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Posts Tagged ‘Bryn Terfel’

The Greatest Love Of All

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on April 27, 2015 at 2:46 pm

Review – Die Walküre, Act Three (Millennium Centre, Cardiff. Sunday 26 April)

Wotan – Bryn Terfel
Brünnhilde – Iréne Theorin
Sieglinde – Rachel Nicholls
Die Walküre – Camilla Roberts (Gerhilde); Katherine Broderick (Helmwige); Sarah Pring (Waltraute); Emma Carrington ( Schwertleite); Meeta Raval (Ortlinde); Madeleine Shaw (Siegrune); Ceri Williams (Grimgerde); Leah-Marian Jones (Rossweisse)

Welsh National Opera Orchestra
Lothar Koenigs (Conductor)

My original feelings of disappointment at the no-show by Evelyn Herlitzius were dismissed with the opening bars of this performance of the final act of Die Walküre. Not only was the orchestral sound rich and deep, with barking brass and an urgency in the woodwind that is often lacking, but there was a pent up energy, an almost rhythmic brutality created by Lothar Koenig’s conducting.

I often fear that – with the performance of single acts of complete operas –the lack of both emotional and musical momentum created by the preceding act will be have a detrimental impact. Not so here. From the opening bars to the final moment when Terfel glanced back, this was a performance replete with incredible performances and dripping with visceral drama.

And the vocal prowess of every performer matched that of the orchestral players, starting with an impressive band of warrior maidens. Each and every one was full-blooded in their singing but there was also something else. Perhaps it was the obvious enjoyment these eight singers conveyed singing as ensemble, but there was not only a sense of sisterly camaraderie but also a real sense of competition between these maidens. And special mention must go to Katherine Broderick, Meeta Raval, Camilla Roberts and Emma Carrington.

Superb.

As Sieglinde, Rachel Nicholls’ perhaps suffered slightly from not inheriting the Dramatic momentum of singing the first two acts. In spite of some distracting vibrato, she gave a good and solid account but I’m not sure that ultimately she has the heft for the entire role.

The last time I saw Iréne Theorin was when she stood in at the last moment for an indisposed Katarina Dalayman for the second act of Tristan und Isolde. I never got a chance to write that performance up but I have long admired her. Her performance in the Salzburg Elektra in the title role is well-worth the price of the DVD alone as Isolde last year she was superb.

But here as Brünnhilde, Theorin gave a performance of incredible – almost iconic – stature. Her interpretation was multi-faceted, resting comfortably on rock solid technique and using to the fullest her superb vocal instrument seeped extravagantly in both colour and timbre.

This Brünnhilde was not only simply magnificent, but also a woman. From the moment she stalked on stage, Sieglinde in tow, she portrayed a Brünnhilde at first in desperate flight before transitioning into a defiant yet resolute daughter to the very end. Vocally, her soprano gleamed and shone, effortlessly cutting through the orchestra. And she made every word clear and every phrase, intelligently shaped, count. And once she had despatched Siegmund’s widow to the forest, her fear of confronting her father was almost palpable.

I often think that the scene between father and daughter is nothing short of a love duet. I can’t think of another scene depicting love – in whatever form – that surpasses it. The love Wotan has for Brünnhilde and her love for him is, quite simply, the greatest love of all. And that is what makes his final farewell so heart-rending. And what inspired Wagner to one of his greatest moments in the opera.

And this love was evident her subsequent sparring with Wotan. Not only was it ever so beautifully sung, each phrase eloquently shaped, each she imbued each word and sentence with a conviction that she had ultimately done his bidding. Whether she was revealing the truth of Siegmund’s heir or imploring Wotan to guarantee a hero’s-only rescue, so impassioned was Theorin’s performance that you felt it was almost as if Wotan himself was going to be convinced.

