The BBC Proms Ring cycle came to a conclusion this week with Donald Runnicles, director of the San Francisco Opera and an acclaimed Wagnerian, conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a concert performance of Götterdämmerung.
The last four years of the festival have seen a disparate series, with four different orchestras and casts presenting Wagner’s master-work, and this final instalment was a fitting end to an interesting experiment.
It might be a cheap shot to say that concert performances of The Ring have a huge advantage over some of the recent productions we’ve had to sit through; by doing away with poorly conceived stagings, we can concentrate solely on the music. However, Wagner’s instincts as a dramatist were every bit as secure as his musical ones, so not seeing the stage pictures his extraordinary imagination calls for means that unstaged performances can be equally unsatisfactory.
Take his highly dramatic opening scene of this work if most full stagings don’t quite capture the essence of the three Norns twisting and winding and passing on their rope of fate, then three ladies in evening dress lined-up and facing front certainly doesn’t, no matter how well-sung (which they were here by Andrea Baker, Natascha Petrinsky and Miranda Keys).
The shining glory of this performance was Christine Brewer‘s Brünnhilde, a magnificently sung portrayal that rode the orchestral clouds with as much ease as the Valkyrie’s horse, Grane. More earthbound was her Siegfried, Stig Andersen, who failed to cut through the dense accompaniment much of the time. When this wasn’t a problem, the appropriately blond Danish tenor was a solid rather than thrilling hero.
John Tomlinson can be relied upon to bring gravitas to his Wagner roles but he does appear to be straining these days and his Hagen looked fit to bust at the big moments. Alan Held gave a greater dignity to Gunther than the ambitious ninny deserves but Gordon Hawkins‘ Alberich was rather characterless, his brief scene (by Wagner’s standard) going for little.
Wagner’s cast of women was well-served by an impressive line-up that included Gweneth Ann-Jeffers as a lightweight Gutrune and a sound Waltraute from Karen Cargill. Katharine Broderick, Anna Stéphany and Liora Grodnikaite were a voluptuous trio of Rhinemaidens.
The BBC SO may not be used to tackling material this meaty but they coped admirably well, although Runnicles’ touch was on the light side and didn’t always plumb the depths of the score.
Unlike the earlier Die Walküre and Siegfried, this was not based on an existing stage production and, as a result, there was an absolute minimum of interaction between performers who were mostly score-bound. Often singers had intimate scenes at different sides of the stage and it was difficult to see quite what Paul Curran, credited as the “director”, had done other than organise the minimal entrances and exits. The half-hearted lighting effects hardly summoned up the ending of a world.
An opera of dawns and twilights, Götterdämmerung was both a starting point for and a culmination of Wagner’s great mythological epic. As an end to the Proms cycle, it was not a monumental performance but one that was never less than engaging and it kept the promenaders heroically standing throughout its six hour length.