Friday, 28 September 2012

Die Walküre, Royal Opera

Susan Bullock as Brunnhilde and Bryn Terfel as Wotan in Die Walküre © Clive Barda/ROH 2012
I saw this Walküre as part of the first cycle of Ring operas staged by the Royal Opera this autumn. I'll get straight to it. I've never heard such good singing on the stage of the Royal Opera before. Bryn Terfel's Wotan swept aside a lifetime's accumulated prejudices and easy, lazy nit-picking accrued from tinny broadcasts on car radios, CDs being played in a room next door or hagiographic TV shows more in love with his totemic, masculine Welshness. Stripped back in this most demanding of operatic roles, I was pummeled and caressed, confided in and spat at and I can barely remember whether it was his sound or his bearing that was the agent. For Terfel is not just a fine singer but an actor as well, as required by his calling. His gestures happen within the ribbon of the music, never bouncing out of it. It was complete.

Trying to eye a performance objectively under these circumstances is a difficult proposition. All the parameters are out of whack. Luckily there were others on stage (and off) who were in the same league. Eva-Maria Westbroek's Seglinde was as good a vocal performance as Terfel's. Singing in her prime, phrase climaxes are glorious vistas of sound rather than great blitzkriegs. I also liked Simon O'Neill's nickel-plated Siegmund whose vocal seemed appropriate for his character's sense of purpose, if not the bear-like masculinity of others' portrayals.

Susan Bullock was hindered from the off by a safety cable malfunction on her entry. It's notable as Brünnhilde's arrival is an energetic affair and anything putting the breaks on will affect the impetus behind the singing too. By the all-important third act though (masterfully and minimally staged in Keith Warner's revival of his production) she was well in control with easy top notes. John Tomlinson's Hunding and Sarah Connolly's Fricka were both highly polished, professional characterisations. A special impression was made by the team of Valkyries in a feral staging of the third act with Sarah Castle's Siegrune with a contralto projection every bit as powerful as her 'sisters' in alt and Elisabeth Meister's precision in that higher reach, as a baying, horse-skull wielding Helwmige reaching but not rasping right through to the back seats.

I have since heard that the orchestra has taken a curtain call from the stage following the conclusion of Götterdämmerung. This is probably right, as the score is a mountain range not only to scale but to render with beauty. Alas, I felt that it was surprisingly untidy for this fine orchestra. The physical violence of the opening forte-pianos just could not be sustained. Perhaps there was a lack of pacing. However my disaffection was redeemed by some truly exquisite woodwind playing in the third act.

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