Simon Rattle conducts Wagner
22 Dec 2016
Sir Simon Rattle
Eva-Maria Westbroek, Simon OʼNeill, Sir John Tomlinson
Siegfried Idyll (21 min.)
Die Walküre (The Valkyrie): Act 1 (concert performance) (71 min.)
Eva-Maria Westbroek Soprano (Sieglinde), Simon OʼNeill Tenor (Siegmund), Sir John Tomlinson Bass (Hunding)
Sir Simon Rattle on the first act of Wagner’s “Walküre” (8 min.)
“I beseech you once again: have the ‘Valkyrie’ performed for yourself, but exclude the public,” Richard Wagner wrote to Ludwig II of Bayern, when the king was having the premiere of the work prepared in the summer of 1870 in Munich. But, as in the previous year, when Das Rheingold was first staged at the Hoftheater in Munich against Wagner’s will, the composer resisted in vain a part of the Ring tetralogy being presented in advance to the public. What Wagner kept secret, however, from his “generous lord and King” was the fact that the first act of the Walküre had already been launched in concert form in 1856 – in Zurich, where Wagner had let a hand-picked audience experience the ill-fated renewed encounter of two children of Wotan in his flat on Zeltweg. Accompanied by an organist from Winterthur at the piano, Emilie Heim sang the part of Sieglinde; the composer himself could be heard in the roles of Siegmund (Sieglinde’s twin brother) and Hunding (Sieglinde’s husband)! The improvised performance was such a success at the time that it was repeated on 22 October in the Zurich hotel Baur au Lac – again for an invited audience, but this time so publicly that the Neue Zürcher Zeitung reported on the “huge work”: “With this symphonic poem Wagner’s reforming aspirations in the territory of the musical drama are manifested by showing a new art form in a perfect manner; his much-maligned ideals of an ‘art work of the future’ were not art-philosophical reveries: they have become action and will be epochal in moving the entire musical world.”
Sir Simon and the Berliner Philharmoniker have invited an ensemble of singers experienced in Bayreuth for three pre-Christmas concert performances of the first act of the Walküre. Eva-Maria Westbroeck can be experienced as Sieglinde, the role in which she made her celebrated Bayreuth debut. Simon O’Neill will step into the role of Siegmund; he has sung Parsifal and Lohengrin on the “Green Hill” of Bayreuth. Last but not least John Tomlinson: the singer has gone down in the history of Wagner interpretation with numerous performances in Bayreuth and Berlin, and here lends his jet-black voice to Hunding. The prelude to these Wagner concerts is the Siegfried Idyll – an orchestral meditation on motifs from the third part of the Ring. It premiered on Christmas Day 1870 as a birthday piece for his new bride Cosima.
Die Walküre, Act One
How would we listen to this hour of music if Richard Wagner had only composed this one act and we knew nothing about music drama, Gesamtkunstwerk, Bayreuth or tetralogy? It is difficult to say because there are no magic potions to make us forget, even in Wagner’s case. More important, although the entire sequence of musical, textual and scenic events depicts every “now” as a web of before and after, it seems futile to listen to this incredible beginning of something new as what, on the face of it, it could be: the incredible beginning of something new. In the hope that there could actually be something entirely new in theatre, in life, in legend.
It begins tempestuously, with the powerful, driving music of a thunderstorm – a bold rhythmic attack. No slow fade-in or build-up in the vast flow of musico-dramatic world narrative as at the opening of the preliminary evening (Das Rheingold) or the beginning of the next part, Siegfried. This time the first gestures of the Walküremusic, the nervous tremolo in the violins, the furious ostinato of the double basses and cellos, do not contain the complete narrative of what came before and after. Thus, we can pretend to watch the events in Hunding’s hut naively, as though for the first time.
Before Siegmund, exhausted by the flight from his pursuers, collapses in Hunding’s hut, quite a lot has happened which will not be recounted until later, and only that will explain whom and what it is about. During the first act a substantial portion of the “plot” of Walküre already consists in clarification of its own premises, which are primarily acts of procreation. With Erda, the primeval earth mother and seer, the god Wotan fathered nine wild daughters, the Valkyries, warlike maidens who go to the world’s battlefields to carry fallen heroes to the afterworld of Valhalla on their winged horses. Wotan also fathered a pair of twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde, with an unknown mortal woman in his disguise as Wälse Volsa. Siegmund roams through a hostile, brutal world with his father. One day they find their home burned, the mother dead, Sieglinde abducted. Father and son wander around aimlessly as Wolfe and Wölfing Wolf-cub; they are separated and Wolfe disappears. Meanwhile, Sieglinde has been handed over to Hunding by thieves and is forced to marry him. A stranger appears at the cheerless wedding, “an old man dressed in grey”; it is Wotan-Wälse-Wolfe. He thrusts a sword into the trunk of the ash tree that stands in the middle of Hunding’s hut: “The blade would fittingly go to him, who should draw it out of the tree.” No one has been able to do that until now.
