Sunday, 1 September 2013

BBC Proms: Der Ring der Nibelungen; Tristan und Isolde

(From OPERA, September 2013, pp. 1196-1199]

Der Ring des Nibelungen and Tristan und Isolde
Staatskapelle Berlin at the BBC Proms, July 22, 23, 26 and 28; BBC Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Proms, July 27

This Proms performance of the Ring left me grasping for superlatives, but also
grappling with several questions about how to describe what I, sitting among a rapt, packed Royal Albert Hall audience, had experienced. It’s difficult not to be drawn into the sort of critical clichés rooted in 19th-century ideas of patriarchy and cultural superiority that, extrapolated ad absurdum, arguably fuelled the ideology that left Wagner’s reputation so indelibly tarnished: to speak of a Great Conductor’s mastery of a score, for example, or to admire the incomparable Austro-German culture that could spawn and—through public subsidy of the arts as necessity rather than luxury—maintain an orchestra like the Staatskapelle Berlin, for which the Ring is a repertory staple. Certainly, the programming of not a single Verdi opera against seven by Wagner seems to have left little doubt regarding which side of the Alps the Proms management’s allegiance lies, even if this Ring did in part back up Roger Wright’s reasoning for the bias: that it’s easier these days to cast Wagner than Verdi. 

Paradoxically, however, Daniel Barenboim’s conducting, with the delicate, transparent playing of his orchestra enabling an approach of apparently endless fluidity and flexibility, produced a genuinely revelatory performance that seemed to allow the monumental drama to shed all the subsequent historical associations that still form a staple of the more populist discourse on the composer and his work. But even with the semi-est of semi-stagings—props had to be conjured in the imagination, and the director Justin Way wisely restricted himself to encouraging straightforward, instinctual interaction between the characters and making sensible decisions regarding exits and entrances—we also seemed to have a performance that was more powerfully dramatic and thought-provoking than half a dozen stagings. Preconceptions of how the elements of the Gesamtkunstwerk are kept in equilibrium were left shattered: do music and words alone, unencumbered by a production, create the most satisfying dramatic experience after all?  

That there was no sense of anything missing here was in large part due to a very fine cast, but it was also down to the extraordinarily broad expressive palette Barenboim had at his disposal, which early on in Das Rheingold ran the gamut from the tenderest lingering evocation of human love to the brutal, savage horror of its antithesis—no need to amplify this with images of industrialization. And throughout, Barenboim explored these extremes: Sennu Laine’s exquisite cello solos in Walküre Act 1 were impossibly hushed, and the violins accompanied Siegfried’s ascent to the Walkürenfels with awed quiet; storms—literal and metaphorical—materialized with truly elemental power. 

The interpretation teemed with detail, but never as a result of fussy micromanagement; with the orchestra able to follow Barenboim’s every command, there was thrilling spontaneity and a bracing sense of interpretative freedom, but never at the expense of the longer paragraphs. The Magic Fire music breathed delicately, the Forest Murmurs were seductive whisperings, Brünnhilde’s awakening in Siegfried was viscerally ecstatic. Götterdämmerung’s final act, meanwhile, was simply overwhelming, the long silence Barenboim maintained at the close unlikely to be forgotten by anyone who was there.

Nina Stemme’s imperiously sung and beautifully, movingly human Brünnhilde headed the cast, growing in stature from a slightly restrained performance in Walküre through to something truly great in the final two instalments. She acted with economy and nobility, and rode magnificently over the orchestra, particularly in an all-conquering Immolation Scene, sung from in front of the organ at the back of the stage. Andreas Schager’s sensational Götterdämmerung Siegfried, sung with both power and vocal allure, matched her in a way that Lance Ryan’s young Siegfried, light and slightly grating of tone, didn’t quite manage to, despite his impressive staying power and dramatic persuasiveness. 

