Jurowski’s London Philharmonic Ring comes to a magnificent end with Götterdämmerung

Life can sometimes imitate art and in the case of this concert performance of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung that has certainly been so. Originally scheduled for 2021, at the end of Vladimir Jurowski’s 15-year tenure at the London Philharmonic Orchestra before he went off to Munich, it coincided with the beginning of the pandemic. Almost exactly three years later, their Der Ring des Nibelungen is now complete – but with the destinies of both worlds in an unquestionably different place than when this performance was originally planned.  It was sometimes hard to come to the conclusion at the end of this terrific performance that we are closer to Valhalla being engulfed in flames than we have ever been.

It is by some margin the most complex of the four Ring operas. Personal conflicts reach their conclusion to a devastating degree; emotions can collide with overpowering intensity. What is predetermined in Rheingold is brought to a conclusion in Götterdämmerung. There is the ecstasy of Tristan und Isolde; but its long narratives can crumble into dust. It is entirely about contrast: about fire and water; psychology and passion. In none of the Ring operas is the orchestra so crucial as it is in Götterdämmerung.

One of the problems with concert performances of Wagner operas in particular can be their static action and a lack of stage direction. Here it was variable, with success dialled up here and there for me. The RFH organ was used by the director, P J Harris, to give us imagery of the Rhine, Dawn and the Rhine Journey, and the scenes of fire that surrounded Brünnhilde’s Rock and the burning of Valhalla itself. The three Norns were dressed in grey, the Rhinemaidens in a striking blue and Hagen’s chorus of Gibichung’s in black. Lighting itself was subtle – often too subtle – although for the opening of both the Prologue and Act II Vladimir Jurowski simply appeared on the rostrum out of the pitch black. Rather magical. The crucial death of the opera before the apocalyptic end – Siegfried’s – is marked by his folded jacket being carried off stage like some deified relic, perhaps a little more Grail like.

Although space was at a premium, I found the acting disappointing, except for Albert Dohmen’s outstanding Hagen (more than a couple of decades Wagner experience going on here). Dohmen has superb stage presence, even if one doesn’t allow for his naturally imposing height. If not a true bass, he is freer than most – higher up in the register, but still capable of darker bottom notes. But more than that he gets inside the language; he understands how to tell the story without being unduly dry about it. There was real drama here – even rather chilling drama, such as his near oleaginous pawing of Gutrune as he advised her to marry (Act I, Sc. 1). It partly made more tolerable a scene that can sometimes become interminably long. Hagen’s Watch had the most sinister of undertones. His scene with Alberich (Robert Hayward) was superbly done, too, resonating evil, as was the tempestuous onslaught he summoned up from the chorus of Gibichungs. I found him magnificent, by some margin the best soloist (and an inspired replacement for Brindley Sherratt). But these were highpoints in what was generally rather flat, one-dimensional acting.

Albert Dohmen, London Philharmonic Choir, London Voices, Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra

The lack of a production makes all the more important the casting in this opera. It is rare, if probably not possible, to find a perfectly cast Götterdämmerung. When I reviewed Siegfried back in February 2020, there were problems with the titular hero (sung by Torsten Kerl). A new hero emerged in this Siegfried’s final journey (sung by Burkhard Fritz), albeit in a somewhat less complicated role. If the younger Siegfried is edgily comic and rowdy before growing into something slightly more heroic it is also more nuanced. Less might be asked for in Götterdämmerung, the challenges of the role slightly less demanding. If that proved better done here, new weaknesses emerged instead elsewhere.

Burkhard Fritz has previously sung Siegfried at Lyric Opera in Chicago under the late Sir Andrew Davis (to whom this performance was dedicated). There is nothing fundamentally weak about Fritz’s Siegfried. He easily lasted the course, without flagging, and there is an evenness of tone and inflection that is compelling at both the top and bottom of the register. He came across as even more convincing as husband material for either Gutrune or Brünnhilde than the hapless Gunther. Oddly, Fritz’s lower notes sometimes sounded a little darker than Günter Papendell’s baritone did as Gunther – especially when the two singers were singing side-by-side such as in the oath of blood brotherhood scene (Act I, Sc.2).  Papendell’s Gunther I did find a little underwhelming, although this did in part fully seem characteristic of the role. Perhaps he shone more in Act II than he did earlier, but by the time he is slain by Hagen any confidence he brought to the part had arrived just a little too late.

Robert Hayward sang Alberich from the organ stand and amid the black-shirt chorus he rather stood out in a white shirt lasering his voice in sharp focus over the orchestra. His scene with Hagen (Act II, Sc.1) pitted two great voices against one another in a beautifully sung display of tonal contrast. One of the highlights of this performance.

