Das RheingoldLeft – Simone Young. Photo – Berthold Fabricius

What a night! Where to begin?

Simone Young conveyed a compelling sense of the architecture of this colossal piece, the prelude to Wagner's trilogy Der Ring des Nibelungen. You may say, isn't that what a conductor is there for? Well OK, but when you consider that Das Rheingold consists of two and a half hours of what might be called accompanied recitative, that is an uncommon feat. Young did this, not with vast spacious tempi as for example Reginald Goodall did, nor by rushing through everything with nervous energy, as Solti, but more by creating, in the absence of staging, a theatrical Gestalt for the piece where every moment was considered in terms of dramatic tension. Some passages were indeed spacious, like the moment when the Ring leitmotif turns into the motif for Valhalla at the transition between scenes 1 and 2. Some had immense energy, such as the piling up of the gold (how frantically people like Alberich, and we are surrounded by them, try to get rich). Young's sense of timing was such that the audience was always on the edge of its seat, desperately wanting to know what would happen next (despite being, naturally, full of Wagner aficionados).

Though this was not a staged performance, it was, as is more and more the custom these days, acted to varying degrees by the singers. This ranged from simple reactions to what was going on, to moments of theatricality hard to repeat on an actual stage (where everything must be theatrical) – as for example when Fasolt turned his back on the audience to represent his murder by Fafner, and when Erda emerged not from the earth as in Wagner's stage directions but from within the orchestra. This simple but powerful idea gave the impression that the orchestra is the world – which in artistic terms is not far wrong for Wagner's later work.

The cast were individually wonderful. I will long remember Hayung Lee's breathtakingly beautiful Woglinde and Jürgen Sacher as a Loge as protean as fire itself, capable, both vocally and dramatically, of anything, Likewise Deborah Humble's commanding appearance as Erda, the deus ex machina, who with sheer vocal authority silenced even the gods; Vida Mikneviciute's agile and beautiful Freia the goddess of love; Tigran Matirossian as a giant hopelessly in love with her; and of course Falk Struckmann's powerful Wotan, who he portrayed as ambitious and ruthless, and whose enormous voice sailed over unrestrained orchestral tuttis. (Interestingly, because this was a concert performance, the male characters were all dressed in evening dress, which made Wotan look like a CEO!). Anna Larsson gave an interestingly fragile interpretation of the less loveable Fricka, and Peter Galliard couldn't restrain his thespian talents at all, portraying Mime as an eager, brilliant, frightened young nerd.

Yet, good as they all were, the sum of their parts was better. I was reminded by this performance of the immense value of the German tradition of having complete in-house companies. In Australia, as in the UK and America, the tradition is to have in-house chorus and orchestra, but to import major principal singers. Having the principals as part of the whole apparatus made it possible for a liaison to be made between all the disparate elements that go to make this vast piece, that I have only very rarely witnessed. When Hayung Lee or Jürgen Sacher sang (to name only the most exceptional), they responded to the music immediately before their entries, and in turn predicated what was to happen after they finished their phrases – as if they too were participating in the construction of the whole, not leaving that wholly to the conductor – so that the huge edifice of Rheingold felt at times, paradoxically, like chamber music.

However, the actual sound of the ensemble was anything but chamber music. From the point of view of the orchestra, Das Rheingold is all about the brass section who start and finish the work – and they were magnificent. From the moment when the house lights began to shine on them (it seemed to be a metaphor for the moment in Scene I where the sunlight strikes the gold) until the construction of the rainbow that leads to Valhalla they ranged between perfect blending to sharply distinguished colour, sometimes imperceptibly and sometimes directly, in a way that reflected the particular magic of this score. (The tuba player, Andreas Simon, was in two places at once, as the bass for the Wagner tubas on stage right and the trombones on stage left). In Young's hands the strings gave a better representation of a swirling, powerful life-giving river than I have ever heard, somehow implying the presence of the Rhine even in the scenes where the river is not directly referred to.

It was deeply inspiring to see Simone Young, a truly great Australian conductor, bringing her own opera company and orchestra, the most prestigious in Germany after the Berlin Philharmonic, offering her native country the best the world has to offer, herself included. The audience, after applauding soloists and orchestra with unbounded enthusiasm, reserved its standing ovation for her. At last, it seems, Australia is beginning to realise the stature of Simone Young.

Hamburg State Opera and Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra
Das Rheingold

Conductor Simone Young

Venue: QPAC, Brisbane
Date: Thurs 23 August, 2012
Bookings: www.qpac.com.au | 136 246

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