Saturday 3 November 2007

There's Runnicles (or, rather, there was Runnicles, way back in August - a belated review)

The craziest, and briefest, of your correspondent's several dashes down south to catch one artistic highlight or another was prompted, of course, by the namesake of this blog. The chance to hear Donald Runnicles at the Proms, conducting Wagner, and with none other that Christine Brewer singing Brunnhilde, was simply too good to pass up. The more so as Mr Runnicles was, as we have pointed out once or twice, not least in the very title of this blog, shamefully absent from the Edinburgh festival this year.

However, there were complications that made this an especially mad dash. In their infinite wisdom, the minds behind the BBC Proms had scheduled this concert for the opening weekend of the Edinburgh festival. The previous evening would see Jarvi doing Sibelius, the following Ades and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, neither of which I wanted to miss. Not to mention my duties at a small Fringe venue. There were but 24 hours to fly south, catch the Prom and return. It was mad, crazy, insane, but was it worth it?

Gotterdammerung is, of course, a long slog to sit through, but I had taken my precautions. Cunningly I had also booked tickets for Finn to use for an earlier Prom (featuring Salonen's piano concerto), this enabled me to get priority booking, since the scheme is designed to encourage people to book new music. I hasten to add that had I been able to spare more time in London, I would have booked something along those lines for myself, rather than slightly abusing the system. Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised it had got me the aisle seat, front row, centre stalls with only the prommers in the arena before me. Armed with a notepad and a rucksack filled with a bottle of water and a sandwich, I was prepared (and pleasantly surprised security didn't relieve me of it).

The BBC Symphony Orchestra forces were impressively padded out (at least, I assume some of the 6 harpists aren't on the regular payroll). The start of Gotterdammerung is tricky to pull off. The last of Wagner's Ring cycle, it suffers from having been written first, then having a prologue added to explain things, then three more operas added to explain the prologue. This in itself is not a fatal flaw, or rather would not have been, had Wagner shown some willingness to make the odd cut or two. He didn't, and the result is half an hour of three people bemoaning what has happened in the previous nine hours. That said, in concert this could be an advantage, since we hadn't had the preceding nine hours, or, at least, we'd had them but over the past three years. But in the opera house, if not well staged (as it was in the Albery produced Scottish Opera Ring, where they wove around the stage with a luminous rope), it can be rather dull, you have only to watch the Met Ring were the three Norns spend the whole time sat in a tiny hole in the middle of the stage (but don't waste your money just to find out). At £3 and with a full libretto (typed nice and large and including stage directions) the programme offered better value that we would have had in Edinburgh, but the person responsible for typesetting could learn something from them: printing in light grey in the top right hand corner "please turn pages quietly" doesn't work. It should be in the bottom right and in black bold, so that it's the last thing you read before turning the page. It's impressive how much louder the page turning was than in Edinburgh. Another hair to split is the further listen suggestions. I have no trouble with the recommendation of Runnicles, Brewer and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Tristan und Isolde (indeed, I have recommended it on these very pages), but to point to Tomlinson in the Haitink Ring cycle..... Of course, the Bavarian orchestra plays beautifully for him, and he shows the score in a fresh light. Tomlinson sings well too. The problem is Eva Marton's Brunnhilde is poorly balanced and sounds unpleasantly like a police siren. It is impossible to set the volume so that you can hear everyone else and don't suffer bleeding from the ears every time she sings. Those of us with out a remote control on our amplifiers are therefore constantly up and down out of our seats.

