Jim Pritchard – Seen & Heard International

It was time to be back in rural Essex where the Saffron Opera Group are working their way through Wagner’s Ring with a fine cohort of young professional singers and a mostly amateur orchestra which puts far more professional ensembles to shame. This followed on from full concert performances of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg , Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress and Das Rheingold at the functionally impressive Saffron Hall, a 700plus-seat ‘state of the art’ venue which attracts international artists and ensembles to Saffron Walden. Local residents Paul Garland and Francis Lambert – who are the driving force behind this fledgling company – are to be congratulated for succeeding, by and large, in their aim for high quality performances. The enormity of their task in putting on the Ring must not be underestimated and it has in the past defeated the English National Opera amongst others, like myself, who have tried to tackle it.

Another driving force behind this project is Michael Thorne who has recently retired as vice-chancellor of Anglia Ruskin University but is someone who has always mixed academia with music and can now devote himself more fully to it. As a passionate Wagnerian between 2001 and 2013 he conducted a Wagner opera each year, including two complete cycles of the Ring, in Portobello Town Hall in Edinburgh. There rising young singers sang leading roles together with local soloists and chorus. For the performance at Saffron Hall, there is a blend of talented younger voices with more seasoned professionals. One of those involved in those Edinburgh performances was international soprano Elaine McKrill and she now lends her expertise as casting advisor as well as singing Brünnhilde.

I saw the late, great Danish/American comedy pianist Victor Borge many times and one of the things he did was to play the ending of works stressing how much time had been saved by not sitting through the whole thing. I ruminated on this during and after an (intentionally) extended 75 minute second interval when even at Bayreuth it is only an hour and there they have sets to change! However, the arrival of eight Valkyries – whose singing I have rarely heard bettered anywhere I have heard Die Walküre – brought renewed energy to a performance which had not reached the heights of Saffron Opera Group’s previous Wagner, at least for me. Individually and in ensemble, each one managed her part admirably, and this was an – all-too-rare – octet who were capable of consistently beautiful sounds, even if one or two seemed to be auditioning for bigger parts with Saffron Opera Group and elsewhere. Tempi which had meandered a little in the first two acts now brought everything to a triumphant conclusion.

I doubt there is any music in all opera which – when played well, as here – is more heartbreakingly beautiful than Wotan’s Farewell. It comes between Brünnhilde’s Pleading (‘War es so schmählich’) and the incandescent Magic Fire Music with remarkably six harpists here spreading the flickering flames. Elaine McKrill’s Brünnhilde was less defiant than some and was a loving daughter who was upset that her father was not happy with what she had done, her eventual capitulation being one of acceptance but not defeat. Andrew Greenan’s Wotan was now free from the score on the stand in front of him and his dark tones – definitely more bass than bass-baritone – resonated through an impassioned ‘Leb wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind!’ and this was complemented by the commanding authority of ‘Loge, hör! Lausche hierher!’ Overall Greenan conveyed Wotan’s inner torment well even if there was a little lack of variety in his singing. He brought immense dignity to his contest with Sarah Pring’s slightly histrionic Fricka in Act II, though he seemed too easily browbeaten by her. In Wotan’s subsequent scene with Brünnhilde, Greenan’s ‘Was keinem in Worten ich künde’ was full of shame and weariness. McKrill’s Brünnhilde is someone who deserves the affection lavished on her by her father. From her first ‘Hojotoho’ there is no backing down from the demands of her music. Her voice is steady right to the very top and her timbre is bright and focussed.

There was vocal sheen and emotional directness from Michael Bracegirdle’s Siegmund without his singing entirely convincing me this was the role for him. Nevertheless, there was a ringing security to his rousing final Act I moments and his rejections in the ‘Todesverkündigung’ of the glories of Valhalla Brünnhilde reveals were very touching. He was partnered by Elisabeth Meister as Sieglinde who is returning to singing after a hiatus and – possibly understandably – she sounded a little underpowered in Act I but from then on got better and better. Meister is an intelligent singer who knows how to project her voice, and she achieved extraordinary heights of passion in Act III without pushing the voice beyond its limits. ‘Nicht sehre dich Sorge am mich’ had deeply affecting humility and despair, but her account of ‘O hehrstes Wunder! Herrlichste Maid!’ was a suitably refulgent outpouring of maternal euphoria. The experienced Julian Close completed the cast and created a strong impression with his gleefully hateful Hunding. His Act I ‘Ich weiss ein wildes Geschlecht’ was genuinely nasty (in the appropriate way!) and he sang throughout with a voice oozing pitch-black menace.

This was a concert performance and there were music stands; some of the singers knew their roles better than others and this allowed some entries, exits and interaction between them from time to time. However, this is one of the more ‘conversational’ of Wagner operas and occasionally – particularly in the first two acts – I was not as dramatically engaged as I might have been. Truth-be-told these were musically on the slow side, which did not help. I cannot praise the Saffron Opera Group Orchestra high enough even though they still were not quite as good as previously. Maybe it was where I was sitting, but the orchestra which in previous operas had been kept under tight control occasionally now swamped the singers, with rampant brass – including four Wagner tubas –  often too much to the fore. Unleashed as they were by Michael Thorne, the opening to Act III was the thrilling roller-coaster Ride (of the Valkyries) it needs to be and set the tone for the fine ending to this Die Walküre.

I know I am tending to repeat myself by concluding once again how hard I fought against people’s prejudices when in charge of The Wagner Society that performances like this – or even on a much smaller scale – are never the ‘real thing’ which they are of course. It keeps many away who might wish – now reading this – they had been there. Word must be getting out as thankfully Saffron Hall seemed nearly full and most rose to their feet to give all concerned a standing ovation. I feel I have ‘nit-picked’ a little bit more than before about tempi, balance, and certain soloists but it remains a remarkable achievement with Siegfried continuing the Ring on 12 February 2017.

Jim Pritchard