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Seen and Heard Prom Review



PROM 4: Wagner, ‘Die Walküre’ Soloists, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, dir. Antonio Pappano, 18 July, 2005 (ME)


Apparently, we are experiencing a period of Great Singing At The Royal Opera - within a week or so, some of us heard Renée Fleming, Ben Heppner, David Daniels, Bruce Ford, Plácido Domingo, Waltraud Meier and Bryn Terfel, but as one of those so favoured I have to report that only Fleming’s Desdemona and Terfel’s Wotan fully lived up to the hype, the others ranging from merely good to rather lazy. Critics are extraordinary, aren’t they – I generally get my reviews done before any print ones are seen, but on this occasion circumstances have made me uncharacteristically late, thus allowing me to read other opinions before my own are committed to publication - and I’ve been quite astonished by the level of hysteria whipped up about this performance, and Domingo in particular, to the extent that one paper actually made the review a feature rather than putting it on the usual pages. Cynics might say that since most critics are old men anyway, they are bound to be delighted by a 64 year old who can, supposedly, still cut the mustard as a young hero, but that hardly explains such truly eye-watering notices as the one in a leading daily paper in which there was absolutely nothing whatsoever written about the singing of the Brünnhilde, the lady in question being mentioned only in passing, with a remark about her frock. I say again, extraordinary – especially as her singing, along with that of Terfel and the orchestra, was one of the true glories of the evening.


‘The old ones are often the best’ / ‘Still as romantic a hero as he was at 34’ etc – the kind of remarks beloved of opera houses which churn out 30 year old ‘revivals’ of ancient sepia productions, not to mention 64 year old ones of ancient sepia tenors. I must be frank and say that I have never been a ‘fan’ of Domingo, save for his Otello: one has to admit however that the voice has worn well – but worn it has, and if you never really liked that baritonal timbre and approximate German (delightfully referred to as ‘personal’ by one critic – I’ll have to remember that definition) then you won’t warm to it now. He puts a lot into it, of course, hand-wringing all over the place and really making the most of Siegmund’s ‘big moments’ - just before ‘Winterstürme' I honestly thought that the orchestra was going to stop completely and he was going to step even further forward to deliver his ‘aria.’ There was much to savour in his singing – his first phrases always sweep you away, so that moments like ‘Kühlende Labung’ and ‘Zauberfest / bezähmt ein Schlaf’ make up for a great deal of what follows, which is too frequently marred by aspirates and generalized, vowel – dominated diction. What remains in the mind, though, are not the faults but the loving assumption of the character and the moments where he clearly rises to the occasion of the tremendous lines, ‘schuf sie ihr den wonnigen Trost’ being a case in point.


And what of Terfel’s Wotan? Very fine, although probably not quite what many Wagnerians would love: this is a light voice for the role, not so much a James Morris as a Norman Bailey, and it is the latter who comes most frequently to mind when hearing Terfel, whose anguished portrayal of Wotan is very much in the Bailey mould – and that is a compliment, before the owners of the ‘Bryn My Hero’ fanzine compete with those of ‘Plácido my Hero’ for a piece of my scalp. Wotan’s narratives are, of course, terribly boring, ditto much of the long narratives in the ‘Ring’ – come on, now, surely most of them could be reduced to the seven or eight really important lines? – so it’s vital that the Wotan has dramatic skill and stage presence, both of which Terfel possesses to a rare degree, and he manages to convince you that his tortured tale does bear repeating – quite a feat. When you hear him snarl at Fricka or argue with Brünnhilde with such vigour, you wonder if he’s going to make it to the end in the same style, but he does, and ‘Leb’ wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind!’ was glorious, the lines shaped with real skill and the diction superb: he may not have the huge heft of tone that some would like at times, but his phrasing and his tenderness in passages like ‘des Lebewohles letztem Kuss’ are irreproachable.


Lisa Gasteen’s Brünnhilde was in a different class altogether to other recent London assumptions of the role, her singing (if you want to know what her frock was like you’ll have to look elsewhere) as piercingly clear, heroically convincing and sympathetically shaped as many others have been pallid: her ‘Hojotoho’s reminded me of Rita Hunter (no higher praise) and her ‘Halt’ein, Wälsung’ was not only thrillingly sung but redolent of compassion, especially at ‘Leb’ wohl, Siegmund, seligster Held!’ The key to a great Brünnhilde is the combination of tenderness at moments like ‘Brünnhilde bittet’ and tempestuous power at others, and in this Gasteen succeeds as few others do – she also rode the orchestra easily, no mean feat given the power evident from it.


I was less impressed by the Sieglinde of Waltraud Meier: I find her voice rather ordinary, with a slightly fluttery vibrato, and her characterization unmoving – ‘Die Wunden weise mir schnell’ sounded like ‘A cof – fee? That would be great’ and ‘O süsseste Wonne!’ did not produce that ‘lump in the throat’ feeling. She was at her best in the third act, ‘O hehrstes Wunder!’ finally revealing a genuinely moving sound. Rosalind Plowright was brilliantly cast as Fricka, and Eric Halfvarson’s dark voice and brooding presence were ideal for Hunding.


Orchestrally, the performance was magnificent: the swift tempo of the overture was ideal, those snarling horns surpassing anything I’ve heard them do before, and the strings so eloquent in the quiet passages - Pappano directed a performance of sheer exhilarating glory in each act, with a kind of dramatic tension and energy as well as serenity where needed, that I have not heard since Goodall. The hype may have concerned itself with ‘The Prom King’ but for me the real ‘star’ was the orchestra. The audience received the performance with the expected rapture, and quite right too: this is one of the greatest works in the whole musical canon, and one hopes that this ‘first’ complete performance of it at the Proms won’t be the last for the near future, although it’s hard to imagine a starrier one.


Melanie Eskenazi



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