For a Proms audience chock-a-block with enthusiasts determined not to be distracted by Royal baby news or excessive heat, Daniel Barenboim took the Proms podium to open Das Rheingold – the first opera in the Proms’ hungrily-anticipated, first-ever Ring cycle. Moments later, that spacious E flat build-up was immersing us in some seriously luxurious Wagnerian waters.
Wagner in concert has plenty of advantages: the chance to observe the conductor controlling his musical juggernaut; the orchestra taking centre stage rather than being confined to pit; and freedom from a director’s “interpretation”, leaving the mythical setting to our imagination and the composer’s. Justin Way directed a modicum of action, but essentially the characterisation was down to the singing – which is as it should be.
This mainly top-notch cast launched in with a luscious-voiced trio of Rhinemaidens – Aga Mikolaj, Maria Gortsevskaya and Anna Lapkovskaya – meeting the furious and unusually believable Alberich of Johannes Martin Kränzle. The Scottish baritone Iain Paterson was singing his first Wotan, and what his voice lacked in heft he made up for with finesse and tonal beauty: his Wotan is a smooth customer, charming his way through the deceptions that will lead to his destruction. Ekaterina Gubanova as Fricka was vivid, fine-toned and assured. Loge, personified by Stephan Rügamer, could have stolen the show with mercurial personality and attention to detail, but so could Fasolt and Fafner, the two giants: the towering Stephen Milling and the diminutive – yet vast in artistic stature – Eric Halfvarson. The even more diminutive Peter Bronder brought dignity to the unfortunate Mime and Anna Larsson’s Erda, placed high up beside the hall’s organ, sounded utterly magnificent. The one disappointment was Anna Samuil’s hard-toned Freia.
The Berlin Staatskapelle, the orchestra of Barenboim’s home-base opera house, just can’t put a finger wrong. This is Wagner of dusky, velvety colours, with close-wrought ensemble morphing the music as if with one mind (though Nibelung anvils there were none). Some aficionados might find Barenboim’s generous tempi a bit too generous, for this can risk sacrificing a rather crucial quality: the sheer electricity of Wagner unleashed. Barenboim makes the most of quiet, inner intensity: the music for the shape-shifting magic helmet, the Tarnhelm, was sinister enough to foreshadow the object’s appalling significance in the final opera. There’s a sense of power in reserve. Yet Donner’s thunderstorm felt very slightly soggy compared to the real one outside, which followed us home after an extraordinary ovation lasting nearly 20 minutes.