Monday, 29 July 2013

Der Ring des Nibelungen

Royal Albert Hall, 22-28 July 2013

The curtain calls at the end of what everyone seems to have felt was shattering experience.

Celebrating Wagner in the best possible way, through a magnificent performance of his questioning myth.

Last year Daniel Barenboim conducted a Beethoven symphony cycle at the Proms in one week, interspersed with wonderful contrasting Boulez works. This year he conducted the Ring Cycle over the same span, almost 19 hours, including intervals. The audience was completely bowled over, as you might expect: how will he top it next year?

This semi-staged concert performance is the supreme highlight of the entire season, and not merely because of Barenboim’s ambition. The Ring is central to Wagner’s artistic concerns, and his mythmaking here seems to define the whole of Romanticism.

The struggle to replace a corrupt society with one in which freedom, love and free love can be expressed is at the heart of many, perhaps most, artists in the nineteenth century, and continues as a major presence today.

The Ring cycle wasn’t the first apocalyptic-utopian artwork, but it is the greatest, and can be appreciated purely for its astonishing levels of musical organisation, even if the finer details of the philosophy are lost.

With Barenboim and his seasoned orchestra, there was no chance of losing either. Surely he has conducted this vast work as often as anyone else ever, though as usual he adopts a fairly traditional, steady approach. Erring on the side of caution, this can cause problems in places, most damagingly in the Walküre’s first act, where the peaks and troughs are smoothed out too much.

But then the second act of the same drama shows the conductor and orchestra at their best, weighty, solemn yet maintaining momentum during the cycle’s most significant scenes. And through the same qualities, practically the whole of Götterdämmerung is magnificent.

Justin Way’s stage directions deserve almost as much praise as the conducting. Constrained in having the singers always face the audience, nonetheless somehow some very subtle acting was possible, including some touching death scenes. The whole of the stage was used, including the orchestra, for great comic effect during Siegfried.

Casting a Ring Cycle is a daunting task, and allowances ought to be made for the much more prominent position of the orchestra in this hall, compared to their position in an opera house pit, where they overwhelm the singers less.

From the three major roles, only Brünnhilde was consistently cast across her three dramas. Nina Stemme is intelligent and committed, though her voice seemed to grow in size as the cycle progressed. Her immolation scene was moving, though not especially powerful, and that is perhaps my summary impression of most of the singers.

The Siegfrieds, Lance Ryan and Andreas Schager, both impressively looked and acted the part. Ryan’s voice seemed less powerful than I’ve experienced on his DVD performances, but he dared to sing quietly at times, and of course, the role is murderously difficult.

Of the three different Wotans, Bryn Terfel was predictably the best, in Walkure – in volume and vocal acting, he was magnificent. Iain Patterson, in Rheingold, was impressive if a bit stiff, while Terje Stensvold in Siegfried was distressingly underpowered.

Even more underpowered was Mikhail Petrenko’s Hagen; the singer may have had some subtle ideas, but it was difficult even to hear him, such that his performance was by some margin the most disappointing in the work. By contrast, Erik Halfvarson must be one of the most malevolently powerful Hundings ever, and his Fafner was similarly impressive.

Johannes Martin Kränzle was an adequate Alberich; Peter Bronder avoided vocal or visual caricature as Mime; Simon O’Neill and Anja Kampe were a moving pair of Wälsungs, Ekaterina Gubanova a beautiful Fricka. The smaller parts seemed perfectly cast.

It simply isn't possible to do the slightest justice to an experience like the Ring in so few words, but as other commentators have pointed out, this performance, available to hundreds (thousands?) of people for almost no price, made me believe in Wagner's original vision of it transforming society.

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