Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
Manchester has a long and exalted history of service to Wagner, with Hans Richter, first conductor of the Ring, the chief conductor of the Hallé from 1899-1911, and Barbirolli a great Wagnerian, though there are lamentably few records of him in this repertoire. Mark Elder has for some time been showing that he is a fully worthy successor to them, and last weekend he conducted a concert performance of Götterdämmerung over two evenings which was in many respects a triumph, and was certainly received as such. The Hallé itself was the star of the show, playing unfamiliar music with passion, enormous variety of tone and colour, and almost always with precision. The orchestral set pieces, such as Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, the black Prelude to Act II, and especially the Funeral Music, were stunning, the brass above all covering themselves with glory; only the upper strings were less full than I would sometimes have wished. Now all we want is to hear them in a complete Ring cycle.
The soloists were probably almost as good as you could hope to hear in a performance these days, but that is a somewhat sad commentary on the Wagnerian singing situation. Both the lead singers had small voices for their parts, in the case of Katarina Dalayman’s Brünnhilde seriously so. She is fine, gracious and dignified to look at, she seems involved in the role, she lets forth some strong high notes, but the middle of her register, where so much of the music lies — for instance, the last note — is simply not there, and Brünnhilde’s sublime benediction on Wotan was barely audible. Another Swede, Lars Cleveman, as Siegfried is a more resourceful artist, making a fairly ordinary voice go a long way, and building his interpretation, so that Act III, where Siegfried at last becomes heroic, in his acceptance of death, and in his overwhelming Narration, where he comes to terms with what his life has been, was unreservedly successful for him. But I must mention the outstanding vocal performance: on the first evening Susan Bickley, the extraordinarily versatile — and strangely underemployed in the big houses — mezzo, delivered the most moving and eloquent account of Waltraute’s narration that I have ever witnessed in a concert hall or theatre. This was truly great singing, with a use of the words which no one else emulated, and a dramatic intelligence which meant that, as Wagner intended, the distinction between narration and presentation vanished, and we witnessed what Waltraute was telling us about. One rarely, now, comes across such a performance, which takes its place in the grand tradition of artists who have made this scene the most deeply affecting of the whole work.
The South Korean Attila Jun got a fantastic reception for his Hagen, and there was no lack of baleful tone pouring from him, but I was never persuaded that he had more than an approximate idea of what he was singing, and his voice has a curious halo round it, a halo of woof — it almost sounded as if there were two of him, not singing quite simultaneously. The other Gibichungs were good, and so were the two teams of women, the Rhinemaidens in particular, the Norns better in reverse order of appearance. Andrew Shore made a lot of the strange scene of Alberich’s nocturnal visit. The three choirs — there can rarely have been so many Gibichungs — sang with fearsome lustiness. The performance would have benefited from some more production, i.e., just a little; people just walked on when they had to sing and walked off when they stopped, except for Dalayman after her ride into the pyre. That is carping, though. It was an experience that must have made an indelible impression on any receptive listener, and I can only repeat my hopes for its repetition and extension.
The evening before I had seen Verdi’s Don Carlos, Opera North at last returning to territory where it excels, after its prolonged leaden flirtation with levity. This was the four-act version, a wise decision given that the first half was almost two hours long, and we hadn’t got to most of the great music yet. That is the snag with this in many ways wonderful work: the last two acts are so much finer than the previous two (or three, if Fontainebleau is included). The conductor is the best Verdian of our time, Richard Farnes. He elicited noble sounds from the orchestra, and possibly the loudest chord I have ever heard in a theatre; and, crucially, he is a master of the grand line. The production of Tim Albery manages to combine non-atmospheric minimalism with vast pauses between scenes, after which the main difference is that the characters are moving around in a somewhat different set of large holes. The cast is good without being remarkable, though I’m sure that Janice Watson, who has the right kind of voice for Elisabeth, can and will put more into the role than she did. Julian Gavin puts his all into every note, and the effect is a bit wearing, but you have to be grateful. William Dazeley is a youthful, impetuous Rodrigo, and his long scene with the Philip of Brindley Sherratt came off better than it usually does. The English of Andrew Porter’s excellent translation came across with unusual clarity. I have a feeling that later performances of this demanding work will be a little more persuasive than I found this one to be.