30 Jul 2013

Prom 20: Wagner — Götterdämmerung

By the end of the first act, I was convinced that, barring a catastrophe of, well, Götterdämmerung-like proportions, this would now turn out to be the greatest Ring since Bernard Haitink’s 1998 Royal Opera performances— also semi-staged, also at the Royal Albert Hall.

And so it came to pass. Not only did we continue to hear superlative conducting from Daniel Barenboim and equally superlative playing from the Staatskapelle Berlin. (To guard my back, unlike Siegfried, I shall mention in passing very occasional signs of tiredness towards the end, if only so as not to have to return to such Beckmesserish thoughts.) We also at last heard a Siegfried and Brünnhilde worthy of the roles. Götterdämmerung, by virtue of its placing as the third ‘day’ of the Ring, should always be a special occasion, though sadly that is anything but a foregone conclusion; this performance, however went beyond ‘special’, to ‘great’.

The weight of history was apparent in those portentous opening chords to the Norns’ Scene, but so was sonorous magic. Wagner’s goal-orientation is not Beethoven’s, though it is not diametrically opposed either; Barenboim’s guiding of this crucial scene opened up possibilities rather than closing them, whilst at the same time ensuring that the drama’s tragic import won out. The bassoon line following the Second Norn’s ‘...woran spannst du das Seil?’ sounded as if it were itself the guiding thread of the Norns’ rope of Fate. More often than one might expect, conductors misjudge Wagner’s climaxes; often, indeed, they try to introduce irrelevant climaxes of their own. There was no such danger here, the outbreak of Dawn judged to perfection, the Staatskapelle Berlin in truly glorious sound, followed by a scene with an ebb and flow — Wagner’s melos — in which words and music truly melded together to form a musico-dramatic whole. And the tenderness of the strings, for instance when Brünnhilde here embraced Siegfried, far surpassed anything the BBC SO had been able to conjure up the previous evening, for Tristan. The final climax to the scene sounded as fully achieved as if Furtwängler himself had been at the podium; not that we should forget here the extraordinary contributions of Andreas Schager as Siegfried and Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde, on whom more below. As ever, Barenboim proved worthy of Wagner’s ‘most subtle art’ of transition, that wonderful Dawn followed by a masterly Rhine Journey, placed aptly midway between Beethovenian playfulness and Mahlerian contrapuntal involvement. (Special mention here should be afforded to the glockenspiel, veritable icing on the orchestral cake.) Once we reached the Rhineland proper, moving towards the Hall of the Gibichungs, we were afforded a veritable pageant, noteworthy not just in itself, but, in its ‘secondary’ diatonicism (to borrow from Carl Dahlhaus on Die Meistersinger, the mediated diatonic harmony being predicated upon the chromaticism it both negated and incorporated) already conveying the mediated unease of ‘civilisation’. Beneath the surface lay not only the nixies of the Rhine, but more worryingly, the snares of Hagen’s plotting. The aural stench of decay — how truly, truthfully ugly some of Götterdämmerung’s music is! — led us to the Hall itself. There was already something of the unhealthy air of Venice, of the Palazzo Vendramin.

And so to the first act proper. The sturdiness Barenboim imparted to Gunther’s rhythms — Lohengrin, as it were, aufgehoben — immediately made clear the hopelessness of that character’s plight. (If only Gerd Grochowski had managed a little better the difficult balancing act of a strong portrayal of a weak character, but anyway...) Throughout the act, orchestral exultancy would bid Siegfried to new deeds, all the more movingly for our knowledge of Hagen’s snares, his Watch again sick with chromatic decay, whilst the transition to Brünnhilde’s rock drew us into a more intimate, tragically fragile world. The phantasmagoria with which Brünnhilde’s anger was transformed into evening twilight again had to be heard to be believed, likewise the cruellest of interruptions — more so even the coitus interruptus of Tristan ’s second act — upon Siegfried’s appearance (as Gunther). The violence of rape horrified, as it must, at the close.

How one relished the richness of the bass line — reinforced by those eight double basses — at the opening of the second act! The architecture of every act was perfectly in place: long familiarity, for conductor and orchestra alike, clearly pays off; the vengeance trio proved no mere set piece, but a true culmination. But moments told equally truthfully, whether the trombone interjections of ‘Hagen’ as Brünnhilde screamed of her deceit. Then the new sound-world of the third act came as a breath of fresh air, though just as soon as one had thought that, necessary doubts set in. The orchestra sounded languorous, almost Debussyan; one often hears Liszt here, in this first scene, but Barenboim’s balances imparted intriguing and apposite presentiments not so much of Pelléas as of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and even the Images. Integration was, as ever key, the Funeral March all the more impressive for acting as interlude rather than interposed set piece. Barenboim’s greatness in Beethoven now fully informs his Wagner, and did so until the closing bar, bathed in the after-glow of orchestral flames that might well have burned us. And yet, at the end there was a message of equivocal hope. Barenboim has no fear of comparisons with anyone, not even Haitink (from whom, in any case, we are extremely unlikely to hear another Ring).

