Götterdämmerung [Third day of Der Ring des Nibelungen; Libretto by the composer; Concert performance sung in German]

Brünnhilde – Christine Brewer
Siegfried – Stig Andersen
Hagen – Sir John Tomlinson
Gunther – Alan Held
Gutrune – Gweneth-Ann Jeffers
Waltraute – Karen Cargill
Alberich – Gordon Hawkins
First Norn – Andrea Baker
Second Norn – Natascha Petrinsky
Third Norn – Miranda Keys
Woglinde – Katherine Broderick
Wellgunde – Anna Stéphany
Flosshilde – Liora Grodnikaite

BBC Singers (men’s voices)
BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Donald Runnicles

Paul Curran – Concert staging

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 12 August, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

As the portentous chords sound at the start of “Götterdämmerung” (immaculate in both ensemble and intonation on this occasion), one has the sense of embarking upon an epic voyage. So, in a sense, one is, though it is a journey begun three evenings previously, in the ‘Preliminary Evening’ of Wagner’s great tetralogy – “Das Rheingold”.

In the case of this Proms performance, the drama was set in motion three years ago, with Sir Simon Rattle conducting “Das Rheingold” with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, followed by the Royal Opera House’s “Die Walküre” in 2005, featuring Plácido Domingo and Bryn Terfel. A less obviously ‘starry’ “Siegfried” last year with Orchestre de Paris under Christoph Eschenbach was, nevertheless, a most satisfying one.

Each of these previous instalments had casts from productions that were in repertory at the time – or which were being prepared. For the final ‘day’ of the ‘Ring’ cycle, it would appear that the artists involved were brought together specifically for the occasion under the experienced guidance of Donald Runnicles (Music Director of San Francisco Opera), who has worked at Bayreuth, though he has not conducted the ‘Ring’ there.

A cause of particular satisfaction was the high quality of orchestral playing. I have rarely heard the BBC Symphony Orchestra sound so responsive in recent years, with the players seemingly relishing the music of a composer who is hardly staple fare for them nowadays. One recalls, however, that, in 2002-03, this orchestra and conductor gave separate concert performances of the three acts of “Tristan und Isolde” which were recorded and released on Warner Classics, with Christine Brewer (Brünnhilde at the Proms) as Isolde.

The ‘Prologue’ of “Götterdämmerung” introduces the Three Norns who give important information – not previously related in the story – about Wotan, but whose future predictions are cut short by the snapping of their rope. The three singers were well-matched and individually telling – especially the bright soprano of Miranda Keys. The orchestral introduction had already demonstrated the strengths of the playing, though arguably the cello section was a little too suave in its delivery. Not so in the subsequent ‘dawn’ interlude where they – and their colleagues – played most expressively; a remarkable and effective spacious tempo allowed the music to breathe naturally and the awkward ‘turn’ to be played without smudging or rushing. It was a pity, then, that later, Brewer omitted hers. The brass was strong but not strident. Throughout, solos were firmly played – those by the first horn (Nicholas Korth) and bass trumpet (Duncan Wilson) especially so. The trombones and tuba (Sam Elliott) provided firm foundation for the whole instrumental sonority. Principal woodwinds were also superb – a particular word of praise for Emma Canavan’s bass clarinet – and off-stage brass placed appropriately and whose contributions were most dramatic in impact.

In their rapturous duet, the qualities of Christine Brewer and Stig Andersen were made manifest. It is difficult to find singers who can encompass the extremes that Brünnhilde has to, from womanly warmth at the one end of the scale, to venomous anger at the other. Brewer was largely more successful in the former than in the latter. I understand that this was the first occasion on which she had sung the complete role, in which case her understanding of the part will surely deepen with more experience. She evinced expression and tenderness in this duet and had clearly husbanded her resources for the final ‘Immolation Scene’, where she delivered the necessary authority and strength of utterance. She missed an entry in Act Two, but she elicited empathy for this remarkable character, so richly drawn verbally and musically by Wagner.

The composer was less kind to tenors, and whilst Stig Andersen is currently one of that rare breed – that is someone who can actually sing the part of Siegfried – his voice is not really ‘big’ enough. To be sure, he has most of the notes (though not, it would seem, a responsive top C, which he omitted in the second act and barely delivered in the third), but one missed a degree of ‘light and shade’, with much of the music being sung at a consistent level of volume. However, there was no denying his eloquence in his death scene, which was finely shaded.

Runnicles gave a spirited reading of ‘Siegfried’s Rhine Journey’ and made a judicious transition to the domain of the Gibichungs. I have seen Alan Held in productions which have made the character of Gunther appear silly – if not downright ridiculous – so it was good to be able to appreciate his strong singing and considered characterisation of one who is a ruler, even if some of his motives and judgements are flawed. Gweneth-Ann Jeffers initially seemed somewhat reticent, though she grew in confidence and was particularly moving in her third act monologue before the return of the hunting-party bearing Siegfried’s corpse. I prefer a rather brighter soprano tone for this part, but Jeffers’s warm timbre had its own appeal.

As so often when he appears in Wagner, Sir John Tomlinson is a force to be reckoned with. His portrayal of the scheming Hagen must be the definitive one of our time. He has the kind of baleful tone that is ideal and his relishing and delivery of the text (a legacy from his work with Reginald Goodall?) is something some of his colleagues might emulate. I have seen him several times in this part, yet he never suggests even a hint of ‘routine’. His summoning of the vassals – aided by first-rate choral singing – was suitably both terrifying and thrilling.

Waltraute’s long narration was richly sung by Karen Cargill – this scene was, rightly, an expressive highlight. The trio of Rhinemaidens was led by the effervescent Katherine Broderick, though her lower-voiced colleagues lacked sparkle, and their blending was not ideal, with the lower lines sometimes unclear.

Donald Runnicles gave a largely propulsive reading (to the extent that Gordon Hawkins, a strong Alberich, was all but struggling to project some of his lines), though there were places where he eased up appropriately. I rather wished he hadn’t put his foot on the accelerator quite so much in the concluding moments of the first two acts, but some passages – including the very end – were extremely well-judged, and his control of the combined choral and orchestral forces in Act Two was exemplary.

Altogether, this performance brought the Proms ‘Ring’ cycle to a compelling conclusion.

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