And Bryn Terfel – first heard off-stage a before storming in in true fury, gave an equally defining performance as Wotan. From his first entrance, he took the willing audience through the entire range of emotions that this God feels – anger and fury, disappointment, anguish, love and finally resignation, not only at the loss of his daughter, but of his own ultimate fate. This was a performance on par with his incredible performance at the Proms two years ago. As with Theorin, each word was weighed and conveyed with authority; each line of Wagner’s music dug into to heighten it’s emotional impact. The despair, as well as the love he felt for his daughter washed over the entire hall as he launched into Leb’ wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind!.

Ranged behind the singers, and as I’ve already mentioned, the Welsh National Opera Orchestra supported the singers with great authority, playing their own critical role in weaving together Wagner’s incredible canvas. Koenig’s Wagnerian credentials are second to none already, and in this performance he demonstrated that he firmly understands the architecture and breadth of Wagner’s music, while also giving it both time to breath and revealing the smallest of details.

With singing and playing of this calibre, surely it is time for Welsh National Opera to consider – even in concert-version – a Ring cycle?

O hehrstes Wunder!

In BBC Proms, Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on July 24, 2013 at 10:46 am

Review – Die Walküre (BBC Prom – Tuesday 23 July 2013)

Wotan – Bryn Terfel
Brünnhilde – Nina Stemme
Siegmund – Simon O’Neill
Sieglinde – Anja Kampe
Hunding – Eric Halfvarson
Fricka – Ekaterina Gubanova
Gerhilde – Sonja Mühleck soprano
Ortlinde – Carola Höhn
Waltraute – Ivonne Fuchs
Schwertleite – Anaïk Morel
Helmwige – Susan Foster
Siegrune – Leann Sandel-Pantaleo
Grimgerde – Anna Lapkovskaja
Rossweisse – Simone Schröder

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (Conductor)

Sieglinde’s O hehrstes Wunder said it all.

On the strength of the first two performances and if the BBC is smart it will find a way to issue this Prom Ring cycle on CD or download.

Clearly Das Rheingold was simply the warm-up because on the second night of the BBC Proms’ first ever complete Ring cycle, Daniel Barenboim, a second-to-none cast and the Staatskapelle Berlin delivered a Die Walküre of such intensity that I haven’t personally experienced either on stage or in concert performance.

The quality of the performances, the playing and the acting on that limited stage all came together in a perfect moment.

It brought back memories of that night in 2005 and a single, isolated performance of Die Walküre. However the emotional intensity of the Berliners performance exceeded even the emotional temperature of that evening.

And Bryn Terfel sung in both. I will admit, I have never truly been convinced by his Wotan – until last night.

Having also seen him at Covent Garden and the Metropolitan I have always felt that there was that final ‘something’ missing. Not so of his Wotan on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall. Perhaps it was because he was stripped bare of the distractions of a stage setting that his performance was incredible. Vocally he chartered the descent of Wotan from arrogant God to loving and distraught father. Every phrase was thought through and convincingly delivered – the words always clear, his voice marvelously shaded, the phrasing beautifully shaped, his singing always incredibly expressive. His was a Wotan worth reckoning with – from his incredible scene with Fricka to his final showdown and heartrending breakdown. His Leb wohl was both majestic and human.

As his wife, Ekaterina Gubanova continued her tour de force as Fricka. And my God from her first appearance, as she slinked down the stairs, she sounded and looked the part. I have yet to finish my review of Gergiev’s recording of this opera simply because I struggle to get beyond listening to the second act with Ms Gubanova. And here she displayed the same high level of musicianship, that beautifully rich and almost muscular mezzo that perfectly conveys the haughty grandeur required of Fricka. Throughout the scene this was a Fricka in control – not completely the woman still hopefully in love of Stephanie Blythe – but a Goddess. Yet, right at the end, once she had extracted the necessary promise from Wotan, there was a sudden and unexpected sign that this was a Fricka who still loved her husband as he sat broken.

