A great Ring playing in a wretched Albert Hall

Barenboim: feeling the heat

A summer paradox: I love the Proms but hate the Albert Hall. It’s horribly uncomfortable, the audience facilities are dreadful; the long, snaking loo-queues that congest the corridors are an absurdity; and the small efforts that the Hall has made since last year to improve things have made little difference. It’s a dump. And London’s concert-going life would be improved immeasurably if the place were pulled down and replaced with an impressive new hall fit for purpose. Which of course is never going to happen.

But I have another issue with the way the BBC fits out the Hall during the Proms – and does so every year now, with a loathsome strip of panelled (I suppose LED) lighting round the platform that bathes everything in lurid colours and successfully transforms the auditorium into the likeness of a pole-dancing establishment in Porthcawl. Seriously tacky.

They don’t even use these lighting panels with imagination. For the opening of the Ring Cycle the other night, I’d hoped for dazzling visual effects to generate some atmosphere around the concert staging. But no, nothing.

Worse still, they provided nothing in the way of surtitles: a crazily missed opportunity. Being the Proms, it’s likely that a large proportion of that audience was new to Wagner, coming to the Cycle for the first time. To provide no surtitles was madness. And the fact that you could buy libretti was no substitute – (a) because following a printed libretto in a long performance is hard, especially if you’re sharing, and (b) because the BBC failed to print enough copies and they ran out.

That said, Rheingold was magnificent. The opposite of everything that Wagner had intended – given that he didn’t want the orchestra on show, and hid it at Bayreuth beneath a cover that conceals the pit – it was a fabulous display, in every sense, of beautiful orchestral playing, beautifully managed from the podium by Daniel Barenboim.

There was no fuss, no overstatement, no hysteria: just clear, straightforward, unadorned Authority. Capital A. I’ve rarely seen conducting of such purity and purpose, not a gesture wasted, totally productive of results. And what results.

This orchestra, the Berlin Staatskapelle, and I think most of the singers had been doing recent Ring with Barenboim in Berlin and Milan. So they were fine-tuned as a team. And though not many of them ranked as star-names on the international opera circuit, they were hand-picked: Iain Paterson an eloquent and cultivated Wotan, Johannes Martin Kranzle a strangely noble Alberich, and Eric Halfvarson as black-voiced a Fafner as you could hope to hear.

There could have been more effort toward staging – it was very token – but with half the audience burying their heads in their libretti (if they had them) it might well have been a wasted gesture.

One word of advice to audience-members at the next instalments: there’s a little book called INTRODUCING WAGNER: A GRAPHIC GUIDE that’s your potential opensesame to all this. Published by Icon, it’s a pocket-sized paperback for musically intelligent readers who haven’t quite found their way into Wagner but are sort of ready for the plunge. It comes with cartoons, but it’s deadly serious. And it’s written by me. So I recommend it.

Article source: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/culture/michaelwhite/100070122/a-great-ring-playing-in-a-wretched-albert-hall/