Roger Lee – Wagner News

Dämmerung! We take it to mean “dusk” referring to the decline and demise of the gods. It can just as well, of course, mean “dawn” and I wonder whether Wagner might have intended this intriguing ambiguity when altering this work’s original title of Siegfrieds Tod. Being especially good at composing them, Wagner gives us two exquisite dawn passages in Götterdämmerung: that which heralds the entry of Siegfried and Brünnhilde in the Prelude and the one in Act II when Siegfried returns from his overnight mission to Brünnhilde’s rock. The dawn which follows the destruction of Valhalla replaces the era of the gods with that of humankind and with this production of Götterdämmerung we have seen the Saffron Opera’s own dawn through to the era now occupied by the mainstream Wagner-capable companies.

In the musician-friendly acoustic of Saffron Hall there is no such thing as an obstructed view and there is no such thing as a poor seat. Whether they can read music or not, every member of the audience can not only hear but also see every note of the score as it is played. Drawing the audience into the laughing fire after five hours of wonderfully crafted musicianship, the Saffron’s two year Ring odyssey has thus been brought to glorious completion. As always with concert performance, freedom from the distractions of Regietheater and wayward attempts to create Gesamtkunstwerk has allowed artists and audience to share together the pure, musical, Wagner experience.

With this Ring Saffron have attracted a following which may be described as among the healthiest of audiences on the British scene. By this I mean a relative absence of those who are there for reasons other than that of enjoying the music alone. The fact that there may have been little “glamour” associated with attending Longborough in its early days is perhaps why it is a joy nowadays to be there among audiences who are characteristically motivated by their love of the music for its own sake. A similar situation is to be found at Saffron with the added interest that, for a significant proportion of the audience, this is their local opera house. Among these are many relative newcomers to Wagner who are experiencing the works for the first time and whose process of discovery we witness as frissons of excitement passing through the house as the performance takes place.

Prominent among the generators of such excitement was the Chorus of Vassals. With all that is going on in the orchestra it is notoriously difficult for chorus members to make their entries with precision in Hagen’s calling of the Vassals scene in Act II. The way in which the entire chorus came in every time as one was owed to very thorough preparation (consisting in fact of no fewer than five full rehearsals) under the leadership of chorus mistress Janet Wheeler and repetiteur Richard Black. Would it be perverse to suggest that this outcome might actually be the result of a degree of over preparation? This, after all, is supposed to be a bunch of thugs. So I wonder whether a more “rough-edged” approach might have been more appropriate. Referred to somewhat unkindly by one critic I overheard as resembling that of “a choir of accountants”, this very orderly delivery nevertheless generated a palpable thrill through the house.

Sometimes a stroke of genius leaves us wondering why nobody has ever thought of it before. Wagner wrote so little for the female chorus (I found only seven bars when I last checked) that one can imagine them regarding it a waste of their time turning out. Somebody here thought “why not get the women to reinforce the tenors in the men’s chorus?” So simple, so effective!

Following his masterly demonstration of controlling pacing so as to conserve vocal resources in the title role of Siegfried in February, Jonathan Stoughton had plenty of stamina to spare throughout, so his dying address to (an imaginary) Brünnhilde was startlingly powerful and dramatically effectual. Elaine Krill also had more than adequate reserves with which to tackle Brünnhilde’s mighty Immolation scene. With eyes blazing throughout the 20 minutes her demeanour provided a most convincing affirmation of the fact that this is the only character whose dignity remains magnificently intact.

Described by one person present as “pure, black treacle” the bass voice of Julian Close is now equally well known on both sides of the Atlantic. In possession of such an instrument, he is in his element in the role of Hagen. Over the combined forces of orchestra and chorus from the depths of the bass clef as expected, he displayed his remarkable range when he hit that extraordinary treble clef G on Rache! (“Vengeance!”) with apparent ease.

(It is a Wagnerian quirk that this role demands singing which is higher than that involved in performing that of Gunther.)

As Waltraute, Deborah Humble’s worldwide experience as a mezzo brought majestic vocal power to the confrontation with Brünnhilde. Throughout this Ring Cycle the casting of Nicholas Folwell as Alberich has been rewarded with a secure and vivid interpretation of that role. Cara McHardy sang Gutrune having benefitted from the coaching for the role provided by Dame Anne Evans in preparing for this part. Charles Johnson brought forth unusually robust aspects of the personality of Gunther.

Acknowledged by the audience as the production’s heroes, the orchestra were reliable throughout in their job of creating a secure platform from which all the other performances could be delivered. Tempi governed by conductor Michael Thorne provided an effective sense of ebb and flow as consistent with the unfolding of the drama.

Where else can one attend a concert performance of Götterdämmerung of this quality for £35? Saffron Opera Group quickly established a reputation following their launch just four years ago which has enabled them to attract the funding necessary to put on a £45,000 performance such as this. Without such support tickets would have cost £80 – worth every penny, I agree, but at that price an all-important component of the Saffron audience would become excluded.

The amazing story of the emergence of Saffron Opera as a major Wagnerian force now continues with Parsifal on 18th September 2018.