Die Walküre [First Day of Der Ring des Nibelungen; music drama in three acts]
Siegmund Plácido Domingo
Sieglinde Waltraud Meier
Hunding Eric Halfvarson
Wotan Bryn Terfel
Fricka Rosalind Plowright
Brünnhilde Lisa Gasteen
Gerhilde Geraldine McGreevy
Ortlinde Elaine McKrill
Waltraute Claire Powell
Schwertleite Rebecca de Pont Davies
Helmwige Iréne Theorin
Siegrune Sarah Castle
Grimgerde Clare Shearer
Rossweisse Elizabeth Sikora
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Michael Moxham Stage director
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 18 July, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
The Proms presentation of Wagner’s Ring cycle over four seasons continued with the ‘First Day’ of the tetralogy. Being at once the most humanly involving instalment, in which actions andtheir consequences have an outcome of unerring emotional impact, “Die Walküre” is the music-drama that can best be heard and appreciated on its own (and, indeed, was often heard as such in the days before “Der Ring des Nibelungen” came to be regarded as a necessary totality). This performance came as part of the second run – only just concluded – from the ongoing staging at the Royal Opera, featuring a line-up that could hardly be more ‘star-studded’ in terms of individual participants.
Much of the interest understandably centred on Plácido Domingo – making his Proms debut at the age of 64, and for whom Wagner has assumed increasing importance in terms of the roles tackled. That of Siegmund, perhaps the most archetypal of all Wagner’s heldentenor parts, might not be thought overly appropriate for Domingo at this stage of his career, but there was no mistaking his dedication to the task – specifically in defining the youthful hero as he defies, almost without comprehending, the machinations of fate and the brutality of the tribe. Wisely refraining from any attempt to make his voice something it no longer is, Domingo employed a wide range of timbre and attack in his creation of a believable and sympathetic persona. Admirably as this evolved over the course of Act One, it was in his brief but – musically and dramatically – crucial encounter with Brünnhilde during Act Two where his understanding of character was most evident. No matter that Domingo’s German has never been the most idiomatic: his identity with the role was palpably and gratifyingly inclusive.
In this, he was aided immeasurably by the Sieglinde of Waltraud Meier – soulful and inward-looking, but shot through with defiance. That her ‘opening-out’ of character was evidently geared to the musical intensification of the first act is confirmation of intelligent Wagner singing of the first order – with her plangent exchange with Siegmund, and heartfelt departure from Brünnhilde in the following acts, both supremely assured and emotionally compelling. For his part, Eric Halfvarson made of Hunding a stern, ruthless figure – one whose honouring of the tribal code is its own justification and carries its own integrity, while all the time complementing and enriching Wagner’s fastidious orchestral writing.
About Bryn Terfel’s Wotan one might be more equivocal – necessarily so, given the ambiguous nature of the role, with its constant and often unexpected vacillation between god-like and human responses. After a generous-spirited initial exchange with Brünnhilde, he seemed to capitulate too easily in the confrontation with Fricka, and rendered his lengthy exchanges with the former almost as soliloquies to be overheard – defeatist rather than fatalistic. Not that his singing per se was lacking in depth of response, while the rasp in his delivery as he put paid to Hunding (after the demise of Siegmund) had the effect of releasing the pent-up emotional intensity accumulated over the whole of Act Two. And, in the elaborate ‘mind-game’ with Brünnhilde that occupies the greater part of the last act,he gave the impression of gaining in authority as he progressively lost the moral argument; the role is here at its most commanding when caution is thrown to the wind – which Terfel did in a superbly sustained monologue as he put his recalcitrant daughter to sleep. Such passages amply suggest that should Terfel not go on to become the finest Wotan of his generation, it will be at his own choosing.
As to his female counterparts, Rosalind Plowright is a strong, forceful, though never merely prudish Fricka – taking her uncompromising stance out of unswerving duty to her role in the supra-human scheme of things. Technically and expressively, Lisa Gasteen has all of the ‘presence’ necessary for Brünnhilde, if lacking that streak of very human vulnerability which is both her greatest strength and her ultimate failing. That said, one would be hard-put to hear a better-sung portrayal of the role – one which time may well endow with greater emotional variety and expressive subtlety. Individually and collectively, the Valkyries gelled together well in their contribution to Act Three – with Claire Powell convincing as Waltraute in a role one hopes she will take on in “Götterdämmerung” two years hence.
Antonio Pappano’s conducting of Wagner has met with a range of responses in Royal Opera’s Ring cycle thus far. Among the most lucid and elegant of opera conductors, he may not be one to whom Wagner comes naturally – but, on this showing, he is becoming a sensitive and attuned exponent. The frequent tendency to direct in short and not always coherent spans was belied by the seamless build-up of intensity over the course of Act One, its symphonic inclinations well in evidence. If Act Two evinced less of an underlying musical logic, Pappano’s gauging of its exceptionally difficult momentum faltered only rarely – with the breathless rapidity of the denouement searingly conveyed –and if the initial stages of Act Three were arguably too swift for the many motivic connections to register ideally, the music’s cumulative emotional charge was eloquently realised – though a tendency to prettify such passages as the ‘magic fire music’ will hopefully be eradicated on future occasions.
Michael Moxham’s stage direction made full use of the space across the front of the platform, enabling the singers to play out a believable range of responses in lieu of any scenic context – most notably in their heightened coming-together at the fateful close of Act Two – while the backdrop of colour filters was only rarely intrusive. Certainly the standing-ovation which greeted the close of the performance felt as much motivated by the work as by the performers – a tribute to the impact that Wagner’s creativity retains 150 years on, not least on those only just entering his musical universe.