A Wagner festival in London is nothing new. In 1877, Wagner himself was the star attraction of a month-long festival at the Royal Albert Hall, which featured extracts from Der Ring des Nibelungen, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and Die Meistersinger. Bernard Shaw reported that the composer conducted a vast and clumsy orchestra of about 170 players with the air of a man “who hoped he might never be condemned to listen to such a performance again”.
If they can tune into BBC Radio 3 broadcasts at the composers’ eternal rest home, Wagner will have just heard something more to his liking. The performances at this year’s celebrations for his bicentenary at the BBC Proms have been of another order altogether.
It is a mark of how far cultural appreciation has deepened that audiences are no longer satisfied with extracts from Wagner’s operas. For this special year the BBC Proms is putting on complete concert performances of seven of his major operas, and all of them so far with the scores uncut, which was not always the case even as recently as the 1960s. All have been playing to capacity audiences of around 6,000 in the Royal Albert Hall and the atmosphere has been electric.
At the end of the four nights of Der Ring des Nibelungen Daniel Barenboim, the conductor, gave a speech in which he praised the remarkable communion between the musicians and the public. “This is something I never dreamt of,” he said. “You have brought so much silence.” But this is a pact that goes both ways: the Staatskapelle Berlin and Barenboim for their part gave the audiences so much to hold their concentration.
In over 40 years of attending Wagner performances I can say without hesitation that this was the best played and best conducted Ring I have ever heard. Its success amounted to far more than just the music sounding glorious and being superbly paced over the span of the 15 hours, indisputably though it was. During the two decades that he has been chief conductor of this orchestra Barenboim has worked with it to explore the rhythms, the instrumental balancing, and the articulation that go to the roots of Wagner’s style. The result is that this team has no need to settle for the easy options of noise and virtuosity. In scene after scene the playing had a chamber-like intimacy that allowed the singers almost to speak to the audience as if in a conversational drama – quite exceptional. From everything we know about Wagner he would surely have loved it.
The final two operas rose to exhilarating heights. A big part in this was played by Nina Stemme, who proved she is ready to claim the title as the reigning Brünnhilde of her generation, a rock-steady, deep-toned soprano on a heroic scale, whose singing was nothing less than magisterial in the cycle’s apocalyptic closing scene. Of her two Siegfrieds, the splendidly confident Andreas Schager in Götterdämmerung was easily preferable to the vocally wayward young hero of Lance Ryan in Siegfried.
There was sturdy support from Terje Stensvold’s imposing Wanderer, Eric Halfvarson’s Fafner, Johannes Martin Kränzle’s word-perfect Alberich, Anna Larsson as a rich-voiced Erda and Gerd Grochowski’s Gunther. Having the great Waltraud Meier in a double-act as Waltraute and Second Norn was luxury indeed. All were worth hearing, including Peter Bronder’s rather caricatured Mime and Mikhail Petrenko’s less-than-fearsome Hagen, the other Norns and especially the lovely trio of Rhinemaidens. Singing for Barenboim and this orchestra, how could they give anything but their best? Siegfried was a thoroughly high-quality performance. Götterdämmerung was unforgettable.
In between these two came Tristan und Isolde, a feat of endurance for the audience worthy of Wagner’s own Bayreuth (where the heat in the theatre can be even worse). Unfortunately, this performance was back to the bad old kind of Wagner, where a conductor pumps up the orchestra with no consideration for the singers. The BBC Symphony Orchestra played well for Semyon Bychkov, but the volume was simply far too loud.
Robert Dean Smith may not have the biggest tenor voice, but his musicianship is fine, and as Tristan he deserved better than this. Violeta Urmana was a solid, steely, unlovable Isolde. The biggest audience ovation went (rightly) to Mihoko Fujimura’s Brangäne, and there were robust contributions from Boaz Daniel as Kurwenal and Kwangchul Youn’s deeply felt, if wobbly King Mark. Ultimately, though, a performance of Tristan und Isolde in which you cannot hear the singers for half the evening is a waste of time.
After last year’s Beethoven symphony cycle and now this thrilling Ring, the BBC Proms have forged a relationship with Daniel Barenboim that must not be allowed to fade away. To start with, there are six more mature Wagner operas that he has never conducted in the UK, and the list could go on from there. What will be next?
(Tristan und Isolde)