Bicentennial Without A Bang

In Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on May 23, 2013 at 4:27 pm

Review – Wagner 200th Anniversary Concert (Royal Festival Hall, Wednesday 22 May 2013)

Isolde/Brunnhilde – Susan Bullock
Sieglinde – Giselle Allen
Wotan – James Rutherford
Die Walküre – Magdalen Ashman, Katherine Broderick, Jennifer Johnston, Maria Jones, Mariya Krywaniuk, Elaine McKrill, Miriam Sharrad, Antonia Sotgiu

Director – David Edwards
Lighting Designer – David Holmes

Philharmonia Orchestra
Conductor – Sir Andrew Davies

Sometimes a party can peak too early.

Perhaps the expectation is too high. Perhaps those assembled don’t quite gel. Perhaps the party plan is a little too ambitious.

Wagner 200 kicked off its London-wide celebration of the bicentenary of Richard Wagner’s birth with what should have been – on paper – a splendid concert.

Sadly it didn’t quite come together. At the end of the concert I was left with the overwhelming impression of a concert to mark an event rather than an evening of exemplary and memorable performance.

The opening piece, the overture to Die Meistersinger underlined why Sir Andrew Davies is one of the leading conductors on the podium today. Personally I would have preferred a sprightlier tempo but Davies demonstrated an innate sense of the piece and attention to the inner contrapuntal detail.

The Philharmonia responded with some elegant – if not grand gestured – playing and by the end of the concert, this overture stood alone in terms of the strongest performance of the evening.

The first half ended with the Prelude and Liebstod to Tristan und Isolde. Again it was a question of tempo. While maintaining a keen sense of transparency, Davies’ decision to take the Prelude at a marginally quicker pace that undermined the sensuality inbuilt in Wagner’s music.

Susan Bullock was his Isolde and I admit that she is a soprano who leaves me undecided. Her performance of the Liebstod was not overwhelming as it should be. There was a metallic edge – almost strain – to the voice in her upper register and I felt that she didn’t manage the long-spun vocal line with any ease. Phrases were often not sufficiently shaped and in some cases seemed clipped.

The final act of Die Walküre followed after the interval. I am not sure about performances of stand-alone acts. I wasn’t convinced by Runnicles’ experiment with Tristan und Isolde for example simply because any sense of unity and momentum is missing.

And perhaps that was the central problem with this performance. Coming in cold to the final act is difficult without the emotional and musical impact of the preceding music.

The introduction got off to a brisk start and again Davies’ attention to the detail within the inner voices was notable. However it has to be said that more often than not the dotted rhythm – which the gentleman behind me was tapping out on his programme – was more like lazy triplets in the brass.

And sadly the singing was – for the most part – lacklustre and there was a clear lack of an ensemble knitted together. Indeed at times it almost felt as if we were attending the final rehearsal sadly.

In the surtitles Wotan described his Walküre offspring as a “gaggle”. Vocally he was right. Casting the eight sisters is a challenge. It works when there is a sense of ensemble without undermining the individuality of each of the singers.

This wasn’t the case here. For the most part these Walküre bordered on the shrill and when they sang together were unfocused and even at times ragged. Indeed at some points their seemed to be a not-so-silent competition as to who could sing the loudest.

Giselle Allen’s Sieglinde hinted at a potentially excellent Sieglinde. She possesses a warm and darkly hued soprano and her short moment on stage lifted the sense of drama and musicianship on a somewhat otherwise cold stage. To be able to see her sing her final scene as part of a complete performance would be thrilling.

James Rutherford was a sensible Wotan. However, while he has a dark and almost burnished bass I personally think that he is not quite ready for Wotan. He definitely shows promise but not just yet.

And sadly his reliance on using a score for the majority of the act meant that he was tethered to one of two music stands. This demolished any sense of being part of the semi-staged action – more of that later – but until his final and famous monologue, he seemed simply to sing the notes but not the part.

Finally released from looking at his score, Rutherford finally showed some potential in his final farewell to Brunnhilde. Sadly however it was at exactly this point that Davies’ hurried tempo undermined any sense of the music’s breadth or grandeur to shine through.

So, to Susan Bullock. I have to say that I do not think Brunnhilde is an ideal role. Like Deborah Voigt, she inhabits the character and can sing the notes but something is lacking. I listened to her Brunnhilde most recently when she performed the entire role at Covent Garden and once again I found her – overall – vocally short. As I have already mentioned there is a metallic hardness and strain as she reaches above the stave that – as Brunnhilde – took on an almost harsh quality at times. But individual moments – such as the opening and unaccompanied plea to her father – did reveal themselves. But overall I remain to be convinced of Susan Bullock as Brunnhilde.

Davies once again drew some wonderful playing from the Philharmonia but at times he seemed to lose his place in the overarching architecture of the act. However the Philharmonia were on good form and produced a wonderful burnished sound although at time they did overwhelm the singers. Inevitable I suppose especially in a concert performance of Wagner but more often it just felt that a little more restraint would have been the best cure.

In a concert performance any sense of staging an opera is a tricky business. Sometimes – as with Opera North’s current Ring cycle – it works well.

Here it did not. The Walküre’s use of beam light torches – when they weren’t blinding the audience seemed more reminiscent of miners than warrior maidens. And while it seemed like a good idea to utilise the seats being the orchestra, in reality it made for a difficult acoustic balance to get right and affect their ensemble.

And if the subtle use of smoke and the red lighting at the end was the only other contribution in terms of staging, then perhaps a traditional concert performance devoid of any distraction might have enabled a greater attention to the singing?

Ultimately this was a concert full of good intentions – an opportunity to mark London’s bicentennial Wagner celebrations but perhaps the programming was too ambitious. Tackling a complete act cold and in isolation is a brave choice. Perhaps it would have been more sensible to perform “bleeding chunks” of Wagner.

Perhaps Wagner 200 wanted to make a bold opening statement.

But in truth this concert got the party started with more of a whimper than a bang. However the rest of Wagner 200 – with its broad mix of performances and talks – remains incredibly promising.

  1. […] but Wagner’s Wesendonck lieder in performance but as part of their bicentennial celebrations, Wagner 200 programmed an evening of his lesser known songs wrapped around songs by his contemporaries Liszt […]

  2. […] in terms of performances but also in terms of lectures, screenings and masterclasses. While the opening concert didn’t have quite the ‘bang’ that it needed there is no doubt in my mind that one of the […]

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