Following a Das Rheingold which didn't wholly convince me, the Proms Ring cycle continued on Tuesday with Die Walkure, the Ring opera which I've seen most often and with which I'm most familiar. This wasn't the most powerful performance I've ever heard, I continue to have issues with what seems to me to be a lack of drive from Barenboim in crucial places, but its impact was considerably greater than the Rheingold's and Act Three was pretty special.
For me the great contributions of the evening were Bryn Terfel's Wotan and Nina Stemme's Brunnhilde both of whom I was hearing in these roles for the first time (though I did hear Terfel sing the end of Act 3 in an Edinburgh Festival concert quite a few years ago). Here I must make a confession. I had been rather sceptical about whether all the hype surrounding Terfel's Wotan was justified – perhaps I was more swayed by his having cancelled on me on the one occasion I was due to hear him in the role and the famous dropping out from the Covent Garden Ring than was justified. I did also listen to some of the relays from the Met and he didn't make much impression on me. But last night I thought he was outstanding. He delivered the text magnificently, he really seemed to feel the part (more so it must be admitted than Paterson in Rheingold, but the latter is just starting out in the role) and he had the stamina to carry it through to the end. The Third Act in particularly going from rage to sorrow to authority was a tour de force. I was equally impressed by Stemme, indeed I'm not sure I've ever heard the role live so commandingly sung. She has power without being shrill and like Terfel did not tire. She did not make quite the overwhelming impression of the latter at all points, but there were I think other factors here.
Of the other singers, as I anticipated, I really enjoyed Ekaterina Gubanova's Fricka, and her confrontation with Terfel was a highpoint. What really struck me though was the way they acted the end of that scene when Wotan has acceded to her wishes. Terfel gave her a kind of savage kiss on the hand, and she remained motionless and, I felt, torn for part of the transition. It struck me that it was the only time I'd seen that moment played as if the victory is hollow for Fricka. I almost felt that what she really wants is the return of her husband and that of course is the one thing she can't get – it is a moment where really nobody wins. Anja Kampe was a fine Sieglinde but had less impact than she might have done owing to the weak link in the cast, Simon O'Neill's Siegmund. I grant you that O'Neill can sing it from beginning to end, but it is an unpleasant experience to listen to. The voice is terribly nasal and contained when one longs (especially in the Act One finale) for a warmth and increase in volume – neither of which can he command. On this showing I find it somewhat extraordinary that the Royal Opera has hired him to sing Parsifal in December. I fear it is going to be a long evening. Of the rest, Eric Halfvarson was a suitably menacing Hunding, and the Valkyries were an effective ensemble.
And so we come to Barenboim and the Orchestra. The latter were once again on superb form. In terms of shaping, there was far more of the necessary feeling of drama and forward movement than I had felt in the Rheingold. In Act Three especially, Barenboim really seemed to let rip, particularly from the opening through to the departure of the Valkyries there was a real intensity. But there were still crucial places where for me that needed inexorability was lacking - most notably at the ends of the first two acts. In Act One it seems possible that having to moderate to O'Neill's capacity was a factor – but from Siegmund heiss ich it ought to be an increasingly intense charge to the end and it wasn't. In Act Two the Brunnhilde-Siegmund scene just never built the way it should – something has gone amiss with the shaping in my view when there's more intensity (and the scenes seem to move along quicker) in the Fricka-Wotan/Wotan's monologue sections of that act than in that later scene.
Overall though, this got a lot closer to being an overwhelming evening than Das Rheingold, and I felt extraordinarily lucky to hear Terfel and Stemme in those roles standing so close to the stage. After two nights off, the cycle resumes tomorrow when the big questions will be a) How Act Three Scene One stands up to the Barenboim approach and b) Can Lance Ryan sing Siegfried?
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