Wednesday 24 July 2013

Die Walküre Barenboim Wagner Prom 15

Wagner Die Walküre wasn't just another Prom, it was An Occasion. Bryn Terfel, Nina Stemme and Daniel Barenboim, three of the great Wagner interpreters of our time.  No other Proms, including the other Wagner operas, is likely to come even close. When the BBC does things well it does it well with style. 

Danierl Barenboim is a perennial Prom darling, and for good reason. He cares about doing things with conviction. His Beethoven series last year was disappointing, like warmed-over, recycled  Furtwängler. But the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is a shining ideal rather than a full-time professional orchestra. This year, Barenboim is back on form with the Staatskapelle Berlin.  Barenboim's Ring for Bayreuth years ago is a landmark. But this Die Walküre and Das Rheingold the previous evening were different. Barenboim can afford to take risks and be original. Perhaps he's forging a new Ring: sharper, edgier, and tighter.  There were many rough edges in this performance, but it  didn't at all matter. Barenboim was going for the spirit of the drama, rather than for luscious sounds. This  Die Walküre felt as close to a chamber opera as may be possible.

Wagner without ideas isn't Wagner. Barenboim's originality was challenging and provocative, the true measure, I think, of a true Wagner conductor. I was incredibly lucky to be seated where I could see his hands and face clearly and follow his every gesture. In the Vorspeil, he waved the orchestra forwards, then ceased moving entirely. The orchestra completed the circular forms in the music powered by their own momentum. Siegmund has been roaming the woods, "in circles" so to speak. The whole Ring reflects the idea that what goes out, comes round. Barenboim seemed preoccupied with quiet moments in the music.. His hands (which are very small, for a pianist) described restraint, pulling the players back to the core of the drama after wild, emotive surges. The Lenz leitmotiv keeps appearing, sometimes subtly disguised, but it is all the more beautiful because it is fragile. Barenboim's delicate touch made it feel poignant, much more powerful than the warhorse showpieces like the Ride of the Valkyries (rather ropy in this performance). The Ring shows how materialism corrupts. Barenboim reminds us of the ideal of pristine nature.

When Bryn Terfel strode on stage, he surveyed the packed-out Royal Albert Hall. When he faced the orchestra, most of the audience couldn't see the smile flash across his face, but I did. It was perfectly in character. Wotan is a cocky thug who thinks he can charm his way out of anything. In the early exchanges with Brünnhilde (Nina Stimme) and Fricka (Ekatarina Gubanova), Terfel seemed to coast, knowing that his best moments were yet to come. But Terfel is such a phenomenon that he's more compelling than anyone else, even at their best. It's a given that he can sing the big moments, but he's even more impressive in subtle sotto voce. When he sings "Nimm, nimm dein Eid"  he expresses suppressed violence so bitter that you can imagine the eons of corrosive conflict between himself and Fricka. His infidelities aren't the larks of a larrikin so much as desperate attempts to break the ring that binds him. From that point, Terfel ignited, pouring himself wholly into the role, with incredible insight.

Terfel's Wotan also gave good support to Nina Stemme's Brünnhilde, his voice holding her like an invisble embrace. When Terfel sang the part at the Met with a null for a Brünnhilde (Deborah Voigt), he carried the whole opera on his own. Stemme was infinitely better. Like Terfel she is superb even when she's not perfect. I was close enough to see how hot she was in that tight, heavy gown. The dynamic between Terfel and Stemme was intense, as it should be given that these roles are central to the whole saga. Stemme rose to her true heights when she sang Brünnhilde's defiance. She's a good daughter but her rebellion springs from deep principles that her father has yet to learn. Stemme's glow. When the fires rise, Terfel's voice expresses such complex emotion that one wonders if this is the point at which he begins to understand. 

Simon O'Neill's Siegmund was a revelation. His voice is difficult to cast because it has unique qualities that don't lend themselves to all roles. Siegmund, however, is his trademark. He's done it so many times that he, too, brings real insight to the part. Siegmund is ravaged, cursed since childhood, doomed to living rough. Yet he still has the capacity to love, and more moral courage than his father had.  He's so inured to being hurt that anguish pervades his personality. When O'Neill sings resounding  "Wälse! Wälse! Wo ist dein Schwert? " his voice rang out defiantly. But we know, and Siegmund knows, that he's so inured to suffering that no sword can heal his psychic scars. O'Neill creates Siegmund as a whole person, who commands more attention than the role usually gets. Siemund has the selflessness Brünnhilde admires, but none of the foolishness that will destroy Siegfried.  

 Barenboim is particularly good at evoking in the orchestra the sterility of Hunding's house and Sieglinde's (Anja Kampe) quiet desperation.  Kampe's characteristic energy makes her a Sieglinde, who, like Siegmund, grasps at hope, aware it might never come again.  When O'Neill and Kampe sing their famous dialogue, we hear two tortured, damaged souls grasping for escape. But the green shoots of this Spring will be killed by a winter storm. Barenboim's bleak interpretation intensifies their vulnerability and their human tragedy,

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