Review: Der Ring des Nibelungen, Part 2

In almost solely concentrating on the visual aspect of the Proms performance of Wagner’s Ring cycle in Part 1 of my review, I have so far ignored his extraordinary music. The definition of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk as a unification of poetry, music, and theatre in many ways downplays the role of the music, which arguably conveys the lion’s share of the drama. Indeed, it may be that a semi-staged performance of the Ring cycle is more successful than “busy and tiresomely provocative” productions, such as this year’s Bayreuth Ring, which distract from the nuances of Wagner’s music.

When discussing Wagner’s music in these performances, I am largely going to leave the singers to one side in order to focus on the 137 stunning players of the Staatskapelle Berlin under Daniel Barenboim. This is in no way intended to be a trivialisation of the importance of the singers acting out this drama, but more a raising to proper prominence the orchestra as another actor. Certainly in moments such as Wotan’s monologue in Die Walküre, the orchestral music can collude with, or undermine the vocal music (as argued by Carolyn Abbate). In the monologue – charismatically and intensely delivered by Bryn Terfel – the lack of tonal direction undermines cadences to give the impression that the music is somehow false, and told entirely from Wotan’s perspective. Similarly, Abbate has argued that the real power of Brünnhilde is her ability to hear falsehoods, both musical and textual, and this idea of music being able to lie or to comment on the truth relies absolutely on the dialogue between orchestra and singers.

The sheer size of the orchestra meant that it dominated the stage, and the immediacy of its sound (as compared to when in a theatre pit) produced more of a sense of dialogue between voice and orchestra in scenes such as Siegfried’s conversations with nature in Siegfried. It was in this balancing between orchestra and voice that Barenboim excelled, frequently gesturing to the orchestra to play quieter whilst encouraging the singers. The range of dynamics from the orchestra was superlative, and the quietest moments were intense and beautifully controlled. There were some balancing issues across the cycle, with some singers being lost in relation to the orchestral sound more than others. However, considering the size of the orchestra and its place just behind or even in front of the singers, that inaudibility was an exception rather than a rule is impressive in itself. One singer in particular deserves especial mention in this light. Nina Stemme’s Immolation scene at the end of Götterdämmerung was delivered entirely from the organ console, situated someway behind the orchestra. Despite this, it was one of the high points of the entire cycle, with Stemme’s voice effortlessly soaring above the orchestra, and her acting reaching out to the audience.

Hearing the four operas together allows the audience member to hear the overarching musical drama of the cycle, though Wagner’s manipulation of “his magic web of leitmotifs through textures, transformations and aural visions”. Wagner himself referred to leitmotifs as ‘melodic moments of feeling’ in his 1849-51 prose work Oper und Drama – both Wagner’s development of the plot through his music, and Wagner’s own musical development are evident. The transmission of this extra orchestral layer of musical storytelling was greatly enhanced by the depth to which both Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin know the Ring cycle (Barenboim has recorded the cycle at Bayreuth), and this depth was particularly evident in their ability to foreground the orchestral texture or motif when required, and also their aforementioned ability to accompany the singers with great sensitivity.

Having begun this post with a stated desire to move away from a discussion of the visual, the fact of the orchestra’s presence on the stage necessitates some discussion of it in relation to the visual drama of the production. The sight of the 137-strong orchestra, including up to six harps, two sets of timpani, and serried ranks of brass players, could be hugely dramatic in itself. Though lacking the moving water required by Wagner’s libretto, watching the opening chord physically move through the orchestra in the Das Rheingold Prelude was similarly mesmerising. Additionally, at moments of great climax such as storm heralding Brünnhilde’s arrival in Act 3 of Die Walküre, though the Royal Albert Hall cannot give rocky heights and lightning affects, the physical movement of the orchestra conveyed a sense of the spectacle.

The 2013 BBC Proms production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen could have been highly problematic. The space precludes any of Wagner’s instructions for set, the orchestra on the stage dominated the visual field and threatened to drown out the singers, and the level of acting varied across the operas. However, the cycle was a roaring success, and I believe this is primarily due to the orchestra. The visual spectacle of the Staastkapelle Berlin more than made up for a lack of visually arresting set – the more so because it is not static, but the physical movement is tied to the climaxes in the music. Additionally, their supremely sensitive playing (under Barenboim’s indefatigable baton) largely supported the singers, rather than drowning them out, and finally, their subtle and dramatic rendering of the score brought out all of Wagner’s textural and Leitmotivic narrative. This is not to belittle the superb singing and acting from the singers, or the subtle and effective use of lighting, but the Staatskapelle Berlin produced a Ring cycle both supremely nuanced and highly dramatic. It is only to be hoped that this, their first performance at the BBC Proms, will be the first of many.

H. J. Bickley

This forms the second part of Helena’s review of the Proms Ring cycle; the first part can be read here. For more information about upcoming BBC Proms, please visit their website.

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