Das Rheingold

Das Rheingold [Preliminary evening of Der Ring des Nibelungen; concert performance, sung in German]

Wotan – Sir Willard White
Donner – James Rutherford
Froh – Timothy Robinson
Fricka – Yvonne Naef
Freia – Geraldine McGreevy
Loge – Kim Begley
Erda – Anna Larsson

Alberich – Oleg Bryjak
Mime – Robin Leggate

Fasolt – Peter Rose
Fafner – Robert Lloyd

Woglinde – Kate Royal
Wellgunde – Karen England
Flosshilde – Christine Rice

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 19 August, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This was, apparently, the first performance in modern times of a complete Wagner opera using ‘period’ instruments, and the beginning of a four-season Proms Ring cycle to be performed by disparate forces. Too often, such ‘authentic’ renditions simply draw attention to themselves by considering the use of particular instruments as the be-all and end-all. Purely musical concerns often fall by the wayside. But under the sure guidance of Sir Simon Rattle, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment placed itself at the service of the music and drama; instead of being a mere curiosity, the experience of hearing Wagner played in this way was extremely revealing and interesting.

The strings eschewed vibrato, and their comparatively lighter tone enabled woodwind details to emerge in a way that confirmed the composer’s extraordinarily fertile orchestral imagination. With its multitude of downright peculiar sonorities – made to sound even more so by the OAE – this music must have sounded quite amazing to the first audience when Das Rheingold was heard in Bayreuth in 1876. Granted it had been performed independently in Munich prior to this, but contrary to the wishes of the composer who only wanted it to be heard in the context of the complete Ring in his purpose-built theatre.

The woodwind ‘commentaries’ on words, thoughts and deeds were particularly well-realised. I loved the sounds of the gurgling clarinets who slithered in and out of the texture, whilst the oboes and cor anglais had a distinctly darker colouring then we are accustomed to hearing. Conversely, the flutes sounded somehow brighter, with an especially sparkling piccolo. There was some magnificent timpani playing from Adrian Bending, and the harps – all six of them (actually seven, including the one which was placed separately to accompany the ‘distant’ Rhinemaidens towards the close) glittered irresistibly.

My reservation concerned the brass. The horns at the start were affected by intonation difficulties. This is a horribly difficult passage to realise at the best of times, but the frequently fluffed notes did not make for the most evocative Prelude. There were similar problems later on, but their stopped notes were most menacing and such punctuation registered much more tellingly than is invariably the case with ‘traditional’ performances. The trombones appeared to be of a narrower bore than usual and whilst they rasped effectively, the bottom range was, inevitably, rather lighter than is customary. In one or two of the big climaxes, the sheer heft of a full Wagnerian sound of the kind we are used to was not provided by the OAE.

But the balance was fine between voices and orchestra – one or two moments apart where singers are bound to be overwhelmed by the force of the orchestral writing. Rattle had assembled a strong cast. Leading off was the trio of Rhinemaidens, well matched as a group and individually distinctive. Kate Royal’s delivery of the key line “Nur wen der Minne Macht versagt” (only he who forswears love’s power) which plants ideas into Alberich’s mind, was full of portent, whilst the frolicsome aspect of these flirty creatures never became arch or overly coy. Rattle was superb in pointing up the innocent, diatonic, music at the start of the scene, contrasted with the chromatic sliding that emerges when Alberich does. The dark, distinctive woodwinds helped at this point.

Kazakhstan-born Oleg Bryjak was a strong Alberich, firm of tone and projection. He was splendid in this first scene, and the moment of his renunciation of love conveyed all the despair that is written into the vocal line. I could have done without some of his cackles – not all of which are in the score – and, later on, I felt a want of variety of tone colour in some of Alberich’s other crucial scenes. Nevertheless, his curse on the ring was chilling and he is clearly already an Alberich of some stature.

Willard White, whose deportment and bearing were ideal for the tortured Wotan, headed the Gods. Not all of his pronouncements carried the apposite authority, however, and there were some moments of under-pitch singing. A line such as “Den Ring muss ich haben” needs to be enunciated with more bite than White provided, but he was noticeably fine when musing and brooding – as Wotan often does. It was good that he did not present a figure who is already neurotic from the word go, and his apostrophe towards the end – “Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Augue” was movingly sung with a fine legato.

Yvonne Naef was a positive Fricka and not a mere nagging irritant to Wotan’s plans. Her opening recitative-like exchanges with Wotan was greatly assisted by Rattle keeping these passages moving. One of the strengths of this reading with the sense of onward flow and urgency which lent the drama tangible excitement.

Geraldine McGreevy made a positive impression as Freia. Although Wagner ascribes her some beautiful themes in the orchestra, her actual utterances are often confined to cries for help. She made these properly impassioned and although not an especially substantial part, she made Freia an important part of the drama – which she is.

The giants Fasolt and Fafner were in the safe hands – and voices – of Peter Rose and Robert Lloyd. Rose was quite touching in his pining for beauty – in the form of Freia – whilst Lloyd’s more down-to-earth Fafner had all the gravitas one expects from this singer. His killing of his brother was, rightly, an uncomfortable moment.

Robin Leggate was able to convey the whimpering Mime without exaggeration and Anna Larsson was grave and dignified as Erda. If her voice is ultimately not the deep contralto ideally required, she was, nevertheless, an apt conveyor of warning to Wotan and the gods.

Kim Begley’s Loge was a fine portrayal, veering from the mercurial and ironic to an unusually expressive delivery of his report on his failure to find a replacement for “love and womankind”.

This, then, was as convincing a cast, overall, as one is likely to find. It was good to see and hear the characters really interacting with one another and, of course, being audible.

Rattle’s conception was on the swift side, but this lent the drama an inexorability that was quite compelling. The orchestral interludes were grippingly realised, and the thematic interweaving throughout could be fully appreciated.

Described by Proms Director Nicholas Kenyon as an “experiment”, unlike many, this one worked. It might easily have misfired; however, it turned out to be an exceptionally well-realised performance of Wagner’s Das Rheingold.

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