[Part Four of the Ring Cycle. Sung in Jeremy Samss English translation]
First Norn Liane Keegan
Second Norn Leah-Marian Jones
Third Norn Franzita Whelan
Brünnhilde Kathleen Broderick
Siegfried Richard Berkeley-Steele
Gunther Robert Poulton
Hagen Gidon Saks
Gutrune Claire Weston
Waltraute Sara Fulgoni
Alberich Andrew Shore
Woglinde Linda Richardson
Wellgunde Stephanie Marshall
Flosshilde Ethna Robinson
Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera
Staging by Michael Walling
ENOs English Ring The Twilight of the Gods (Barbican, 25 November)
Tuesday, November 25, 2003 Barbican Hall, London
Reviewed by Timothy Ball
ENO reaches the culmination of its semi-staged concert presentation of Wagners massive four-part music-drama, before commencing a fully staged production, directed by Phyllida Lloyd. The first instalment, The Rhinegold, will be the first new production in the restored Coliseum, due to open in February next year.
It is nearly a year since ENO presented Siegfried, which precedes The Twilight of the Gods, and, at this performance, the company proved itself to be in fine fettle indeed. Whatever difficulties ENO may be facing be they funding, administrative and/or other the musical standard was impressive. All credit, then, to Paul Daniel and the music staff. The orchestral playing was of a consistently high order. The exposed solos for bass clarinet and cor anglais were uncommonly fine and expressively phrased, and the brass section in particular was quite magnificent. One or two blemishes over the course of four-and-a-half hours may be easily excused. The overall impression was distinctly positive.
The only reservation concerns the size of the string body, which is a degree smaller than that prescribed by Wagner. We really need the weight of more desks of lower strings; in Siegfrieds funeral procession, the section was rendered all but inaudible by the heavy brass onslaughts.
One of the important features of this ENO Ring has been the consistency of casting. With one important exception, the same singers personified the returning characters, which has lent the cycle a welcome consistency, which will surely pay dividends when the work is staged.
The Twilight of the Gods, however, opens with a Prologue introducing three new characters the Norns, daughters of Erda, who spin the rope of fate to see what the future has in store. Like the group of Rhine-daughters (who we met a long time ago, at the outset of the saga), these mystic figures were cast from strength. Liane Keegan, Leah-Marian Jones and Franzita Whelan were collectively and individually noteworthy. The awkward moment towards the end of their scene, when the rope snaps, was not tidy in ensemble, however.
And why must costume designers always seek to make Wagners personages look scruffy? These Norns looked like bag ladies having a bad day; and Brünnhilde and Siegfried sporting denim will not be to all tastes.
But in these roles, Kathleen Broderick and Richard Berkeley-Steele (new to the cast, and replacing Stephen OMara) were, vocally speaking, certainly not down at heel. In their ecstatic duet one of the rare moments of uninhibited joy in the entire Ring they positively relished one anothers company. There was very little doubt what this pair had been up to the night before. Berkeley-Steele was, initially, rather baritonal in quality and perhaps a little reserved. Broderick was radiating warmth, and her final top C was spine-tingling and totally unforced.
Act One proper finds us in the court of the Gibichungs. The brother and sister of Gunther and Gutrune were very well portrayed by Robert Poulton and Claire Weston, who made them into positive characters, rather than depicting them as the silly ciphers they can sometimes can appear to be in certain productions. As Hagen, Gunthers half-brother and son of Alberich, who stole the gold from the Rhine and forged the ring, Gidon Saks was powerful and glowering, with a baleful black bass, alternately commanding and wheedling the very embodiment of the evil forces which are at play throughout The Ring. His soliloquy, after Gunther and the now-drugged Siegfried depart to capture Brünnhilde, was a most powerful moment.
The subsequent encounter between Brünnhilde and her sister Waltraute benefited from Paul Daniels urgent approach, and Sara Fulgoni delivered her narration with solemn gravity, and that uncomfortable scene between Siegfried (disguised as Gunther) and Brünnhilde, was rendered the more disturbing by the intensity of the singers performances.
Act Twos opening colloquy between father and son, found Andrew Shore in biting voice as Alberich. His previous appearances in the cycle have been dramatic highlights, but I hope he wont bark and shout too much when he brings further depth as he undoubtedly will to his stage portrayal.
The whole of the scene of Hagens summoning of Gunthers followers, followed by Brünnhildes humiliation and vows of vengeance, tingled with theatrical frisson. The mens chorus appearing from various points around the hall was full-throatedly powerful, and this passage made one appreciate anew the disturbing timelessness of Wagners cautionary tale, with an army being gathered to protect its nominal leader. Kathleen Broderick seemed to be able to summon up even more reserves of power for her bitter outbursts, and whatever she may lack in terms of sheer decibels, the identification with her role more than compensates.
The flirtatious Rhine-daughters (Linda Richardson, Stephanie Marshall and Ethna Robinson) were a delight at the start of Act Three, with an appropriate note of seriousness creeping in during their warnings to Siegfried about the dangers of retaining the ring. Richard Berkeley-Steele seemed to grown in stature as the evening progressed, and his death scene was most moving, conveying a painful sense of self-awareness and realisation.
As I have noted in the previous ENO Ring evenings, Paul Daniels overall conception is swift and urgent, and whilst some Wagnerians might prefer a weightier approach, Daniel does at least ensure that the drama is vividly projected.
But there are moments where the music needs more time to breathe dont neglect the little notes" was one of Wagners famous and oft-repeated urgings. Very often, we did not hear the little notes, but the sense of the action being propelled by the music was emphatically present. As yet, however, the sense of the epic, the grandeur, is not always present.
A mention about the English words. I have yet to recover from hearing Mime, in Act One of Siegfried, announce "The dwarfs on a roll", and Siegfrieds description of himself and Brünnhilde being as "two peas in a pod", in this final drama, will, Im sure, live for a long time in the memory!
Jeremy Samss translation might more accurately be termed a version, since very often the exact sense of Wagners text is not conveyed. But the spirit if not the letter of the meaning is definitely communicated, and one or two thorny ambiguities are admirably clarified.
The star of the evening and of the whole cycle is Kathleen Brodericks Brünnhilde. No stereotypical large Wagnerian lady, she presents a convincing personality, and is responsive to her words and to the tortuous predicaments Brünnhilde finds herself in. Leaving aside her urging, in Samss version, to Pile them high (it wasnt clear what them was referring to) at the start of her Immolation Scene, this was a remarkable performance by any standards.
True, she omitted a phrase and was occasionally out of time with the orchestra, but this culmination of the cycle was riveting aided by superlative orchestral playing.
Saturdays repeat, on the 29th, would be worth catching for her alone, but the excellence of this performance as a whole makes it an occasion which ought not to be missed. The Rings return to the Coliseum will surely be a high point in next years operatic calendar.