All of this has already taken place as Siegmund, pursued by his enemies because he had become involved in a feud, unwittingly ends up in the house of his pursuer. Hunding is still out with his men. Sieglinde finds the “stranger” lying unconscious by the hearth. She brings him water, he awakens, their eyes meet and what now follows, without words, in eloquent cello recitatives, is a mutual process of realization and recognition in which the lost twins find each other again. Hunding appears and confronts the stranger, who calls himself Wehwalt Woeful. Only hospitality prevents him from killing the guest on the spot. Hunding lies down to sleep; it will be a deep sleep because Sieglinde has put sleeping powder into her husband’s drink. Siegmund is alone; he thinks about his desperate situation and remembers the sword that his lost father had promised him. Suddenly a ray of moonlight falls on the hilt of the sword in the trunk of the ash tree. Sieglinde slips into the room and tells her story (“All the kinsmen ...”). The recognition that they are brother and sister coincides with “knowledge” in the sexual sense after Siegmund, now under his real name, has pulled Wälse’s sword out of the trunk. In the darkness of winter, night falls on a moonlit spring (“The storms of winter have yielded to the month of May”); brother and sister become lovers (“So may the race of Volsungs flourish!”). “He holds her to him with passionate fervour” is Wagner’s stage direction for incest. “The curtain quickly falls.”
One element of Wagner’s dramaturgical genius is the way he creates suspense by combining the spheres of the earthly and unearthly, the natural and supernatural, in his staging. That works in Wagnerian theatre. After the prelude with gods, Nibelungs and Rhine maidens, in an abrupt transition we are now among mortals, that is, in historical time, insofar as it is perceptible. Hunding’s hut is in a bleak, archaic world, in an early phase of civilization, still close to nature, and Wagner the stage designer finds an obvious metaphor for it: “In the middle is the trunk of a mighty ash tree, whose magnificent roots disappear deep into the ground. The tree is separated from its crown by a timber roof which is pierced to allow the spreading limbs to pass through. Around the trunk a room is built; the walls are of roughly hewn logs, hung here and there with matting and woven hangings.” The world of early humans in which we are immersed is a violent environment. The law of the jungle prevails. Women are possessions; Sieglinde experiences this, like the unknown woman for whom the itinerant Wehwalt becomes entangled in a feud with Hunding’s kinsmen. Hunding’s music sounds crude and archaic. Entirely different are the long passages in the first act, in which gestures and, above all, gazes speak to us on the stage, but from the orchestra, treated with the subtlest refinement, we hear some of the most intense, inspired and organic music that Wagner ever composed. Anyone who is not swept away by the first act of Walküre – in which Wagner the dramaturge leads us from the stormy opening to the nocturnal resting point in Siegmund’s monologue and from there the excitement of recognition and consummation of love intensifies to the final climax in a tremendous crescendo – cannot be moved by Wagner’s art of emotionalization elsewhere either.
Greeting the Sun on the Staircase – SiegfriedIdyll
Sunday, 6 June 1869, early morning. The bells of Lucerne can be heard on the Tribschen peninsula at Lake Lucerne, probably chirping birds as well. Earlier, the sun rose over the Rigi mountains in brilliant orange. Orange is also the colour of the wallpaper on the concealed door to the bedroom of Cosima von Bülow, who gave birth to a boy at four o’clock that morning. “A son is there! – He had to be named Siegfried. For him and you I had to express thanks in music – What lovelier reward could there be for deeds of love? We nurtured within the bounds of our home the quiet joy that here became sound.”
Was any child ever welcomed more warmly to earth than this little Siegfried? Wagner, who was working on the score to his opera Siegfried just then, composed these 20 minutes of marvellous music for small ensemble for his son and gave the work the complicated title “Tribschen Idyll with Fidi’s Birdsong and Orange Sunrise”, later shortened to SiegfriedIdyll. It was performed for the first time on the staircase of the Tribschen villa eighteen months after the child’s birth, on the occasion of his mother’s 33rd birthday. Cosima was awakened gently, with a symphonic idyll tenderly evoking what accompanies the first shy, then euphoric and hysterical meeting of Siegfried and Brünnhilde in the third act of Siegfried: hesitation, heartbeats, greeting to the sun and horn call from afar, as a free orchestral fantasy. Perhaps Wagner’s most charming, ethereal music. Truly joy become sound – and truly an idyll.
