Das Rheingold is a triumphant start to the LPO/Jurowski Ring

United KingdomUnited Kingdom LPO: A Golden Gala Evening – Wagner, Das Rheingold: Soloists, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 27.1.2018. (CC)

Sofia Fomina (Woglinde), Rowan Hellier (Wellgunde) & Lucie Špičková (Flosshilde) (c) Simon Jay Price

Woglinde – Sofia Fomina
Wellgunde – Rowan Hellier
Flosshilde – Lucie Špičková
Freia – Lyubov Petrova
Fricka – Michelle DeYoung
Erda – Anna Larsson
Froh – Allan Clayton
Loge – Vsevolod Grivnov
Wotan – Matthias Goerne
Donner – Stephen Gadd
Fasolt – Matthew Rose
Fafner – Brindley Sherratt
Mime – Adrian Thompson
Alberich – Robert Hayward

Lighting Designer – Martin Rippeth
Deputy Stage Manager – Katie Thackeray

‘The first 10 years’ is the heading of one of the sections of the luxury programme accompanying this performance of Das Rheingold. Together, the LPO and Jurowski have championed Schnittke (Between Two Worlds, 2009), presented Enescu’s Oedipe (review), concentrated on Beethoven, Nono and Schoenberg (Juxtapositions, 2012): and that is just the beginning of the list.

In another booklet essay, Jurowski tracks his journey to the Ring (which will be presented one segment a year for four years, starting now). ‘It’s been a long journey towards understanding and learning to love Wagner’ he says; the patience inherent in this comment speaks volumes. Jurowski, like Boulez, has tackled Wagner backwards, as it were, staring from the Bühnenweihfestspiel that is Parsifal, through Tristan (which I was lucky enough to experience with Jurowski at the helm at Glyndebourne), then Meistersinger. Excerpts only from Rheingold followed in 2015, and so the die was cast for the Ring. Soloists over the four performances (and years), we are assured, will be as consistent as possible.

This was a semi-staged production. Katie Thackeray was listed as ‘Deputy Stage Manager’. Lighting (Martin Rippeth) played a huge part in creating atmospheres, sparing use of spotlighting making it all the more effective. The real atmosphere creation came from the orchestra though, on blazing form under Jurowski’s very clear, minimal gestures. The famous Prelude, taken swiftly, established his approach. Fast, yes, but with no loss of impact or (pardon the pun, given this is the Rhine) depth: we were very much thrown in the deep end. The sense of suspension of time was there before the entry of the horns, as was the sense of a time before, or perhaps parallel to, history itself, mainly achieved through chthonic double-basses that one felt through the body as well as heard with the ears. The horn E flat arpeggios that grow from the horn’s lowest register like tree trunks from roots were exemplary; rarely have I heard such consistent execution by the whole section, in effect a panel of eight equal horns. Antiphonal violins enabled Wagner’s contrapuntal interplays to achieve maximal impact, while antiphonal percussion (in awe-inspiring crescendo) brought Alberich’s lair viscerally to life. The whole work was in fact impeccably sculpted by Jurowski, his sense of detail just as keen as his projection of the structure. The first arrival at the Rhinemaiden’s cry of ‘Rheingold’ was slightly held back; Jurowski’s eye was on the bigger picture. Occasionally (infrequently) this led to Jurowski not giving enough space to lines; yet at others the level of surface detail, particularly in the strings, was nothing short of miraculous. Leader Pieter Schoeman’s brief solo contributions were superb.

The cast includes some top international stars, including some familiar faces from the UK concert and opera scene (Matthew Rose, Brindley Sherratt). The Rhinemaidens were three well-differentiated voices. Sofia Fomina, who starred as Gilda in Rigoletto at Covent Garden recently, was a fresh Woglinde; Anglo-Czech mezzo Lucie Špičková was a full-voiced Flosshilde, and Rowan Hellier a excellent Wellgunde. Spread around the back of the stage for the opening scene with Alberich, their final lament in Scene 4 was delivered from through the door at the back of the stage. Alberich himself was taken by the wonderful bass-baritone Robert Hayward, superbly inside the role, his greed for power and gold palpable, his entry into the Rhinemaiden’s watery Eden superbly weighted; the Mime of Adrian Thompson was his perfect complement in the third scene.

Scene Two brings us the Head God (Wotan) and his wife. It also brought some of the finest brass playing to have graced London’s stages in recent years, the dignified creaminess of the opening perfectly balanced. Much rehearsal there, for sure. And it brought the first surprise of the night. While Michelle De Young’s Fricka is all one might expect from this great singer, full-voiced, fully at one with each and every word and with a commanding sense of line, Matthias Goerne’s Wotan moved between nondescript and even against the spirit of the score. ‘Vollendet das ewige Werk!’ was decidedly beautified, its meaning to Wotan obscured in a clear concentration on the phrasal shape (perhaps a result of a Lieder background?). Goerne was the only cast member to use music; and yet he has recorded this role (opposite DeYoung, as well, and Jaap van Zweden’s Hong Kong PO, available on Naxos). In comparison with his Fricka, he often felt dramatically limited, often score-bound, and only really warming into the role towards the end of the piece. In comparison with DeYoung’s imperious manner, it was clear who wore the trousers in this particular deity relationship. DeYoung’s character had so many nuances; her ‘Wotan! Gemahl,’ for instance, was shot through with pain.

As Freia, soprano Lyubov Petrova caught all of the vulnerability of this character. It is difficult to imagine a greater pair of giants in Rose and Sherratt’s Fasolt and Fafner. Dressed in braces, ready for the payment for their work, they not only owned the stage individually but worked perfectly together musically. Our Loge was Russian tenor Vsevolod Grivnov, a change of artist from the originally announced cast. Commendably refusing to ham it up (he has the voice and acting abilities to do so, clearly) the fire demigod Loge sat not just in the middle between Gods and Man but between Gods, Man and Nature: he is guide, bargainer, reasoner but also, like Donner and Froh, a master of an element. He is Master of Ceremonies, but also Master of Contradictions, his fiery Martial energy forward-moving and positive, his obstructive elements (Where is he? wonders Wotan) bringing a balancing Saturnian slant. He is one of the most fascinating figures from this perspective, and painting him as a caricature, as so many performances do, does him no favours. Grivnov’s assumption of the role allowed Loge the multifaceted depth he deserves: ‘Immer ist Undank Loges Lohn’ seems an inevitability of his existence, yet we feel his brilliance also. He is Light-Bringer, as Fire Demigod; but another ‘Light Bringer’ is of course, from another tradition (and they are all interlinked), Lucifer. He is far from one-sided. Brilliantly done.

It was luxury casting to have Anna Larsson, one of the finest Erdas around today. Like DeYoung, she has a presence that fills the concert hall before a note is sung; and when she sings, she admits of no alternative interpretation. One just feels this is the right way. Donner’s weather-commanding invocation held all the power it needed in this reading by Stephen Gadd, and Allan Clayton (who took the lead in Brett Dean’s Hamlet to great acclaim at Glyndebourne this year) made the role of Froh really count.

The evening was a triumph, the orchestra on absolutely top form. Jurowski clearly believes in every note of this score. Now we have to wait a whole year for Die Walküre

Colin Clarke

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