Prom 39: BBC Symphony/Donald Runnicles

Wagner: Götterdämmerung

Royal Albert Hall, 12 August 2007 3.5 stars

Christine Brewer

To end their four-year Ring Cycle, the Proms engaged their home orchestra, the BBC Symphony, and one of their regular conductors, the Scottish Music Director of the San Francisco Opera, Donald Runnicles. Compared with the earlier instalments, this was a rather ordinary affair, perhaps as a result of the forces involved - one might have hoped for something a little more lavish after the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Rattle, the Royal Opera with Domingo, Meier and Terfel under Pappano, and the Paris Opera with Leiferkus and Nikitin under Eschenbach.  

In particular, the fact that this is not an orchestra used to playing opera very often was often apparent in their undramatic approach, their symphonic sound and their inability to bend to the needs of the singers at times. Runnicles was to blame for much of this, going for broad, superficial gestures and not managing to elicit a Germanic timbre from the players.  

  Yet there was plenty to admire here, too. For instance, I thought the Norns scene quite dazzling, which is no mean feat. Part of Wagner's conception was to have the three daughters of Erda recap the events of the entire Ring in an extensive narrative, while the orchestra plays the Leitmotifs appropriate to each episode underneath. Thanks to Runnicles' lightness of touch, it came off brilliantly here. Indeed, thematic material was always communicated very clearly whilst never labouring the point. The brass players excelled themselves throughout, most especially the horns, whose secure intonation was a marvel, and there was passion and commitment in all the playing. But where introspection, tautness or intensity were required, there was sometimes an inability to deliver.   

No such accusation could be hurled against American soprano Christine Brewer, making her role debut as Brünnhilde. She was by far the most dazzling performer on the stage, easily negotiating the demands of the score, both in terms of perfect pitching on the high notes and in terms of riding the massive orchestral palette. I particularly admired her attention to detail in the vocal line, in which was almost classical in her nuanced approach to consonance and dissonance in each phrase. Dramatically, Brewer's Brünnhilde was a woman of dignity, holding herself together through the extraordinary events of the opera - including having her lover, Siegfried, turn against her after drinking a potion  - and hers was as moving a rendition of the Immolation scene as you will hear.   

Stig Anderson's Siegfried was sympathetic, bringing out many details from the text, but he was severely underpowered at times. Sir John Tomlinson retains all his vocal power and was a commanding and arresting Hagen, more dramatically potent than most of the cast thanks to his experience in the part on stage, though he does sound strained under pressure nowadays. Alan Held's Gunther was one of the most vocally secure performances of the evening, a suitably rough portrayal of this dim-witted character, and former ROH Young Artist Gweneth-Ann Jeffers made the most of the part of Gutrune, coming across well despite the lack of potential in the writing. Karen Cargill was an outstanding Waltraute, her reliably rich mezzo tone lending weight and assurance to the character's lengthy and taxing monologue; she was second only to Brewer in stature. Gordon Hawkins was unconvincing as Alberich, sadly failing to rise to the occasion in a two-dimensional characterisation, and I'm afraid his voice came across as a rather bland instrument.  

  Both female trios were excellently cast. The Norns were particularly good in their opening scene; Andrea Baker's voice (as the First Norn) especially appealed to me, but Natascha Petrinsky (Second Norn) perhaps made more of the text and Miranda Keys (Third Norn) was similarly strong. Katherine Broderick's Woglinde was vocally excellent, nailing the high notes of the tricky three-part Rhinemaidens' harmonies with bright effortlessness, and Anna Stéphany's Wellgunde and Liora Grodnikaite's Flosshilde showed a similar amount of vocal flair.   

Yet the performance as a whole did not have as much atmosphere about it as it promised. Paul Curran's 'concert staging' was almost non-existent. The singers used a variety of entrances, but there was very little movement or acting other than this. That some singers used scores and others (such as Tomlinson) were more committed made for an odd dynamic, and I don't feel that the Proms' odd inclination to use distracting multicoloured lights that change during performances nowadays really added anything to the event.   

At the close of the evening, the lights on the stage were turned off and a single spotlight shone on a bust of Wagner (or so one assumed), positioned where Henry Wood's is usually to be found in front of the organ. It was an admirable gesture, but overall I don't think the composer was served as brilliantly as he could have been on this occasion.

By Dominic McHugh