There’s relatively little I can add to the general chorus of celebration surrounding the Ring Cycle led by Daniel Barenboim at the Proms last week. Essentially, all the superlatives have been taken, and there are none left for me at this point. Some brief observations, then…
I saw Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung. In other posts I think I’ve probably amply covered my dislike of the Royal Albert Hall as a venue, and I’m afraid I couldn’t bring myself to sit through the full Ring Cycle under the conditions that the Hall imposes on its audience. As it was, our front row Stall seats (at about 7 o’clock, if the stage is 12 o’clock) for Walküre were of an acceptable view, if slightly obstructed by the heads of prommers, but of a quite poor acoustic. Amidst a slightly dry sound, a reflection effect meant that consonants acquired a very slight echo, which muddied the diction of the singers. For Götterdämmerung we had seats in the tenth row of the Stalls, at about 8 o’clock, and these were much better, with greater bloom on a relatively clean sound. Essentially, therefore, my remarks will be confined to the latter performance, since I came out of the former unable to quite work out what everyone was so enthused by, Barenboim and the Staatskapelle notwithstanding.
The orchestra, shaped and led by Barenboim, were astonishing. I can’t bring immediately to mind a Wagner sound quite so forthright, yet infinitely detailed: a remarkable range of tone and colour. Barenboim appeared to have crafted every phrase with them, with dynamics of volume and speed being finely varied within phrases. A few fluffs here and there were no doubt testament to the restricted rehearsal times available, relative to such a massive undertaking as the full Cycle.
The singers clearly responded to the level of intensity set by orchestra and conductor. I took a little while to warm to Nina Stemme’s Brünnhilde, generally preferring a sound that is a little more immediately ‘clean-cutting’. However, by the end of Götterdämmerung I was completely won over. Her lyric voice is warmer and more voluptuous than the typical Brünnhilde, but with this innate warmth she combines power and stamina to an almost unbelievable degree. The Immolation scene was edge-of-seat stuff.
Andreas Schager’s Siegfried was a welcome discovery. Slighter of frame, and indeed of voice, than the average Siegfried, he was convincing in the drama and had the long haul of the role within his grasp. By the end of Act 2, I had begun to wonder about the longevity of this singer in this role, sensing a slight tendency to ‘hurl himself’ at the declamation, however incontrovertibly successful the result. However, he grew even finer into Act 3, and his farewell to Brünnhilde was lyrical, beautiful and moving. I hope he is being well-supported as he deepens his engagement with this repertoire and that he has a long career ahead of him.
Other roles were well taken, delivered with commitment. Notably welcome was the robust Gunther of Gerd Grochowski (in notable contrast to the ROH’s conception of the character as slightly camp). Anna Samuil stepped out of Norn gear to take on Gutrune, and struggled to register a bit across the RAH expanses. Mikhail Petrenko was a curiously lightweight Hagen and however much detail he poured into the characterisation, this was a circle that he struggled to square. Waltraud Meier brought her vivid presence to Waltraute, having also served as luxury casting for another Norn. The Rhinemaidens were an uncommonly forthright bunch, entwining their pleas, and eventually their curses upon Siegfried, with great clarity.
Earlier, in Walküre, it had been fascinating to see Terfel’s Wotan once more let loose, with his customary display of raw emotion enlivening the character over the long expanses of Act 2’s debate with Fricka, and again in the moving farewell scene. It helped that Fricka was in the wonderfully communicative and rich-toned form of Ekaterina Gubanova. Together with Anja Kampe’s brilliantly realised Sieglinde – her voice a winning combination of womanly warmth and steely gleam – these were the standout performances. As I say, Stemme didn’t really start to get through to me until the Götterdämmerung performance, even though the effect when she did was quite remarkable.
Unlike the frustratingly immediate applause that killed off the end of the Tristan performance the day before, the audience held themselves enrapt for 10-15 seconds, awaiting the fall of Barenboim’s baton. One of the most heart-stopping moments in itself. Barenboim’s post-performance speech was touching, and a customary combination of wit and insight. For those that had been through it all, I’m sure it was magical. I’m afraid, without guaranteeing the view and the auditory experience in my choice of seats, I simply couldn’t commit to it. I’m glad I was at the Götterdämmerung, however: it will live with me for a very long time indeed.