Iain Paterson was an appealing, smoothly sung Rheingold Wotan, and Bryn Terfel was somewhat rougher in Die Walküre, but grippingly dramatic and authoritative; Terje Stensvold’s Wanderer struck an effective balance somewhere between the two. Simon O’Neill’s Siegmund remains too tight-voiced to be ideal, and couldn’t match Anja Kampe’s gloriously unfettered Sieglinde. Johannes Martin Kränzle was a brilliantly vivid Alberich; Peter Bronder’s Mime was every bit as good, and benefited from a brighter, edgier voice. Eric Halfvarson slightly overdid the scowling and snarling as Hunding, but his big, dark bass was welcome both here and as Fafner. By contrast, Mikhail Petrenko’s light-voiced Hagen was disappointing, as was the shrill Anna Samuil as Freia and Gutrune; Gerd Grochowski did what he could with Gunther. Anna Larsson was magnificent as Erda, and Ekaterina Gubanova made an imperious Fricka; Waltraud Meier gave a predictably fine cameo as Waltraute in Götterdämmerung

In Rheingold, Stephan Rügamer had been an unusually grainy-voiced Loge, but was dramatically effective in his irascibility. Jan Buchwald’s high-lying but penetrating baritone made a strong impression as Donner; Marius Vlad and Stephen Milling made solid contributions, respectively, as a bright-voiced Froh and an unusually sensitive Fasolt. Singing from the back of the choir, Rinnat Moriah’s Woodbird sounded glorious in Siegfried. There were mellifluous Rhinemaidens (Aga Mikolaj, Maria Gortsevskaya and Anna Lapkovskaja) and lusty Valkyries (Sonja Mühleck, Carola Höhn, Ivonne Fuchs, Anaïk Morel, Susan Foster, Leann Sandel-Pantaleo, Lapkovskaja and Simone Schröder); Margarita Nekrasova joined Meier and Samuil to complete the Norns. The Royal Opera Chorus made a sterling contribution in the tetralogy’s final instalment.

There were a couple of mishaps in Die Walküre, and some moments—in the stifling heat of the Albert Hall for Rheingold, and as we approached the End in Götterdämmerung—when one could detect small signs of very understandable fatigue in the orchestra. But let’s hope none of these—not to mention Wotan-like contractual difficulties—preclude the possibility of the cycle being released on CD. Astonishingly, it was the first time Barenboim had conducted Wagner in this country, and there was a sense that the bar for performances of the composer’s works here had been raised. With the Proms seeming to feature more and more opera, too, I couldn’t help wondering whether this visit from the Berlin Staatskapelle might be followed by operatic visits from other orchestras that London usually hears only in symphonic repertoire—maybe Thielemann’s Staatskapelle Dresden or the Vienna Philharmonic, both natural choices for next year’s Strauss anniversary. 

One of those bands might have relished the challenge of performing Tristan und Isolde between the final two instalments of the Barenboim Ring more than one imagines the BBC Symphony Orchestra did. In theory, the programming was justifiable in terms of the rough chronology of Wagner’s works, but in reality it seemed a loopy idea—and why not throw in a Meistersinger, too, since that was also written in the caesura between Acts 2 and 3 of Siegfried

Nevertheless, Semyon Bychkov conducted a spacious, always interesting account of the work, and the BBCSO played out of their skins. Violeta Urmana brought imperious command to Isolde, and Robert Dean Smith, taking over after Peter Seiffert pulled out, was a reliable Tristan. Neither, however, displayed much emotional range, reflecting little of the extremes that the piece is all about; despite the fact that it was semi-staged much as the Ring had been (Daniel Dooner was credited as ‘production adviser’), there was no similar sense of drama. Mihoko Fujimura was slightly out of sorts as Brangaene, the voice short on focus. Boaz Daniel’s Kurwenal was well sung but seemed unwilling to plumb the depths in the way that Kwangchul Youn’s moving King Marke did. Andrew Staples was a sweet-voiced Sailor and Shepherd, David Wilson-Johnson an emphatic Melot, and there was stirring work from the men of the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus. The performance ultimately highlighted the difference between an opera-house orchestra and a symphony orchestra, however, with the voices often drowned out and Bychkov casting too many encouraging looks in the direction of the brass.

No comments:

Post a Comment