by Robert Thicknesse
A lot of supporters of the London Philharmonic Orchestra couldn’t get into last February’s cycle opener (this is a pretty leisurely Ring, culminating in a full cycle in 2021) because of its “gala” billing and concomitantly ruinous tickets. Lucky for them: it really wasn’t very good: a Wotan (Matthias Goerne) with his head buried in the score, very random direction of singers, and a nagging feeling that the orchestra wasn’t ready.
Well, things were better this time, so Vladimir Jurowski and his orchestra won’t be losing any friends. But that Wotan trouble – or a different one, to be accurate – remains, and there were issues with some other singers. Physical direction has improved enormously (though Valkyries were an inevitable poser: what can you actually do with them?), but the biggest problem, I fear, is Jurowski himself.
Problem is no doubt putting it a bit strong, but there is definitely something in this admirable conductor that gets in the way of real Wagner interpretation here. There are marvellous passages, and a much more comprehensive shape to his conducting than in Rheingold, but finally it is all too controlled, as if something is holding back those Wagnerian torrents, resisting the final frenzy; a kind of restrictive micro-management – Jurowski is formidably on top of every detail – that hamstrings the final crucial degree of sweep and dynamic. It’s rather a paradox, since this is some of the fastest Wagner conducting I’ve heard, something which in itself has more good than bad consequences, but left little room for contrast in those places where (after pages of painstaking preparation) the score goes beyond all bounds of passion and excitement – and we really do want to feel that final delirium. Nonetheless, when has the Ride ever sounded so fantastical and light as here? – a real Hexenritt, swooping through the clouds on waltzers made of blistering violin glissandos. And there was plenty more of that in an orchestral performance of brilliant unity and concentration.
It started very strongly, wired string tremolos and a running base of barely suppressed panic accompanied by nervy monochrome videos (by Pierre Martin) of swiftly-traversed forest floors, storms, clouds. And an entirely satisfactory Siegmund and Sieglinde: mezzo Ruxandra Donose bringing warm, deep lyricism, and the admirable Stuart Skelton with all the muscle and desperation required, but always with considerable beauty and proper musical phrasing – an ideal Siegmund, actually, fearless at the top (impossibly drawn out yells of “Wälse!”), and living this tormented character’s destiny with great sensitivity, even moments of transport invaded by the certainty of doom. Their Act 1 duet was beautifully paced until that irruption of spring, the crucial moment, precisely one of those places where Jurowski seemed to rein things in rather than unleashing them; there was little rapture or passion in what followed, though there were beautiful, romantic noises emerging from the band.
Act 2 is lower-intensity, but was seriously undermined by a rather over-literal interpretation of Wotan’s conceit that talking to his daughter Brünnhilde is “like thinking aloud”: the monologue that followed was exactly that, a gloomy old loner’s peevish grumble. And I have to admit that with the passing of every year Wotan really does seem more of a pithecanthropus, notably his gender-awareness. There is no doubt Wagner found some nobility in his tormented god, but it becomes ever harder to locate (beyond the unearned pomposity of some of his music). Markus Marquardt embodied this over-promoted subaltern rather too well; those scolded Valkyries had little to fear, and Wotan was a pushover for the righteous, impassioned dignity of wronged Fricka (Claudia Mahnke), who set the hall on fire with the concentrated fury of her scorn.
The last act hardly lacks drama or passion, but after those exhilarating Valkyries (where directorial inspiration rather ran out) and Sieglinde’s rapturous salute to Brünnhilde, the not very helpful pairing of Marquardt’s Wotan and Svetlana Sozdateleva as his daughter undermined the effect. She has a big voice but with very Russian characteristics: broad vibrato, a nonchalant attitude to the centre of the note at high volume, and a throaty approximation of German sounds. And yet, in that ambivalent valedictory duet, sad and triumphant, the two managed to become rather touching in their everyday way, and Loge’s sparks and scintillations opened the way for a serene and rapturous playout, a final note of optimism among the various curses, dooms and dead-end streets Wagner’s characters are so prone to.