Now in its tenth year, the main stage of Wales Millennium Centre has witnessed some pulse-racing, tear-jerking, smile-inducing highs and some best forgotten lows. Some of in-house arts company Welsh National Opera’s productions have not been immune from the cringe factor. Yet just like the flames the god Wotan conjures up with three stomps of his heel, this searing performance from singers and orchestra in intoxicating form brought this theatre to life and the audience to its collective feet.
While over the decade some artists have regularly graced that stage (some way too often) one man has been responsible for many of the truly awesome moments, thanks to his commitment to perform in his native land, making that decade peppered with periodic plunges into the public purse, posturing and politicking to keep WMC afloat, totally worthwhile. That man is, of course, Bryn Terfel.
The concert performance of Act 3 of Die Walküre was one of those special evenings, with Bryn quite rightly as big a pull as Wagner’s music, that will stand out as a highlight of the WMC story so far.
Some will make comparisons with previous collaborations between the singer and other conductors with this score but none can deny the potency of this pairing of Terfel and Lothar Koenigs.
The component parts of Wagner’s Ring Cycle rarely benefit from the contribution of directors, designers and other mere mortals (a rare recent exception is the Royal Opera’s 2012 Keith Warner production with Bryn signing Wotan). So the lack of scenery, props and staging for this performance of the self-contained final act of the similarly pretty self-contained second opera of the Ring Cycle was really no detriment at all. Rather we could focus with even more wonder at the fine WNO Orchestra’ s ensemble playing and appreciate the conductor working with individual sections and soloists in drawing out the richness and subtleties of that monumental score.
Bryn singing the god Wotan with cracklingly intense pronunciation was paired with a finely balanced performance from Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin as his rebellious Walküre daughter Brünnhilde, who knows her father better than he knows himself. Along with the compelling Rachel Nicholls as Sieglinde, who is to give birth to the greatest hero of all, the trio sensitively acted their roles in front of the glorious orchestra conducted by the other star of the night, WNO musical director Lothar Koenigs. While there was less scope for such dramatic interpretation from the eight individually drawn Walküre, their singing and expressions creating distinct characters and conveying as much as dramatic interpretation as most dodgy stage directions in this bonkersly impossible scene to set.
The eight feisty, fiery but finally freaked Walküre singers were Camilla Roberts, Leah-Marian Jones, Sarah Pring, Katherine Roderick, Ceri Williams, Meeta Raval, Madeline Shaw and Emma Carrington.
Of course the lack of theatrical jiggery pokery also meant we were able to revel in the music without much distraction, and the English and Welsh surtitles also managed not to catch the eye too much, even when they failed for a few rather crucial lines of text. I am sure no one suffered too much harm as the story line is on a superficial level remarkably simple to follow. Just as with the extraordinarily intricate, complex, message ridden score, the sung music also tells a myriad of other stories for those who are familiar with the full saga.
Koenigs was in control of maintaining harmony with the 11 singers, displaying the sensibilities of conducting (and the playing by) an opera orchestra that is aware that the vocalists as colleagues not rivals for the audience’s ear. Were it always so.
Terfel and Koenigs are no strangers to concert performances of this Wagner act and have worked together on stages on both sides of the Atlantic; the partnership pays off in spades. Terfel again shows us how the actor in him does not need costumes or concepts imposed from on high to convey the variety of emotions, torments, despair and utter despondency the character is torn by.
The standing ovation and cheers were deserved and his return to this stage for the start of his own 50th birthday celebrations is a big diary date to mark now.
Puccini might get the hankies out while Verdi stirs the soul but Wagner’s Die Walkure is one of opera’s true heart-breaking, shiver-down-spine-inducing, intellectually invigorating emotional tsunamis.