24 Jul 2013
Prom 15: Wagner — Die Walküre
The superstitious would have us believe that it is better not to build up expectations, lest they be confounded.
Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.
It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.
Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.
Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.
Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.
The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.
On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.
There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.
It has been a cold and gray winter in the south of France (where I live) made splendid by some really good opera, followed just now by splendid sunshine at Trafalgar Square and two exquisite productions at English National Opera.
At long last, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to the Royal Opera House. Kurt Weill’s teacher, Busoni, remains scandalously ignored, but a season which includes house firsts both of this opera and Szymanowsi’s King Roger, cannot be all bad.
Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland returned to the Barbican, London, shape-shifted like one of Alice’s adventures. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was assembled en masse, almost teetering off stage, creating a sense of tension. “Eat me, Drink me”. Was Lewis Carroll on hallucinogens or just good at channeling the crazy world of the subconscious?
Dominic Cooke’s 2005 staging of The Magic Flute and Richard Jones’s 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel have been brought together for Welsh National Opera’s spring tour under the unifying moniker, Spellbound.
Gaetano Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold might seem odd operatic bedfellows, but this double bill by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered a pair of works characterised by ‘madness, misunderstandings and mistaken identity’ which proved witty, sparkling and imaginatively realised.
Saturday, February 28, 2015, was the first night for Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 2009 presentation of The Barber of Seville, a production by Emilio Sagi, which comes originally from Teatro Real in Madrid in cooperation with Lisbon’s Teatro San Carlos. Sagi and onsite director, Trevor Ross, made comedy the focus of their production and provided myriad sight gags which kept the audience laughing.
Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.
An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.
On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.
Although the English National Opera has been decidedly sparing with its Wagner for quite some time now, its recent track record, leaving aside a disastrous Ring, has perhaps been better than that at Covent Garden.
On Friday February 20, 2015, San Diego Opera presented Mozart’s Don Giovanni in a production by Nicholas Muni originally seen at Cincinnati Opera.
In a production first seen in Houston several years ago, and now revised by its director John Caird, Puccini’s Tosca has returned to Lyric Opera of Chicago with two casts, partially different, scheduled into March of the present season.
The superstitious would have us believe that it is better not to build up expectations, lest they be confounded.
Perhaps that makes sense in some endeavours, but in a performance of the Ring, the experience is cumulative. True, one might be disappointed after an excellent Rheingold; however, in this case, it offered the perfect preparation for an excellent first ‘day’ proper. Asin Berlin, an often ‘objectivist’ Rheingold was followed by a warmly Romantic Walküre, the dramatic contrast between godly prehistory and the realm of Wagner’s ‘purely human’ palpable from the outset. If anything, Barenboim’s Wagnerian mastery — and that is certainly not too strong a term — was more impregnable than in 2011. He was doubtless assisted by a kinder acoustic — how often does anyone say that of this venue — in the Royal Albert Hall than in the Schiller Theater, where he had also elected to have the pit semi-covered. Here, however, the Staatskapelle Berlin was rightly enthroned as the brightest star in the evening’s constellation, the benefits of a semi-staged performance once again manifest. In both cases, the only serious ‘competition’ — a horrible concept, but let that pass for the moment — from my experience had been provided by Bernard Haitink with Royal Opera forces, again at the Royal Albert Hall. Barenboim and Haitink are certainly the only conductors I have heard, at least in the flesh, to have shaped the architecture of the second act satisfactorily. Once again, it is clear that Barenboim has learned his Furtwänglerian lessons, without in any sense slavishly following that greatest of all Wagner conductors.
