Wagner 200th Anniversary Concert

ENO, once home to Reginald Goodall, one may delete the ‘near’; the Royal
Opera has opted for a single production, in November, of Parsifal,
whose casting does not exactly lift the spirits. There is certainly nothing
anywhere near the composer’s birthday itself. The BBC Proms have valiantly
stepped into the gap, offering concert performances of the Ring
(Barenboim), Tristan und Isolde (Bychkov), Parsifal (Elder)
and Tannh‰user (Runnicles). Those concerts, however, will not take
place until July and August. For 22 May, London’s offering was a Philharmonia
concert conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. Doubtless there was stiff competition
for Wagner conductors on the day, and Chirstian Thielemann was otherwise
occupied in Bayreuth, but it was difficult not to feel that someone with
greater Wagerian credentials might at least have been a possibility. Bernard
Haitink, for instance? Most of us would readily have swapped the aforementioned
Parsifal to hear the Royal Opera’s erstwhile music director once
again in Wagner.

Was I being unfair? The proof of the aural pudding would, as always, be in
the hearing. Sadly, the Prelude to the first act of Die Meistersinger
not its ‘Overture’, as the programme insert had it —
received an account, which, if undoubtedly preferable to the straightforward
incomprehension Antonio
Pappano had shown
conducting the entire opera at Covent Garden, proved no
more than Kapellmeister-ish. Timings as such tell one nothing, but it
felt rushed, often more martial than celebratory. There was certainly no sense
of midsummer blaze or indeed embers. The Philharmonia strings, though many in
number, sometimes tended towards wiriness. Detail was either skated or fussed
over. Though there was more fire towards the close, it was really too late by
then. It doubtless had not helped that, earlier in the day, I had listened to
Furtw‰ngler conducting the same music in 1931, but even taking that into
account, it was an undistinguished performance.

Rather to my surprise, the Tristan excerpts worked better. I remain
sceptical, to put it mildly, about the wisdom of pairing the first act Prelude
and the so-called ‘Liebestod’ (Liszt’s wretched description of Isolde’s
Transfiguration). Though I am well aware of the distinguished precedents –
even Furtw‰ngler and Boulez have followed the practice – to my ears it jars.
That said, both conductor and orchestra were on better form. Not only was their
a fuller string sound but Davis now seemed to understand, certainly to
communicate, that something was at stake. He struck a good balance between
forward impulse and a more analytical approach to the score. Though certainly
not plumbing any Furtw‰nglerian metaphysical depths, it was a satisfying
enough musical experience. Susan Bullock, joining for the ‘Liebestod’, held
her line well enough. At some times, she shaded sensitively; at others, she
proved rather squally. The Philharmonia, however, offered beautifully
shimmering and pulsating support. Whoever interposed immediately with a boorish
‘Bravo!’ should be consigned to listen to Verdi for the rest of Wagner’s
anniversary year.

The second half was devoted to the third act of Die Walk¸re. It is
not the Wagner act I should have chosen in such circumstances; surely the first
act of the same drama works better on its own. But we had what we had, and
presumably part of the idea was to offer the popular, if generally
misunderstood, ‘Ride of the Valkyries’. Davis for the most part proved a
competent guide, though there were some arbitrary-sounding slowings, though he
offered few if any revelations. Whilst the Philharmonia played well enough, it
sounded during the ‘Magic Fire Music’ as if someone had suddenly turned on
a light-switch, such was the vividness of colour hitherto lacking. (That is not
simply a matter of Wagner’s wondrous scoring at the end.) There is not much
to say about David Edwards’s ‘semi-staging’, save that very good use was
made of a very limited space, the direction being largely a matter of having
singers come on, go off, and engage with each other. That they all did well,
with the exception of James Rutherford’s Wotan. An excellent touch at the end
was to have Br¸nnhilde go up behind the stage, to the organ, to be put to
sleep. Handing her a very old-fashioned helmet at that point seemed odd:
neither an obvious post-modern touch nor in keeping with the neutral dress
otherwise on offer. Bullock had her moments, less audibly strained than she had
been recently at Covent Garden. She made a good deal of Wagner’s text, though
there were moments of relative vocal weakness. One cannot really judge a
Sieglinde on the basis of the third act, but Giselle Allen offered an account
more hochdramtisch than lyrical; ‘O hehrstes Wunder!’ sounded
rushed, but that may have been Davis’s account. At any rate, what should be
ecstatic was more matter-of-fact. The Valkyries were a good bunch, a couple of
them somewhat weak, but others excellent indeed; Jennifer Johnston’s
Waltraute particularly stood out. Rutherford’s Wotan, however, was a
disappointment. Apparently glued to the score, and none too certain with it,
there was no sign whatsoever of him having internalised the role; his
performance was more akin to a first rehearsal for a minor oratorio. Tone
production was often rather woolly too.

Had one been coming anew to Wagner, doubtless much would have impressed, and
there may well have been some in the audience who were. (There were, as one
might have expected, some decidedly peculiar people in the audience. A man
seated next to me insisted on filming the first half and hour or so of the
Walk¸re act, my glares having no effect, the ushers either not
noticing or not caring. When finally he put his camera away, he replaced it
with a skull-capped walking-stick.) London’s anniversary contribution
remained, however, surprisingly low-key. The rest of the Wagner 200 celebrations promise much
more, as do the Proms.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Die Meistersinger von N¸rnberg : Prelude to Act One;
Tristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act One and ‘Liebestod’; Die
: Act Three. Isolde, Br¸nnhilde: Susan Bullock; Sieglinde :
Giselle Allen; Wotan: James Rutherford; Helmwige: Katherine Broderick;
Gerhilde: Mariya Krywaniuk; Siegrune: Magdalen Ashman; Grimgerde: Antonia
Sotgiu; Ortlinde: Elaine McKrill; Waltraute: Jennifer Johnston; Rossweisse:
Maria Jones; Schwertleite: Miriam Sharrad. David Edwards (director); David
Holmes (lighting). Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis (director). Royal
Festival Hall, 22 May 2013.

image_description=The Valkyrie / Das Walk¸re by Richard Wagner. The ride of the valkyries. Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1867 – 1939)
product_title=Wagner 200th Anniversary Concert
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above: The ride of the Valkyries by Arthur Rackham (1867 – 1939)