworldly beginning of Das Rheingold; as the avaricious Baron guards his own horde of gold in his cellar we hear something of Fafner and when he mentions ‘nymphs’ the music skirts over Wagner’s Rhinemaidens’ leitmotif.

 This was an interesting pairing of the little-performed The Miserly Knight with the more-familiar Das Rheingold and is the type of innovative programming that I have suggested for many years. One composer is familiar with another’s work and the stories are connected by their dissection of how human nature – and in Wagner’s story Nature with a capital ‘N’ – can be corrupted by the loveless greed for wealth and power. Unfortunately the overall artistic failure of the event must lie with Jurowski, who was responsible for the musically unfortunate editing of Das Rheingold, and with his director Annabel Arden – who staged The Miserly Knight for him at Glyndebourne in 2004 – for the mishmash of semi-staging with which we were presented for both the Wagner and Rachmaninoff. Unless you were there you could not truly appreciate that what was seen did not really look as though it needed a director, lighting designer, design consultant and production stage manager as listed in the programme. A concert of Wagner’s music doesn’t usually bring aficionados out in any great numbers because it is not ‘the real thing’. And so it seemed with this pairing of Das Rheingold with The Miserly Knight as there were many tickets unsold in the run-up to the performance. Nevertheless, the Royal Festival Hall was somehow comfortably full by the time Jurowski took the podium.

 Das Rheingold was played out with Alberich mostly behind the orchestra and the bare-footed flirtatious Rhinemaidens above in the choir seats The only connection was when occasionally a leg was dangled down for the Nibelung to indulge in a bit of foot-fetishism. There was nothing new from the lighting: it was bluey-green for the Rhine and the Rhinegold was given a suitable golden glow. Eventually Alberich makes his play for the gold, spreads his arms wide … and that was it. Then we had some of Das Rheingold’s ‘best bits’ cobbled together, including the Descent and Ascent to and from Nibelheim before giving us the ‘Entry of the Gods into Valhalla’ from the end of the opera minus two lines from Fricka … that must have been deemed impossible for one of the three female to sing. Here all sense of semi-staging was abandoned: the singers were placed around the choir seats with a couple using music stands and there was no colourful lighting whatever.

 The opening of Das Rheingold should be barely audible and transport the listener to the dawn of time but I remained very much in the present despite the efforts of a blameless London Philharmonic Orchestra. The waters of the Rhine seemed more agitated than lilting and the drama between Alberich and the Rhinemaidens more transparent with the undercurrent of physical violence less potent. The ups and down to Nibelheim were not helped by the ten valiant off-stage percussionists making their contribution sound too rhythmical rather like the ticking of a clock. There was some majesty to the ‘Entry of the Gods’ but it was undermined by some poor singing from an ensemble not overly-familiar with their roles. Earlier the veteran Sergei Leiferkus – who would repeat his Baron for Jurowski in The Miserly Knight – deployed his gravelly voice to good effect as a sour and hectoring Alberich, Natalya Romaniw (Woglinde), Rowan Hellier (Wellgunde) and Harriet Williams (Flosshilde) sang well together but were not so secure individually.

 Pushkin’s original story of a Scrooge-like father and his feckless, indebted son, was not intended to be performed. It is a bitter, bleak, psychological tale of unpleasant self-absorbed characters but I realised the unfolding tragedy had taken an inexorable grip on me at the end of its 60 minutes. However, should it actually be performed in 2015 because I doubt there is a more stereotypically racist depiction of a Jew in opera than Pushkin/Rachmaninoff’s Moneylender? It makes any anti-Semitism associated with Wagner pale in comparison. As staged by Annabel Arden and performed by Peter Bronder (earlier a disappointing Froh) it was as if we were watching Shylock singing an excerpt from The Merchant of Venice-The Musical. As a late replacement for an originally advertised artist it was not Bronder’s fault that he was restricted to a desk so he could sing from his score. The Baron (the Knight of the title) is avarice personified and has a long monologue in Scene 2 that Rachmaninoff originally conceived with Chaliapin’s voice in mind though he never created the role because he had not learnt it in time. Intriguingly Leiferkus – who has sung it before – sat behind at an elaborate writing desk with ledgers on top that could hide his own reliance on his score. So Annabel Arden’s attempt at semi-staging was undermined in many ways before she began. I suspect it is a fairly claustrophobic, rather intimate, piece that got a little lost in the vast space of the Royal Festival’s Hall despite having the Servant and the Baron enter through the auditorium.

 Not all conductors can master Wagner – though nearly all think they can – and Jurowski was much more successful with Rachmaninoff and its insistent atmospheric music that clearly anticipates the Symbolism of Béla Bartók’s 1911 Duke Bluebeard’s Castle.  Fine singing from Maxim Mikhailov as the Servant and Vsevolod Grivnov as the Baron’s son, Albert, banished memories of their misfiring Wotan and Loge earlier. Albert Shagidullin (a dismal Donner) was a suitably noble Duke, who rebukes the Baron, and banishes the son from his court. It is the stress of this confrontation which triggers the Baron’s fatal collapse. As he dies his last thought is not for his son, but the keys to his chests of gold. For some reason Annabel Arden has the Baron shadowed throughout by the three ‘Rhinemaidens’ from earlier in the evening though there are no women roles in The Miserly Knight. Strangely they never get the keys and seem to die along with the Baron. What was not in doubt was Sergei Leiferkus’s triumph as the parsimonious Baron – his voice has a unique timbre and use of diction that has rarely sounded as appropriate as when he was growling through during his long rambling monologue.

 Jim Pritchard

For more about the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s future concerts this season and in 2015/16 visit