VIDEO PODCAST: Slava Ukraini! - recorded on the day Europe woke up to the news that Vladimir Putin's Russian forces had invaded Ukraine. Also features Caitríona O'Leary and Eric Fraad discussing their new film Island of Saints, and pays tribute to Joseph Horovitz, Malcolm Troup and Maria Nockin.
Ah, Bayreuth. There is definitely something ultimately mystical and alien about the idea of the annual Richard Wagner festival to many British music-lovers: we are treated to a huge variety of music for every summer festival, from the Proms to the Three Choirs, even with the familiar favourites. The notion of a hugely expensive festival dedicated entirely to the works of Vaughan Williams, built on the foundations laid down by the composer himself and with a devoted and devout fan base of highly opinionated regulars seems obscure at best. It certainly wouldn't get very far through the paperwork of Arts Council funding at the moment.
Yet still Bayreuth continues to maintain its dubious position at the heart of our experiences of Wagner and indeed at some point in the centre of the whole idea of the Western canon. It is still a musical pilgrimage. Yet it doesn't seem too certain that many would want to make such a religious journey, or indeed be converted to a life of Wagner-worship, if they were to chance upon Valentin Schwarz's 2022 production of Götterdämmerung.
The last part of The Ring cycle should be a field day for any pioneering director in search of a dramatic 'set-piece'. The eventual gift of the cursed Ring to the Rhinemaidens and the fall of Valhalla into flames at the end in Act III is powerful enough without Wagner's supreme score. Unfortunately it was cut down to such unexplainable banalities by Schwarz's attempt to present the opera as a small scale family drama, if the family we're looking after is some kind of mash-up of the Murdoch dynasty, Russian plutocrats and the Adams family.
Watch and listen — Wagner: Overture (Götterdämmerung Act I)
(00440 073 6404 Blu-ray 1, chapter 1, 0:00-0:59)
℗ 2023 Deutsche Grammophon :
Schwarz's ideas came under heavy criticism when the Ring came to its conclusion last year, with laments often focusing on its weakness in comparison to the previous radical revamps at Bayreuth, such as Wieland Wagner's in the 1950s. Ultimately, this strange show takes away from some of the wonderful singing, playing and musical direction on offer.
Watch and listen — Wagner: Act I/Act II Interlude (Götterdämmerung)
(00440 073 6404 Blu-ray 2, chapter 1, 0:03-0:56)
℗ 2023 Deutsche Grammophon :
This Deutsche Grammophon recording of Wagner's Götterdämmerung from last year is part of the new Stage+ platform, launched in 2020, with the laudable aim of giving a full online experience to viewers after the traditional rigour and intensity of the DG discs of the last century. It is something of a daring venture: there will only be so many with the time and attention span to sit down to four-and-a-half hours of post-modern Wagner. Yet the filming is immaculate, the attention to detail impressive, and the production gives a good enough sense of being as close as possible to the Festspielhaus itself.
And the singing is largely fantastic, imbued with a dedication to Wagner's intentions that we should expect. The standout performances were Clay Hilley as Siegfried, especially as he stepped in at a day's notice to play the role during the Festival. He gives a beautifully full-bodied rendition, with the mix of macho posturing and intense lyricism to the role. Hilley's voice is essentially perfect for singing of this kind, and an understandable reticence in his acting is more than compensated by a singularly impressive performance. The other highlight is Albert Dohmen's Hagan, whose voice gives more variety and vitality to the monochromatic image Schwarz and the costume director Andy Besuch seemed intent on giving this fascinating character.
Brünnhilde is definitely the most technically difficult and intellectually complicated part in the opera, but Iréne Theorin's performances unfortunately remind you certainly of the first of these facts too often. Her performance is muscular and assured at times, but too often the sound is taut when her character needs lightness, and rushed when it needs space. The ramshackle rendering of the opera's final scene, combined with Schwarz's bamboozling setting, is plain strange.
Watch and listen — Wagner: Final scene (Götterdämmerung Act III)
(00440 073 6404 Blu-ray 2, chapter 27, 5:00-5:58)
℗ 2023 Deutsche Grammophon :
The orchestra, however, was in many ways the highlight, under the disciplined conducting of Cornelius Meister. Wagner's score for the last part of the cycle lets up nothing of the intensity and forward-movement of the preceding three operas; in fact, I feel it is one of his greatest scores, with a grasp of orchestration, dramatic timing and nuance that makes the cycle so powerful. Fantastically unpretentious string playing and an impactful brass section brought out almost every colour with clarity. Indeed, viewers could even have wished for a glimpse of the orchestra if they were justifiably tired of staring at the drab setting on stage for hour after hour.
The Ring is definitely alive in Wagner's own festival, but the problem with this production is that it has pleased very few. Old hands were never going to be impressed by its ostentatiously stripped-back appearance, and there was little that would give much away to anyone new to Wagner's magnum opus with its notorious complexity. The singing and the playing are largely excellent, but this is not the greatest production available, in a world where the great opera houses of Europe are judged in large part by their ability to keep audiences engaged over four nights of Norse myths with some great tunes. Covent Garden will see Anthony Pappano give one in the coming years. I would almost say it's better to stay at home if Bayreuth weren't now available on demand. The most important thing is that these gargantuan operas are being done and reimagined across Europe on a regular basis. That the best Wagner could come from outside his home country is perhaps more a testament to the quality of international opera, rather than the much-fabled condemnation of Bayreuth and all it stands for.
Copyright © 20 September 2023