But, to the music itself. The BBC Symphony Orchestra could have been sharper, and it did rather make me wish he had been conducting the BBC Scottish for this, as he gets a more impressive sound from them. However, when Runnicles got them going, they produced a wonderful richness. The norns themselves were something of a mixed bag. The second norm, Natascha Petrinsky, was not very good but Andrea Baker and Miranda Keys were much better. It was with a stunning reading of the Rhein journey that the evening really began to shine, displaying Runnicles' marvellous trick of making the familiar fresh: a very brisk pace, and yet it worked. Of course, Christine Brewer's entry didn't hurt, as she soared effortlessly over the orchestra. Stig Andersen gave cause for concern though, with a shakey start as Siegfried, his voice cracking slightly, it didn't seem likely he would cope. But he improved as the performance went on and turned in a creditable performance. True, you can expect better performances of the role, even in this day and age, but not hugely much so. Then came what was, as far as I am concerned, a misguided casting choice: John Tomlinson as Hagen. This will doubtless be controversial and cause ire amongst his legions of fans. Let me preface my remarks by saying he is an amazing artist and a fine singer. But he is no longer in his prime. True, the sheer characterisation and drama he brings makes up for the technical imperfections in his voice. But casting is not an isolated thing and when your actor playing Hagen is old enough to be Alberich's father, when the reverse should be true, and both looks and sounds it, you have a problem which the suspension of disbelief didn't counter for me. It was also the case that the strain caused his face to turn worrying redder as the opera progressed, so much so that my enjoyment of his performance was muted by concern for his health. The sad thing is that he'd have sung a magnificent Alberich, and been well cast in the role. But elsewhere Karen Cargill sang a fine Waltraute. Alan Held's Gunther was okay. But there was little question that the stars were Runnicles and Brewer, and a lingering wish for the BBC Scottish.

One other point should be noted: semi-staging. At least this concert performance in the Royal Albert Hall was allegedly semi-staged. And that's been done before at the Proms (the Mackerras performance of H.M.S Pinafore from the 2005 season provides a textbook example of how this can be done). The programme even gave a credit to one Paul Curran. I sincerely hope that none of my licence fee or ticket price went into his pocket since there was not the slightest evidence that he had done anything at all. True, all the characters walked on and off the points marked in the libretto, but it surely doesn't require a director to point those out. I've heard a great many operas in concert at the Edinburgh festival and never seen a director credited before. Even in the Poulenc concert recently (which 'staged' the executions).

Another moan concerns the staff at the Hall. After a nice sandwich on the steps of the Albert memorial, I went back into the hall, and an usher informed me I'd have to check my bag into the cloakroom. I noticed a large number of other people, and virtually everyone in the arena, were not subject to this. I don't mind having rules, and I can even see the logic of this one. But such rules should be applied fairly and to everyone and I don't think I should have to check my small rucksack when everyone in the arena seems to be allowed several hampers.

But that didn't matter. Act two was nothing short of exceptional. True, the Alberich/Hagen scene didn't quite work, for the reasons outlined above, but from there on..... Conducting and playing were electric throughout and any doubts and roughness about the orchestra's playing were erased. Some wonderful singing. Another Runnicles hallmark was the cleverness of the orchestral placement, brass and horns from every balcony and gallery the hall has. That and the sheer precision and drama he brought. It was nothing short of magical and, as always when one is that completely swept away, the words don't quite do it justice.

Act three was very fine too, though perhaps not quite so brilliant as act two. Siegfried's voice was a little thin when imitating the woodbird, but then aside from Wolfgang Windgassen, whose isn't? Gweneth-Ann Jeffers' Gutrune lacked power. The Rheinmaidens (Katherine Broderick, Anna Stephany and Liora Grodnikaite) were good, even if they didn't look even vaguely like sisters. Siegfried's death and funeral march were thrilling and once again Runnicles brought an amazing freshness to the score. And again horns were placed offstage to perfection. The only reservation was the light show (the ceiling flickering orange and red like the ultimate damp squib), which added nothing the drama and perhaps only existed for Curran to demonstrate his fee had actually achieved something. It was well received and the Tomlinson fan club was out in force, his cheers outdistancing the quality of his performance by some way. I'm not sure everyone needed huge bouquets of flowers. But none of that really mattered. This was a thrilling, draining, magical evening of music. May it find its way to CD post haste. And may Donald Runnicles get together with the BBC Scottish and Brewer and commit an entire Ring to disc. In the meantime, and retreating from the fantasy world, we must content ourselves with Tristan and, if we can find it, the excellent, and mystifyingly deleted disc of orchestral chunks with the Dresden Staatskapelle.

I reached Gatwick at around midnight, too late for the last flight. With four hours to kill I tested out the ludicrously overprice pod hotel. It was mad, it was tiring and it was more than a little silly. But I wouldn't have missed it for the world (the performance, that is, not the hotel), and would dash down again in a heartbeat. Of course, come 2008, I won't have to.

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