Wales Millenium Centre, Cardiff April 27 2015
Concert performance by the Welsh National Opera Orchestra
Conducted by Lothar Koenigs
Brünnhilde: Iréne Theorin
Wotan: Bryn Terfel
Sieglinde: Rachel Nicholls
Valkyries: Camilla Roberts / Meeta Ravel / Leah-Marian Jones / Madeline Shaw / Katherine Broderick / Ceri Williams / Emma Carrington / Sarah Pring
While the eyes of the opera world were on the International Opera Awards at the London Savoy on April 27, a packed audience at Cardiff’s Wales Millennium Centre, celebrating the venue’s 10th anniversary, witnessed one of this year’s finalists in splendid action. Conductor Lothar Koenigs has been acclaimed for his performances of Wagner at Welsh National Opera, where he has been music director since the 2009/10 season; Die Meistersinger (as here with Bryn Terfel) and Lohengrin have been notable successes at WNO amongst others he has conducted around the world. This concert performance of Die Walküre Act III, with a fantastic cast of eleven singers and beautifully responsive WNO Orchestra, showed that a full-blown Ring cycle is bursting within him.
It was an electrifying performance from the assembled forces, and one which needed no staging to convey the intense emotional drama and multilayered symbolism redolent in Wagner’s every phrase. To hear a single act plucked from this seminal, revolutionary epic – totalling some fifteen hours across four operas – is unbearably tantalising, and yet yielding of enormous riches. At least, it proved so here with the world-class leads and robustly-matched support enlisted by the WMC in their first joint presentation with resident company WNO.
Bryn Terfel needs no introduction to audiences in Wales, but for some in Cardiff, this will have been their first encounter with his globally-renowned portrayal of Wotan, chief of the gods. In superb voice, Terfel embodied with every musical and physical gesture this towering and complex character, whose unresolveable, often self-made dilemmas lie at the heart of the entire Ring. Die Walküre is the second opera of the cycle.* It is here that the greater wisdom of Wotan’s favourite child, the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, induces her to disobey him, thereby setting in train a (further) sequence of events which will lead inexorably to the passing of the gods, and to a new, albeit no less problematic, age of humanity at the finale of the fourth opera, Götterdämerung.
Wotan’s avenging power and fury were palpable even before Terfel strode onto the stage, as the eight Valkyrie – to a woman, richly sonorous and riding the wings of that famous, thrilling orchestral introduction – contemplated their sister’s ‘treason’ with frightened dismay. Rachel Nicholls made a brief but notable mark as the rescued Sieglinde, pregnant with the hero of the future. Her noble saviour, Brünnhilde, was performed with wonderful, increasing dramatic intensity by the Swedish soprano, Iréne Theorin.
Rising to the literal and metaphorical challenge of an on-form Terfel, with his huge presence and subtle vocal command, is a big ask of any soprano cast alongside him in this role, and the tessitura in Die Walküre seems often to dwell in the mezzo end of the range. But Theorin’s Brünnhilde proved, if not entirely Terfel’s expressive equal, no less defiant and vulnerable than her troubled father, and her singing at ‘War es so schmählich’ (‘Was I so shameful’) was eloquently convincing. Thus Wotan’s rage is softened to the point where he is able to ruefully acknowledge the correctness of her insight, and to confess his own self-lacerating desire ‘to put an end to my sorrow in the ruins of my world’. The one-eyed god may indeed be king but, it seems, not all his subjects are quite so wilfully blind.
Alas, Brünnhilde must pay, if not for her insight, then for her actions in defending Siegmund. Whilst her punishment is lessened as her pleas for leniency strike home, the cost is unspeakably poignant for father and daughter alike, who must part forever; a cost which was searingly portrayed by the leads and orchestra together in this breathtaking rendition of their leave-taking.** The kiss with which Wotan sends Brünnhilde into deep slumber, simultaneously sealing both the ‘curse’ of her demotion to mortal and the ‘blessing’ of her future awakening (they both know) by the hero Siegfried, was heartrending in its tenderness and dramatic import – as was Terfel’s achingly-wrought farewell, ‘Leb wohl’.
Here especially, and in the ensuing regathered surge of the ‘Magic Fire Music’, Koenigs’ orchestra successfully took on the musical likeness of a Greek chorus in becoming, to all intents and purposes, a character or characters in its own right; one of many radical elements traceable to ancient times which Wagner wove so ardently within his progressive (re)envisioning of theatrical past and future. The delivery from the orchestra was not always collectively sublime, but events and inner states were often exquisitely drawn section by section and moment by moment – and, as so often in Wagner’s way, with deliberately varying degrees of subtlety before even the characters themselves register them within the unfolding of the plot. Pacing, of course, is crucial in this regard, and Koenigs’ sensitive direction revealed a clear, symphonic structure. The strings were shimmering and forceful by turn and the brass were supportive, yet crisply articulate. Of the woodwind, Daniel Rye’s bass clarinet stood out in conveying the tragedy of Brünnhilde’s lonely isolation and, by extension, that of her doomed father.
Wotan must overcome his despair with renewed determination in order to summon the fire god Loge and encircle Brünnhilde’s mountain with protective flame. Ultimately, of course, fire will consume Valhalla – and before that Brünnhilde too in her final act of selfless redemption. Here, the combination of Terfel’s coiled, intense passion and the red-lit, fiery backdrop encircling the orchestra on stage were all the visual clues necessary to the compelling drama being enacted – and projecting forward to the two operas to come within Wagner’s great cycle. Altogether, it was a wholly unforgettable evening.
* Or Day One following the Vorabend or ‘ante-evening’ of Das Rheingold. Wagner referred to the the whole as a Bühnenfestspiel, or stage festival play.
** Verdi, of course, is rightly renowned for his intense, complex father-daughter relationships but Act III of Die Walküre – without even considering the deep-lying mytho/philosophical strata of the piece – contains one of the most emotionally frank such portrayals in all of opera.
This year also sees Bryn Terfel celebrate his 50th birthday, and 25 years in the business. The bass-baritone will be giving a special concert performance at the WMC, of which he is a longstanding supporter, details to be announced.
Photo of Bryn Terfel by Neil Bennett
Illustration of Lothar Koenigs by Dean Lewis