At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum was Anja Kampe’s incredible performance Sieglinde. From the vulnerability of her opening scene with Simon O’Neill’s Siegmund and their burgeoning love, her distress in the Second Act to her final exultant and ringing O hehrstes Wunder, Kampe displayed a vocal authority that has definitely grown since I first saw her in this role. Her voice was strong and even throughout its range and again the colours she injected into her singing was tingling.

Opposite Sieglinde, Simon O’Neill was a credible and vocally secure Siegmund. I wonted for more drama in his characterization and perhaps at times greater depth to his singing but there was no denying his commitment in the role.

Hunding as bully was brilliantly portrayed by the deep and brutal singing of Eric Halfvarson. But his was no cipher in performance. Above the brutish and threatening vocal stance he adopted – and led by Barenboim – Halfvarson also uncovered the oft missed – and in many ways – more threatening ability to find those moments in Hunding’s music to sneer and patronise.

And Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde? Personally there aren’t sufficient superlatives.

Unlike in San Francisco, where she was head and shoulders above her colleagues, here Ms Stemme was equally matched by the rest of the cast and it strengthened and enriched her performance. Vocally secure throughout her Brünnhilde was simply stunning and spot on. Her eloquence in the role was simply mesmerising. She made you hear and feel everything – from Brünnhilde’s initial bravado as Wotan’s favourite to the wonder and awe as she witnessed true love to the anguish and fear of defying of father.

There simply isn’t a Brünnhilde like her today.

Even the Walküre – sometimes a hit and miss affair of competitive singing – were marshalled and made a thrilling ensemble. Vocally secure, each had a sufficiently identifiable vocal timbre that made them individuals as well.

So to Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin.

Simply genius.

Barenboim – conducting the first act without glancing at the score – seemed more involved than his measured conducting of Das Rheingold. Clearly this is an opera he loves dearly and it showed in his gestures to the orchestra. Never was this more noticeable than when he was driving the orchestra towards the final bars of each of the three acts. Or when he was exhorting the excellent brass section to greater – if it was possible – grandeur in their playing. Or threat and menace generated at the very beginning, when his physical gestures that had the strings digging deep from the beginning. Or when he motioned to the singers at critical moments in the drama.

And the Staatskapelle responded with deeply committed and passionate playing. Focused, attentive and engrossed in the music, each and every player was part of the drama that Barenboim unfolded on the stage.

I did not see the ‘altercation’ at the end of the Second Act but if performance is sometimes about artistic difference then it worked because I do believe that the playing in the final act even managed to surpass that of the preceding acts.

After a brilliant Das Rheingold, it was impossible to think that the ensemble could raise the bar with Die Walküre. But they did.

It makes the expectation of the Siegfried to come almost unbearable.

Die Walküre – The Misintentioned Mechanics of Lepage’s Production

In Classical Music, Opera on May 6, 2011 at 7:21 am

Listening to – Violin Concerto, Faust/Brahms

Having attended the opening night and second performance of Robert Lepage’s production of Die Walküre at the Met, there was something distinctly ‘baroque’ about the whole evening.

It seemed to me that rather than the stage machinery and technology providing a foundation to enhance the drama, in fact the whole production seemed to rely almost excessively on the mechanics and, in a sense, forsaking Wagner’s own concept of Gesamtkunst. That is not to say that the music, and the performances were not, on the whole, incredibly strong, but throughout both the evenings that I attended there was a real sense that mechanical intervention had been permitted – or instructed deliberately – to take precedence. Indeed it was interesting to hear the interval and post-performance chatter. It wasn’t about the performances, or Levine’s conducting, but it had a distinctly ‘How the devil did he do that’ quality.

In a sense Lepage’s production sought – as they did in baroque and early 18th century opera – to overwhelm the audience with feats of mechanical engineering. Of course, this may have worked well in operas of earlier generations when gods, flying chariots, and flying scenery changes offered a distraction from the recitative that alternated with the arias for which the audience even stopped talking. But in Wagner where the music is – to coin a distinctly 18th century term – through-composed, then it almost served as a distraction.

