Saturday 20 October 2007

Die Walküre, Royal Opera, 19 October 2007

Royal Opera House

Siegmund – Plácido Domingo
Sieglinde – Eva-Maria Westbroek
Hunding – Stephen Milling
Wotan – John Tomlinson
Brünnhilde – Susan Bullock
Fricka – Rosalind Plowright
Gerhilde – Geraldine McGreevy
Ortlinde – Elaine McKrill
Waltraute – Claire Powell
Schwertleite – Rebecca de Pont Davies
Helmwige – Iréne Theorin
Siegrune – Sarah Castle
Grimgerde – Claire Shearer
Rossweisse – Elizabeth Sikora

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano (conductor)

Keith Warner (director)
Stefano Lazaridis (designer)
Marie-Jeanne Lecca (costumes)
Wolfgang Göbbel (lighting)

This performance, like that of Das Rheingold, was almost unrecognisable from the first run, when the cycle was being mounted one drama at a time. I have just looked back at my notes from 2005, and see that I considered the first act to have been considerably worse than the second and third. On this occasion, I should say that it was less strong, but nevertheless it stood far removed from the catastrophe, which, despite reasonable singing, had previously ensued, the scene set all too well by a storm-Prelude that almost fell apart, followed by the most sluggish, formless reading I had ever heard of this wonderful act. On this occasion, the Prelude now really sounded like a storm, with the strings in particular shining, as they would throughout. The string chamber music, narrating the early stages of recognition for the Volsung twins, was beguiling indeed. There was a much greater sense of coherence, although there remained certain awkward corners. Antonio Pappano now seems far more willing to take the lead, as a Wagner conductor must, rather than to follow the singers as a mere accompanist. If the architecture is not all quite standing as it should yet, it is mostly there, which certainly could not have been said the first time around. It was a pity that the direction of the act’s tumultuous conclusion rather held fire, seeming a little unsure of where it was going. A few days previously, I had seen the same passage from the Boulez-Chéreau DVD; that torrid reading had known its direction all too well, the curtain coming down only just in time.

The three on-stage characters of the first act were sharply portrayed. The baritonal heft of Plácido Domingo’s tenor is just right for Siegmund. If anything, it seems to have become more pronounced since I last heard him assume the role, at Bayreuth in 2000. He took a little time truly to hit his stride, but this is all relative. He can sing and act both musically and heroically, and he always does; there is never anything approaching a weak moment. Moreover, for all the complaints one sometimes hears about his German, his diction was superb: I could hear every word he sang, which was not always the case elsewhere. Eva-Maria Westbroek did not fall into the trap of depicting Sieglinde as too passive a vessel. Hers was also a thoroughly musical portrayal throughout, and her eagerness to learn more about her mysterious guest was palpable. Stephen Milling’s Hunding was duly brutal, a representative of the bourgeois society Wagner wished revolution, in the guise of Siegmund, to sweep away forever. I thought his stage whisper – perhaps suggested by the director? – a mistake, however, both musically and dramatically. Whilst there was not much sense of the broader environment in which this act took place, the production worked well enough, and was certainly not intrusive.

Act II of Die Walküre is one of the sternest Wagnerian tests. Bernard Haitink, Pappano’s predecessor at Covent Garden, was well-nigh peerless here, but if Haitink’s profound symphonic understanding was an impossible act to follow, there was for the most part a good sense of direction. The orchestra, moreover, sounded generally in very good health, generally providing a true Wagner sound, despite the slightly disconcerting number of errors from woodwind and brass. John Tomlinson rose magnificently to the occasion. Projection of every word and every note had clearly been deeply considered, and the whole was very much more than the sum of its considerable parts. Here was a searing portrayal of Wotan’s predicament: ‘In my own fetters am I caught: – I, most unfree of all men!’ The protector of the laws has attempted to circumvent, or to pervert, those laws in the name of freedom, whilst continuing to wish to retain his legal authority. Yet Tomlinson brought home to us that this is very much a human as well as a political tragedy, which will result in Wotan being forced to sacrifice his cherished offspring. Rosalind Plowright was less impressive as Fricka than she had been in Das Rheingold. Her voice was sometimes rather thin and colourless, though she looked every inch the part of custom’s upholder, clad in duly Victorian costume. Susan Bullock, the (very) last-minute replacement for Lisa Gasteen, sounded a little impersonal at first, though never dramatically at sea, which, given the circumstances, would have been quite understandable. There was a certain Nilsson-like steel earlier on, which for me works better with Isolde than Brünnhilde. However, in retrospect, Bullock appeared to have been intimating the profound transformation in Brünnhilde’s condition, as she takes the upward path from divinity to humanity. In Feuerbach’s words, ‘If you recognise that there are sins in God, you will be free of them.’ This certainly seems to have been a guiding principle of Keith Warner’s production, an idea emerging far more clearly during this cycle than previously.

The Todesverkundigung (‘Annunciation of Death’) scene was quite moving indeed. Bullock and Domingo rose magnificently to the occasion, and Pappano handled the musico-dramatic progression very well. Here there could be no doubt as to Siegmund’s heroism, a heroism all the more impressive than that of Siegfried, for it is founded upon bravery rather than fearlessness. It is this that makes Siegmund’s rejection of Valhalla exceptional, since he does so in full knowledge that the best he can hope for is nothingness. Warner had the upward ladder (leading, I assume, towards the hereafter) snap at this point, rendering scenically explicit the anti-theological point. In the words of Feuerbach’s Thoughts on Death and Immortality:

And if the whole world wished to be divine, and to go to heaven –
which I cannot believe,
for there still are some brave men –
I would stay outside,
I would not go in.

There could then equally be no doubt as to the beginning of Brünnhilde’s conversion. So moved was she by Siegmund’s love for his sister-bride that there truly seemed that she could do no other than defy Wotan – or at least defy his stated decision. Tomlinson was almost overwhelmingly powerful in the consequent expression of anger and guilt, as he smashed Siegmund’s sword and then slew Hunding, Fricka’s slave. Having Fricka observe this denouement, chillingly satisfied in her victory over adulterous spontaneity, heightened the drama.

The third act was also excellent, although there were once again a few too many orchestral blemishes for comfort. They jarred all the more, especially during the Magic Fire Music, given the generally high level of orchestral performance; once again, the slips were be the province not of the strings, but of the woodwind and to a lesser extent the brass. The Magic Fire Music was also hindered a little by uncertain shaping from the conductor, which resulted in occasional disruption to the music’s flow and a few very odd balances. Nevertheless, Pappano despatched the rest of the act with considerable aplomb. After a peculiar directorial opening to the Ride of the Valkyries – strobe lighting mixed with ineffectively ritualistic moves – the scenic realisation settled down, albeit without any particular insights. (The fire at the end was, admittedly, rather impressive.) The Valkyries all sounded in fine voice, both individually and in combination. Sieglinde’s farewell was nothing less than magnificent, Westbroek once again emphasising her love-inspired heroism, which can often fall by the male-dominated wayside. And the confrontation and reconciliation between Wotan and Brünnhilde was quite something. Tomlinson searingly expressed Wotan’s anguish, born of the clash between the treacherous bonds of Wotan’s world of contracts and domination, and the power of love that Das Rheingold had so forcefully denied. Bullock came increasingly to personify that love, which Die Walküre had seen blossom and yet which had also been so viciously defeated. This was a heartfelt farewell indeed.