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Seen and Heard Promenade Concert Review

Prom 39  Wagner: Götterdämmerung: Soloists, BBC Symphony Orchestra BBC Singers (men’s voices) and BBC Symphony Chorus Royal Albert Hall, 1 Conductor: Donald Runnicles  12.8.2007 (JPr)

Brünnhilde: Christine Brewer
Siegfried: Stig Andersen
Hagen: Sir John Tomlinson
Gunther: Alan Held
Gutrune: Gweneth-Ann Jeffers
Alberich: Gordon Hawkins
Waltraute: Karen Cargill
First Norn: Andrea Baker
Second Norn: Natascha Petrinsky
Third Norn: Miranda Keys
Woglinde: Katherine Broderick
Wellgunde: Anna Stéphany
Flosshilde: Liora Grodnikaite

The BBC Proms' sojourn along the Rhine ended in a suitably incandescent way with this concert which completed its ad hoc Ring ‘cycle.’ Comprising  four very different elements spread over three years each evening was a success in its own particular way. Das Rheingold was in 2004 and involved Sir Simon Rattle with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. There, we had period instruments and a conductor beginning to think about his own future Ring cycles together with a number of soloists familiar with their roles and freed from music stands to interact, none more so than Kim Begley’s outstanding Loge. The next year Antonio Pappano brought his ensemble fresh from the Royal Opera House so we were given their Die Walküre in a semi-staging without sets or costumes but on a narrow platform. Notable Wagnerians such as Waltraud Meier and Bryn Terfel among others, gave a memorable ‘performance’ to delight the hearts of those not in thrall to contemporary opera productions. They were ably aided and abetted by Plácido Domingo as Siegmund, even though he did seem to be singing from the Esperanto translation.

Last year was a strange occasion. After the season finished, Norman Lebrecht in his possibly BBC contract renewing annual puff piece on behalf of the Proms, called the Siegfried one of the fastest sell-outs of the season. That was news to me as I was surrounded by rows of empty seats in a hall barely half-full. The performance deserved better because Jon Fredric West was a splendid and very involved Siegfried, a roly-poly figure sure enough but high in energy and together with Slavic voices and others from Christoph Eschenbach’s Rings with the Orchestre de Paris, the performance worked put much better than the sum of it parts suggested it should have done.

For the Third Day of Der Ring des Nibelungen this year, disparate international soloists with different backgrounds joined artists new to their roles, and an experienced Wagner conductor led the musicians of the BBC Symphony Orchestra through a concert of an entire Wagner opera perhaps for the first time. A ‘concert staging by Paul Curran’ was listed but this must have been easy money because short of a few insignificant lighting effects (flickering red at the end – you get the idea?) it was impossible to detect much ‘staging’. I do detest seeing music stands on the platform during concert opera but I tempered my annoyance at these by realising how generous the casting was to younger artists,  many of whom were either British or who trained here. Having said that though, there was no excuse for the veteran American Gordon Hawkins holding his score during his short ‘Schläfst du Hagen, mein Sohn!’ scene. If he cannot sing it without the music then I certainly could, though you might not want to hear it!

The one directorial moment I did detect was Stig Andersen removing the tie he had put on to ‘mimic’ the more strait-laced Gunther, so identifying his more easy-going Siegfried. It would also have been good to have some coordination in what the singers wore; Siegfried and Gunther did indeed wear similar suits but Hagen was in formal tails, and among the women, apart from some pink shades for Gutrune and Waltraute, everything else was uniformly black, or silver-grey. Christine Brewer looked initially very dowdy but reappeared for the ‘Immolation’ in more vibrant flame-effect colours. The Rhine daughters who sang delightfully were lined up by  size reminding me of the  old Corbett-Barker-Cleese ‘I look up to him and he looks down on me’ sketch.