The use of a single, if impressive, mechanical plateau of moving planks also leant itself to restrictions. While the opening, driven forward by Levine’s knowledgeable conducting and love of the score, looked visually arresting as the projections morphed from a snow storm, via a forest to the wooden piles of Hunding’s hut, it offered little, if any, sense of atmosphere or real location. There was no sense of the singers interacting with their environment. Surprising and not a little disappointing considering that Hamburg’s recent production demonstrated that even a ‘big white empty space’ could invoke a sense of reality and emotional projection. For most of the evening, it felt like singing from the school of ‘stand and deliver’, with isolated moments when what would have seemed like perfectly acceptable actions simply felt wildly over-acted and almost inappropriate. I call to mind in particular Kaufman’s rushing about the stage swinging Northung.

Similarly the Second Act – where Deborah Voigt came a cropper on her first entry on the first night and which clearly unnerved her for the rest of the performance – felt similarly devoid of a sense of place. The use of an eye as Wotan recounted the events at led him to his current predicament to Brunnhilde had a definite Tolkiensian feeling and similarly, the previous scenes involving Fricka, literally glued to her rams’ chariot, would have had an almost comical feel had it not been for Stephanie Blythe’s mesmerising performance. I wondered if Fricka had been condemned to her chariot for fear of her own safety.

The Final Act began and ended ‘on Broadway’. The Valkyries arrived riding the automated, moving planks which elicited much applause from the New York audience, and until the final denouément, it felt like Lepage only threw in a few animations of falling snow (or was it clouds?) for fear that the concentration of the collective audience would wander. Clearly Lepage doesn’t know his Wagner audience. The snow, or clouds, were a distraction.

The final scene, seeing Brunnhilde – well an actress, not Voigt – upended on a cliff face was visually arresting but provided none of the sense of scale of the previous production by Schenk. This was not helped by the fact that Terfel and Voigt had to exit ‘stage left’ so that Wotan could rise in the lift backstage to hoist pseudo-Brunnhilde aloft. By that point it didn’t surprise and seemed a real sense of anti-climax as the picture was already in the public domain and therefore the reveal was spoiled.

And maybe because of the restrictions imposed by the stages, the lighting was incredibly simple, with an over-reliance on spotlighting the singers and, I admit, in one stunning moment, Northung plunged into the oak. Yet bar this specific instances, lighting seemed to be limited to two settings – on and off.

What was equally surprising were the costumes of the characters. From the chain mail of Siegfried and the breast-plated armour of Wotan and the Valkyrie to the distinctly pseudo-Celtic robes of Sieglinde, Fricka and Hunding, the costumes would not have looked out of place in Schenk’s production which this replaced.

In the same way, any direction of the characters was simply lacking. Again I put this down to a reliance on the mechanics to convey the narrative and sense of action. For the most part, and as I have mentioned above, the mantra seemed to be ‘stand and deliver’ but there were moments of genuine acting and it is worth noting which singers seemed keen to extend beyond the restrictions imposed on them. At the end of the first act, Kaufman and Westbroek engaged in some ‘real acting’ as they declared their love for one another, and Stephanie Blythe, despite being condemned to her horned throne, managed to convey a real sense of anger, frustration and – dare I say it – lost love for Wotan.

Yet despite the distractions provided by Lepage’s set, the singing and playing was of an incredibly high, if not consistent, standard. The main cast were: Jonas Kaufman (Siegmund); Eva-Maria Westbroek and Margaret-Jane Wray (Sieglinde); Peter Koenig (Hunding); Bryn Terfel (Wotan); Deborah Voigt (Brunnhilde) and Stephanie Blythe (Fricka). On the First Night Westbroek was replaced by Wray for the second and third acts.