From Siegfried’s very first line, we heard what had been missing earlier on. Lance Ryan had proved serviceable in the previous instalment, yet Andreas Schager proved preferable in every respect. The beauty of his voice alone here showed what earlier had been lacking, let alone the dramatic commitment he would show when acting his third-act narration or, indeed, stiffly as ‘Gunther’ with the Tarnhelm. It was clear even in the Prologue that this was a fully mature Siegfried, a man, no longer a boy, despite his fatal flaws; Schager’s interaction with the orchestra as part of a musico-dramatic whole that extended far beyond any single contributor was not the least of his virtues. Drinking the potion brought a touching hymn to lost innocence, soon enough followed by an eroticism entirely lacking in many portrayals (let alone Robert Dean Smith’s Tristan, the night before). There was, moreover, real anger to his contesting Brünnhilde’s claims in the second act, betokening a psychological understanding rarely present in this role. One might have taken dictation, of words and music, from either him or Stemme, for pretty much the whole of the performance. Anyone who did not respond both to the irrepressible vitality of this Siegfried’s swagger with the Rhinemaidens and to the detailed, loving narrative of his deeds recalled would be satisfied with no one, not even Lauritz Melchior. This might actually have been the first time I was moved as I should have been by the moment when he recalls Brünnhilde: a true monument to a truer love than I have heard.

Stemme’s Prologue ‘O heilige Götter!’ was a paean to a glorious age, an age which yet had passed; the realm of the gods was not belittled, but there was no doubt that the future held something different. The dramatic urgency she imparted to the Waltraute scene was every bit the equal of Waltraud Meier’s. ‘Denn selig aus ihm leuchtet mir Siegfrieds Liebe!’ revelled in tragic irony: Stemme sang in the present but the orchestra — and we — knew that she sang of the past, the ecstasy of her love notwithstanding. Her fear before Siegfried (as Gunther) was palpable, yet without loss to the commanding nature of her performance. And her Immolation Scene, delivered from the organ, somehow bringing together the strongest virtues of Flagstad’s womanhood and Nilsson’s authority, should become the stuff of legend. Meier’s turning to her sister as the latter asked ‘Weisst du, wie das wird?’ was a dramatic moment worth all (or most of) the stagings in the world. How she later made the words come alive as she told, for instance, of Wotan taming Loge! Though Meier’s Waltraute may be dangerously close to definitive, that is no excuse for overlooking the excellence of her contribution, here with a true sense of epic narrative in telling her tale of Wotan’s depression. Increasing desperation urged on the orchestra, as it in turn urged her on. Her departure had one think of Cassandra herself.

Mikhail Petrenko’s protean Hagen is now a known quantity. Sometimes, from force of habit perhaps more than from dramatic necessity, one finds oneself expecting a darker voice, but Petrenko’s vision is in many ways more dangerous than the traditional Ridderbusch-like performance. Rather than pitch-black ‘mere’ evil, we hear someone devilishly intelligent, and troublingly alluring. Not that Petrenko’s voice is without heft, but, for instance, his ‘Heil! Siegfried, teurer Held!’ as the hero brought his boat ashore was curdled with a menace that went beyond brute force. (After all, it is through cunning that he will slay Siegfried, not though overpowering him.) ‘Dir ha ich guten Rat,’ seemed almost throwaway: ‘I gave you good advice,’ but the words were made to tell, to inform us that such advice to Siegfried was anything but ‘good’, however that might be understood. Aggression and restlessness suggested a power-lust that might have been enhanced by substances the modern would tends to deem illicit. This Hagen was one dealer no one would wish to encounter upon a dark night.

Johannes Martin Kränzle’s Alberich once again showed a fine way with words. His injunction to Hagen, ‘Hasse die Frohen!’ seethed with Nietzschean ressentiment, whilst the ghostliness of the regfrain, ‘Schläfst du, Hagen, mein Sohn,’ chilled as it should. Our trio of Rhinemaidens if anything surpassed its excellence in Das Rheingold. Anna Samuil, alas, proved somewhat on the shrill side as the Third Norn and blowsy as Gutrune, her vibrato, especially during the first act, uncomfortably unsteady. She was more honeytrap than dupe, and less interesting for it. There was, though, real vocal presence to be heard from Margarita Nekrasova’s First Norn. The Royal Opera Chorus excelled, its weight as impressive as its clarity.

All were rightly commended by Barenboim in a few closing words. Charming as ever, he praised the audience for its silence as well as for its most fulsome applause, and forewent to mention the selfish **** (fill in as appropriate) who had interrupted Hagen’s opening advice to Gunther with a mobile telephone call. There were many stars to this Ring, but once again, this proved above all others the achievement of Barenboim’s Staatskapelle Berlin, no secret to those of us enamoured with the German capital, but now firmly ensconced in Londoners’ hearts too. Wolf-Dieter Batzdorf took a well-deserved bow, retiring as concert-master — surely only Barenboim could get away with an implicit Führer gag here, explaining that Germans do not favour the English term, ‘leader’ — but applause resounded for the whole of Wagner’s Attic chorus. And, one hopes, for Wagner himself, a fitting tribute, which is really saying something, to the composer’s bicentenary. Now, please, someone, a CD release...!

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Brünnhilde: Nina Stemme; Siegfried: Andreas Schager; Gunther: Gerd Grochowski; Alberich: Johannes Martin Kränzle; Hagen: Mikhail Petrenko; Gutrune, Third Norn: Anna Samuil; Waltraute, Second Norn: Waltraud Meier; First Norn: Margarita Nekrasova; Woglinde: Aga Mikolaj; Wellgunde: Maria Gortsevskaja; Flosshilde: Anna Lapovskaja. Justin Way (director). Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, Sunday 28 July 2013.