Die Walküre / The Madness of an Extraordinary Plan

Richard Wagner / Gerard McBurney
Manchester International Festival
Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
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Manchester International Festival once again brings together artists and styles of performance from different disciplines for a one-off performance over two days of Wagner's Die Walküre—the second of the four operatic dramas that together form Der Ring des Nibelungen— preceded by a short play about Wagner by Gerard McBurney.

McBurney's piece was performed as a reading by Roger Allam as Wagner with Deborah Findlay and Sara Kestleman both billed in the programme simply as "chorus", but they are referred to in the piece as his mistress and wife respectively. It begins in May 1849 during the Dresden Uprising when Wagner became involved in the street battles and managed to escape to Switzerland to avoid imprisonment. He also expresses his concern about the terrible conditions of workers involved in the massive spread of the factories and mills of the Industrial Revolution.

Finally he comes to his extraordinary plan, which comes of a desire to create musical dramas rather than opera for pure entertainment in which words, music and story are all woven together seamlessly and in which feeling is more important than understanding. His plan for a drama based on the character of Siegfried or Sigurd from Norse mythology required another drama to set it up and then another to set that up until he had a sequence of four full operas that he wanted to be seen one after the other within a short period of time. That was the extraordinary plan.

Neil Bartlett has been involved in every MIF, but as director of this piece there isn't a lot for him to do as the actors largely stand and read the words from scripts, although there is a lovely touch at the beginning and end when the conductor raises his baton and then the expected doesn't happen. Music from all four Ring dramas is integrated at appropriate points—well, perhaps not really integrated in the manner that Wagner aimed for as really the drama stops for the music and then resumes after it has finished.

Allam's rich tones can make anything sound interesting and he has good support from Findlay and Kestelman, but this really is a piece that sounds lyrical but comes across for a lot of the time as dry, historical and educational and rather dull, with the occasional interesting moment. The highlight is to hear the music that is referred to being played live by a full orchestra in the wonderful acoustics of the Bridgewater Hall, but it is odd that a piece that tries to put across Wagner's theatrical achievements (neatly avoiding his later politics) goes against so many of his firmly-held dramatic principals.

The play was followed by a concert performance of act one of Die Walküre, the second opera in the cycle, with acts two and three performed the following day. Without the visual and acted elements it comes across dramatically as a series of very long, slow conversations, but you go to a concert such as this to focus on the music, which of course sounds wonderful from the Hallé under the direction of Sir Mark Elder.

Stig Andersen took the role of Siegmund, Yvonne Howard stepped into the role of Sieglinde at the last minute, Clive Bayley was Hunding, Egils Silins was Wotan (although due to voice problems Philip Joll was on his way up the M6 as act 2 started in case he needed to step in—he is about to play the same role in Siegfried at Longborough Festival Opera), Susan Bullock was a tormented Brünnhilde and Susan Bickley was Fricka, plus of course we had a chorus of Valkyries.

A festival such as this is a great opportunity to draw together the audiences from different areas of the arts, but while the worlds of theatre and classical music come together in this piece, the theatre element is by far the least impressive and inspiring, made watchable largely by the great acting of Roger Allam. However spending two days at the Bridgewater Hall listening to just one part of Wagner's massive work was quite an exciting event in itself.

Reviewer: David Chadderton