Gutrune I find a bit of an irritating role: a woman who is just as hapless as her brother, and just as taken in by her naïve love for Siegfried, she finds no difficulty to capitulate to Brünnhilde in the end. Sinéad Campbell-Wallace rather struck the right note here, although I didn’t find much compelling that was Wagnerian in her singing. Hagen rather took advantage of her, and quite malevolently so. More enjoyable was Kai Rüütel-Pajula’s Waltraute, the voice pure and warm.

The Russian soprano, Svetlana Sozdateleva’s Brünnhilde was at least sung without the prop of a music stand – unlike Elana Pankratova’s in Siegfried. However, whilst Pankratova’s Brünnhilde exuded a lot of power and often swelled effortlessly over the orchestra – often with thrilling effect – Sozdateleva’s was a bit more uneven. Her first scene with Siegfried was tremendous, as she was in Act I, Sc.3, but during Act II she became more uneven in tone (in her scene with Hagen, for example). The ‘Immolation Scene’ exposed some of the problems with Sozdateleva’s voice: a tendency to scoop notes at the top of her register, and a wide vibrato. There is probably no lack of force in the voice (at least not from where I was sat), although whether this is a voice that will long survive as a Wagnerian one is questionable.

Kai Rüütel-Pajula, Svetlana Sozdateleva, Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra

The three Norns (Claudia Huckle, Claire Barnett-Jones and Evelina Dobračeva) were each equally expressive at the opening of Act I; the three Rhinemaidens (Alina Adamski, Woglinde; Alexandra Lowe, Wellgunde; and Angharad Lyddon, Flosshilde) were seductive and alluring, as they rippled in front of the organ like waves through the Rhine.

As is so often the case with Wagner – and this was certainly so with Siegfried – it is the orchestra which makes the greatest impact. Orchestrally, Götterdämmerung contains some of the most electrifying and incandescent music that Wagner wrote for any of the Ring operas – it contains the only chorus he set for one of them (Hagen’s call of the vassals) and Siegfried’s Funeral Music is some of the darkest and most searing music of any of the operas. It says much for this particular performance of Götterdämmerung that Vladimir Jurowski conjured up from the London Philharmonic (and the London Philharmonic Chorus and London Voices) one of the most explosive and thrilling Gibichung scenes I have heard in this opera. The Funeral Music might just be the finest I have ever heard in a concert hall – the sheer weight of it, the intensity of the drama and the flow was quite overwhelming. The string playing throughout was glowing – dark cellos, lugubrious basses.

But Jurowski knows the sound he wants, and he is microscopically aware of the detail in the score and how to tease it out of the orchestra. The lack of risers on the platform (the blend of orchestral sound so no one section of the orchestra overwhelms any other achieved remarkable balance), the antiphonal violins, the double basses stretched out along the wall, the brass (including horns) entirely to the right of the orchestra gave this performance a wonderful luminosity. Off stage horns were beautifully done; the three steer horns – left, right and centre – were just stereophonic. The pacing of the score was not in the least brisk; but nor was it slow. If some parts did seem to hang fire (like the Act I narration) others seemed to flow organically. I’ve heard some Rhine Journey’s that sound like Alexander marching from Macedonia to central Asia; this one was free and flowing.

Often this was just an electrifying reading of the score; its vast scale gripping. Some may have found it just a little too perfect, and there did seem almost no room for error here. The London Philharmonic’s playing was superlative – of a quality which I doubt any orchestra would have matched on this particular day. What had been the most Teutonic of British orchestras under Jurowski played for him as they do for no other conductor.

An entirely memorable ending to the Jurowski/LPO Ring.

Marc Bridle

Music and libretto by Richard Wagner

Cast and production:

Burkhard Fritz – Siegfried; Svetlana Sozdateleva – Brünnhilde; Albert Dohmen – Hagen; Günter Papendell – Gunther; Sinéad Campbell Wallace – Gutrune; Robert Hayward – Alberich; Kai Rüütel-Pajula – Waltraute; Claudia Huckle – First Norn; Claire Barnett-Jones – Second Norn; Evelina Dobračeva – Third Norn; Alina Adamski – Woglinde; Alexandra Lowe – Wellgunde; Angharad Lyddon – Flosshilde; London Philharmonic Choir; London Voices; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Vladimir Jurowski, conductor

PJ Harris –director; Mark Jonathan – lighting; Pierre Martin Oriol – video designer

Royal Festival Hall, London, 27 April 2024

Top Image: Svetlana Sozdateleva, Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra

All photos by London Philharmonic Orchestra