Prom 15: Wagner — Die Walk¸re

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
, an often ‘objectivist’ Rheingold was followed by a
warmly Romantic Walk¸re, 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 Furtw‰nglerian 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
Furtw‰ngler would have understood it to be; moreover, it was music, not some
mere storm ‘effect’, very much as Furtw‰ngler — 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 Furtw‰ngler’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 Walk¸re 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 Br¸nnhilde, told of the ‘¸ppigen 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

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
Furtw‰ngler, 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 Br¸nnhilde 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 ‘W‰lsungen-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 Br¸nnhilde 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 Gˆtterd‰mmerung. Ekaterina Gubanova once again proved an
excellent Fricka. ‘So ist es denn aus mit den ewigen Gˆttern…’ 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 Br¸nnhilde, 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; Br¸nnhilde: Nina Stemme; Fricka: Ekaterina
Gubanova; Gerhilde: Sonja M¸hleck; Ortlinde: Carola Hˆhn; Waltraute: Ivonne
Fuchs; Schwertleite: AnaÔk Morel; Helmwige: Susan Foster; Siegrune: Leann
Sandel-Pantaleo; Grimgerde: Anna Lapkovskaja; Rossweisse: Simone Schrˆder.
Justin Way (director). Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Royal
Albert Hall, London, Tuesday 23 July 2013.

image_description=Prom 15: Wagner — Die Walk¸re [Photo by Chris Christodoulou courtesy of BBC]
product_title=Prom 15: Wagner — Die Walk¸re
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above photo by Chris Christodoulou courtesy of BBC