Prom 20: Wagner — Gˆtterd‰mmerung

And so it came to pass. Not only did we continue to hear superlative
conducting from Daniel Barenboim and equally superlative playing from the
Staatskapelle Berlin. (To guard my back, unlike Siegfried, I shall mention in
passing very occasional signs of tiredness towards the end, if only so as not
to have to return to such Beckmesserish thoughts.) We also at last heard a
Siegfried and Br¸nnhilde worthy of the roles. Gˆtterd‰mmerung, by
virtue of its placing as the third ‘day’ of the Ring, should
always be a special occasion, though sadly that is anything but a foregone
conclusion; this performance, however went beyond ‘special’, to

The weight of history was apparent in those portentous opening chords to the
Norns’ Scene, but so was sonorous magic. Wagner’s goal-orientation is not
Beethoven’s, though it is not diametrically opposed either; Barenboim’s
guiding of this crucial scene opened up possibilities rather than closing them,
whilst at the same time ensuring that the drama’s tragic import won out. The
bassoon line following the Second Norn’s ‘…woran spannst du das Seil?’
sounded as if it were itself the guiding thread of the Norns’ rope of Fate.
More often than one might expect, conductors misjudge Wagner’s climaxes;
often, indeed, they try to introduce irrelevant climaxes of their own. There
was no such danger here, the outbreak of Dawn judged to perfection, the
Staatskapelle Berlin in truly glorious sound, followed by a scene with an ebb
and flow — Wagner’s melos — in which words and music truly
melded together to form a musico-dramatic whole. And the tenderness of the
strings, for instance when Br¸nnhilde here embraced Siegfried, far surpassed
anything the BBC SO had been able to conjure up the previous evening, for
Tristan. The final climax to the scene sounded as fully achieved as if
Furtw‰ngler himself had been at the podium; not that we should forget here the
extraordinary contributions of Andreas Schager as Siegfried and Nina Stemme as
Br¸nnhilde, on whom more below. As ever, Barenboim proved worthy of Wagner’s
‘most subtle art’ of transition, that wonderful Dawn followed by a masterly
Rhine Journey, placed aptly midway between Beethovenian playfulness and
Mahlerian contrapuntal involvement. (Special mention here should be afforded to
the glockenspiel, veritable icing on the orchestral cake.) Once we reached the
Rhineland proper, moving towards the Hall of the Gibichungs, we were afforded a
veritable pageant, noteworthy not just in itself, but, in its ‘secondary’
diatonicism (to borrow from Carl Dahlhaus on Die Meistersinger, the
mediated diatonic harmony being predicated upon the chromaticism it both
negated and incorporated) already conveying the mediated unease of
‘civilisation’. Beneath the surface lay not only the nixies of the Rhine,
but more worryingly, the snares of Hagen’s plotting. The aural stench of
decay — how truly, truthfully ugly some of Gˆtterd‰mmerung’s
music is! — led us to the Hall itself. There was already something of the
unhealthy air of Venice, of the Palazzo Vendramin.

And so to the first act proper. The sturdiness Barenboim imparted to
Gunther’s rhythms — Lohengrin, as it were, aufgehoben
immediately made clear the hopelessness of that character’s plight. (If only
Gerd Grochowski had managed a little better the difficult balancing act of a
strong portrayal of a weak character, but anyway…) Throughout the act,
orchestral exultancy would bid Siegfried to new deeds, all the more movingly
for our knowledge of Hagen’s snares, his Watch again sick with chromatic
decay, whilst the transition to Br¸nnhilde’s rock drew us into a more
intimate, tragically fragile world. The phantasmagoria with which
Br¸nnhilde’s anger was transformed into evening twilight again had to be
heard to be believed, likewise the cruellest of interruptions — more so even
the coitus interruptus of Tristan ’s second act — upon
Siegfried’s appearance (as Gunther). The violence of rape horrified, as it
must, at the close.

How one relished the richness of the bass line — reinforced by those eight
double basses — at the opening of the second act! The architecture of every
act was perfectly in place: long familiarity, for conductor and orchestra
alike, clearly pays off; the vengeance trio proved no mere set piece, but a
true culmination. But moments told equally truthfully, whether the trombone
interjections of ‘Hagen’ as Br¸nnhilde screamed of her deceit. Then the
new sound-world of the third act came as a breath of fresh air, though just as
soon as one had thought that, necessary doubts set in. The orchestra sounded
languorous, almost Debussyan; one often hears Liszt here, in this first scene,
but Barenboim’s balances imparted intriguing and apposite presentiments not
so much of PellÈas as of PrÈlude ‡ l’aprËs-midi d’un
and even the Images. Integration was, as ever key, the
Funeral March all the more impressive for acting as interlude rather than
interposed set piece. Barenboim’s greatness in Beethoven now fully informs
his Wagner, and did so until the closing bar, bathed in the after-glow of
orchestral flames that might well have burned us. And yet, at the end there was
a message of equivocal hope. Barenboim has no fear of comparisons with anyone,
not even Haitink (from whom, in any case, we are extremely unlikely to hear
another Ring).

