Prom 14: Das Rheingold

Though I saw Richard Jones’s Royal Opera
Gˆtterd‰mmerung at the old house, the only performance I saw before
its closure, my first full Ring was at the Royal Albert Hall, with
Royal Opera forces under Bernard Haitink. Travelling down from Cambridge each
day, this sometime impoverished student standing up in the Gallery still
considers it, from the relative comfort of the RAH Stalls, a formative musical
experience of his life. It has certainly never been better conducted in his
experience, nor better sung; and, given the vagaries of stagings, it is
sometimes difficult to avoid the reactionary position that ‘a concert
performance would be preferable’. Of course it is not; but the semi-staged
solution adopted at the Albert Hall both then and now does afford us the great
luxury of being able to concentrate entirely upon the score (words included).
Justin Way’s direction was keen, but was limited, so far as one could tell,
to placing of the singers and presumably at least some advice concerning their
stage interaction. If one has any sense, one takes what one can from different
performances and productions, ever aware that no one performance will ‘have
it all’. What I can say, however, is that there was, with the possible
exception of the production, not a single element of this Proms
Rheingold that was not preferable to Antonio Pappano’s
at-best-amateurish attempts at Covent Garden to act as Haitink’s successor.

There was actually one other aspect of the Proms experience that lessened
appreciation: a heavy-breather seated behind me. Not once, despite the hardest
of stares, did he relent. It might sound trivial, but, in a drama that requires
of its audience total concentration, it is possible to ignore. How I wish there
were some Stasi-style opportunity to report such selfish behaviour and have the
miscreant banished for future performances. Moreover, the entry of audience
members during the descent to Nibelheim should never have been permitted; I
assumed at first that a highly conspicuous woman with shopping bag across the
hall, seemingly heading for the stage, denoted a racy realisation of Mime. Such
afforded amusement; others breaking the spell did not. Moreover, a
telephone’s invasion of Nibelheim took the idea of Alberich’s technological
breakthroughs far too literally.

Logistical matters detracted, but the drama remained the thing. Whereas,
across town, Pappano has never proved able to maintain a Wagnerian line, Daniel
Barenboim did so almost effortlessly. From the opening E-flat to the gods’
entrance into Valhalla, the drama unfolded as if heard in a single breath. If
that sounds like the Fernhˆren of Barenboim’s idol, Furtw‰ngler,
then inspiration doubtless derives from that source, but the differences are at
least as noteworthy. As I noted with respect to Barenboim’s
Rheingold with similar forces in Berlin
, there is perhaps a
surprising degree of ‘objectivity’ that seems, given the evidence of two
separate performances, to have become part and parcel of his conception. (On
the evidence of Berlin, it is a feature only of Rheingold, but we
shall see — or rather, hear.) It is a perfectly justifiable response to the
frigid ‘pre-historical’ world of Wagner’s Vorabend, and has
something in common with the readings of Karajan and Boulez. Some, at least, of
the music one hears rather as if there were an aural counterpart to the veil
that would, according to Wagner’s directions, conceal Valhalla until the end.
(In Berlin, Barenboim actually adopted the Bayreuth practice of covering the
pit.) There were, moreover, even within a highly flexible reading as a whole,
certain passages that intriguingly hinted towards the Neue
of a composer such as Hindemith; Schoenberg, another
Barenboim speciality, can doubtless wait until following evenings.
Barenboim’s reading, in keeping with the relatively ‘objective’ approach,
was often on the swift side, yet anything but superficial; there was, though,
no tendency to linger, just for the sake of it, Wagner’s textural variegation
offering its own opportunities for Êsthetic absorption. The conductor showed
beyond doubt — not that there should ever have been any grounds for such
naÔve either/or oppositions — that a fully satisfying musical reading was
perfectly consonant with, indeed dependent upon, dramatic communication of
Wagner’s poem: to take but one instance, Barenboim almost punched the air on
the ‘wiss’ Fasolt’s ‘Du Weiser, wiss’ es von ihm’, incitement to an
accent that was musico-dramatic in the fullest sense of the term.

None of that, of course, could be accomplished without the burnished
Staatskapelle Berlin. If this Proms Ring were to have but one lasting
accomplishment, to have made London audiences once again aware of how Wagner
might sound with the combination of a great orchestra and conductor would be
achievement enough. The Prelude received a realisation — insofar as I could
disregard the sub-Alberich breathing from behind — as close to perfect as
anyone might reasonably hope for: neither Barenboim nor his orchestra offered
‘interventionism’, yet Wagner’s evolving vision of what his contemporary
Marx termed ‘spontaneous generation’ told its own story, even when shorn of
scenic realisation. As Wagner’s Dresden comrade-in-arms, Bakunin, put it in
his earlier essay, God and the State, we hear ‘the gradual
development of the material world … a wholly natural movement from the simple
to the complex, from the lower to the higher,’ not ‘the vile
of the idealists … incapable of producing anything,’ but
‘matter … spontaneously and eternally mobile, active, productive.’ The
words might almost have been intended as a programme note — though they come
a little more than a decade before Wagner’s composition.

