Prom 20: Daniel Barenboim conducts Götterdämmerung [Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen: 4/4]

Götterdämmerung – third day of the stage-festival-play Der Ring des Nibelungen; music drama in a prologue and three acts to a libretto by the composer [concert performance; sung in German]

Brünnhilde – Nina Stemme
Siegfried – Andreas Schager
Hagen – Mikhail Petrenko
Gunther – Gerd Grochowski
Gutrune / Third Norn – Anna Samuil
Alberich – Johannes Martin Kränzle
Waltraute / Second Norn – Waltraud Meier
First Norn – Margarita Nekrasova
Woglinde – Aga Mikolaj
Wellgunde – Maria Gortsevskaya
Flosshilde – Anna Lapkovskaja

Royal Opera Chorus

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim

Justin Way – Stage director

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 28 July, 2013
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Waltraud Meier as Waltraute & Daniel Barenboim in a performance of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouThis conclusion to the BBC Proms’s first single-season Ring cycle – one was produced not so long ago with an opera per year, each opera’s first complete outings here – capped in exhilarating fashion what has been a revelatory traversal of Wagner’s epic Buhnenfestspiel Der Ring des Nibelungen. Revelatory because of the exceptional quality of the playing of Staatskapelle Berlin, guided by the vision of its Chief Conductor for Life Daniel Barenboim, who crafted a reading of this music that brought out its inherent drama: yearning, development of love, darkness and ultimate redemption through sacrifice.

Barenboim had the measure of all things for Götterdämmerung, putting into the mind a landscape and thrill-ride, with not a longueur anywhere. He relaxed when the characters’ sadness and resignation were to the fore, but then drove-on to exalted heights of excitement. This was Old School conducting: ‘Siegfried’s Funeral March’ was stately and heroic, and Brünnhilde’s ‘Immolation’ reached heights of rare transcendent beauty with its stately procession (once she had departed) – the overflowing of the Rhine, with the strings’ evocation of the Rhine’s waves, was exquisite, and stillness for the new dawn resulted in many seconds of stunned silence.

Andreas Schager as Siegfried & Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde in a performance of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouNina Stemme was a glorious Brünnhilde, still very much the girl-in-love during the ‘Prologue’ as she sees Siegfried off on his merry way. Her bewildered realisation that someone else has entered her fiery rock (Siegfried disguised with the Tarnhelm) was caught with apprehension and layered with foreboding. At the realisation of her betrayal (when she sees the Ring on Siegfried’s finger) she developed abject dejection into a bitter resolve that her betrayal will not go unpunished, and her ultimate realisation (while immolating) that Siegfried is the true hero was sung with power and ardour. Placed above the orchestra in front of the organ console, she was above the fray of man’s petty squabbles. Her voice – the notes ‘all there’ – carried through the heavy orchestration, and was a glorious beacon to the New World. Stemme’s Brünnhilde was at once immediate and also beyond this existence: a magnificent, defining interpretation of the role capping her great assumption during these performances.

Andreas Schager as Siegfried, Mikhail Petrenko as Hagen & Gerd Grochowski as Gunther in a performance of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouAndreas Schager delivered a strong and boyish Siegfried, the put-upon and manipulated hero. His Heldentenor rang true throughout, the top notes held no fear for him when expressing his desires. Schager’s narration that leads to his downfall and murder (he tells of his betrothal to Brünnhilde unwittingly, so confirming his betrayal of blood-brotherhood with Gunther) was consummately delivered. Mikhail Petrenko’s Hagen was the one weak-link of the cast: he simply did not have nastiness and bite in his voice, or much power. His bass, which has a sweet edge, was fine when pouring black words into the ears of Gunther, or when egging-on Alberich, but the “Hoiho!” cries were rather limp. Johannes Martin Kränzle Alberich’s dialogue with his son Hagen was desperate and frenzied, Alberich so keen to get back that ring as he plotted with all the malevolent guile he could muster. It was not always clear exactly what motivates Gunther, but given how much he is being manipulated by Hagen, and how comfortable his life is – the idle rich – that made sense in itself; Gerd Grochowski inhabited this with aplomb.

Daniel Barenboim addresses the audience with Wolf-Dieter Batzdorf seated at the end of the performance of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouLuxury casting brought Waltraud Meier to the role of the Valkyrie Waltraute (and Second Norn). Her long dialogue with Brünnhilde (where she regales of the god’s torment and tells her sister to return the ring to the Rhinemaidens) was one of many highlights: Meier’s characterisation mixed care for her sister with determination that her view should prevail, and tinged solemnity with sadness because of her ultimate failure to save the deity. Gunther’s sister Gutrune was ably sung by Anna Samuil: a small role, her situation was nevertheless given with steely determination – she has seen the possibilities and wants her prize, and her ultimate devastation at Siegfried’s corpse was tangible. The Three Norns (past- present- and future-Sayers) added refined mystery to the opera’s beginning, whilst the other trio (of Rhinemaidens), whilst still mourning their lost gold, mixed-in resigned defeat. The Royal Opera Chorus put in a rousing contribution as the hoard of Vassals and women.

This has been an exceptional Ring Cycle. The casting was stellar, Staatskapelle Berlin revealed details within Wagner’s scoring that are often lost, and the unbelievable way in which his music telescopes time meant that its passing was always engrossing. The stamina of the players deserves mention – playing (as was the musicians’ wishes) in white-tie and tails in sweltering conditions without a hint of slacking – and warrants the highest praise.

A postscript: much speculative drivel and unfounded gossip has been written about an apparent verbal spat that took place after Act Two of Die Walküre between Barenboim and Staatskapelle Berlin’s long-serving Konzertmeister Wolf-Dieter Batzdorf. Obviously, Barenboim was unhappy about something during the performance and took it out on Batzdorf. Let’s be clear: Barenboim is an artist and wants the very best, as was apparent in his ebullient praise at the end of Götterdämmerung for the audience. And he not only embraced Batzdorf, but went on to announce that this was to be his last as Konzertmeister after “nearly forty years”; he ensured that Batzdorf took his own bow and that the audience “give him the loudest ovation of the evening” for his superlative service to Staatskapelle Berlin and its music-making. More hugs between the two ensued. Barenboim, with “so much to be thankful for”, heaped praise on the audience for building a “communion between musicians and public” and, praise be to God, he thanked the spectators for their silence as much as their enthusiastic response.

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