United Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival  – Wagner, Götterdämmerung (in concert): Soloists, RCS (Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) Voices (director: Timothy Dean), Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 25.8.2019. (SRT)
Christine Goerke – Brünnhilde
Burkhard Fritz – Siegfried
Amber Wagner – Gutrune
Josef Wagner – Gunther
Samuel Youn – Alberich
Ain Anger – Hagen
Karen Cargill – Waltraute & Second Norn
Ronnita Miller – First Norn
Erin Wall – Third Norn
Danae Kontora – Woglinde
Catriona Morison – Wellgunde
Claudia Huckle – Flosshilde
Alles was ist endet! Four years after the first notes sounded on the Edinburgh International Festival’s Ring (in concert), it comes to a close with Götterdämmerung. This has been the hottest ticket of the whole festival – I believe it was the first thing to sell out – and there’s good reason for that.
The story so far: last year’s Siegfried from the Hallé was really good, and 2016’s Mariinsky Rheingold was perfectly fine, but the real standout up to now has been 2017’s Die Walküre featuring Scotland’s own RSNO and conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. That was such a (surprise?) success that the same team was invited back to close the deal, and the mixture of supporting the home team, plus the desire to see if they could hit the same heights as before, must have contributed to making this concert such a popular sell.
And, yes: the orchestral team were fantastic again. This an ensemble for whom concert opera is a very long way from their normal practice but, as in Die Walküre, they stormed Valhalla in the glory of their achievement. The strings shimmered, fluttered and tore their way through every scene, be it the Norns’ mist, Brünnhilde’s fire or the surging waters of the Rhine. The winds flickered through the magical flames and created a sound of austere beauty for the very opening, and the brass sounded sensational throughout, creating a wave of majesty for Brünnhilde and Siegfried’s entry in the Prologue and scarcely letting up. Invidious as it is to pick a winner, I was left continually amazed by how much the horns had to do, as well as how brilliantly they were doing it, flawlessly led by Christopher Gough, the section bearing the burden of not only the stage pictures but so much of the musical heft of this bottomless score.
And I say all this because, as before, the glory of a concert performance is that it places the orchestra centre stage and allows the audience to hear (and see) things that would normally be lost in the blend when the orchestra is corralled in the pit. I had never before noticed, for example, just how much work the violas and second violins have to do in Siegfried’s Funeral March, nor the dark flute trills that accompany Brünnhilde’s realisation of her betrayal. Who needs staging when the sound pictures are as good as this?
Or, for that matter, if the man in charge is as good as Andrew Davis? Again, Davis shows himself to be a master of Wagner’s score, controlling the ebb and flow impeccably. Only very occasionally, such as at the beginning of Hagen’s Watch, did he sound a little rushed, but he managed the great set pieces wonderfully, with a rush of emotional euphoria carefully controlled in the Funeral March or in Gunther and Brünnhilde’s entrance in Act II. Why on earth haven’t we heard more of his Wagner on this side of the Atlantic?!
The singing cast welcomed back three of the ladies in the Die Walküre cast and, truth be told, the ladies were the finer part of this cast. I have had my doubts about Christine Goerke as she sang Brünnhilde through the cycle, but her voice and her manner have matured marvellously and I found this Brünnhilde her strongest yet. She embodied the character’s journey really impressively, and her voice had the ability to cut cleanly through the huge orchestra at all the key moments. It still isn’t a luxurious voice, and there were moments were there were signs of snatching for a phrase at the top, but she still has all the notes, and the emotional charge was palpable.
Amber Wagner and Karen Cargill, the other returnees, were just as fine. Amber Wagner shares Goerke’s ability to cut through the orchestral texture, and if her Gutrune is something of a fire-eater then at least she holds her own in this company. Karen Cargill’s Waltraute was a marvel, though. Her rich mezzo voice, redolent with emotional meaning, told the gods’ backstory with majestic colour and unarguable depth, every word carrying extraordinary layers of meaning. She and Goerke struck sparks off each other, both in their singing and in their acting, and that made their scene the highlight of the whole performance.
If there is a problem with concert stagings then it often comes when the orchestra, sharing the stage with the singers rather than confined to the pit, overwhelms the balance and drowns the singers, and that was a problem with the men. Burkhard Fritz had all the tessitura for Siegfried, but he struggled to project and could be lost in the melee. Even Ain Anger, whose sepulchral bass is perfect for Hagen, struggled to be heard at times, perhaps due to his bizarre tendency to sing into his hand held just below his chin. Josef Wagner’s Gunther, on the other hand, sang his part with energy, and Samuel Youn’s superstar Alberich acted and sang with vigorous malice. The young singers of RCS Voices sang the choral parts with accuracy and energy. The trios of Norns and Rhinemaidens were both superb: it is saying something about the prestige of the project when you have superstars like Erin Wall and Catriona Morrison hidden in their ranks.
So the Ring comes to an end, and so does the 2019 Edinburgh International Festival. It has been a strong year, with some high profile guests like Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic, and the Orchestre de Paris, not to mention some top soloists like Angela Hewitt and the Kanneh-Masons. The opera programme has been limited but strong this year, with a superb Eugene Onegin, a good Manon Lescaut and an exciting European premiere in Breaking the Waves. I also loved the James MacMillan focus. Their performance of Quickening, together with this Götterdämmerung, combine to make me nominate the RSNO as the champions of this year’s festival. They are playing sensationally well at the minute, and I cannot wait to see how next season unfolds. Snapping at their heels, however, are a Scottish Chamber Orchestra that is about to get its own lightning rod, Maxim Emelyanychev, as their new Principal Conductor, with potentially rejuvenating consequences. Let’s see what happens but, whatever the outcome, this is definitely a great time to be a music-lover in Scotland.