30 May 2013

Wagner 200th Anniversary Concert

London’s two principal opera companies have offered a baffling near-silence as their response to Wagner’s two-hundredth anniversary.

With ENO, once home to Reginald Goodall, one may delete the ‘near’; the Royal Opera has opted for a single production, in November, of Parsifal, whose casting does not exactly lift the spirits. There is certainly nothing anywhere near the composer’s birthday itself. The BBC Proms have valiantly stepped into the gap, offering concert performances of the Ring (Barenboim), Tristan und Isolde (Bychkov), Parsifal (Elder) and Tannhäuser (Runnicles). Those concerts, however, will not take place until July and August. For 22 May, London’s offering was a Philharmonia concert conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. Doubtless there was stiff competition for Wagner conductors on the day, and Chirstian Thielemann was otherwise occupied in Bayreuth, but it was difficult not to feel that someone with greater Wagerian credentials might at least have been a possibility. Bernard Haitink, for instance? Most of us would readily have swapped the aforementioned Parsifal to hear the Royal Opera’s erstwhile music director once again in Wagner.

Was I being unfair? The proof of the aural pudding would, as always, be in the hearing. Sadly, the Prelude to the first act of Die Meistersinger not its ‘Overture’, as the programme insert had it — received an account, which, if undoubtedly preferable to the straightforward incomprehension Antonio Pappano had shown conducting the entire opera at Covent Garden, proved no more than Kapellmeister-ish. Timings as such tell one nothing, but it felt rushed, often more martial than celebratory. There was certainly no sense of midsummer blaze or indeed embers. The Philharmonia strings, though many in number, sometimes tended towards wiriness. Detail was either skated or fussed over. Though there was more fire towards the close, it was really too late by then. It doubtless had not helped that, earlier in the day, I had listened to Furtwängler conducting the same music in 1931, but even taking that into account, it was an undistinguished performance.

Rather to my surprise, the Tristan excerpts worked better. I remain sceptical, to put it mildly, about the wisdom of pairing the first act Prelude and the so-called ‘Liebestod’ (Liszt’s wretched description of Isolde’s Transfiguration). Though I am well aware of the distinguished precedents - even Furtwängler and Boulez have followed the practice - to my ears it jars. That said, both conductor and orchestra were on better form. Not only was their a fuller string sound but Davis now seemed to understand, certainly to communicate, that something was at stake. He struck a good balance between forward impulse and a more analytical approach to the score. Though certainly not plumbing any Furtwänglerian metaphysical depths, it was a satisfying enough musical experience. Susan Bullock, joining for the ‘Liebestod’, held her line well enough. At some times, she shaded sensitively; at others, she proved rather squally. The Philharmonia, however, offered beautifully shimmering and pulsating support. Whoever interposed immediately with a boorish ‘Bravo!’ should be consigned to listen to Verdi for the rest of Wagner’s anniversary year.

The second half was devoted to the third act of Die Walküre. It is not the Wagner act I should have chosen in such circumstances; surely the first act of the same drama works better on its own. But we had what we had, and presumably part of the idea was to offer the popular, if generally misunderstood, ‘Ride of the Valkyries’. Davis for the most part proved a competent guide, though there were some arbitrary-sounding slowings, though he offered few if any revelations. Whilst the Philharmonia played well enough, it sounded during the ‘Magic Fire Music’ as if someone had suddenly turned on a light-switch, such was the vividness of colour hitherto lacking. (That is not simply a matter of Wagner’s wondrous scoring at the end.) There is not much to say about David Edwards’s ‘semi-staging’, save that very good use was made of a very limited space, the direction being largely a matter of having singers come on, go off, and engage with each other. That they all did well, with the exception of James Rutherford’s Wotan. An excellent touch at the end was to have Brünnhilde go up behind the stage, to the organ, to be put to sleep. Handing her a very old-fashioned helmet at that point seemed odd: neither an obvious post-modern touch nor in keeping with the neutral dress otherwise on offer. Bullock had her moments, less audibly strained than she had been recently at Covent Garden. She made a good deal of Wagner’s text, though there were moments of relative vocal weakness. One cannot really judge a Sieglinde on the basis of the third act, but Giselle Allen offered an account more hochdramtisch than lyrical; ‘O hehrstes Wunder!’ sounded rushed, but that may have been Davis’s account. At any rate, what should be ecstatic was more matter-of-fact. The Valkyries were a good bunch, a couple of them somewhat weak, but others excellent indeed; Jennifer Johnston’s Waltraute particularly stood out. Rutherford’s Wotan, however, was a disappointment. Apparently glued to the score, and none too certain with it, there was no sign whatsoever of him having internalised the role; his performance was more akin to a first rehearsal for a minor oratorio. Tone production was often rather woolly too.

Had one been coming anew to Wagner, doubtless much would have impressed, and there may well have been some in the audience who were. (There were, as one might have expected, some decidedly peculiar people in the audience. A man seated next to me insisted on filming the first half and hour or so of the Walküre act, my glares having no effect, the ushers either not noticing or not caring. When finally he put his camera away, he replaced it with a skull-capped walking-stick.) London’s anniversary contribution remained, however, surprisingly low-key. The rest of the Wagner 200 celebrations promise much more, as do the Proms.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg : Prelude to Act One; Tristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act One and ‘Liebestod’; Die Walküre: Act Three. Isolde, Brünnhilde: Susan Bullock; Sieglinde : Giselle Allen; Wotan: James Rutherford; Helmwige: Katherine Broderick; Gerhilde: Mariya Krywaniuk; Siegrune: Magdalen Ashman; Grimgerde: Antonia Sotgiu; Ortlinde: Elaine McKrill; Waltraute: Jennifer Johnston; Rossweisse: Maria Jones; Schwertleite: Miriam Sharrad. David Edwards (director); David Holmes (lighting). Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis (director). Royal Festival Hall, 22 May 2013.