ENO’s English Ring – The Rhinegold (Barbican, 18 October)

The Rhinegold

[Part One of the Ring Cycle. Sung in Jeremy Sams’s English translation]

Wotan – Robert Hayward
Donner – Roderick Williams
Froh – Rhys Meirion
Fricka – Susan Parry
Freia – Claire Weston
Loge – Tom Randle
Erda – Patricia Bardon

Alberich – Andrew Shore
Mime – John Graham-Hall

Fasolt – Iain Paterson
Fafner – Gerard O’Connor

Woglinde – Linda Richardson
Wellgunde – Stephanie Marshall
Flosshilde – Ethna Robinson

Orchestra of English National Opera
Paul Daniel

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 18 October, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The combination of ENO and Wagner inevitably brings to mind the legendary performances in the 1970s conducted by the late, great Sir Reginald Goodall, happily preserved on disc by Chandos.

Nearly thirty years on from that remarkable enterprise comes a new generation of performers and, not insignificantly, a new translation by Jeremy Sams to replace that of Andrew Porter.In its own way, the translation – not that this word is alwaysappropriate – works pretty convincingly. What does not work is the occasional colloquialism, which will quickly date. Wagner, for instance, does not have Woglinde describe Alberich as a“horny old goat”. Jeremy Sams does. It is a much freer version than is Porter’s which was carefully devised to match the German vowels to the music wherever possible. Nevertheless, the action and interaction between characters was vividly conveyed, even if some of the subtleties and ambiguities of the original text are lost in the process.

Paul Daniel takes an altogether fleeter view than did Goodall, withspirited tempi and a sense of forward propulsion. If one likes this view of Wagner (I prefer a weightier, more considered approach), then it is successful in its own terms and is certainly effective for ’The Rhinegold’. As yet, however, Daniel does not command the knack for building inexorably to crucial moments. The wrenching of the ring from Alberich, for instance, was passed over too perfunctorily. However, the balance between voices and orchestra was most judiciously considered. There was never a hint of strain on any of the singers’ part and all the cast projected their words clearly.

This was in sobering contrast to my experience at the concert performance of Louis Andriessen’s opera, Writing to Vermeer, where three amplified voices were all-but unintelligible against an accompaniment provided by an orchestra less than a third the size of Wagner’s.

The astonishing prelude, with the sound of E-flat major graduallyemerging from the depths, revealed some initial intonation problems from the horns, but the orchestral playing, overall, was very fine indeed. There were one or two moments – the descent to Nibelheim, for example – where a bigger body of strings was needed, and trombones and trumpets could have been more biting in their attack. The vital tubas were superb, however, as were the cor anglais and clarinets. One noted how frequently Wagner assigns key motifs to these instruments rather thanthe brighter coloured flutes. In the first scene, the playful, flirtatious Rhine-maidens worked well as an ensemble, as well as displaying individual characteristics. Their opening moments together were light, and airy, but there was a well-judged change of mood and colour from the orchestra when Alberich arrived. Incidentally, the performance was semi-staged in that thesingers made entrances and exits, and addressed and gestured towards each other, which was perfectly effective in this context.

Andrew Shore was a most impressive Alberich. His tone was ideally suited to the role and he made for a powerful character. If his forswearing of love could have been more painful, this would have been helped by a slower tempo. But here, as throughout, Daniel instilled a sense of urgency, which was compelling. In the orchestral interlude that follows, memorably described by PeterHall as “an upward journey through the elements,” the ENO strings showed their mettle. This was impressive playing by any standard, and as this music, literally, dissolved, the noble-toned Wagner tubas were heard for the first time. Their blend and intonation was beyond reproach.

Fricka’s insistence that Wotan should face up to the reality of his situation was bitingly conveyed by Susan Parry, who made the character rather less shrewish than is sometimes the case. Indeed one could sympathise with her wish to see Wotan end his wanderings and philandering – ultimately the cause of his downfall.

Robert Hayward was a stirring god, with imposing tone and delivery. If he has not yet quite got the profundity of, say, John Tomlinson, not to speak of Hans Hotter, he at any rate captures the youthful personality of Wotan in this opening instalment of ’The Ring’. He definitely has the range for the part – the high notes were strong and ringing, with the lower register firm and defined.

The entrance of Freia is an arresting moment, and Claire Weston was superb at portraying her terror. This is a big, affecting and well-controlled voice. It will be no surprise if she is singing Brünnhilde in a few years’ time.

The arrival of the giants was one instance where an altogether heavier approach was needed from the podium and players. ’Sehr wuchtig’ is Wagner’s marking (wuchtig translating as massive, or solid), and more weight was needed. Iain Paterson was a rather lightweight, gentle giant, quite touching in his pining for Freia, whilst Gerard O’Connor was his more dour brother. The Froh of Rhys Meirion was heroic in tone, and Roderick Williams proved once more what a versatile artist he is. I do think, however, that a darker voice is needed for the part of Donner, well though it was sung. Tom Randle was again a gentler sounding Loge than we are perhaps used to, but a more sly and ironic manner would not have gone amiss.

The descent to Nibelheim had all the power and excitement it needs – with the one reservation noted above – and John-Graham Hall was alternately angry and anguished as the hapless Mime. In this third scene, Andrew Shore was demonstrating the effect the power of the ring has had on him, displaying a nasty almost sadistic approach to his brother and commanding his underlings with arrogance and vehemence. When he offers Loge and Wotan a display of his magical powers, his transformation into a dragon brought forth such vivid orchestral playing that one was reminded how futile stage design and effects can be in theface of this incredible music – baleful tubas and a torrent of soundfrom wind and strings conveyed the image in graphic detail.

In the final scene, Alberich’s sense of shame and anguish was tangible. At the moment when, in spite of his humiliation, Alberich commands his Nibelungs, Daniel unleashed an outburst from the orchestra that was truly ferocious. At the height of the argument between gods and giants, it was an extremely effective touch to have the voice of Erda emerge disembodied from above and behind. Patricia Bardon sang her ominous warning in anappropriately sombre tone. Thereafter, the remaining incidents of the drama – the delivery of the ring to the giants, Donner’s conjuring of thunder and lightening and the appearance of the rainbow bridge – were all colourfully handled by Daniel, if without a sense of inevitability that conductors such as Knappertsbusch and Karajan or, more recently, Levine and Sinopoli haveconveyed.

The final entry of the gods into Valhalla was a swift one, but one was left with a real feeling of having entered into the complex world of Wagner’s extraordinary imagination and, just as important, an eagerness to move on to the next drama – ’The Valkyrie’, which is at the Barbican on 30 October and 2 November.

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