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S & H Opera Review

Wagner Twilight of the Gods. Soloists; Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera/Paul Daniel. Barbican Hall, Tuesday, November 25th, 2003 (CC).

 

 

The previous instalments of the ENO ‘Ring’ left a somewhat mixed impression. Fittingly, Twilight of the Gods acted as the climax of the cycle in terms of execution as well as closing the tetralogy in titanically dramatic fashion.

In keeping with this Barbican ‘Ring’, the performance was semi-staged (by Michael Walling), two bare benches acting as the only props. But Walling made full use of the space available to him: the chorus filled the aisles as well as hovering around the stage; the Rhine maidens’ final appearance was through the ‘door’ half way up the back wall of the auditorium.

The Barbican Hall was packed to the rafters, a heart-warming sight. How nice also to hear a full, rich orchestral sound from this orchestra as it launched into the opening. The portrayal of the Norns as bag-ladies was an intriguing one: did this suggest merely age, or perhaps a wisdom the inhabitants of the Bullring (as was) at Waterloo may have that eludes the rest of us in day jobs? Whatever, it certainly evoked an atmosphere of starting from nothing as the Norns weaved the rope of destiny. Musically, of course, Wagner’s juxtaposition of the voices makes comparison easy for the reviewer: Liane Keegan’s rich contralto (First Norn) was appropriate to the omniscient nature of her character; Leah-Marian Jones’ vibrato was disconcerting at first, yet her voice had all the requisite power (Second Norn); Franzita Whelan, making her ENO debut as Third Norn, was initially weak, but grew to a very dramatic portrayal of the snapping of the cord of fate. As they shuffled off, one became aware of a facet of the performance that was to recur regularly. Daniel’s tempo was good, uncontroversial, all parts well-balanced, but one just did not feel, structurally, that this was part of something larger - much larger.

None of the above could prepare one for Brünnhilde’s entrance. Kathleen Broderick has almost made this role her own. Entering dressed in black, the only way to describe her voice is huge (although almost straight away doubts crept in about the stability of her lower register: would this have been the case a couple of years ago?). But she exuded class, and complete identification with her role, all of which in the event conspired against Richard Berkeley-Steele’s Siegfried.

Berkeley-Steele made his US debut at Seattle with this role (he has not appeared at ENO for a decade – Lohengrin in 1993 was the last time). Entering dressed in casuals, the initial impression was good: blond, young and powerful-looking. But the acting ability remained on the ground floor and never left for any other higher level, making the Brünnhilde-Siegfried exchanges uncomfortable. Broderick was completely credible as she gave him her horse (not literally, obviously), opening out vocally at, ‘Come, holiest of holies’ and providing a thrilling final ‘Hail’. Right from the start, then, this was to be Broderick’s evening.

In the first scene of the first act, Berkeley-Steele just got away with his portrayal of innocence, proving also that at times he is capable of tenderness. Alas it soon became painfully obvious that he ‘does’ stupidity (as opposed to innocence) supremely well. This is Siegfried the imbicile - part hero, part dolt (and it’s not a 50-50 split, either). In addition there was little sense of any growth in the character (nor any wish to learn), so that despite his creditable vocal agility and stamina, there was the distinct impression of this being less than a portrayal of a character.

The fact is that Broderick’s excellence was only truly matched at one point in the evening. The exchange with Waltraute brought her in proximity with former ENO principal, mezzo Sara Fulgoni. Here is another large voice, lovely in narration (just a touch more depth would have made this a complete assumption) yet capable of a piercing shriek when required (as she warns Brünnhilde, ‘Sister, woe betide you and Valhalla!’). Elsewhere, Broderick was in a class of her own. Even when the translation veered towards the clumsy, every word was clearly audible. Perhaps the only moment that did not work was the revelation in Act 2 of Siegfried’s Achilles heel, and the fault lay fairly and squarely with Daniel, who pushed on most inappropriately. Fittingly (and no chance event, this), the climax of Broderick’s performance coincided with the Immolation Scene. This veered between the most tender, heart-rending questioning of life and gritty determination as she imposingly commanded the ravens to fly home and announced the end of Valhalla. As she got carried away in the ecstasy of it all (that virtual horse Grane once more having its moment), Broderick was little short of magnificent. Electrifying.

There was another star of the evening. Not Siegfried, as this review has already intimated – rather it came from bass-baritone Gidon Saks’ Hagen. Saks took the role of Nick Shadow in the ENO 2001/2 season of the Rake's Progress and similarly impressed my colleague Melanie Eskenazi: I note he also takes on, amongst others, Boris, Philip II (Don Carlos), Pizarro (Fidelio) and the Don. His voice can hold its own against the combined ENO brass (no small feat), as he resolutely demonstrated when greeting Siegfried in the second scene of the opera proper. Later, his call to the Gibichungs was mighty, a summons from a massive voice that the excellent English National Opera Chorus reacted lustily to. He was in superb form describing the workings of the Tarnhelm and throughout the evening excelled. Not only that, he looked the part, too, dark and imposing.

An ENO favourite, baritone Andrew Shore took the part of Alberich, and his scene with Hagen at the beginning of Act 2 was one of the highlights of the evening, aided and abetted by the orchestra’s rich and deep tone. Shore fitted his role as well - small, bald and eminently dwarf-like. His acting was excellent, and not only in his physical actions. Close your eyes, and the personality came across strongly in the vocal inflections. Robert Poulton’s Gunther was, alas, somewhat nondescript. He failed to make the most of what the role has to offer and as a result the part came across somewhat anonymously.

The Norns were balanced by a similarly well-suited trio of Rhinemaidens, Linda Richardson, Stephanie Marshall and Ethna Robinson. Their statement of the Wagnerian credo of fate (‘The Norns have woven it in their rope/It is now eternal truth’) brought home Wagner’s take on the workings of life: that it is all pre-written, and nothing we can do can change the inevitable. And how affecting the final fall of Valhalla was.

I can only imagine the performance on Saturday (November 29th) is also sold out. Start queuing for returns now, would be my advice.


Colin Clarke

 


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