CALLING ALL VASSALS
The Mastersingers and the Rehearsal Orchestra, Henry Wood Hall, London.
The Mastersingers’ annual collaborations with the Rehearsal Orchestra continue to excite and amaze. When they introduced a chorus for the first time last year I expressed the hope that they would now tackle Götterdämmerung Act II, and this year my wish was granted in spectacular fashion.
When I arrived at the Henry Wood Hall in the early afternoon, the whole building was a hive of activity. In the main hall, David Syrus was taking the orchestra through a wonderfully creepy prelude to Act II, while in a smaller room Kelvin Lim took the vassals through their paces. I was privileged to witness their session, which gave me a fascinating insight into the work of a chorus master with his troops. He encouraged them to put more force into their questioning of Hagen (“What do you want us to DO?”), making them sing their overlapping entries without the piano to ensure that they had the rhythm, and used the consonants to the full, all the time. His work paid off. When they joined the orchestra for the full rehearsal, their sound was simply terrific and their wild laughter echoed through the hall. Those cries of “Hagen! Hagen!” were magnificent. This year their numbers had increased most gratifyingly and included several recruits from Elemental Opera’s Parsifal the previous night. Has there ever before been a vassals’ chorus which included two music directors, an editor, an Alberich, a Mime, a Titurel, a Ferrando and a Siegfried?
As for the orchestra, the players astonish me anew every year with their ability to deliver a polished, insightful performance on a single weekend’s work together. Their love for the music they play shows in every bar. The urgency and nervousness of the woodwind, the ominous trumpet and the deep, menacing strings before Alberich’s entrance, the lovely solo ushering in the dawn, Siegfried’s clarion horn, the snarling tuba as Hagen summoned the vassals, the huge instrumental sweep while the vassals celebrated, the foreboding Valkyrie motif introducing Brünnhilde, the brass claiming the Sword motif, pushing Siegfried’s quote of “Blutbrüderschaft” and growling with rage as Brünnhilde seized the spear, and the final joyous thunder of the wedding music, were all utterly thrilling.
It was wonderful to see Malcolm Rivers, one of the few members of the Goodall Ring cast who is still performing, singing Alberich again. After all these years his diction remains perfect, with every word audible and newly minted, every note and consonant perfectly in place, and his portrayal of the character was as compelling as ever, bristling with rage and hate. The Götterdämmerung Alberich is often shown as a a wraith-like figure who fades away, leaving his son in charge, but the strangely enticing repeat of “Schläfst du, Hagen mein Sohn”?”, the clamouring bitterness of “Schwörst du mir’s”, the spat-out final consonant of “Held” and the unusual strength of the final “Treu!” all testified to this Alberich’s continued powerful, vivid presence in the drama.
Stuart Pendred returned to Hagen on the day after his poleaxing Amfortas for Elemental Opera (has anyone else ever combined these two roles over such a short space of time?). His Hagen was as magnificent as ever, black-voiced and powerful enough for his epic summoning of the vassals to trump the orchestra and chorus in full cry. This was no pale, cold Hagen but a full-blooded, Iago-like plotter whose insinuations as he recruited Brünnhilde and Gunther to his cause were frighteningly plausible, and his half-laugh, half bitter snarl on “gebe” was hair-raising.
Mark Le Brocq continues to improve. His Siegfried combined superb Heldentenor strength with lyrical beauty in one of the hardest parts of the role. In this act, Siegfried can so easily appear as nothing more than a drugged dupe who is easily outclassed by the raging Brünnhilde, but Le Brocq ensured that the character remained a hero. His outburst of “Blutbrüdershaft” was fabulous and his oath on the spear immensely powerful. He even overcame that trickily placed top E on “meinem frohen Mute” which has floored many a more experienced Siegfried.
Lisa Wilson proved a notable addition to the Mastersingers’ roster. Gutrune has little to do in this act, but she made the most of the character’s urgent questioning of Siegfried – the final “schlimmer Held” was distinctly coquettish – and she has a lovely, slightly fluttery lyric soprano.
Paul Carey Jones showed the wisdom of casting a Wotan as Gunther. So often in modern productions the character is played as a weak fool, but in the myths which inspired Wagner, Gunther was a hero whose misfortunes were that Siegfried was stronger and that Hagen was at his right hand. Carey Jones deserves a vote of thanks for reclaiming the character for our times. All the same, this Gunther was so commanding that I was quite sure that he had given theravens the day off and kept his spear and eyepatch hidden under the bed, just in case. One wondered why he needed Hagen at all, but as Carey Jones pointed out to me after the rehearsal, Gunther echoes Wotan before him in making the fatal mistake of taking the wrong advice from the wrong person at a crucial time.
His authority in his first solo was thrilling, and it was wonderful to see how he suddenly became shifty at “Den Ring?” as Brünnhilde’s questioning began to crack his confident facade. His despair at “O Schmach!” was Wotan-like in its scale and intensity, and he was completely inside Gunther’s dilemma as Hagen proposed the murder of Siegfried. He sounded simply magnificent in the final trio, where his invocation to Wotan sounded as though he were talking to himself!
But this is Brünnhilde’s act, and predictably Lee Bisset dismantled the place. Even before she began to sing, she sat before her score stand, already every inch the caged Valkyrie, and when she unleashed her full power the impact was devastating. The sheer force of “Ha! Dieser war es” was amazing and her raging cries of “Betrug! Schändlichster Betrug!” were overwhelming. There was surprising plaintiveness in “Lernt ich mir Leiden”, but “dem Manne” was so strong that it felt as though the listeners were bent backwards by the hugeness of the sound, and she made us feel all the tragedy and grief in “Er zwang mir Lust und Liebe ab”. Her oath on the spear was sensational. In “Welches unholds List” she had clearly absorbed all that Dame Anne Evans had taught her in their masterclass at Aldeburgh the previous month, especially in the the hissed bitterness of “mein Wissen”, the massive sorrow of “Jammer! Jammer!”, and the limitless scorn of “An Siegfried – Du?”. I liked the cattiness with which she quoted Gutrune’s motif. The final trio was fabulous.
Katie Barnes – 30 October 2016