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and Heard Prom Review
PROM 45: Wagner, Das Rheingold Soloists; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Sir Simon Rattle, Royal Albert Hall, Thursday, August 19th, 2004 (CC).
Nobody could ever accuse Sir Simon of resting on his laurels. Part of his success seems to stem from an ever-questing mind - one that embraces Wagner on period instruments, for example. And Rattle being Rattle, he has the clout to make it happen. So here is the first of the Ring (or the Ring’s ‘Vorabend’, to be completely accurate). In fact, Marshall Markus’ article in the Prom programme stated that, ‘tonight appears to be the first modern performance of a Wagner opera using these [ie period] instruments’. OK, leaving aside the argument of whether this is opera or music-drama (usually people in my presence who refer to Wagner’s ‘operas’ get a slap) Rattle in merely presenting Rheingold in this fashion is doing the musical world at large a great service.
Maybe the concert-going public felt this, for rarely have I seen the Albert Hall so stuffed (turn-outs like this are reserved usually for visiting Viennese or Berliners.) In fact I was lucky to be there at all - turning up at the Press Desk to find no ticket and my name omitted from the Press List for this of all concerts hardly helps the old blood-pressure.
Hearing original instruments in this repertoire does indeed lead to remarkable textural clarity. Of course, Rattle’s ear for detail is legendary by now so perhaps even with an augmented Berlin Philharmonic the score might have appeared newly-minted. More cause for concern was what the speeds might have been like. Well, 2 hours 36 minutes was what the clock said, and indeed Rattle seemed eminently sensitive to the ebb and flow of the music’s course. He refused to over-linger, yet there were no super-speeds in the name of the authentic.
The cast was a mix of the well-known (and extremely well-respected, in the cast of Sir Willard White and Robert Lloyd) and youth. Rarely can there have been such an attractive trio of Rhine-Maidens either (surely I was not the only person in the hall who felt like joining Alberich in their pursuit), and how interesting to see an Opera Babe there (Karen England is one half of said phenomenon.)
Interesting that in Rattle’s ‘authentic’ hands the famous Prelude (infamous for hornists, as ENO’s section reminded me at the onset of that house’s continuing cycle) accentuated the elemental feel, sounding very ‘outdoory’. Rattle’s ear really came into its own here (in fact the Prelude was one of the evening’s highlights), emerging as one great textural crescendo. Indeed, a similar attentiveness to slow but unbearably steady tension-building marked his handling of the final stages of the final scene, lending a symmetry to the entire evening. Kate Royal’s Woglinde was the first voice heard, warm and true with lovely high notes; Karen England followed, generally strong throughout, sometimes lacking some vocal body. But it was Christine Rice’s Flosshilde that was truly outstanding. Her mezzo is positively velvety, her diction faultless and her vocal acting excellent (how she blossomed as she taunted Alberich as ‘Seligster Mann!’.) A member of the BBC New Generation Artists scheme, she definitely is someone to watch.
The Nibelung Alberich was taken on this occasion by Kazakhstani baritone Oleg Bryjak (who sang this role at Chicago Lyric Opera last year.) He managed to sound as well as look lustful, and if his lower register revealed slight weakness, it was not unduly distracting. There was much power there (‘Wehe! Ach wehe!’.) Perhaps he could have been more weighty at the actual moment of his curse (with Wagner’s disorienting juxtaposition of timpani pedal and Alberich’s seemingly harmonically-unrelated arpeggiations.) Yet even here the Curse built to a frightening climax (at the unaccompanied ‘Bis in meiner Hand den geraubten wieder ich halte!’.)
Scene 2 introduces Wotan and Fricka, here Sir Willard White and Yvonne Naef, respectively. Naef’s operatic CV includes a Vienna State Opera debut in 2000 as Eboli and she will sing Brangaene in Paris in 2004-5. Her lovely contralto carried to the furthest reaches of the Albert Hall and, despite an underlying lyricism, still projected all the relevant emotions perfectly (her concern for Freia, most obviously.) Her appoggiaturas were marvellously expressive. White’s Wotan still carries weight, but not that of the greatest interpreters of this role. There is some ‘space’ around his voice and it’s not as focussed as it once was. This is not a disaster. Head-God he may be, but Wotan’s flawed character is central to the Ring, and something of that defiant vulnerability came across because of White’s shortcomings.