The Act I Prelude set the tone in more than one sense for what was to follow, Wagner’s music audibly founded upon the bass line, very much as Furtwängler would have understood it to be; moreover, it was music, not some mere storm ‘effect’, very much as Furtwängler — and Beethoven — would have understood. Almost infinitely variegated in terms of dynamic contrast, it subsided to the tenderest of ppp, again setting out Barenboim’s stall for a performance that would prove little short of all-encompassing. Soon a classically dark ‘old German’ string sound — think of Furtwängler’s Berlin Philharmonic prior to Karajan’s internationalising tendencies — would take centre stage, both in sectional and solo (that cello) offerings. When Sieglinde brought her guest the drinking horn, the cello proved, may Wagner forgive me, as eloquent as in any Brahms chamber work. The cellos’ recitative at the end of the scene, as Sieglinde invites Siegmund to stay at the house where Unheil lives, audibly echoed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, straining in Wagner’s Opera and Drama terms, for the Word, and in Walküre terms, for the words to express already-burgeoning love. That takes both an orchestra and conductor steeped in central musical (that is, German) Kultur; would that either of our London houses could offer that at the moment. Similarly, the presentiment of Tristan (Act II) afforded from the strings as Wotan, in his farewell to Brünnhilde, told of the ‘üppigen Rausch’ (voluptuous intoxication) she had imbibed from love’s cup spoke of equally subtle contributions from composer, conductor, and players alike. Just as Wagner’s immersion in his harmonic world permitted him to steal from the future, so did Barenboim’s and the orchestra’s parallel immersion permit us to note that detail.
This great orchestra is far more than its string section, of course. Every section, indeed very instrument, shone — as would be acknowledged by Barenboim at the end, with the number of individual bows he allowed his musicians. Woodwind malevolence resounded to perfection, as if Tristan ’s potion were being brewed before our ears, as Hunding noted the same ‘glissende Wurm’ in the siblings’ eyes. How the horns terrified, as demented — Wagner’s own direction — as Sieglinde herself during her second act hallucinations; the ancient Wild Hunt itself seemed to have dawned. The brass would soon, of course, turn gravely beautiful, their part in the Annunciation of Death evocation of the most venerable of funeral equale. Moreover, the brass-led awakenings in the first act’s final scene, as if building upon new sunlit dawns from Lohengrin, were never crude in the way one must often fear from English orchestras; they were powerful, but never brash.
Such was the case even when Barenboim whipped up the fiercest agitation, for example when Sieglinde, ‘beside herself’, named her brother Siegmund. The ongoing accelerando during her rapture once again had one thinking of Furtwängler, so dramatically right and perfectly achieved was Barenboim’s accomplishment. In a very different mood, the darkness of the curse that resounded following Fricka’s departure in the following act was all the more troubling given its grounding in both timbre and harmony. Only a conductor who knows the score inside out, and knows where musically it has come from and in what direction it is tending will accomplish that. Wagner famously described the art of transition as his subtlest art, and so once again it proved here, as that between Act II Scenes 2 and 3 took us, line unbroken, from the slough of despond to the danger and exhilaration of our love-communist outcasts. The command of architecture in this act to which I previously referred was perhaps the greatest of Barenboim’s many achievements. Moreover, the sweetness of the Magic Fire Music allowed a final, properly phantasmagorical coming together of the orchestra as a whole: not rushed, as so often it is, but with an attentiveness on Barenboim’s part that revealed quite how disturbing this anything-but-innocent putting Brünnhilde to sleep truly is.
The only real fly in the ointment was Simon O’Neill’s Siegmund. Tireless and hard-working though the assumption may be, there is nothing in the way of tonal beauty, and the German continues to sound ‘learned’ rather than ‘lived’. Heroism is not evoked by simple loudness, let alone by shouting, as often endured. Even at his less abrasive, O’Neill sounded more like an ageing alderman than an alluring outlaw; one could not help but think that nine out of ten Sieglindes would have elected to stay with Hunding. The contrast at the beginning of the first act’s final scene between O’Neill’s voice and the ravishing beauty of solo horn and cello was especially painful. Likewise his ‘Wälsungen-Blut,’ the final word of the first act. Anja Kampe, from her first entry, offered a merciful contrast, in terms of vocal quality, imparting of meaning to the words, and general lack of crudity. She offered sexual and musical urgency in the moonlight, whereas O’Neill offered the charisma of a middle manager. The soft pregnancy of tone and expression when she told of what she had heard as a child had me keenly aware of my own heartbeat; in tandem with Barenboim, this Sieglinde, despite an occasionally unruly top register, offered societal rupture and sensual rapture. There were times when Halfvarson’s balance as Hunding tipped too far from the musical to the verbal, at least for my Wagnerian appreciation. (The director Keith Warner, however, has recently been contesting such claims, arguing that ‘acting’, considered broadly, should always come first.) By the same token, however, a beautifully dark, Martti Talvela-like voice was lavished on words such as ‘Die so leidig Loos dir beschied nicht liebte die Norn.’ Given the tonal quality of what we had just heard from Siegmund, it was indeed difficult not to agree that the Norn had felt little love for him. Occasionally, a little more balance to Halfvarson’s voice would have been welcome, but there were certainly pitch-black compensations to be had.