The orchestral contribution was, a very occasional obscured entry
notwithstanding, truly excellent: not in a quasi-narcissistic fashion, such as
one heard sometimes with the Berlin
Philharmonic’s Ring under Simon Rattle
, but as a proper
instantiation of Wagner’s Opera and Drama ‘Greek chorus’. A
splendidly sepulchral Wagner tuba offered the deftest — a word one does not
always necessarily associate with the instrument — upon Woglinde’s
broaching the apparently absurd idea of renouncing love for gold. And how the
brass and timpani let rip when permitted to do so — for instance, upon the
arrival of Fasolt and Fafner: larger than life in more than one sense. The
transformation between the first scenes, in which the ring motif is
dialectically transformed into that denoting Valhalla, owed a great deal to the
timbral sophistication of middle-range instruments such as that baleful English
horn, violas, and of course the increasingly tender horn. Likewise the wind
ageing of the gods upon Freia’s departure was second to none I have ever
heard, effected with painful, cruel beauty, a telling comment upon Wagner’s
Feuerbachian unmasking of delusions to immortality. (They looked increasingly
frozen of aspect too, for which the director deserves credit.) It was a pity,
then, that the anvils were so underwhelming: almost a case of spoiling the ship
for a ha’p’orth of tar. No matter: the horn-playing as Mime told us of old
Nibelheim was so exquisitely, musically phrased that ‘wonnig Geschmeid’,
nielichen Niblungentand’ came to life before our ears.

Barenboim’s cast was more than equal to the task , as distinguished a
complement to the orchestra as anyone might reasonably hope for. The
Rhinemaidens were near-idea in blend, as fine a trio as I can recall having
heard, Anna Lapkovskaja’s Flosshilde perhaps especially radiant. Their final
lament was as beautifully, heart-rendingly piercing as I can recall. Iain
Paterson made a distinguished debut as Wotan, perhaps less authoritative than
many, but the god of Das Rheingold is a less weighty figure than he
will become. Attention to the text was exemplary throughout. Ekaterina Gubanova
once again shone as Wotan’s consort. The portrayal of Fricka’s tenderness,
an intimate portrait of a wronged, anxious wife, blossomed into splendidly
divine self-assurance where necessary, but this was so much more than a mere
harridan. When she approached Wotan following Erda’s intervention, Gubanova
showed just how expertly she could spin out a line, not for its own sake but
for dramatic effect, Barenboim her encouraging and trusting partner. Stephan
R¸gamer’s Loge was a vivid assumption, sardonic yet not caricatured, indeed
at times beautifully sung. The moment of shock upon Loge’s ‘Durch Raub!’
registered without being milked, testament to the artistry of both R¸gamer and
Barenboim. It verged upon a mini-caesura, at the very least a telling piece of
punctuation, punctuation that nevertheless made sense in terms of the greater
whole. (Alberich’s ‘Knecht’, as in his Act IV ‘als des Ringes Knecht’
curse, offered a telling parallel — and development, followed by the vilest
orchestral fury, properly chilling.)

Johannes Martin Kr‰nzle’s Alberich was lighter than one generally hears,
but he made a virtue of that, drawing our attention to the intricacies of
Wagner’s poem. This Alberich could shade into Sprechgesang, for
instance on the ‘Lust’ of ‘doch listig erzw‰ng’ ich mir Lust?’ The
alienating darkness had chilling dramatic effect, so long as it were not
over-employed, which it was not. Especially notable was the colouring of every
word in his Nibelheim threats to his band of wage-slaves — ‘Zˆgert ihr
noch? Zaudert wohl gar?’ Every word told, yet without disruption to phrasing.
Barenboim’s pointing of rhythms as Alberich poured out sarcastic scorn upon
Loge — ‘Der Listigste d¸nkt sich Loge; andre denkt er immer sich
dumm…’ — offered an excellent example of the indissoluble union of singer
and conductor, words and music; this was music drama at its finest. Peter
Bronder’s Mime offered a fine evocation of proto-Nietzschean
ressentiment, his pitiful anger formed by his lowly position within
the world — Wotan’s, be it noted, as well as Alberich’s. Eric Halfvarson
and Stephen Milling made much of their roles as giants. Milling’s Fasolt was,
quite rightly, more mellifluous, more sympathetic. Fafner’s insulting
‘Geck’ towards his lovelorn brother, the word veritably spat out, said it
all. Nor of course, however predictable the assessment may be, should one
forget Anna Larsson’s well-nigh definitive Erda, Mahler’s Urlicht
palpably on the aural horizon. Everything, then, augurs well for Die
this evening — not least the mendacious orchestral blaze for
the gods’ closing Totentanz. A storm awaits.

Mark Berry

Production and cast information:

Wotan: Iain Paterson; Loge: Stephan R¸gamer; Donner: Jan Buchwald;
Froh: Marius Vlad; Fricka: Ekaterina Gubanova; Freia: Anna Samuil; Erda: Anna
Larsson; Alberich: Johannes Martin Kr‰nzle; Mime: Peter Bronder; Fasolt:
Stephen Milling; Fafner: Eric Halfvarson; Woglinde: Aga Mikolaj; Wellgunde:
Maria Gortsevskaja; Flosshilde: Anna Lapkovskaja. Justin Way (director).
Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London,
Monday 22 July

image_description=Daniel Barenboim, Prom 14
product_title=Das Rheingold, London
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above: Daniel Barenboim