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Lance Ryan [Photo by Musica Management]
30 Jul 2013

Prom 18: Wagner — Siegfried

The brightest star in this performance proved once again to be the Staatskapelle Berlin, under Daniel Barenboim’s guidance.

Prom 18: Wagner — Siegfried

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Lance Ryan [Photo by Musica Management]


It is to be hoped that those Londoners who do not travel much — though it remains unclear to me why they could not listen to the odd recording or broadcast — will finally be disabused by this Proms Ring of the strange claim that the sub-standard Wagner they have all too often been served up over the past decade represents anything but a pale shadow of the ‘real thing’.

That is crucial not from the standpoint of drawing up some variety of ghastly league table, but because Wagner deserves so much better, as, barring a few noisy miscreants, do audiences. A friend remarked acutely earlier in the week that so much of the chatter concerning last year’s Covent Garden Ring concerned the work as some sort of ‘ultimate challenge’ and congratulated the forces for having (just about) withstood that challenge. Art is not, however, a school sports day; to come anywhere near realising Wagner’s potential requires musicians who understand his (admittedly strenuous) demands, who are as comprehending of his world-view and its implications, historical and contemporary, as possible, and who are expert at communicating his message at as many of its multiple levels as they can. ‘Muddling through’ — or, to put it another way, a self-congratulatory celebration of English amateurism — should never be an option.

Barenboim once again had the measure of the score, his understanding of which has deepened considerably over the years, from the outset. The Prelude to Act I opened very slowly, but its hallmark was flexibility, not least when a mini-Furtwänglerian accelerando led us, as the most natural development in the world, into Wagner’s menacing treatment of the no-longer-dormant Nibelung motif. Lesser conductors would simply present one thing after another, perhaps with the odd ‘shock’ effect imposed upon the meaningless progression; Wagner’s drama needs to be simultaneously communicated and reinforced through a tightly woven web of motivic interconnection. As Carl Dahlhaus put it, ‘the decline in importance of the symphony as a genre represented the obverse of an inexorable expansion of the symphonic style in other genres.’ It is inconceivable that a great Wagnerian would not also be a great Beethovenian.

The dark orchestral phantasmagoria, inevitably bringing to mind Adorno’s Versuch über Wagner, conjured up by Barenboim and his orchestra as Mime initially struggled to forge the sword told of dark forces, dramatic and musical, at work; one was drawn into the drama in the very best way, by the score ‘itself’. And yet, there was plenty of life: Siegfried’s music quite rightly evoked the world of a Beethoven scherzo, transformed into musico-dramatic material. Barenboim showed that lightness does not preclude depth; indeed, it often relies upon it. And depth one certainly heard from the Staatskapelle’s strings, heart-rendingly when Siegfried casually knocked the food Mime had prepared out of his hands; we empathised with Mime and his misery through Wagner’s extraordinarily sympathetic portrayal. Likewise, in the third scene, Barenboim — and Wagner, of course — conjured up the sheer horror of Mime’s predicament just as truthfully as the other, unconscious, heroic side of the coin. Competition between soundworlds, distinct and yet dialectically related, was very much the stuff of this first act. The dark Staatskapelle brass, never brash in the way sections from Anglophone orchestras might often be, told during the Mime-Wanderer scene of the darkness still cast by Alberich’s Nibelheim curse — even when the Wanderer was ostensibly talking of himself. Schwarz- and Licht-Alberich continued their dialectical dance of death (even though we never discover quite what becomes of the former).

Act II opened in similarly magisterial fashion. Marking by kettledrums of that crucial tritone — the giants’ motif darkened, perverted, from its initially diatonic form — was effected to musico-dramatic perfection; that interval, that sound would hang over the act for at least as long as it took Siegfried to slay Fafner. A febrile undergrowth, scenic and harmonic, would soon find itself conjured up — that phantasmagorical phrase again — by composer, conductor, and orchestra together. The orchestra, moreover, gained a real spring to its step during those extraordinary exchanges between Mime and Siegfried, when the former, despite all his efforts, betrays his true intentions, Wagner’s sardonicism conveyed with the darkest of comedy. And that Feuerbachian moment of hope — love, revolution, love in revolution might yet emerge the victor — at the end of the act was captured to perfection, only to be contrasted, at the beginning of Act III, by a very different variety of dramatic urgency, the Wanderer’s dismissal of Erda (and thus of Fate itself) upon us.

Barenboim’s deceleration as Erda rose from the depths told of far more than mere handling of the score; this was an attempt to hold back history itself — likewise at the end of his confrontation with Siegfried in the following scene. The Wanderer’s urgency with Erda, rhythms buoyant and generative, would emerge victorious, but at what cost, and for how long? Questions rather than answers were proffered. His silence following ‘Weisst du, was Wotan will?’ was made to tell in a fashion not entirely unlike a silence in Bruckner, and yet, with its very particular musico-dramatic import, quite unlike it. By contrast, the transformation to the final scene was perhaps the most ecstatic I have heard, the orchestra revelling in Wagner’s wizardry, Barenboim ensuring that such revelry retained dramatic motivation. There were moments when one heard, for instance, the fresh air of Johannistag — ‘Ach! Wie schön!’ as Siegfried loosened Brünnhilde’s helmet — or delectable violin femininity, as Siegfried lifted the breastplate. But they never stood out, self-regarding, for their own sake; the drama was the thing.

Peter Bronder’s Mime was excellent. He wheedled without falling into caricature, projected a strong command of his line throughout, and even proved a dab hand pretty with his (small) hammer. There was real anger, moreover, as well as self-pity, when he dubbed Siegfried ‘dankbares, arges Kind!’ Lance Ryan is not possessed of a beautiful voice, but he showed the necessary tirelessness not simply to ‘get through’ the role, but also to shape its progress. If vocal lines were often less than mellifluous, one could hear pretty much every word. He had a nice — or rather nasty — line in cruelty of delivery, for instance when telling of how he longed to seize Mime’s neck, though there were undoubtedly occasions when he erred on the side of crudity, not least during the forging of Notung, and clowning around over the horn was probably overdone. Johannes Martin Kränzle once again contributed an attentive reading of Alberich’s part, words, music, stage manner welded into something considerably more than the sum of its parts. Eric Halfvarson’s Fafner (from the organ) was properly evocative of the rentier as dragon: what he lay on, he owned. One even felt a degree of sympathy at the moment of death. Terje Stensvold’s Wanderer was not as large of life as some, but his solemnity told its own tale; this was, after all, a Wotan two generations on from Das Rheingold, scarred by events, working his way towards renunciation of the Schopenhauerisn Will. Whether that were actually how Stensvold thought of it or no, one could certainly understand his portrayal that way. His Norwegian way with Wagner’s words harked back to the the old sagas: perhaps not ideal in abstract pronunciation terms, but again opening up other associations for those willing to listen. As in Berlin, Rinnat Moriah proved a bright-toned Woodbird, perfectly contrasted with the deep contralto of Anna Larsson’s wonderful Erda, her tiredness and fading powers conveyed musically rather than by default. Nina Stemme’s Brünnhilde gave an excellent impression of awakening, and handled very well this difficult transition from Valkyrie to woman. She more than whetted the appetite for what is now to come.

Mark Berry

Click here for cast and production information.

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