Eva-Maria Westbroek was born in the Netherlands and trained at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague. Her vocal teachers included Iris Adami Corradetti and American tenor James McCray. A winner of prestigious international competitions, she made her professional debut with the role of Tosca at age 25 at the Teatro Manzoni in Rome. This was followed by guest appearances in various European theatres and at the Komische Oper in Berlin, where her portrayal of Chrysothemis in Elektra attracted particular attention. From 2001 until 2006, Eva-Maria Westbroek belonged to the ensemble of Staatsoper Stuttgart, where she sang roles such as Carlotta (Die Gezeichneten), the Duchess (Doktor Faust) and Desdemona (Otello). The soprano, who is Ambassador for Musicians without Borders, has appeared in nearly all of the great opera houses and festivals in the world including the Royal Opera Covent Garden, Opéra National de Paris, the Metropolitan Opera New York, Vienna State Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Teatro alla Scala in Milan and Semperoper Dresden. In 2003 she made her debut at the Salzburg Festival, and in 2008 Eva-Maria Westbroek sang the role of Sieglinde in Die Walküre at the Bayreuth Festival. For her interpretation of Jenufa at the Bavarian State Opera in 2010, she was awarded the German theatre prize “Der Faust”. In February 2011 she created the role of Anna Nicole Smith in the world premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera Anna Nicole at the Royal Opera Covent Garden. More recently, Eva-Maria Westbroek was heard at the Metropolitan Opera as Elisabeth (Tannhäuser), at the Opéra de Monte-Carlo in the title role of Catalani’s La Wally or as Manon Lescaut in Amsterdam. She performed with the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time at the end of October 2005 and last appeared in the concert performances of Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde conducted by Sir Simon Rattle in April 2016.
A native of New Zealand, Simon O’Neill has established himself as one of the finest helden-tenors on the international stage. Simon O’Neill studied at the University of Otago, Victoria University of Wellington, the Manhattan School of Music and the Juilliard Opera Center. He was a Fulbright Scholar, received the 2005 Arts Laureate of New Zealand and was a grand finalist in the 2002 Metropolitan Opera National Auditions. His performances as Siegmund (Die Walküre) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden with Antonio Pappano, at the Berlin Staatsoper Unter den Linden (Daniel Barenboim) and at the Metropolitan Opera (Donald Runnicles) received wide critical acclaim, as well as his debut in the title role of Verdi’s Otello in concert at the Barbican with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis (2009),where he stepped in at short notice. In 2010 Simon O’Neill made his Bayreuth Festival debut as Lohengrin (production: Hans Neuenfels) and returned a year later as Parsifal in the Stefan Herheim production. Other engagements have included Gran Sacerdote (Idomeneo) at the Metropolitan Opera, Sergei (Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk) for Opera Australia, Parsifal at the Vienna Staate Opera and Mao Zedong (Nixon in China) with the San Francisco Opera. In concert, the tenor has appeared in many of the world’s leading halls in Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, Mahler’s Lied von der Erde or Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder with orchestras such as the Boston Symphony, the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia Roma, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. Simon O’ Neill is now making his debut in concerts with the Berliner Philharmoniker.
John Tomlinson, born in Lancashire, studied civil engineering at Manchester University before a scholarship took him to the Royal Manchester College of Music. Since the mid-1970s, the singer has gained world renown for his performances of Wagner roles and appeared at the Bayreuth Festival for 18 consecutive years: as Wotan in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, the Wanderer in Siegfried, as Hagen in Götterdämmerung, as Titurel and Gurnemanz in Parsifal, as King Marke in Tristan und Isolde, as Heinrich in Lohengrin and the title role in The Flying Dutchman. John Tomlinson has also sung in the opera houses in Milan, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin (Deutsche Oper and Staatsoper Unter den Linden), Munich, Vienna and Bilbao, as well as at the festivals in Orange, Aix-en-Provence , Salzburg, Edinburgh and Florence. In addition to the great Wagnerian roles, the singer’s extensive repertoire includes roles in operas by Mozart (Sarastro, Leporello, Commendatore), Strauss (Ochs, Orestes), Pfitzner (Borromeo), Verdi (King Philip, Grand Inquisitor), Mussorgsky (Boris Godunov, Pimen), Schoenberg (Moses) and Debussy (Golaud, Arkel). In concert, he has worked with international orchestras and renowned conductors. In 1997, John Tomlinson was made a Commander of the British Empire and in 2005 he received a knighthood from the Queen. He has been heard in concert programmes with the Berliner Philharmoniker since 1988, most recently in April 2013 under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle, when he sang in the premiere of Brett Dean’s Last Days of Socrates and in Michael Tippett’s oratorio A Child of Our Time.