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Daniel Barenboim, Prom 14
23 Jul 2013

Prom 14: Das Rheingold

For me, this is almost to have come full circle — though as anyone with even the slightest acquaintance with the Ring will tell you, the so-called ‘cycle’ does not end where it began, its world having been changed forever.

Das Rheingold, London

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Daniel Barenboim


Though I saw Richard Jones’s Royal Opera Götterdämmerung at the old house, the only performance I saw before its closure, my first full Ring was at the Royal Albert Hall, with Royal Opera forces under Bernard Haitink. Travelling down from Cambridge each day, this sometime impoverished student standing up in the Gallery still considers it, from the relative comfort of the RAH Stalls, a formative musical experience of his life. It has certainly never been better conducted in his experience, nor better sung; and, given the vagaries of stagings, it is sometimes difficult to avoid the reactionary position that ‘a concert performance would be preferable’. Of course it is not; but the semi-staged solution adopted at the Albert Hall both then and now does afford us the great luxury of being able to concentrate entirely upon the score (words included). Justin Way’s direction was keen, but was limited, so far as one could tell, to placing of the singers and presumably at least some advice concerning their stage interaction. If one has any sense, one takes what one can from different performances and productions, ever aware that no one performance will ‘have it all’. What I can say, however, is that there was, with the possible exception of the production, not a single element of this Proms Rheingold that was not preferable to Antonio Pappano’s at-best-amateurish attempts at Covent Garden to act as Haitink’s successor.

There was actually one other aspect of the Proms experience that lessened appreciation: a heavy-breather seated behind me. Not once, despite the hardest of stares, did he relent. It might sound trivial, but, in a drama that requires of its audience total concentration, it is possible to ignore. How I wish there were some Stasi-style opportunity to report such selfish behaviour and have the miscreant banished for future performances. Moreover, the entry of audience members during the descent to Nibelheim should never have been permitted; I assumed at first that a highly conspicuous woman with shopping bag across the hall, seemingly heading for the stage, denoted a racy realisation of Mime. Such afforded amusement; others breaking the spell did not. Moreover, a telephone’s invasion of Nibelheim took the idea of Alberich’s technological breakthroughs far too literally.

Logistical matters detracted, but the drama remained the thing. Whereas, across town, Pappano has never proved able to maintain a Wagnerian line, Daniel Barenboim did so almost effortlessly. From the opening E-flat to the gods’ entrance into Valhalla, the drama unfolded as if heard in a single breath. If that sounds like the Fernhören of Barenboim’s idol, Furtwängler, then inspiration doubtless derives from that source, but the differences are at least as noteworthy. As I noted with respect to Barenboim’s Rheingold with similar forces in Berlin , there is perhaps a surprising degree of ‘objectivity’ that seems, given the evidence of two separate performances, to have become part and parcel of his conception. (On the evidence of Berlin, it is a feature only of Rheingold, but we shall see — or rather, hear.) It is a perfectly justifiable response to the frigid ‘pre-historical’ world of Wagner’s Vorabend, and has something in common with the readings of Karajan and Boulez. Some, at least, of the music one hears rather as if there were an aural counterpart to the veil that would, according to Wagner’s directions, conceal Valhalla until the end. (In Berlin, Barenboim actually adopted the Bayreuth practice of covering the pit.) There were, moreover, even within a highly flexible reading as a whole, certain passages that intriguingly hinted towards the Neue Sachlichkeit of a composer such as Hindemith; Schoenberg, another Barenboim speciality, can doubtless wait until following evenings. Barenboim’s reading, in keeping with the relatively ‘objective’ approach, was often on the swift side, yet anything but superficial; there was, though, no tendency to linger, just for the sake of it, Wagner’s textural variegation offering its own opportunities for æsthetic absorption. The conductor showed beyond doubt — not that there should ever have been any grounds for such naïve either/or oppositions — that a fully satisfying musical reading was perfectly consonant with, indeed dependent upon, dramatic communication of Wagner’s poem: to take but one instance, Barenboim almost punched the air on the ‘wiss’ Fasolt’s ‘Du Weiser, wiss’ es von ihm’, incitement to an accent that was musico-dramatic in the fullest sense of the term.

None of that, of course, could be accomplished without the burnished Staatskapelle Berlin. If this Proms Ring were to have but one lasting accomplishment, to have made London audiences once again aware of how Wagner might sound with the combination of a great orchestra and conductor would be achievement enough. The Prelude received a realisation — insofar as I could disregard the sub-Alberich breathing from behind — as close to perfect as anyone might reasonably hope for: neither Barenboim nor his orchestra offered ‘interventionism’, yet Wagner’s evolving vision of what his contemporary Marx termed ‘spontaneous generation’ told its own story, even when shorn of scenic realisation. As Wagner’s Dresden comrade-in-arms, Bakunin, put it in his earlier essay, God and the State, we hear ‘the gradual development of the material world … a wholly natural movement from the simple to the complex, from the lower to the higher,’ not ‘the vile matter of the idealists … incapable of producing anything,’ but ‘matter … spontaneously and eternally mobile, active, productive.’ The words might almost have been intended as a programme note — though they come a little more than a decade before Wagner’s composition.

