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Prom 15: Wagner — Die Walküre [Photo by Chris Christodoulou courtesy of BBC]
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.

Prom 15: Wagner — Die Walküre

A review by Mark Berry

Above photo by Chris Christodoulou courtesy of BBC


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.

Mark Berry

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.

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