ENO’s English Ring – The Twilight of the Gods (Barbican, 25 November)

The Twilight of the Gods (Götterdämmerung)

[Part Four of the Ring Cycle. Sung in Jeremy Sams’s 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
Paul Daniel

Staging by Michael Walling

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 25 November, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

ENO reaches the culmination of its semi-staged concert presentation of Wagner’s 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 Siegfried’s 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 Wagner’s 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 O’Mara) 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 another’s 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, Gunther’s 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 Daniel’s 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 Two’s 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 won’t bark and shout too much when he brings further depth – as he undoubtedly will – to his stage portrayal.

The whole of the scene of Hagen’s summoning of Gunther’s followers, followed by Brünnhilde’s humiliation and vows of vengeance, tingled with theatrical frisson. The men’s chorus – appearing from various points around the hall – was full-throatedly powerful, and this passage made one appreciate anew the disturbing timelessness of Wagner’s 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 Daniel’s 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 – “don’t neglect the little notes” was one of Wagner’s 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 dwarf’s on a roll”, and Siegfried’s description of himself and Brünnhilde being as “two peas in a pod”, in this final drama, will, I’m sure, live for a long time in the memory!

Jeremy Sams’s ’translation’ might more accurately be termed a ’version’, since very often the exact sense of Wagner’s 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 Broderick’s 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 Sams’s version, to “Pile them high” (it wasn’t 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.

Saturday’s 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 Ring’s return to the Coliseum will surely be a high point in next year’s operatic calendar.

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