So we were all left to concentrate on the singing and the music. In the programme we were given (yet again) the 1929 verse by ‘Diogenes the Younger’ to highlight how popular ‘Wagner Nights’ were then - ‘The week begins with Wagner’s frenzy:/ Perchance the Overture Rienzi./ Anon we trace the subtle line/ Of Siegfried’s Journey to the
Rhine;/ Some tenor earns a great ovation/ For singing Lohengrin’s Narration.’ -   but this was  used to explain how ‘bleeding chunks’ are not a fashionable form of Wagner presentation these days. In fact Donald Runnicles’s fervent account of the score lacked much in subtlety and insight but gained by being blisteringly exciting. He took every opportunity when there was no human voice intruding, metaphorically to rub our faces in the orchestral sound, allowing the audience to luxuriate in the wonderful playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra -  with some important individual contributions notably from  the  brass and woodwind. Mr. Runnicles was a sensitive accompanist to the soloists but even so the thought that this was still just a joined-up series of ‘bleeding chunks’ was never far away. Wagner would surely  not have approved of the prominence given to the orchestra with the singers squeezed to the very front of the platform or entering from the Arena. Runnicles enjoyed being so centre-stage because he is, I think, much more revered abroad than here in his own country. Scottish-born, there even seems a bit of showmanship from him at  the podium because he looked like a cross between his compatriot  Billy Connolly and Kenny Rogers dressed as a gambler in a Western film.

Danish tenor Stig Andersen was a slimmer, more plausible-looking Siegfried than Jon Fredric West had been and showed great charm. As he preened his luxuriant hair, it seemed possible that he was more in love with himself than either Gutrune or Brünnhilde. Admittedly, he wasn't given much help by Paul Curran’s ‘staging’:  when singing ‘Ha, schönstes Weib! … Gunther, wie heisst deine Schwester?’ – he had to be inflamed with passion to stage right with the full width of the platform between him and Gutrune at her music stand on the other side. His voice was often quite lyrical and though he has been performing the big Wagner roles for many years now, his not overly huge voice shows little wear and tear and retains great stamina: enough Heldentenor heft in fact  not to disappoint in the big moments. Like most singers of his fach these days he uses his vast experience to surmount moments where any vocal problems might be revealed.

The three young Norns were well-balanced,  but to start of off well they needed to attack the words a little more in order to make the listener believe they were really privy to all that had gone on before. Alan Held (Gunther) had the opportunity to be more commanding in persona and voice than many stage directors would allow him to be, but was not well-watched by Gweneth-Ann Jeffers’s attachment to her score : she needed better use of language and more involvement in what she was singing. Scottish mezzo Karan Cargill is a name new to me  but she was a striking Waltraute and commanded attention throughout her Narration, helped by Runnicles’s determination  never to slacken his grip on the flowing tempo he was establishing.

Christine Brewer’s Brünnhilde was too impassive during Acts I and II but finally woke up – better late than never - with her change of dress for the Immolation. Everything from declarations of love, to fighting off the rape of the ring and her oath-swearing, would have benefited from her taking her head out of the score and looking out into the audience. Hers is an old-school Wagner voice: if you have not heard her, think Flagstad or Rita Hunter. Her soprano is clean, well-schooled, a little plummy and totally risk-free.  She never challenged her voice until her closing pages where she showed a few strong top notes that she employed craftily. She is not one of my favourite sopranos in these situations and how good a sound she makes is tempered for me by the amount of sight-reading she appears to do: preparing the role better should bring her greater confidence. Was this her first complete Götterdämmerung ? I cannot find any confirmation of this but if she goes on to perform this in a proper staging then she will need to be made to find the ‘soul’ of this character by a competent director.

I leave my final words to a great British institution, Sir John Tomlinson,  and it pains me to say that despite the audience lifting the roof off the Royal Albert Hall at his ‘curtain call’, realistically a museum or archive  is the place  to which they should consign his portrayal of Hagen. I have been listening to Wagner for more than 30 years and use this review to say that however much he ' chews the scenery ' now - what scenery there was in this performance, and however wonderfully he can still communicate inner thoughts by a simple arching of an eyebrow or express them by his magnificent diction, this role is now vocally a trial for him, distressing  to watch him struggle through and often even to listen to. Hagen is a completely malevolent, black-hearted villain, but Sir John's  recent performances at Covent Garden and here makes him a devious, cunning, blustering buffoon – an evil  Falstaff if you will. Sir John Tomlinson probably has many roles still to explore but it is probably his fame and the dearth of real Wagnerian singers that keeps him coming back to caricature Wotan, Wanderer and Hagen when his best years are behind him. I say this as  as someone who has seen him in these roles in Britain, Berlin and Bayreuth – to mention just the Bs – and  it remains of course,  just one person’s opinion.


Jim Pritchard

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