Freia was the well-loved soprano Geraldine McGreevy (the role was designated in the booklet as being Holda in parentheses, a term/name she is referred to during the course of the drama in an important couplet.) She will sing Gerhilde (Walküre) at Covent Garden next season. She exuded youth (and fear, for that matter, but of the right dramatic sort.) Her interaction with the giants was, if perhaps slightly hindered by stagey-acting on the parts of Fasolt and Fafner, generally coinvincing.
Basses Peter Rose and Robert Lloyd were the Albert Hall’s giants. Like White, Lloyd has had a long and distinguished career, but it was Peter Rose’s Fasolt that impressed most. More lyrical in conception than often heard, he was extremely sensitive to Wagnerian nuances. Perhaps a slight lack of heft prevented this from being an ideal assumption (he’s still supposed to be a giant, after all.) Memories of Lloyd at Covent Garden years back, though, made this a slightly uncomfortable experience.
The funniest entrance of the evening was reserved for the delightful Loge, here Kim Begley, no less, who minced on stage (there’s no other word for it!) Hilarious, and vocally he did not disappoint. Here was the Ur-wheeler-dealer, the Del-Boy Trotter of all of our subconscious hinterlands, an arbitrator between rival factions whose cheeky-rogue ways made this portrayal really special. His narration was, miraculously, both lyrical and impertinent. The point seemed to be that Wotan is moved like a chess-piece by others; if not Loge, then Freia, the power behind his throne.
Alberich and Mime’s exchanges in Scene 3 were wonderfully amusing, augmented by the arrival of Loge. Robin Leggate’s Mime was appropriately agile of line, Bryjak continuing his conniving from the first scene inimitably. Loge was just soooo much fun. This whole scene is so difficult to conduct, and Rattle followed his singers where necessary like a shadow.
The role of Erda is crucial, even though numbers of actual notes make it one of the smaller roles. Anna Larsson had a lovely creamy sound, and avoided undue vibrato. Her pronunciation of Weiche’ as ‘Weische’ was puzzling, but aside from that, she exuded an all-knowing sadness, as if she could feel the weight of her knowledge on her very shoulders.
Of the smaller roles, Timothy Robinson’s Froh was a disappointment. His entry must surely be a gift to singers as he calls ‘Zu mir, Freia!’ (Scene 2), and especially so here, as Rattle’s preparation was huge. Yet this Froh was not heroic, alas. Far more successful was James Rutherford’s Donner, nowhere more so than at his crucial ‘Bruder hierher!’ towards the very end of the drama (and how amazing was Rattle’s sense of accruing lines building up to this.)
The orchestra as picture-painter was very definitely on Rattle’s agenda here - the way the OAE suggested Alberich’s stumbling around in the fist scene, indeed even of slipping around, chasing the Maidens, is but one of many examples. The raising of the mists as the gods age in Scene 2 is another. But Rattle’s timing also impressed - the blossoming out at the Rheinemaidens’ trio-statement of ‘Rheingold’ late on in the chase with Alberich was massively impressive, and later the jubilant orchestral passage immediately before Alberich’s ‘Der Welt Erbe …’, complete with rollicking timpani, was incredibly exciting (as was the space Rattle gave his Alberich in the all-important denunciation of Love.) But maybe the primary example of Rattle’s awe-inspiring command of his forces came at the transition between Scenes 1 and 2, where Leitmotiven elided and transmuted. Rattle the alchemist was the order of the day here, his forces completely behind his ideas. Eyebrows were frequently raised during the course of this account - the intimation of Wagner’s debt to Weber during Scene 2 was but one example.
Pacing was magnificent. Again, examples seem so useless as there are so many, but to take one, maybe the moment where Alberich kisses the Ring in Scene 3, scattering his Nibelungs, cries out for a mention. The imposing nature of this in Rattle’s performance was entirely due to the long-range preparation.
A remarkable evening then, one in which the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment excelled themselves, inspired by Rattle, the evening’s other giant. And it was Rattle’s interpretation that made up for any short-comings in the casting in the final analysis. I was not sure I would hear great Wagner under Rattle’s baton. In the event, to be honest, I didn’t, for whatever the many positives about this performance, it will not go down in the pantheon of unforgettables. But there are few, if any, conductors that can make us listen afresh, as Rattle can, and for that we must be grateful.
The more dramatic parts of Rheingold respond well to Solti’s hell-for-leather approach (Decca 455 566-2) yet as other conductors have consistently shown, there is more here than Sir Georg could find with his highlight-fixated approach. Karl Böhm, caught at Bayreuth, has more long-range vision (Philips 412 475-2)