I have little doubt that I was present last night at a truly momentous and historical musical event. I attended the performance of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung at the Proms. As the music ended, the conductor, Daniel Barenboim, directed the final orchestral phrase to finish by clenching and holding his outstretched hand, and held the orchestra and the 6,000 people in the audience completely silent for more than fifteen seconds. As he let his arm drop the Albert Hall erupted into applause as thunderous as I have ever heard. It was an extraordinary occasion.
In fact as I was listening to the end of the performance today on iPlayer to measure the length of that silence, and struggling with superlatives to put in this post, BBC Radio Three’s Sara Mohr-Pietsch articulated my thoughts exactly: asked what she thought, she said it was the ‘best experience, musically, of my entire life...’ adding that it was ‘totally exhilarating and completely exhausting...’ I could not agree more.
I have been to fully staged performances of Wagner operas at Covent Garden and the ENO; a few years ago, I saw Das Rheingold at Bayreuth. In the 1970s, I was given a ticket for Siegfried, the third opera in the Ring cycle, in that ground-breaking production at English National Opera. But last night’s performance, semi-staged at the Albert Hall, eclipsed the lot. Admittedly, I had a superb seat, in the stalls, a few feet from the orchestra, so my view of the players and singers was second only to that of the Prommers standing at the front. Perhaps it was the fact that in following the libretto, understanding what was being said and intimately following the plot, I was drawn more easily into the emotional turmoil of the drama. Possibly, the mass hysteria of 6,000 like-minded people at the Proms was irresistibly infectious.
Most likely though, that genius Richard Wagner was just working his magic with the help of master-musician Daniel Barenboim, the Berlin Staatskapelle, and a retinue of wonderful singers.
Bryan Magee in his excellent book, Aspects of Wagner, explains how it works. Wagner had effectively rediscovered the ideas of the ancient Greeks. He (Wagner) claimed that Greek tragedy was the pinnacle of human creative achievement because it combined all of the arts – instrumental music, song, drama, poetry, costume and dance. The drama was set in the time of legend, and was, therefore, timeless. He claimed that the ‘content and occasion’ of the performance had religious significance, but that this ‘religion’ was human, ‘a celebration of life.’ More importantly for the Prom experience, the ‘entire community’ took part. Barenboim recognized the importance of that is his speech.
I know that Wagner is a bit like Marmite – generally, you either love him or you hate him. If the latter, then there is little that can be said. If you’re a waverer though, give him a chance. Do not be put off by the ‘Wagner has some great moments but some dreadful half-hours’ brigade. The 'half-hours' are used to tell the story; in any case, when the opera is properly staged there is the scenery and the acting of the cast to look at, as well as, most importantly, the libretto, so that you know what is going on.
One more thing, you have to see it all live. It is impossible, artificially, to reproduce by HiFi and video the dynamic range of the music, or the electricity of the drama. A live performance is the only way to really appreciate Wagner and understand what all the fuss is about.
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs