A suitably festive atmosphere pervaded the foyer areas of the Royal Festival Hall on 22 May 2013, the focus of the year’s Wagner bicentenary events. A brass band provided Ring extracts, Opera Forge performed bits of Walküre and Rheingold (well, the bits I heard anyway), and from the balcony above the bar we were summoned to the auditorium by Wagnerian fanfares, Bayreuth-like.
One of our little party had a birthday that coincided with the momentous day, so what better excuse could there be for a Wagner-themed cake. Meet Fafner (below), guarding his plastic hoard. I think Waitrose can give Opera Australia a run for their money, don’t you?
Having not been too indulgent on cake (my other half handing bits out to slightly bewildered fellow concert-goers), but with a drop or two of wine inside us, it was time to head into the concert. With the Prelude to Act 1 of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, and the entire Act 3 of Die Walküre, it was perhaps inevitable that the festivities would dampen a little. In truth, there wasn’t a great deal to really get excited about in this concert.
Andrew Davis was in musical charge, and his approach to Wagner was rather too literal for my tastes. Detail was present, but any sense of getting carried away was most definitely absent. The Tristan episodes, especially, lacked any luminescence, poise or sense of transcendence (acknowledging, of course, that it can be difficult to conjure these up without the magic of stage atmosphere). Susan Bullock didn’t appear to be a natural Isolde, either, and despite some moments of interesting detail at the opening, the performance wanted just a bit more shimmer in order to take off: the final ‘höchste Lust!‘ being rather clipped and matter-of-fact.
Act 3 of Walküre is a rather odd choice for a concert piece, with its long debate between Wotan and Brünnhilde creating an expanse of intimate detail bookended by the two set pieces of the Ride of the Valkyries and Wotan’s Farewell. Judging by the shuffling, talking, checking of Facebook and other such indications of irritated boredom, this wasn’t the audience for it, either. A set of spirited Valkyries launched us on our way, clambering about in a semi-staging that made good use of the choir. James Rutherford sang Wotan with resonant power, but being rather glued to the score it was difficult to get swept up in his character – especially in the central section of the Act. Bullock’s Brünnhilde is much better known in these parts, of course, from her performance of the full cycle only last year, and she drew on that stage experience to bring some great clarity to details, particularly in the gentler passages. However, it was once again difficult to get much emotional thrill from the piece.
Throughout, Davis didn’t really rein in the great Philharmonia machine, their big rich sound being gorgeous, with some fantastic playing, but at the expense of being able to hear the singers. Taken as just the concert, then, not the best of Wagner nights, but it contributed to an enjoyably festive evening overall. And there’s plenty more still to come in Wagner year.