As English National Opera concludes its public preparations for next year's Ring Cycle the company can congratulate itself in having an excellent cast lined up for Phyllida Lloyd. An unalloyed triumph? Not quite. Not yet. Even at this early stage, with the final chords of Michael Walling's exemplary Barbican semi-staging of Twilight of the Gods still fresh in my mind, comparisons with the cast of Tim Albery's recent Scottish Opera production are inevitable. But though it's hard to exchange Elizabeth Byrne's ardent tomboy for Kathleen Broderick's exultantly feline Brünnhilde without regret, in Richard Berkeley-Steele ENO has a Siegfried of serious promise.
A Siegfried who has always been a tenor - one whose development has been achieved by strengthening and securing an existing vocal range rather than rebuilding a lower voice - is something of a rarity these days. Yet bionic baritones invariably show their seams by Act III, putting themselves and their audience on edge. The immediate benefit of Berkeley-Steele's natural facility can be heard most obviously here, where innocence and sorrow rather than oafishness and pique spring to mind and Siegfried's recollection of the woodbird sounds more like a dove than the usual old turkey. Here Siegfried's death brings sadness rather than relief, thereby balancing the brutality of his fall from grace and preparing the way for Brünnhilde's suicide. Indeed, if Lloyd can encourage Berkeley-Steele to enjoy that smooth, fresh tone and stand his ground rather than twitching and bouncing all the time - which is boyish in a minor public school fashion but hardly heroic - he has the potential to underpin this tragedy in the way that Wagner intended.
The supporting cast of Twilight of the Gods is a prime example of what ENO does best: strong ensemble work. As Hagen, Gidon Saks looks to have finally found a role big enough for his vocal and physical style; all rough and tumble and rolling gait, almost alluringly mean. Both the Norns (Liane Keegan, Leah-Marian Jones, Franzita Whelan) and the Rhine Maidens (Linda Richardson, Stephanie Marshall, Ethna Robinson), blend and balance beautifully, while Andrew Shore (Alberich), Sara Fulgoni (Waltraute) and Robert Poulton (Gunther) handle their pivotal roles admirably. But it was Claire Weston's girlish Gutrune that won my heart at the Barbican; rich, pure and centred in tone, perfectly enunciated, sensitively acted and, should she continue to develop in this steady way, a potential Brünnhilde herself.
So what of the downsides? Despite an arrestingly secure and brightly tuned opening to the Prologue and some excellent moments from the off-stage brass, conductor Paul Daniel still has much work to do with the orchestra. His woodwind section is now easy in its virtuosity but too many of the violin figures are slippery in detail and insecure of ensemble, and the overall pacing of dynamics and tempi was not, at last Tuesday's performance, unanimous. These are all hiccups that should be resolved without too much argy-bargy. More problematic is Broderick's raunchy and glamorous but utterly unintelligible Brünnhilde, whose mangled words were only to be guessed at by predicting the clichés in Jeremy Sams's highly accessible but consequently prosaic translation.
Is Brünnhilde a leather-trousered sex-kitten? I have my doubts. But every listener brings their own baggage to The Ring and whether you see it as a grand soap-opera, a transformative spiritual experience, an intellectual exercise or a reluctant and unexpected passion, the more you listen to it, the shorter it seems and the more fascinating it becomes. Which may, along with the obvious benefits from ticket sales, explain why ENO chose to platform their preparations in concert. For it's not just the performers who have been rehearsing at the Barbican, it's us. Assuming that many of those attending The Coliseum Ring will also have been present at the Barbican performances, ENO will have an audience who have already identified which characters come from which caste of The Ring's slender supernatural gene pool and what their motives - and leitmotifs - are, and one in good physical and mental shape for an operatic marathon. (Experienced listeners will have worked out their own survival tactics for personal comfort and improved concentration.) Still, I wonder whether such early involvement with this very pure format might carry its own risks? Given the choice between seeing a semi-staging as clean and clever as Walling's and a full production of anything less than riveting visual and dramatic ingenuity, I'd plump for the semi-staging every time. Add to this the superior acoustics of the Barbican Hall, the resultant clarity of text and orchestral texture, decent seats and good sightlines, and it's highly likely that when Phyllida Lloyd's production of The Rhinegold opens at The Coliseum in February, some of her audience will be looking back to the Barbican dry run with misty eyes and very fond memories.
More misty eyes and fond memories at the Royal Festival Hall on Monday, where Kiri te Kanawa and her unassuming pianist Julian Reynolds gave the type of super-pretty lieder and mélodies programme - Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Strauss, Berlioz, Poulenc, Duparc - that makes for a conservatoire soprano's graduating recital. Indeed but for the fact that Dame Kiri rather lost her way in several songs, I might have assumed that this was her graduating recital; timeless in one sense, all too revealing in another.
The lady herself was clad in a glorious creamy mist of translucent silks and sequinned satin, and much the same could be said of her voice: still lovely of sound but now so small and oddly soporific, like a lullaby sung by the Blue Fairy or Glinda the Good Witch of the North. Were one to pick a word to cover her attitude, I'd guess it to be wistful: like a cat who'd had the cream, had forgotten about it, but was not yet hungry enough to start thinking about the next saucerful. Thus Dame Kiri's cloud of twinkling, ethereal wistfulness was draped around each and every song, with scant acknowledgement of any change in composer, mood, subject, consonant or vowel sound - mostly "ee", since you ask - and Gretchen am Spinnrade, Les chemins de l'Amour, Le spêctre de la rose, Hôtel and Abendempfindung all sounded exactly the same, if ever quieter, quieter, quieter... Ten years ago, I'd have wanted to shake her. Now I think, what's the point? There's a kind of tragedy in hearing her loveliness fade away; with no sign of the graceful exit that Dame Anne Evans made, and no sign of the raging energy that still informs Jessye Norman's constant reinvention. But this is what she does and there's no-one else like her.
So to a quick report on John Copley's fine production of The Turn of the Screw at the Royal College of Music: a show that almost justified the hype about revealing tomorrow's opera stars and was - regardless of any long bets on its cast's future careers - very spooky. I say almost justified because for Nicholas Watts (Prologue) and Thomas Walker (Quint) it's still too early to tell, though both have lovely, light, focused voices which their teachers would do well to nurture. With the female leads, I feel more certain: Wendy Dawn Thompson (Mrs Grose) and Sarah Jane Davies (Miss Jessel) are dramatic artists beyond their years, while Ana James's Governess was so completely involving, sympathetic and natural that I quite forgot she was a singer and simply thought of her as that character. With excellently acted performances from David Stark (Miles) and Sophie Bevan (Flora), superb playing from the orchestra and clarinettist Daniel Brian Hughes in particular, and a very high standard of stage management, this is one school-run I thoroughly relished.Reuse content