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August 25, 2004

As the Master Conceived It - Das Rheingold at the Proms

Posted by David Conway

Wagner: Das Rheingold (Concert performance)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
conducted by Sir Simon Rattle
BBC Promenade Concerts 2004 (Prom no. 45)
Royal Albert Hall
19th August 2004

Concert performances of opera at the Proms too often seem to be just convenient programme space-fillers for which neither the audience environment nor the hall's acoustics seem appropriate. But this rendition of Wagner's Rheingold on period instruments (to be followed over future years by the trilogy to which it is the prelude) completely vindicated itself, both as a performance in its own right and as a revelation of Wagner's original intentions.

Admittedly, the instruments themselves at first seemed determined to sabotage the evening. The opening bars were exceedingly wayward and featured a number of missed and muffed entries. But the orchestra swiftly played itself in and we became accustomed to a sound-world very different from that of present-day opera-house performances, to say nothing of the benchmark spectacular recording by Solti. The initial impression was of a softness, not in terms of volume, but in absence of the hard edges and brilliance of tone of modern instruments. This I think led firstly to a more attractive aural background for human voices, but also to effects, clearly carefully considered by the conductor Simon Rattle, quite different from those to which one is accustomed. The trumpet fanfaring the gold itself at its first appearance was in a much sharper, sparkling, tonal perspective against the orchestra as a whole: the oboe accompanying Fasolt's complaint that Freia's eye is still visible through the heaped-up gold in the last scene is far more plangent than its modern equivalent, as piercing in fact as her gaze. Having a single harp placed close to the Rhinemaidens at their final appearance (as required by the composer in the score), and their being placed physically above the other singers, instead of their normal disposition in this scene at ground level, gave their final complaints wonderful clarity and beauty. The various orchestral climaxes were carried out with all necessary grandeur, including the hollow-triumphal entry to Valhalla. I would only issue a strong complaint about the anvils in the Nibelheim scene. I feel certain that Wagner did not originally employ half-a-dozen electronically distorted glockenspiels; perhaps the BBC could not afford the twenty-four anvils (and presumably their accompanying smiths) as specified in the score, but we could surely have done better than this.

For the first time I feel I got a glimpse of exactly what Wagner had in mind as a music-drama (or, at least, of what he had in mind at the time of writing the Ring libretti). Partly due to the sonority of the orchestra; partly perhaps because of the relative placing and balance of soloists and orchestra in a concert performance – but for once the music seemed to be framing the singing neither reticently as in the prop provided in bel canto opera, nor engulfing it in a symphonic torrent, but instead exactly matching and supporting the message of the words. Of course, there are still moments – such as Freia's initial flight from the giants - which are pure Weber – but overall this performance, bereft of distractions such as scenery and orchestral histrionics, was as close as we are ever likely to get to the ideals of Wagner's 1851 essay Opera and Drama. It also demonstrated why, by the time he was some way into Die Walküre, Wagner began to abandon these ideals. After all one can have too much of a good thing; and once Wagner had shown what could be done even whilst denying oneself, it was surely much more fun for composer (and certainly for audiences) to go on to show what could be achieved by letting rip.

Not that I personally would wish to be without any part of Das Rheingold. Expository in its nature, dry as regards emotion, it nevertheless primes with exquisite clarity all the moral charges which will be detonated throughout the rest of Wagner's ironic masterpiece. The heroic resolve of Alberich – the only character with the moral strength to face and accept the consequences of his actions- resounds though his curses on love and on the gold he has briefly possessed; the sham of Wotan's morality is exposed in the first scene by the self-deprecating 'stupid giant' Fasolt and amply demonstrated in his consequent series of treacheries and double-dealings. Of course somehow Wotan gets away with it for a long while and even when he goes down in flames at the end of the cycle there are many who still venerate him (- and people still wonder why politicians are addicted to opera!).

The singers with one disappointing exception made the most of their opportunities. Really outstanding were the Kazakh Oleg Bryjak as Alberich, perfectly projecting both malevolence and his twisted integrity, and Kim Begley having a whale of a time as Loge, despised by all the Gods but indispensable to the Chief. With regret I have to record that Willard White as Wotan did not fulfil expectations: the singing was fine but he had the general air of being somewhere else. I don't want to get too heavily involved in political parallels (to which the Ring always lends itself), but Wotan as George Dubbya just doesn't work. One has to have some sense of power and magnetism. Otherwise, gold stars (of course) to everyone involved. Rattle's direction was generally brisk but in no way hurried and, as mentioned, he was able to bring out many hidden treasures from the orchestra.

I look forward to future instalments of this period instrument Ring, well suited to the theatre of the mind, without however any wish to forgo other ways of experiencing it. Being close musically to what Wagner conceived at the time of writing, it is fascinating but not sufficient; and I take it that the period instrument movement is not so imperialistic as to wish to demand any supremacy for its claims. I confess to enjoying the 'sock-it-to-me' approach of the Solti recordings and to the pleasure of many modern opera-house productions (and even to relishing in a perverse way some of the more bizarre ones). I marvelled at the National Theatre of Brent, who fifteen years ago compressed the entire Ring and Wagner's life story into an hour and a half with just three performers and a step-ladder (with the audience as the chorus of Vassals), in a way which miraculously both funny and moving. The protean nature of Wagner and of his music is well-served by the diversity of interpretations we can experience, and I am a glutton for all of them.

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" and I take it that the period instrument movement is not so imperialistic as to wish to demand any supremacy for its claims."

Unfortunately one often gets the impression that it is exactly "so imperialistic"

Posted by: James McQueen at September 11, 2004 10:48 AM
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