Prom 13 Das Rheingold

Wagner: Das Rheingold

Iain Paterson baritone (Wotan)
Stephan Rügamer tenor (Loge)
Jan Buchwald baritone, Proms debut artist (Donner)
Marius Vlad tenor, Proms debut artist (Froh)
Ekaterina Gubanova mezzo-soprano (Fricka)
Anna Samuil soprano (Freia)
Anna Larsson mezzo-soprano (Erda)
Johannes Martin Kränzle baritone (Alberich)
Peter Bronder tenor (Mime)
Stephen Milling bass, Proms debut artist (Fasolt)
Eric Halfvarson bass (Fafner)
Aga Mikolaj soprano (Woglinde)
Maria Gortsevskaya mezzo-soprano (Wellgunde)
Anna Lapkovskaja mezzo-soprano, Proms debut artist (Flosshilde)

Staatskapelle Berlin 
Daniel Barenboim conductor

2013 07 29_0334

My first outing to a Wagner opera proper wasn't even that proper - a concert version with "semi staging" seemed a good place to start when my weekly Prom ticket cost £32 and for that I get a crack at five operas by the double centenarian and a BBC Phil concert too.  On my night off I hope not to hear any music at all.

Daniel Barenboim's orchestra the Staatskapelle Berlin had come over with their maestro to follow up on his Beethoven plus Boulez cycle with his East West Divan Orchestra last year: audacious programming and fantastic playing by a bright lithe orchestra.  Barenboim has been a musician I have admired for a long time for his bold vision, advocacy of modern music, his muscular Beethoven piano and especially his work for peace in the Middle East. It was not for nothing that he carried the Olympic flag last year in the opening ceremony.  But this was my first time seeing him in the flesh.  For a 70 year old he looks very well - though catching him after the performance he looked tired as he signed autographs on CD booklets for a surprisingly small group of fans.

Watching him work in this opera was so insightful.  His reputation as a hard task master is a given but what amazed me was how he continually works over the sound of the orchestra and the singers as it is playing with clear, decisive movements.  Three monitors set low down and face the stage help the singers when their view is obscured on stage, but more often when close to the podium Barenboim would lean offer and offer direction as though he were part of the action. He would lean into the orchestra to encourage the strings to make their presence felt, a raised hand would quell the brass - more often than not his interventions were vocal entries and then shaping the phrasing.  A very active conductor at some time, but not all of the time.

When everything is going well he hardly does anything at all. This particular night it was 33 deg C outside and only slightly cooler in the Royal Albert Hall. Barenboim multi-tasked mopping his brow with one hand whilst conducting with the other.  His Wagner is all of a piece, linked to the singers line almost magnetically.  Where there are flare-ups, he ignites the orchestra quickly and the moment passes quickly to great effect.  He also finds moments of calm where orchestra are taken down to barely a whisper.

The singers were in suits or evening gowns - nothing too fancy - and their movements were limited but interaction was intimate.  It was effective enough.  The first scene was high at the back of the stage and relatively static - but there was good use of both the front of stage and in particular the RAH lighting.  Murders were assumed: as victims slopped off down into the arena.  The anvils were off-stage - given away by a noisy preparation - there weren't 18. There were no cameras at this performance sadly.

I'm no great judge of Wagner singers, especially from high up in the gallery.  This cast seemed quite light voiced and this matched the tone of the Staatskapelle Berlin which was lighter toned than I'd expected for a German orchestra.  There was a great deal of finely wrought, delicately nuanced singing and playing  throughout.  It had moments of power and that oppressive weight that we have come to associate with big Wagner but not many.  The set pieces played out well to an attentive audience who were mostly glued to their free libretti.  Listening to the radio broadcast I was very impressed with the light fluidity of it all and was put in mind of criticism of Rheingold as chamber opera.  But this opera to my view is a kitchen sink drama: so often in Wagner (as in Hitchcock) it's about the naivety of the actions which seem quite reasonable at the time and often have dire consequences later.  And like Hitchcock, Wagner shows us the musical equivalent of the bomb under the dinner table.

It's perhaps childish to pick winners because so often singers are limited by the characters they inhabit. I thought all the singers were very good, but my ear was caught by the giants, Fricka, Erda, Patterson's corrupted Wotan and a very expressive Loge.

The rest of the cycle follows...


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