The orchestral contribution was, a very occasional obscured entry notwithstanding, truly excellent: not in a quasi-narcissistic fashion, such as one heard sometimes with the Berlin Philharmonic’s Ring under Simon Rattle , but as a proper instantiation of Wagner’s Opera and Drama ‘Greek chorus’. A splendidly sepulchral Wagner tuba offered the deftest — a word one does not always necessarily associate with the instrument — upon Woglinde’s broaching the apparently absurd idea of renouncing love for gold. And how the brass and timpani let rip when permitted to do so — for instance, upon the arrival of Fasolt and Fafner: larger than life in more than one sense. The transformation between the first scenes, in which the ring motif is dialectically transformed into that denoting Valhalla, owed a great deal to the timbral sophistication of middle-range instruments such as that baleful English horn, violas, and of course the increasingly tender horn. Likewise the wind ageing of the gods upon Freia’s departure was second to none I have ever heard, effected with painful, cruel beauty, a telling comment upon Wagner’s Feuerbachian unmasking of delusions to immortality. (They looked increasingly frozen of aspect too, for which the director deserves credit.) It was a pity, then, that the anvils were so underwhelming: almost a case of spoiling the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar. No matter: the horn-playing as Mime told us of old Nibelheim was so exquisitely, musically phrased that ‘wonnig Geschmeid’, nielichen Niblungentand’ came to life before our ears.

Barenboim’s cast was more than equal to the task , as distinguished a complement to the orchestra as anyone might reasonably hope for. The Rhinemaidens were near-idea in blend, as fine a trio as I can recall having heard, Anna Lapkovskaja’s Flosshilde perhaps especially radiant. Their final lament was as beautifully, heart-rendingly piercing as I can recall. Iain Paterson made a distinguished debut as Wotan, perhaps less authoritative than many, but the god of Das Rheingold is a less weighty figure than he will become. Attention to the text was exemplary throughout. Ekaterina Gubanova once again shone as Wotan’s consort. The portrayal of Fricka’s tenderness, an intimate portrait of a wronged, anxious wife, blossomed into splendidly divine self-assurance where necessary, but this was so much more than a mere harridan. When she approached Wotan following Erda’s intervention, Gubanova showed just how expertly she could spin out a line, not for its own sake but for dramatic effect, Barenboim her encouraging and trusting partner. Stephan Rügamer’s Loge was a vivid assumption, sardonic yet not caricatured, indeed at times beautifully sung. The moment of shock upon Loge’s ‘Durch Raub!’ registered without being milked, testament to the artistry of both Rügamer and Barenboim. It verged upon a mini-caesura, at the very least a telling piece of punctuation, punctuation that nevertheless made sense in terms of the greater whole. (Alberich’s ‘Knecht’, as in his Act IV ‘als des Ringes Knecht’ curse, offered a telling parallel — and development, followed by the vilest orchestral fury, properly chilling.)

Johannes Martin Kränzle’s Alberich was lighter than one generally hears, but he made a virtue of that, drawing our attention to the intricacies of Wagner’s poem. This Alberich could shade into Sprechgesang, for instance on the ‘Lust’ of ‘doch listig erzwäng’ ich mir Lust?’ The alienating darkness had chilling dramatic effect, so long as it were not over-employed, which it was not. Especially notable was the colouring of every word in his Nibelheim threats to his band of wage-slaves — ‘Zögert ihr noch? Zaudert wohl gar?’ Every word told, yet without disruption to phrasing. Barenboim’s pointing of rhythms as Alberich poured out sarcastic scorn upon Loge — ‘Der Listigste dünkt sich Loge; andre denkt er immer sich dumm...’ — offered an excellent example of the indissoluble union of singer and conductor, words and music; this was music drama at its finest. Peter Bronder’s Mime offered a fine evocation of proto-Nietzschean ressentiment, his pitiful anger formed by his lowly position within the world — Wotan’s, be it noted, as well as Alberich’s. Eric Halfvarson and Stephen Milling made much of their roles as giants. Milling’s Fasolt was, quite rightly, more mellifluous, more sympathetic. Fafner’s insulting ‘Geck’ towards his lovelorn brother, the word veritably spat out, said it all. Nor of course, however predictable the assessment may be, should one forget Anna Larsson’s well-nigh definitive Erda, Mahler’s Urlicht palpably on the aural horizon. Everything, then, augurs well for Die Walküre this evening — not least the mendacious orchestral blaze for the gods’ closing Totentanz. A storm awaits.

Mark Berry

Production and cast information:

Wotan: Iain Paterson; Loge: Stephan Rügamer; Donner: Jan Buchwald; Froh: Marius Vlad; Fricka: Ekaterina Gubanova; Freia: Anna Samuil; Erda: Anna Larsson; Alberich: Johannes Martin Kränzle; Mime: Peter Bronder; Fasolt: Stephen Milling; Fafner: Eric Halfvarson; Woglinde: Aga Mikolaj; Wellgunde: Maria Gortsevskaja; Flosshilde: Anna Lapkovskaja. Justin Way (director). Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, Monday 22 July

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