From Siegfried’s very first line, we heard what had been missing earlier
on. Lance Ryan had proved serviceable in the previous instalment, yet Andreas
Schager proved preferable in every respect. The beauty of his voice alone here
showed what earlier had been lacking, let alone the dramatic commitment he
would show when acting his third-act narration or, indeed, stiffly as
‘Gunther’ with the Tarnhelm. It was clear even in the Prologue that this
was a fully mature Siegfried, a man, no longer a boy, despite his fatal flaws;
Schager’s interaction with the orchestra as part of a musico-dramatic whole
that extended far beyond any single contributor was not the least of his
virtues. Drinking the potion brought a touching hymn to lost innocence, soon
enough followed by an eroticism entirely lacking in many portrayals (let alone
Robert Dean Smith’s Tristan, the night before). There was, moreover, real
anger to his contesting Br¸nnhilde’s claims in the second act, betokening a
psychological understanding rarely present in this role. One might have taken
dictation, of words and music, from either him or Stemme, for pretty
much the whole of the performance. Anyone who did not respond both to the
irrepressible vitality of this Siegfried’s swagger with the Rhinemaidens and
to the detailed, loving narrative of his deeds recalled would be satisfied with
no one, not even Lauritz Melchior. This might actually have been the first time
I was moved as I should have been by the moment when he recalls Br¸nnhilde: a
true monument to a truer love than I have heard.

Stemme’s Prologue ‘O heilige Gˆtter!’ was a paean to a glorious age,
an age which yet had passed; the realm of the gods was not belittled, but there
was no doubt that the future held something different. The dramatic urgency she
imparted to the Waltraute scene was every bit the equal of Waltraud Meier’s.
‘Denn selig aus ihm leuchtet mir Siegfrieds Liebe!’ revelled in tragic
irony: Stemme sang in the present but the orchestra — and we — knew that
she sang of the past, the ecstasy of her love notwithstanding. Her fear before
Siegfried (as Gunther) was palpable, yet without loss to the commanding nature
of her performance. And her Immolation Scene, delivered from the organ, somehow
bringing together the strongest virtues of Flagstad’s womanhood and
Nilsson’s authority, should become the stuff of legend. Meier’s turning to
her sister as the latter asked ‘Weisst du, wie das wird?’ was a dramatic
moment worth all (or most of) the stagings in the world. How she later made the
words come alive as she told, for instance, of Wotan taming Loge! Though
Meier’s Waltraute may be dangerously close to definitive, that is no excuse
for overlooking the excellence of her contribution, here with a true sense of
epic narrative in telling her tale of Wotan’s depression. Increasing
desperation urged on the orchestra, as it in turn urged her on. Her departure
had one think of Cassandra herself.

Mikhail Petrenko’s protean Hagen is now a known quantity. Sometimes, from
force of habit perhaps more than from dramatic necessity, one finds oneself
expecting a darker voice, but Petrenko’s vision is in many ways more
dangerous than the traditional Ridderbusch-like performance. Rather than
pitch-black ‘mere’ evil, we hear someone devilishly intelligent, and
troublingly alluring. Not that Petrenko’s voice is without heft, but, for
instance, his ‘Heil! Siegfried, teurer Held!’ as the hero brought his boat
ashore was curdled with a menace that went beyond brute force. (After all, it
is through cunning that he will slay Siegfried, not though overpowering him.)
‘Dir ha ich guten Rat,’ seemed almost throwaway: ‘I gave you good
advice,’ but the words were made to tell, to inform us that such advice to
Siegfried was anything but ‘good’, however that might be understood.
Aggression and restlessness suggested a power-lust that might have been
enhanced by substances the modern would tends to deem illicit. This Hagen was
one dealer no one would wish to encounter upon a dark night.

Johannes Martin Kr‰nzle’s Alberich once again showed a fine way with
words. His injunction to Hagen, ‘Hasse die Frohen!’ seethed with
Nietzschean ressentiment, whilst the ghostliness of the regfrain,
‘Schl‰fst du, Hagen, mein Sohn,’ chilled as it should. Our trio of
Rhinemaidens if anything surpassed its excellence in Das Rheingold.
Anna Samuil, alas, proved somewhat on the shrill side as the Third Norn and
blowsy as Gutrune, her vibrato, especially during the first act, uncomfortably
unsteady. She was more honeytrap than dupe, and less interesting for it. There
was, though, real vocal presence to be heard from Margarita Nekrasova’s First
Norn. The Royal Opera Chorus excelled, its weight as impressive as its clarity.

All were rightly commended by Barenboim in a few closing words. Charming as
ever, he praised the audience for its silence as well as for its most fulsome
applause, and forewent to mention the selfish **** (fill in as appropriate) who
had interrupted Hagen’s opening advice to Gunther with a mobile telephone
call. There were many stars to this Ring, but once again, this proved
above all others the achievement of Barenboim’s Staatskapelle Berlin, no
secret to those of us enamoured with the German capital, but now firmly
ensconced in Londoners’ hearts too. Wolf-Dieter Batzdorf took a well-deserved
bow, retiring as concert-master — surely only Barenboim could get away with
an implicit F¸hrer gag here, explaining that Germans do not favour
the English term, ‘leader’ — but applause resounded for the whole of
Wagner’s Attic chorus. And, one hopes, for Wagner himself, a fitting tribute,
which is really saying something, to the composer’s bicentenary. Now, please,
someone, a CD release…!

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Br¸nnhilde: Nina Stemme; Siegfried: Andreas Schager; Gunther: Gerd
Grochowski; Alberich: Johannes Martin Kr‰nzle; Hagen: Mikhail Petrenko;
Gutrune, Third Norn: Anna Samuil; Waltraute, Second Norn: Waltraud Meier; First
Norn: Margarita Nekrasova; Woglinde: Aga Mikolaj; Wellgunde: Maria
Gortsevskaja; Flosshilde: Anna Lapovskaja. Justin Way (director). Staatskapelle
Berlin/Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, Sunday 28 July

image_description=Nina Stemme [Photo by Tanja Niemann]
product_title=Prom 20: Wagner — Gˆtterd‰mmerung
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above: Nina Stemme [Photo by Tanja Niemann]