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Wednesday 31 October 2012

Die Walküre at the Royal Opera House


Due to extreme busyness I am really behind with reviews - but I'll write about this Walkure for completeness sake. This was the last opera of Keith Warner's Ring that I saw, and I have to say that of the four operas, I found this staging the most disappointing. In theory, Walkure should be the easiest to stage - fewer special effects than the others, the emotional drama is the most direct and immediate, the music is consistently thrilling - all in all the most obviously likeable of the Ring operas. So what went wrong?

This production is relentlessly dark, even more so than Warner's other instalments and the poor lighting made it very dull visually I thought. The subtlety is all in the characterisation and there were many wonderful moments. Bryn Terfel's Wotan was involved in the lion's share of these, and though I had seen him do some wonderful work in the dire Met production broadcasts, it was in this production with this director that he first essayed the role, and surely established his interpretation. (He also said in a recent interview that he preferred working in the ROH production to the Met one because here he was given direction, and at the Met everyone was left to their own devices). The way he cradled Siegmund's head after his son's fatal battle was exceptionally moving, and his two big scenes with Brunnhilde also provided a brilliant wealth of psychological and emotional riches. When Brunnhilde asks him what is wrong, he draws himself up, holds her face in his handswith a fearful intensity, but then looks away, lost inconsolable - he cannot face up to the reality, and Brunnhilde's face itself is a reminder of his failings. Later, before he lays his daughter on the rock, there is a wonderful intimacy to their final moments together. Wotan marches off into the uncertain future in another with a resignation and sadness that is palpable: simple things that have a huge effect. I also really liked the way that Brunnhilde bounded off stage after her first entry, and almost runs into the imperious Fricka, which reveals an interraction between them which is only implicit and in the "background" of the libretto. (Fricka doesn't like Brunnhilde, but she does respect her, even although they are very different women.)

There is clumsyness too however, and it's not infrequent - when Wotan actually puts Brunnhilde into her sleep, making her a woman, it is done behind a screen, just as at the end of Siegfried when the eponymous hero wakes her up. This emotional and dramatic climax, the midpoint of the Ring, the inexorable result of all the events already witnessed, and with consequences for every subsequent event, is too important to get wrong like this. What was Warner thinking? The ride of Valkyries we see them all onstage at the beginning, they perform some resurrection ceremony (with a horribly naff projection) then run offstage, then arrive onstage again one by one, greeting each other. The hell? In Act 1, Hunding's house and the place where Fricka and Wotan meet occur on virtually identical sets - the tables and chairs and chaise longue are the same, and in both, husband and wife argue across a table. Is Warner suggesting that their fight is fundamentally the same? Or just that both marriages are unhappy? Either way, neither is particularly illuminating or insightful. Why also does it take Brunnhilde five minutes to cross the stage to reach Siegmund? I understand that there might be a hesitancy, but that surely needs to expressed in body language as well as the speed of approach!

As well as his superb acting, Bryn was vocally on top form, by far the best of his three portrayals in the Ring operas. Although the Walkure Wotan seems superficially to be the most taxing in terms of length and intensity it fits Terfel like a glove, and the range of vocal and textual nuance he brought to it, as well as his impressively stentorian climaxes, were a real treat. Timbrally he seemed just right here too - I had complained of him sounding overly baritonal and metallic in Siegfried, which is a lower and much louder part, especially in Act 3, as the intervening 12 years meant Wagner's orchestration had thickened due to his discoveries in Tristan and Mesitersinger. The Walkure Wotan might turn out to be Terfel's finest Wagner role, and I would travel to see it again.

Fricka can either be played as a woman wronged by Wotan's philandering, or as a force of reason and logic. I prefer the latter as it's more revealing of the themes of the Ring, and allows for a more interesting portrayal - not least because the music tells us that she is more than just the nag that she is commonly described as. Somehow Connolly had it both ways, producing a rounded portrait, though I have to say, she really is at least one size category too small vocally to do this small but majestic role full justice. When not hard pressed by the dramatic writing, her phrasing was very beautiful indeed, but Fricka is meant to be a force of nature capable of standing up to Wotan, King of the gods, and I just wasn't quite convinced. Acting wise she was excellent though.

Eva Maria Westbrook's career is currently going from strength to strength, singing the biggest roles in many big houses. ROH audiences seem to love her but I have to say that I think she is already past her prime - though she remains very much in control of her voice, the vibrato and basic sound has become unattractive and rather hard in the past few years. Interpretively I also find her bland, with rather little variation in approach to any role that she sings and too little attention to textual subtleties. This is a very critical appraisal, but I always feel I should be enjoying her performances more than I actually do - the good things are that she's mostly very committed on stage, and can sing every note that she is supposed to sing. There was one moment of pure electricity: as she ecstatically thanks Brunnhilde at the beginning of Act 3 ("O hehrstes Wunder!") she revealed more mettle and heft than I thought she could muster, and with a thrilling sheen in the sound. She is scheduled to do Isolde in Bayreuth in a few seasons time, and though I've never seen her as a hoch dramatisch soprano, this one moment may point the way to what she might be capable of.

Simon O'Neill started out as an OK Siegmund though hardly of the first rank - his top is famously pinched and strident, but this role lies rather low in the tenor range so we didn't get to see much of this this time. Sadly the bottom is underpowered, and by the end of Act I he was barely projecting above the orchestra. He wasn't announced as ill, but he wasn't a match for his Sieglinde.

John Tomlinson sang a good Hunding, sounding more comfortable vocally than with his superb Hagen, though Hunding is of course a far less interesting character, and doesn't allow for the wonderful wealth of characterisation that Tomlinson imbued Hagen with. There was a particularly lovely moment when Wotan kills Hunding and there was a (perhaps frivolous to mention) sense of some sort of transferral of power between Tomlinson and Terfel, surely Britain's next great Wotan.

The Valkyries made a magnificent noise, each clearly trying to outdo the others with volume, excitement and energy, which made for a thrilling Act 3 opening. Unfortunately Susan Bullock seemed to be struggling even more here than in the other operas, and didn't once match transcend her vocal failings to produce the intensity that she had mustered in Gotterdammerung.

I was very disappointed by Pappano's contribution in the pit - he resigned himself to the role of an accompanist, only coming fully alive in Act 3, but it was too late - Act 1 and 2 had given us too little to care about musically - too little was at stake. The orchestra, which had been sounding so magnificent in Siegfried and Gotterdammerung sounded tired and bored, with truly awful playing from the brass section, particularly principal trumpet. As I say I can only imagine that it was fatigue as they were sounding so great in the previous cycle, but this was a very disappointing showing and a real embarrassment for what is supposedly one of the finest opera house orchestras in the world.

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