Saturday 27 July 2013

Proms Ring Cycle (3) – Siegfried, or, Living with the Interpretation

I ended my piece on Die Walkure by suggesting there were two questions ahead of this performance, so we'll start with the answers to those. A) Lance Ryan is a very good Siegfried – not completely perfect but he more than meets the most crucial challenges. B) Act Three Scene One does not stand up well to the Barenboim approach – we'll come to exactly why later on.

The things that have been excellent about this cycle so far continued to be excellent in this third installment. Top of the billing here was the Brunnhilde of Nina Stemme. Obviously she has only a comparatively small part in this opera, but it's a crucial one, and she was simply outstanding. There were also strong contributions from three returnees from Rheingold, Eric Halfvarson's Fafner,  Johannes Martin Kranzle's Alberich and Peter Bronder's Mime. The acoustic did odd things to Bronder from where I was standing in Act One, but he was compelling in Act Two. The Staatskapelle Berlin continue to give an exemplary orchestral performance in terms of quality of sound. When Barenboim's approach fits best to Wagner's music – the best instances here being probably some of the Woodbird-Siegfried exchanges, and parts of the Brunnhilde-Siegfried scene – the sound is more beautiful than any performance I can recall.

A new arrival in this opera is the title character, sung for Siegfried only by Lance Ryan who I was hearing for the first time. I always fear with these roles that the evening may be a long struggle (mainly because in my experiences it often has been), but as I've already said, Ryan manages this extremely challenging role in general very well. He has something of that heroic timbre to his voice. He has the stamina to see it through three punishing acts. He was very good in Act Two and there were some outstanding moments in Act Three, particularly the repeated “Erwache!”. If in softer passages one would ideally have a little more beauty and lyricism this is a price I'm prepared to pay for excitement elsewhere.

Unfortunately there was a vocal weak link in the cast, and it was the more apparent because the memory of Bryn Terfel's outstanding performance on Tuesday was still so fresh in my mind. Terje Stensvold just wasn't a strong enough Wanderer, and it surprises me that for a one-off concert performance it wasn't possible to cast this crucial part better. He can sing it, but the voice is short on warmth and weight, particularly at the bottom end, and his overall performance just didn't have enough character. He couldn't deliver the text in a manner comparable to Terfel or Tomlinson, and he lacked intensity in the crucial scenes with Mime and Erda.

And finally we come to the man on the podium, Daniel Barenboim. The parameters of the interpretation are pretty clear by now. The central element still seems to me, as it seemed after Rheingold, to be a prioritising of beauty, although it would be wrong not to acknowledge that there are places where Barenboim can bring in more bite (the confrontation with Fafner was notable for this). I found this approach less effective for Siegfried than for either of the two preceeding operas. Siegfried is I think often a very unsettled, tense, edgy musical world – the particular places I would single out here are the Act One Prelude (which wasn't uneasy enough) and the Prelude and opening Scene of Act Three. Broadly speaking, for me there were too many places where the needed building tension, that inexorability I've also talked about before, just didn't sufficiently happen. Key instances were the Wanderer-Mime confrontation which went nowhere to my ears, and the already mentioned Act Three Scene One where Barenboim didn't get sufficient turbulence in the Prelude, and, again, the Wanderer-Erda dialgoue didn't build up the requisite momentum. One further point I'd make is I also found aspects of the awakening of Brunnhilde too beautiful – particularly those horn calls – there's something frightening in that moment as well as beautiful and again I didn't feel Barenboim wholly captured it.

In conclusion, there was (as in the previous two installments) much fabulous singing. The orchestral playing is indeed of exceptional quality but I continue not to be sold on Barenboim's interpretation, though I freely acknowledge I am in what I suspect is a pretty small minority on this. Consequently as a total operatic experience this Ring Cycle continues not to overwhelm me.


Anonymous said...

A very interesting read for someone who was not there. You are not alone in having doubts about Barenboim, Jim Pritchard on 'Seen and Heard' shares your concerns about the interpretation -

Finn Pollard said...

Thanks for reading. Had seen Jim Pritchard's review - it made interesting reading.

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