Das Rheingold at Saffron Walden was magnificent. Die Meistersinger 15 months ago had been a brave and admirable attempt, but this was the real thing, fit to be judged by the highest international standards and ranked with the best. It was almost note-perfect, something that not even Vienna or Dresden can always claim, and even the opening horn canon had no bloops, which has not invariably been the case at the Royal Opera House. Where the performance specially scored was in its freshness and vitality; this was Das Rheingold freshly minted from the crucibles of Wagner’s imagination. At the same time, it was a broad performance in the grandest manner, more Goodall than Boulez. There was even something reminiscent of Goodall in the appearance of Michael Thorne, another slight, unobtrusive figure improbably drawing forth the most magisterial sonorities. These sonorities were partly what made him more thrilling in the Rhinemaiden’s hymn to the gold than most other conductors, excepting only Sinopoli, Goodall and supremely Hans Knappertsbusch – and in this hymn the timpanist deserves a special mention for his perfect crescendo.
Michael Thorne’s grand expansiveness allowed his Rhinemaidens to sing beautifully, and it was a happy thing to hear such line and direction; no pecking at the music in this version. This scene was also remarkable for bringing back a star Alberich, Nicolas Folwell. In less than a minute his magnificent timbre, still burnished bronze, had allayed any concerns that the years might have taken their toll since his triumphs with the role at Welsh National Opera. If anything, Wagner’s psychopath, born of emotional deprivation, now emerged as more nuanced. His ‘Zögert Ihr noch?’ had a pianissimo, coiling menace that was followed instantly by a blistering, fulminating ‘Zaudert wohl gar?’ In contrast, Jeremy White as Wotan is not a familiar figure in Wagner, notwithstanding a Covent Garden curriculum going back to1991. Beforehand it had seemed disappointing that Saffron Opera had not re-engaged Andrew Greenan, the spectacular Sachs of Die Meistersinger, but that would have meant missing the tremendous Wotan of Jeremy White. His was a large voice, large enough to size down into an expressive mezza voce without losing presence, and his helped him to create a finely rounded characterisation. What came out not just in Wagner’s text but in White’s enunciation was all the cajoling, the casualness, the bluffness, the dishonesty, the good nature, the folly, the pig-headedness, and the sheer authority that together make Wotan so interesting. As the role developed, so too did my homicidal inclinations against the management of the Royal Opera House, for so often preferring any semi-musical foreigner to such spectacular native talents as this, talents which often ‘waste their sweetness on the desert air’. Where were they, the members of its casting department? Are they ever going to let us hear the Nottinghamshire Catherine Foster, who stands in the published opinion of Klaus Billand, the famous Austrian critic, as ‘the best Brünnhilde in the world’?
Jeremy White’s willingness to sing softly is something that other members of the cast might consider emulating, for the reason that if this Das Rheingold had an imperfection, it was a tendency to push voices hard, even when the music and drama call for something different. Much of Das Rheingold (and Wagner generally) is actually scored lightly, more so than , say, Figaro. So it is that while Stephen Rooke’s Loge augurs great things, particularly as he looks the very model of a Wagnerian hero, his almost aria in praise of women could perhaps be less like a public address and more seductive in quality, and the same holds true for the splendid Fasolt of Julian Close. Robert-John Edwards, substituting as the dour Fafner, was for once sweeter and softer-grained than Fasolt, normally the more romantic of the two. Similarly Deborah Humble’s strongly sung Erda, almost stentorian, gave no hint of any qualities that might beguile Wotan erotically – unless he wanted a dominatrix.(My favourite Erda is Ursula Boese on the Swarowsky recording because she sings with a mysterious twilight dreaminess). To be sure there were other cast members who did ensure that they never sang louder than lovely, the excellent Rhinemaidens, the Froh of Adam Tunnicliffe and the Donner of Toby Girling who avoided forcing his voice even when commanding the clouds to assemble for a thunderstorm. Likewise Inga-Britt Andersson managed considerable sweetness and character in her brief utterances as the terrified Freia, and even Richard Roberts subtilised Mime by alternating snivelling and slyness without recourse to shouting. This leaves me to describe the Fricka, Sarah Pring, and she puts me in a quandary. Her musicality and her ability to create a complex character were striking; the hurt, the irritation, the authority, the common-sense and the deep affection for her unsteady husband were all evident, but a singer is uniquely at the mercy of his or her instrument, and a wobble like hers is off-putting.
No matter; the lasting impression is one of a grand-scale orchestral realisation and a great performance, notwithstanding the occasional oddity. The anvils did not appear to be playing characteristic Nibelung rhythm, dum-tity dum-tity dum-dum-dum, dum-tity dum-tity dum-dum-dum, but a simple slower duple, dum-dum dum-dum, dum-dum dum-dum, but the descent to Nibelheim still had a horrifying magnificence with trumpets that fairly knocked us into next week. Wagner was provided with his full quota of seven harps and sixty-two of the sixty-four strings that he specified. It may be unnecessary to add that his eight horns were all present and correct. If anything the Wagner Tubas were almost too strong and regimental in the first Valhalla exordium because Wagner’s dynamic never goes beyond piano; additionally this music bears repeatedly the marking ‘weich’ – soft, gentle; but those same tubas observed this closely when this music comes again in the final ten minutes. These minutes invoke some of the deepest magic that Wagner ever created, and at Saffron this music yielded up its spell in full. The six harps located in the orchestra rained down their gentle passing shower, and the reappearance of the Valhalla motive on the brass created a benign grandeur in the sunset. After the aching, piercing loveliness of Rhinemaidens lament, Michael Thorne saw to it that the grandeur turned to splendour. This music is knife-edged between empty bombast and true glory, just as the gods are themselves, but Michael Thorne followed Hans Knappertsbusch in playing up the glory, which made for an exaltation that was overwhelming, setting the seal on an awe-inspiring afternoon.