Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – Prelude to Act I
Tristan und Isolde – Prelude and Liebestod [sung in German, with English surtitles]
Die Walküre – Act III [sung in German, with English surtitles] Isolde – Susan Bullock
Brünnhilde – Susan Bullock
Sieglinde – Giselle Allen
Wotan – James Rutherford
Valkyries – Katherine Broderick, Mariya Krywaniuk, Magdalen Ashman, Antonia Sotgiu, Elaine McKrill, Jennifer Johnston, Maria Jones & Miriam Sharrad
Sir Andrew Davis
David Edwards – Director
David Holmes – Lighting Designer
Nick Fowler – Stage Manager Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
And so Wagner 200 was launched. On the date of his birth, we gathered to celebrate the composer born in Leipzig in 1813. The Royal Festival Hall was festooned with microphones for a concert of wall-to-wall Wagner, opening with the Prelude to The Mastersingers in a flowing, finely detailed account, majestic and tender as required. Then the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde enjoyed smouldering beauty and eloquent phrasing, Andrew Davis tracing a seamless rise in intensity to the climax. With two pizzicatos serving to expurgate the several hours that happen in between, we were in the ‘Liebestod’ that concludes this great and seminal music-drama. Susan Bullock gave a communicative and lived-in account of Isolde’s demise (“...to sink unconscious...”), carefully enunciated and gracefully vibrant, Isolde resigned to her fate, grateful even. Sadly, the rapt mood was immediately broken by someone’s big-mouth “bravo!”.
The Philharmonia Orchestra had already contributed much excellence. It continued to do so during the final Act of Die Walküre, the second part of Der Ring des Nibelungen. It begins with ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’. The black-dress gang of eight siblings swiftly arrived with torches, rather ribald, the swirling lights certainly distracting, and reminding of the London Philharmonic’s presentation of Luigi Nono’s Julius Fučik (last November). There’s another Valkyrie, head girl Brünnhilde. She is keen to escape the wrath of their soon-arriving father, Wotan, and is in danger of being ostracised but sisterhood wins the day as James Rutherford made his entrance. He sang some of his role from memory, and most from the score (all other singers did without copy), somewhat rooting him to the spot, save moving from one music-stand to another. He didn’t quite come across as a stern patriarch, his voice lacking that last degree of depth and resonance. In terms of characterisation, Susan Bullock was the more imposing; her Brünnhilde made numerous questioning pleas to Wotan that really touched the heart. This was a consummate rendition, and her exchanges with the feisty Sieglinde (Giselle Allen really making her mark) were thrilling.
Throughout, Andrew Davis paced proceedings unerringly (forward-moving), the playing was inspired, and such things as dynamics and accents had been painstakingly prepared as impulses to the bigger picture. If Rutherford was slightly found wanting at times, his singing was undeniably unstinting, and when it came to Wotan searching his soul and to rest his favourite daughter in a place apart, his heart opened and his tone warmed. ‘Wotan’s Farewell’ was very touching, so too the embrace between him and Brünnhilde, although his requirement to walk up the (added-in) stairs to the Choir seats to adorn said daughter and summon Loge for his ‘Magic Fire’ (the organ-pipes lit flame-red) rather got in the way of Wagner, and the Philharmonia Orchestra, at their most sublime.
Reservations aside with aspects of the staging, this was a notable achievement, musically superb, and a wonderful launch of Wagner 200.
Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for seven days afterwards)