The Madness of an Extraordinary Plan / Die Walküre, Manchester International Festival: Bridgewater Hall

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The Independent Culture

Wagner for beginners seemed to be the idea behind the free preview of a new play about the grandiloquent composer, with musical illustrations by the Hallé Orchestra under Sir Mark Elder.

Tickets were allocated by ballot to draw in a new crowd and if the Bridgewater Hall wasn't exactly full of City shirts, the audience was a good deal younger than if they had been paying £50 a head.

Those who knew little about Wagner might have struggled with Gerard McBurney's drama, The Madness of an Extraordinary Plan, which cleverly stitched together a catholic collection of quotes by and about the composer. It lacked much narrative thrust, focusing instead on Wagner's artistic philosophy.

What bound the piece together were the Hallé's themes from the four Ring operas, from a haunting solo horn to a rhythm of the Rheingold anvils so clamorous they could have been a recording from Manchester's industrial past.

McBurney pulled no punches. Wagner is a high priest of human feeling in its purest form. But he is also a self-aggrandising, sickly, self-indulged neurotic. For all his heightened artistic sensibility, he believed the ultimate ambition of a wife should be to lose her identity in sacrifice to her husband. Post-Hitler, it is hard to see all his romantic mythology as anything more than pantomimic posturing.

Roger Allam was commanding as Wagner, but chorus Deborah Findlay and Sara Kestelman had a trickier task switching between quotes from unannounced sources like Bakunin, Baedeker, Darwin, Dickens, Liszt, Nietzsche, Tchaikovsky and Wagner's wives, Minna and Cosima. A case of not having much plot to use or lose.

The music was another story. After the play, the Hallé launched into Act III of Die Walküre with a group of Valkyries of tremendous urgency. You could see Wotan in their eyes, and hear him in voices of such power that you felt like you'd been run over by a train.

Yvonne Howard was a touching Sieglinde and Susan Bullock's Brünnhilde had the hall holding its breath as she named the unborn hero. Egils Silins's Wotan was not sufficiently fearsome for a vengeful god but torn and tender as a disappointed father. The brass were imposing and the cor anglais beautiful. Wagner beginners could do worse than to start here.

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