Wednesday 30 January 2019

Die Walkure at the Festival Hall, or, Now the Audience Must SEE her Horse

This was an afternoon that started strongly, blessed by some electrifying singing from Stuart Skelton as Siegmund in Act 1. Sadly thereafter things deteriorated so that by Act 3 I was just looking forward to the end.

I couldn't make the recent Ring Cycles at Covent Garden, and the last time I heard any of the cycle live was back in 2013 at the Proms so a return felt overdue. Family had also reported favourably on Vladimir Jurowski's conducting and the LPO's playing after last year's Rheingold (if not on Matthias Goerne's Wotan). Regrettably this cycle's problems with that role continued.

It all started so promisingly with Skelton's commanding singing, his repeated "Walse!"'s proving to be the vocal highlight of the evening. Skelton also managed what many Siegmunds don't, to have sufficient in reserve to power through "Siegmund heiss ich"which should be the tumultuous climax to the first Act and so often falls flat because the tenor has run out of voice. His performance was well matched by Steven Milling's rich dark Hunding, and a little less so but still perfectly creditably by Ruxandra Donose's Sieglinde - in the big soaring money note late on she came across the orchestra with full voiced beauty, but that wasn't always the case. The London Philharmonic Orchestra showed a rich full sound, though in later acts I did occasionally feel Jurowski prioritised beauty where more bite was needed (though that may have been a consequence of the need to temper orchestral mood and speeds to accommodate singers of whom more in a moment). Throughout the first act though Jurowski and his players seemed in harmony with the singers, the balance generally working well (from my seat in the front Balcony), the drama appropriately paced.

Unfortunately, in Act Two things started to go wrong vocally - issues made obvious by the gulf between several of the other leads and Skelton. The biggest problem was Markus Marquardt's characterless Wotan. It's not so much that his voice isn't big enough, though it isn't (see his failure to cut through at the end of Act 2) but that he delivers pretty much the whole part - whether angry, or moved, or confiding - at the same level. Couple this with his poor diction and he succeeds in making Wotan as Anna Russell once memorably described him "a crashing bore". To give a few examples - the Act 2 monologue is challenging, but I've known performances where the Wotan gripped with the retelling of the narrative even when you know it well already, not so here. In Act 3 when he's listing Brunnhilde's punishments he simply couldn't build the condemnation vocally or emotionally - again it was all at the same colourless level. Svetlana Sozdateleva's Brunnhilde was better to the extent that she could, at times, summon the necessary heft, but those moments often sounded snatched. She lacked the capacity for phrasing and control of a great Brunnhilde - the wonderful Recognition scene suffered badly here - she did not build the tension and variety needed to get the emotional punch from the list of people Siegmund will meet in Valhalla, and the one person he won't. Like Marquardt her diction was poor undermining the ability to give point to the text. Overall, I'm afraid she sounded to me like a singer who has taken on big roles like this too soon.

Matters are further not helped by the vague attempt at semi-staging. No director is credited, so presumably either the singers or (I wondered) Jurowski were responsible for the muddled, largely ineffective, sometimes ludicrous movement. A few examples - when Hunding and Siegmund die they have to sit down on chairs - unfortunately, this hadn't been blocked out with sufficient care, and especially on the second occasion one could see Milling edging into position. The geography of Brunnhilde's rock is confused - and the Valkyries attempting to conceal Brunnhilde not convincing (or indeed really attempted). I presume Sieglinde has to mix the potion on stage for the benefit of audience members who can't read the surtitles, but it strains credulity when she does so mere feet from Hunding who, oh so conveniently, doesn't glance her way once. But, I'm afraid, the biggest problem occurs with the Valkyries entrance. To see attractive women in well chosen evening gowns has much to commend it, but not when they're supposed to be warrior maidens arriving bearing dead heroes. It wouldn't have been quite such a problem if they'd been allowed to stand still but the unnamed director evidently wanted them mobile. Add the fact that all the gowns appeared to be floor length and the shoes high heeled and it looked more like a trial run for the entrance of the chorus girls in Sondheim's Follies ("Hats off, here they come, those beautiful girls"). At this point I'm afraid I lost what little belief I had in the action. If you're going to make even gestures towards movement in concert opera then I think you also have to make gestures towards costume, otherwise you'd be better off sticking to stand and deliver. The same applies to props - in particular, why did Wotan get a spear (albeit one that looked more like the support of a four poster canopy) but Siegfried was deprived of his sword?

Then there are Pierre Martin's undistinguished projections. These are of three types - a forest that looked like something recorded during a Sunday wander rather than by a man running for his life, a thunderstorm that becomes tiresomely repetitive, and Brunnhilde's staring horse - which might have been a nice idea if it had been embedded in a coherent overall design but here feels marooned and rather as if those responsible were afraid to just leave the audience listening to that orchestral interlude. Generally speaking the orchestra is evoking the images portrayed by the projections far more evocatively than those projections which just feel superfluous.

As Act 3 dragged on, I got increasingly bored. Worse, the Farewell simply left me completely unmoved. When that happens, something has gone badly wrong with a performance of this opera. Given the right singers (as with Skelton and Milling, plus a well characterised Fricka from Claudia Mahnke) Jurowski showed himself an effective Wagnerian, but key roles here lacked the right singers. Unless next year's cast looks substantially stronger, and there is some evidence that the direction will be improved or the approach will revert to stand and deliver, I won't be returning for the third installment.

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