A year ago this week Daniel Barenboim was poised to take part in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics as one of the bearers of the Olympic flag, having earlier that evening just finished conducting a cycle of Beethoven’s symphonies at the BBC Proms. How, you might ask, is it possible to follow that?
Ever ambitious, the BBC Proms is going for Wagner overkill in the composer’s bicentenary year. There is no challenge more lofty in the musical world than Der Ring des Nibelungen and it was an inspired idea to invite back Barenboim, who is never heard in Wagner in the UK, to give the first ever complete cycle of the four operas in a single season at the Proms.
The cycle opened with Das Rheingold in sweltering heat (it was surprising the Rhine did not boil) on Monday. Groomed over the course of many Ring cycles with Barenboim back at home, the Staatskapelle Berlin sounded supremely natural, warm and cultivated. Perhaps only a conductor like Barenboim, who has spent so much time in Wagner’s own opera house at Bayreuth, could so nearly replicate its unique sound in the Royal Albert Hall. And what a wonderful accompanist he is. There was barely a moment when every singer could not be heard with ease.
The cast for this opening opera did not include many strong characters, but the scene was set for a creditable display of singing – very little of the bad, old Wagner barking and shouting. Iain Paterson made a Wotan of unforced dignity, endowing the role with a voice of quality, and his mirror-image, Alberich, was handled with similar care by Johannes Martin Kränzle, though he never felt a fierce enough evil force to drive the drama on its way.
Among the others, Ekaterina Gubanova was a Fricka of promising authority, Stephan Rügamer a nicely detailed Loge and Anna Samuil a rather shrill Freia. The three Rhinemaidens were a more richly voiced trio than usual and there was strong, resonant singing from Jan Buchwald’s Donner and Stephen Milling as a huge Fasolt with a voice to match. There are only promenade places left for this Ring, but well worth it for those who can stand the heat.