Although it was largely a musical triumph from start to finish, the Hallé's concert performance of Wagner's Götterdämmerung was perhaps more significant as a statement about the role of the orchestra in Manchester.
The fifteen-minute standing ovation that greeted the conclusion of the second of the two concerts – the Prologue and Act 1 were performed on Saturday, followed by the final two acts on Sunday – was a sign that the Hallé really matters to its audience now. The hall was pretty packed for both nights, especially the Sunday concert, and in spite of the arduous length of the event – made even more so by necessitating two trips to the Bridgewater Hall in one weekend – there was a rapt concentration from nearly everyone present. Whilst Hugh Canning expressed doubts about Manchester's ability to draw a decent crowd to an operatic event in his review of the BBC Philharmonic's Damnation of Faust last weekend, it's perhaps more the case that the public is selective about who it wants to see on the platform, rather than opera not being popular with the people of the North-West.
After a troubled period in the 1990s, when the orchestra suffered both artistically and financially, the Hallé now sits comfortably amongst the country's top two or three symphony orchestras, largely thanks to the contribution made by Sir Mark Elder since his arrival in 2000. Musical standards have certainly increased, but what's striking is that the orchestra is far younger, contains far more women than the average UK ensemble, and has a younger audience. For once, I wasn't the youngest person there, and there were quite a lot of people of my age around. To present a performance of Götterdämmerung is a massive undertaking for a regional orchestra, and it obviously taxed them to their limits in every sense, but the air of community pride both onstage and in the audience fully justified the endeavour.
Inevitably, dividing the opera over two days had some effect on the overall momentum of the performance, and the second night was undoubtedly more exciting than the first. And colour, rather than pace, was Elder's priority throughout. This was in line with his speech given to introduce the opera on the Saturday evening, in which the conductor highlighted how the unprecedented size of the Götterdämmerung orchestra was as much designed to expand Wagner's expressive palette as to provide loud climaxes. We heard the benefit of this during the second and third acts particularly, where the inner psychological conflicts between Brünnhilde and the Gibichungs is illustrated with eerie chords played by various combinations of wind instruments. For me, the string section lacked a degree of attack and depth until the third act, when the playing became utterly world-class; the brass playing, however, was absolutely magnificent throughout the two nights, highlights including the passage between the Prologue and Act 1, the offstage effects during all three acts, and, of course, Siegfried's Funeral March.
Elder's feeling for the poignancy of the ending of the Ring Cycle, his evocation of the contrasting worlds of the Valkyrie and the humans, and his ability to breathe with the singers, combined to make this a compelling performance. For my taste, his decision to conduct without using a baton had a negative effect on the accuracy of the performance: the opening chords of the entire piece were not placed by all the instruments at the same time, and at the other end of the opera, Brünnhilde's distinctive theme in the violins during the Immolation scene was not quite perfectly together, largely because the beat was not clearly indicated. But it's a small complaint, and Elder's inspired leadership was unquestionably the foundation on which the performance was built.
What made this a memorable Götterdämmerung for me, though, was the Brünnhilde of Katarina Dalayman. I don't think the role could be better taken: vocally, Dalayman's stamina was remarkable, never showing a sign of tiring, while her physical beauty and dignified poise made one long to see her in a staged production. Performing without a score, she inhabited the role completely, whether expressing the deepest passion in the Prologue's love duet, betrayal in the first act, outrage in the second act or an avenging spirit in the third. For someone so comparatively small, her money notes are impressively full, while her richness of tone in the middle is ideal for the extended narratives. Capped by a riveting performance of the Immolation, Dalayman's portrayal of the role helped make this a special occasion.
Siegfried was to have been sung by Ben Heppner, but a cancellation brought us Lars Cleveman in his place. The change was a disappointment, made even more so by Cleveman's lack of heft compared to several of the other cast members. His singing was always beautiful, however, and the tessitura caused him no problems whatsoever, so there was plenty to admire in his performance from the very beginning, and on the Sunday evening he upped his game and sang more forcefully, ending with a moving performance of Siegfried's death.
Attila Jun's Hagen was an audience favourite, and although at times he might have been more wily and psychologically probing in the way that John Tomlinson is in this role, it seems churlish to complain when the voice was so astounding. Jun's call to rouse the Gibichungs was chilling, and his ability to project over the orchestra even over climaxes caused many a jaw to drop. He also engaged closely with the text, and personified evil with a strong dramatic ability. Peter Coleman-Wright's elegant and intelligent performance as Gunther made much of this dislikeable character, while Andrew Shore's brief appearance as Alberich was as impeccable as one would expect. Susan Bickley was an outstanding, top-notch Waltraute: her encounter with Brünnhilde was the high point of the Saturday night, and only Nancy Gustafson's awkward Gutrune was disappointing.
The team of Norns was slightly uneven, with Yvonne Howard's forthright, textually-aware Second Norn standing out in this difficult narration, but the Rhinemaidens (Katherine Broderick, Madeline Shaw and Leah-Marian Jones) were brilliantly matched. Perhaps the biggest treat of all was to hear Wagner's choral writing in this piece – the only instalment of the Ring to involve choirs – sung by the combined forces of the Hallé Choir, the BBC Symphony Chorus, the London Symphony Chorus and the Royal Opera Chorus and Extra Chorus. Their scenes had the entire audience on the edge of their seats.
But it was the Hallé's night, and Mark Elder's. After nearly a decade together, orchestra and Music Director are at one, and it seems that no challenge is beyond them. Such high artistic standards surely call for a complete Ring for Manchester.
Photos: Katarina Dalayman; Mark Elder
Interview with conductor Mark Elder
Interview: Mariinsky brings Ring Cycle to Covent Garden in Summer 2009
Concert Review: Wagnerian Rarities at Covent Garden
News: Katarina Dalayman at Festspielhaus Baden-Baden's 2009-10 season