Nina Stemme offered a Brünnhilde keen in every sense, from her opening ‘Hojotoho’ onwards, never failing in tone, even if she forgot a few words in Act III. (In a display of equal acuity and generosity, Terfel acted as her prompter and normal service was resumed.) Her voice has no weaker register, or at least it did not on this occasion, thereby allowing equal expressiveness throughout. Stemme’s apparent tirelessness bodes well for Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. Ekaterina Gubanova once again proved an excellent Fricka. ‘So ist es denn aus mit den ewigen Göttern...’ was delivered with rare fury; this was a woman scorned, no ice-maiden. Likewise her ‘verlacht’, as in ‘derided’ of men, offered true bitterness, as the gods’ Feuerbach-inspired dethronement gathered pace. Moreover, the Valkyries were an excellent bunch. They and their conductor ensured that their ‘Ride’ was an infinitely more musical experience than one generally suffers; again, I had to think back to Haitink to recall something comparable. Even the laughter was musically delivered. Susan Foster’s Helmwige ‘Hojotoho!’ truly made me sit up and listen, but there were no weak links here.
Bryn Terfel’s Wotan had me initially fear the worst, his opening contributions somewhat coarse — and subsequent passages were not all entirely innocent of that charge. However, his musico-dramatic identification with the role won me over to acknowledge what may well be the finest performance I have heard from him. Singing ‘Nimm den Eid!’ as Fricka had her say, the ‘Eid’ (oath) that he offered was arguably over-emphasised, though opinions will differ. Other details, however, were spot on, for instance his despairingly whispered — following Wagner’s directions — ‘Als junger Liebe Lust mir verblich’ to Brünnhilde, aided by the most sepulchral of brass. Likewise in that same monologue, the shading, visibly guided by Barenboim, on the word ‘Rhein,’ when he told of his failure to return the ring to its source: the word offered both a sign of a better world than that which now prevailed, and the hopelessness of ever (re-)turning to it. ‘Das Ende — das Ende!’ presented first vehement anger, then ghostly despair, shadowed by the unerring orchestra. I have rarely been impressed by Terfel’s Wagner but this highly distinguished performance was worth the price of admission alone. The desolation felt at the end of the second act was a tribute to him almost as much as to Barenboim, though of course it was the orchestra that sent the final shivers of terror down the spine.
The audience still provides too many unwelcome interventions of its own. There was far too much coughing, especially during the third act and, most unforgivably, the Annunciation of Death. And, intentional or otherwise, the opening of a fizzy drink — no one, repeat no one, should be eating or drinking during the performance in any case — was an unnecessary illustration of Siegmund sipping from his draught. Such, however, is part of the price we pay to hear the Ring at the Proms; no one in his right mind would think the bargain unholy and Wotan-like.
Cast and production information:
Siegmund: Simon O’Neill. Sieglinde — Anja Kampe; Hunding: Eric Halfvarson; Wotan: Bryn Terfel; Brünnhilde: Nina Stemme; Fricka: Ekaterina Gubanova; Gerhilde: Sonja Mühleck; Ortlinde: Carola Höhn; Waltraute: Ivonne Fuchs; Schwertleite: Anaïk Morel; Helmwige: Susan Foster; Siegrune: Leann Sandel-Pantaleo; Grimgerde: Anna Lapkovskaja; Rossweisse: Simone Schröder. Justin Way (director). Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, Tuesday 23 July 2013.