wed 12/05/2021

Die Walküre: The Madness of an Extraordinary Plan, Hallé, Elder, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester | reviews, news & interviews

Die Walküre: The Madness of an Extraordinary Plan, Hallé, Elder, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Die Walküre: The Madness of an Extraordinary Plan, Hallé, Elder, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Wagner appears in his own opera in a bold semi-staged reimagining

The Hallé Orchestra, enlarged for the occasion with harps, anvils, horns and such, was in its place on the platform. Sir Mark Elder made his entrance like a surgeon about to embark on a complex and energy-draining heart bypass operation. And the lights went out. On purpose. A spotlight picked up a man in a white shirt with long hair mounting the platform and making his way to a small table, chair and reading lamp mid-stage. It was Richard Wagner – in the form of actor Roger Allam. Pure melodrama.

Allam started to mutter, speak, declaim in that rich booming voice of his, articulating the revolutionary thoughts of the composer. This was the beginning of The Madness of an Extraordinary Plan, co-commissioned by Manchester International Festival, the Bridgewater Hall and the Hallé from the writer Gerard McBurney, who has compiled his text from a wide range of literary sources, not least Wagner’s own writings and letters. The title is a quote from Liszt, as he encouraged his friend to embark on this “preposterous” venture.


It was an insightful 50-minute Prologue (a sort of Act Zero), compelling and illuminating. Here we had Wagner ruminating on his response through music, which turned out 27 years later to be The Ring Cycle, to the so-called Year of Revolutions, 1848, when uprisings spread through Europe from Paris. Famously, Wagner, his fellow conductor of the Court Opera in Saxony, August Rockel, and his Russian revolutionary friend Mikhail Bakunin actually joined the rebels on the barricades in Dresden in the summer of 1849. It was too late. Rockel and Bakunin were arrested and imprisoned. Wagner, of course, with Liszt’s help, escaped to Switzerland.

But back to the performance. Allam was joined on either side by Deborah Findlay and Sara Kestelman in flowing white gowns, mistress and wife, as alternating narrators (directed by Neil Bartlett). Musically, the drama is punctuated with 17 brief extracts from the four operas, introduced by Wagner’s first sketch of the Valkyrie theme and rounded off with his first sketch of the Siegfried/Brünnhilde embrace, both written in 1848. So, it provided a useful degustation of The Ring, a user-friendly intro for newcomers and a testing limbering-up for Elder and the orchestra before the main event - Act I on Friday night, Acts II and III on Saturday.

The enterprise seemed somewhat jinxed, resulting in Yvonne Howard being promoted up the batting order at short notice from Ortlinde to Sieglinde (Petra-Maria Schnitzer indisposed), Elaine McKrill taking her role, Sarah Castle replacing Madeleine Shaw (withdrawn) as Waltraute, and before Act II Elder announced that Wotan had a throat problem, but would try to carry on, which he did to great effect in the end. The start of Act III was delayed by 15 minutes, perhaps for that reason.

However, the show went on and ended in pretty well total triumph to a standing ovation. Elder is a true Wagnerian, worthy of the long Hallé tradition. Hans Richter, the Hallé’s conductor from 1899 to 1911, conducted the first complete performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen at Bayreuth in 1876. Elder loves the big occasion, the challenge of urging and coaxing his forces to reveal all the nuances and really cares, not least for the soloists.

He had assembled a first-rate cast: Manchester’s own Susan Bullock (Brünnhilde), Stig Andersen (Siegmund), Egils Silins (Wotan), Susan Bickley (Fricka) and Clive Bayley (Hunding). The opera was sung in German with English side-titles, displayed big and clear on the front side walls, giving stage directions as well as sung text.

As Act I progressed, building up to the realisation of Siegmund and Sieglinde that they are not only brother and sister, but also in love, Andersen’s soaring tenor was spellbinding. Howard more than held her own, modulating beautifully. You wouldn’t think she was a mezzo. And she showed heart-fluttering emotion. Bayley, deceptively slight physically, produced a rounded bass and plenty of menace as Hunding promises to kill Siegmund. Bring on Brünnhilde and Wotan. Bullock, looking actually ready for battle, opted for emotional involvement and a sense of drama, while Stilins focused on his score until nearer the end. The problem with concert performances is that the visual side can be inconsistent. The eight Valkyries appeared like a line-up gathered randomly for an identity parade, without any uniformity of dress - although they sang with conviction. There was better direction in Act II as Siegmund and Hunding confronted each other from opposing side balconies before their fatal duel, and some glorious singing from Bickley’s Fricka.

Elder drew some exceptional playing from the orchestra. His interpretation was full-rounded, with wonderful rhythm and sensitive phrasing, although he did have to restrain the orchestra from overpowering the Valkyries. Brünnhilde and Wotan’s interplay, when father finally banishes his favourite daughter to the rock, was hypnotic. Silins at last seemed to be able to let himself go and sang Wotan’s farewell lament like poetry, following Bullock’s heartfelt plea – “Speak, father, look me in the eye” - with that wonderfully romantic sweep of the music. All for love. What can I say? I was moved to tears.

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