This was, I believe, Kaufman’s debut at the Met, and considering his repertory roles in Germany, his first Siegmund. He was, on the whole, impressive. Having already sung principal roles in Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and Rienzi, Kaufmann has a real sense of Wagner’s vocal line, and a brilliant and bell-like upper register. However Siegmund pushes the vocal range for tenors at both ends of the scale, and there were occasional moments when Kaufmann’s delivery of lower notes grumbled. However this was a small rice to pay for a vigorous and beautifully sung Siegmund.

Eva-Maria Westbroek was also making her debut at the Met, yet Sieglinde is fast becoming a signature role for her. Despite her incapacity on the first night, she demonstrated hat she is one of the leading Sieglinde’s of today, comparable with the likes of Angela Denoke who performed the role in Hamburg. Incapacitated on opening night, on her second night, Westbroek revelled in the vocal lines, effortlessly rising against the orchestra when she needed to but also capable of dropping to a deathly whisper as required in the second act. Her final scene before departing to the woods was vocally secure, beautifully phrased and rang out over the orchestra. Without doubt she will on day move from an impressive Sieglinde to an equally defining Brunnhilde.

Margaret-Jane Wray stepped in at short notice on the first night and delivered a finely rendered character. She is a fine Wagnerian soprano, with the heft for the role although – perhaps because of the last minute nature of her appearance – she occasionally over-sang. Regardless, it was a brave and heart-felt performance.

Clearly Deborah Voigt as Brunnhilde was the Met’s main focus. In costume she dominated the marketing for the production, and overall she did not disappoint. Despite her first night slip, she delivered a worthy Brunnhilde. Her musicality, and understanding of the role were never in doubt and she has gleaming top notes with an almost even tone through her range. However, and perhaps even on the second night she was still wary of the set, on occasion her voice would possess an almost metallic, harsh tone, particular in the upper register. Brunnhilde may be a role that Voigt wants to sing, but perhaps it isn’t ultimately a role that suits her. There were occasions when her voice felt too small for the role and she physically seemed to struggle. She is not – and perhaps never will be – a Brunnhilde in the manner of Stemme or Dalayman.

Stephanie Blythe demonstrated that despite the limitations imposed upon her, she is one of the leading acting singers in the stage today. She delivered a three-dimensional Fricka who – unlike the equally engaging Fricka of Lilli Paasikivi – was still in love with her husband and demonstrated a frailty that is certainly not the norm for Fricka. However, considering my distinct feeling of Lepage’s deliberate disassociation from actually directing the singers, I credit Blythe with this interpretation. And as for her singing? Simply wonderful. Hers is a rich and resonant mezzo, even throughout with a luxuriant, warm tone. It was probably the single moment in the whole production when all eyes and ears were focused on the singing and acting. The staging had melted away. Superb.

So to Terfel and his Wotan. It was a convincingly rendered role and Terfel is a fine singer. But he left me wanting more. He was in good voice and his characterisation was finely tuned – indeed his scene with Fricka was a highlight for me – but there was a sense that he was not engaged with the production.

And finally, what of Levine? He is an incredible conductor. His love of Wagner and his understanding of the scale and architectural expanses of score enabled him not only to draw fine playing from the orchestra and in particular the brass, but he also provided that real sense of the seamlessness so critical in this opera. His was richly deserved cheer and ovation at the beginning, middle and end of both evenings.

Yet, despite the excellent conducting and fine – and occasionally brilliant singing – I left the Lincoln Center feeling – like the singers – disengaged from the evening’s performance. Individually the performances were good, but with the exception of Blythe and Westbroek, they were not magnificent. And Lepage seemed to forsake any real sense of direction or narrative, relying instead on the mechanics of his staging for effect. Sadly, Lepage had tried – and in my view – failed in his self-professed goal – to marry twenty-first century technology with Wagner’s Gesamtkunst – the unity of music, text and scenic setting.

Perhaps they should have just given Schenk’s traditional sets a new coat of paint.

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