United Kingdom Wagner, Götterdämmerung (concert performance): Soloists, Saffron Opera Group Chorus and Orchestra / Michael Thorne (conductor). Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden, Essex, 17.9.2017. (JPr)
Elaine McKrill – Brünnhilde
Jonathan Stoughton – Siegfried
Julian Close – Hagen
Charles Johnston – Gunther
Cara McHardy – Gutrune
Deborah Humble – Waltraute
Nicholas Folwell – Alberich
Emma Curtis – First Norn
Harriet Williams – Second Norn
Catrin Aur – Third Norn
Rachel Chapman – Woglinde
Victoria Simmons – Wellgunde
Niamh Kelly – Flosshilde
Although I said this in previous reviews, I need to restate that the enormity of Saffron Opera’s task in putting on the Ring must not be underestimated. It has in the past defeated the English National Opera amongst others, like myself, who have tried to tackle it. In their programme it was revealed how this opera alone cost more that £45,000 to put on, and so being able to finance that – and keep ticket prices down to a modest level – was a remarkable achievement.
The driving forces behind this project has been its co-founders Paul Garland and Francis Lambert, as well as, conductor Michael Thorne, a passionate Wagnerian. Thorne is a retired academic and although he has always, it seems, mixed academia with music, he can now devote himself even more fully to it. Since 2001 he has conducted an opera each year – including two complete cycles of the Ring – in Portobello Town Hall in Edinburgh, and this year it will be Elektra. There rising young singers take the leading roles together with local soloists and chorus. For the performances at Saffron Hall, there has always been a judicious blend of talented younger voices with more seasoned professionals. One of those involved in Thorne’s Edinburgh performances from the early days is international soprano Elaine McKrill who has been casting advisor for this Ring and sang Brünnhilde.
The good thing about Götterdämmerung is that its plot – by Wagner standards – is basically straightforward and since there is so much retelling of what’s happened before, no one was particularly disadvantaged if this was the only one of the Ring operas they could get to. Valhalla is already crumbling by the time Siegfried arrives among the Gibichungs and the intrigues, the fight between good and evil – with the unwitting complicity of Siegfried and sizeable plot holes – unfolds over nearly five hours of music. Eventually it is the end of everything and there is the chance for a fresh start.
This was a concert performance with most of the cast needing the safety net of their score on the music stands. Nevertheless, there were a couple of props – such as the all-important ring and a small goblet – and some interaction between the singers. There could have been even more done to ‘tell the tale’. Especially at the end of Act I, some of the audience must have been confused why Siegfried was now Gunther without both being there at the same time; and the Rhinemaidens could have reappeared at the end to make more sense of Hagen’s ‘Zurück vom Ring!’. Minor quibbles undoubtedly but this would have made the experience for the uninitiated watching just a little better.
Occasionally the voices seemed overwhelmed by the waves of Wagner’s richly textured score. However, for the most part – under the guidance of the always cajoling Michael Thorne – there was a satisfying balance. The Saffron Opera Orchestra played commendably well though the horns – which are crucial to this opera – were rather hit or miss at times. Orchestral colour – rather than pace – seemed Thorne’s priority throughout, and, despite my reservations above, musical standards have increased with the operas I have attended at Saffron Hall. Even for a fully-professional orchestra – which this one was not – Götterdämmerung is a massive undertaking and it obviously taxed them to their limits in every sense. Nevertheless, the air of community pride from all involved – and in the audience’s reaction – fully justified the endeavour. Valiant as they were, a stronger chorus will be required for Parsifal.
Brünnhilde, more perhaps than Siegfried, is the dramatic and emotional lynchpin of Götterdämmerung, indeed of the Ring itself, and Elaine McKrill’s experience showed as she never let the role’s emotions get out of hand or become the substitute for some cultured singing. The drama was all in the voice and when it came to the ‘Immolation Scene’ she proved herself a consummate storyteller. It was the quiet pathos she brought to her singing which stood out rather than any visceral vocal excitement.
Siegfried falls into the traps set for him by the scheming amoral Gibichungs much too readily and he must come across as guileless. Jonathan Stoughton did this well, and when his heroic tenor voice matures he will be much in demand as Siegfried. At present he sounds more naturally an Erik, Siegmund, Lohengrin or Parsifal. His voice darkened as the opera went on and it basically has a bright, silvery, lyrical quality that reminds me a little of Klaus Florian Vogt.
Julian Close was the very embodiment of villainy as Hagen and his cavernous voice was as black as his scheming character’s heart. I hope he will forgive me if I remark I would have liked to hear a few more of his words. Charles Johnston’s intelligent performance made much of his thoroughly dislikeable character, Gunter, and brought back memories of Norman Bailey in this role. Nicholas Folwell’s brief appearance as Alberich was as impeccable as those who know him have come to expect over the years. Deborah Humble impressed as an almost psychotic Waltraute and her encounter with Brünnhilde was a high point of this Götterdämmerung for me. Cara McHardy as Gutrune actually seemed to be auditioning for Brünnhilde. She was the one singer who really lived her role and her flighty man-eater might not have been Wagner’s Gutrune, but I enjoyed her performance. The team of Norns (Emma Curtis, Harriet Williams and Catrin Aur) – though textually aware – were just a little uneven, but the Rhinemaidens (Rachel Chapman, Victoria Simmons and Niamh Kelly) were a brilliantly matched trio.
As the blurb in the programme reminded us all: ‘Saffron Opera Group was formed in 2013, and has very quickly developed an enviable reputation for producing first class performances. As we reach the climax of our first Ring Cycle, following Die Meistersinger and The Rake’s Progress, we have even greater ambitions for the future.’ Those plans include a performance of Parsifal next September and I am sure many of those brought to their feet at the end of this Götterdämmerung will want to be there again.