There was a jubilant atmosphere at the Southbank Centre. Across the afternoon Opera Forge performed excerpts from Das Rheingold, Die Walküre and Siegfried in the Clore Ballroom, before 32 horns took to the floor with Vitali Bujanowski’s rarely heard brass arrangement of Ring Cycle highlights.
Then eight trumpets and trombones played fanfares from Meistersinger and Walküre to herald the concert that marked the precise bicentenary of Richard Wagner, and the official start of the London-based festival, Wagner 200. Over its eight month duration concerts and events will cover many of the composer’s lesser known works, and so it was only right that this particular occasion was devoted to the most iconic music from some of his most popular operas.
The main event was a semi-staged performance of Act III of Die Walküre, in which the Philharmonia Orchestra, under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis, delivered a gripping, yet often subtle, account of the score. In the Ritt der Walküren I was struck by just how stark the bowing felt, and yet how effective this proved when the pressure applied to each stroke was kept suitably light. In the absence of full staging the Ride paradoxically sounded all the more theatrical from a vocal perspective and, as Helmwige, Katherine Broderick’s ‘Hojotohos’ were particularly impressive.
Seeing the Walküre hunting around the stage brandishing electric torches, however, was only partially successful since the music generates a sense of continuous movement that full productions are more suited to achieving (even if just by including a rotating stage). This was the one moment when it might have been better to have done nothing visually than to have endeavoured to create a halfway house.
This aside, the act was presented well. Witnessing the interaction between Wotan (James Rutherford) and Brünnhilde (Susan Bullock) up close, with fewer distractions than usual, helped to shed light on their words and expressions, and revealed just how many individual moments there are when they give away their true love for each other. Giselle Allen gave a stunning performance as Sieglinde, but the evening belonged to Bullock and Rutherford, she highly experienced in her role, he still perhaps learning about his (although he already has Hans Sachs in his repertoire). The pair had clearly learnt things from each other about their characters,nor did the exchange of ideas seem to have simply flowed one way.
Bullock was masterly in the way that she applied her knowledge of the role to generate some sumptuously hued and exquisitely phrased lines. Rutherford produced a rich, dark sound, and if he resorted to placing the music in front of him, his positioning behind a lectern created an effective sense of distance. He felt like the professor desperately struggling to assert his authority over unruly teenagers in the form of his daughters. To say that over time Rutherford should develop into a great Wotan would be true but slightly unfair, because from the moment that he stepped out from behind his lectern for ‘Leb’ wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind!’, never to return for the rest of the act, he already felt like one. His performance of ‘Der Augen leuchtendes Paar’ was enough to bring tears to the eyes, and from Wotan and Brünnhilde’s farewell hug to the moment when he dressed her in her armour to put her to sleep, to the final image of fire (red light) flickering on the hall’s organ pipes, this was a triumph for singers and designers alike.
The concert began with the Overture to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The performance was intelligent and assertive, without making the mistake of beginning so powerfully that it left itself with nowhere to go. It is, however, an exceptionally difficult piece to keep rhythmically on an even keel throughout and from that perspective the performance was good rather than exceptional. No such problems were apparent in the Prelude and Liebestod to Tristan und Isolde in which Davis demanded precision and the orchestra rendered the lines with a mesmerising sensitivity. Hearing Bullock in the Liebestod also reminded us of the extent to which the roles of Isolde and Brünnhilde place different demands on a singer, and of Bullock’s own versatility. Her finely honed delivery of the phrases was exquisite, and if she was (understandably given the big sing ahead) holding something back vocally, her performance felt no less effective or emotionally charged for that.
For details of all events in the Wagner 200 festival click here.