Prom 4: Orchestra Of The Royal Opera House / Pappano / Domingo, Royal Albert Hall, London
A Prom that had us all on our feet
Wednesday 20 July 2005
Something really extraordinary happened during a recent performance of Wagner's Die Walküre at the Royal Opera House. The first revival of Keith Warner's provocative staging went on stage less than 48 hours after the London bombings, and something in the nature of the opera's humanity took all of its participants to a new level.
This, after all, is the Ring opera in which it is first established that the future of the world lies with humans, not gods. That is essentially what the Ring is all about. So could lightning strike twice, without sets, without costumes, without all the attendant drama of a darkened auditorium? Would the fire descend, not through the pyrotechnics of audacious stage effects but through the music alone?
Yes, yes, and yes. In a music festival - namely, the Proms - that is always notable for at least a handful of real "events", this one will go down as momentous.
Die Walküre begins with a storm, and Antonio Pappano was not about to take cover. The Royal Opera House Orchestra flung down the gauntlet, string tremolandos buzzing, Wagner tubas cleaving the heavy air, timpani volleying their thunderclaps, and we were off. Pappano's lustful dynamism is a real boon in this the most unashamedly passionate of the Ring operas, and his orchestra, released from the depths of their pit for once, revelled in the big Albert Hall acoustic. With the lid taken off them, so to speak, with their sound able to breathe, we could appreciate all the more what a glorious instrument they are. The quiet brass playing was especially notable: I shall long remember the sombre threnody of horns and trombones launching Wotan's Act II narration.
Bryn Terfel sang, acted, almost spoke that with such enthralling and quiet intensity that it was almost as if he were individually telling the 6,000 or so members of the audience a bedtime story. You can take risks - and he did - with an audience this concentrated, this giving. Audiences don't realise how important they are, and this one, not just listening but hanging on every word, tacitly gave each performer untold energy. Gripping was not the word. Well, it was, but still hardly adequate.
And so performances, thrilling enough at the opera house, here went into overdrive: Waltraud Meier's sublime Sieglinde, her inwardness something most singers can only aspire to; Eric Halfvarson's cavernous, pit-bullish Hunding; Rosalind Plowright's imperious Fricka; and Lisa Gasteen's feisty, tomboyish Brünnhilde finding another level of engagement in her moving final scene with Wotan. Their lustful farewell kiss could no more adequately have expressed what Pappano was unleashing from the orchestra at this point.
And what can Placido Domingo have made of his Prom debut? Well, he more than anyone plainly fed on the waves of adoration coming in from the audience. It was so good to hear this great veteran of the opera world recapturing some of that burnished middle-voice that made him such a household name. Though the vocal nuancing may be compromised by the passing years, the distinctive timbre remains untarnished. To hear it breaking the silence in the wake of that storm-tossed prelude, the very first voice we hear in the opera, was in itself worth the price of admission. There's a fair bit of operatic history riding on that voice, that timbre, that presence. And how wonderful to hear it rise to the great cries of "Walse!", the second of them defiantly turning back the clock to a heroic past.
Not even the incongruity of those "battle-weary" Valkyries arriving in full evening dress, or the half-hearted attempts at an atmospheric light show could blunt the dramatic potency of the evening. The audience rose as one. For me, twice in less than a fortnight wasn't lucky; it was a privilege.
This Prom can be heard online at www.bbc.co.uk/proms
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