Donald Runnicles
BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
12 August 2007
Royal Albert Hall London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegfriedStig Fogh Andersen
BrünnhildeChristine Brewer
GuntherAlan Held
GutruneGweneth-Ann Jeffers
AlberichGordon Hawkins
HagenJohn Tomlinson
WaltrauteKaren Cargill
WoglindeKatherine Broderick
WellgundeAnna Stephany
FloßhildeLiora Grodnikaite
1. NornAndrea Baker
2. NornNatascha Petrinsky
3. NornMiranda Keys

The BBC Proms’ sojourn along the Rhine ended in a suitably incandescent way with this concert which completed its ad hoc Ring ‘cycle.’ Comprising four very different elements spread over three years each evening was a success in its own particular way. Das Rheingold was in 2004 and involved Sir Simon Rattle with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. There, we had period instruments and a conductor beginning to think about his own future Ring cycles together with a number of soloists familiar with their roles and freed from music stands to interact, none more so than Kim Begley’s outstanding Loge. The next year Antonio Pappano brought his ensemble fresh from the Royal Opera House so we were given their Die Walküre in a semi-staging without sets or costumes but on a narrow platform. Notable Wagnerians such as Waltraud Meier and Bryn Terfel among others, gave a memorable ‘performance’ to delight the hearts of those not in thrall to contemporary opera productions. They were ably aided and abetted by Plácido Domingo as Siegmund, even though he did seem to be singing from the Esperanto translation.

Last year was a strange occasion. After the season finished, Norman Lebrecht in his possibly BBC contract renewing annual puff piece on behalf of the Proms, called the Siegfried one of the fastest sell-outs of the season. That was news to me as I was surrounded by rows of empty seats in a hall barely half-full. The performance deserved better because Jon Fredric West was a splendid and very involved Siegfried, a roly-poly figure sure enough but high in energy and together with Slavic voices and others from Christoph Eschenbach’s Rings with the Orchestre de Paris, the performance worked put much better than the sum of it parts suggested it should have done.

For the Third Day of Der Ring des Nibelungen this year, disparate international soloists with different backgrounds joined artists new to their roles, and an experienced Wagner conductor led the musicians of the BBC Symphony Orchestra through a concert of an entire Wagner opera perhaps for the first time. A ‘concert staging by Paul Curran’ was listed but this must have been easy money because short of a few insignificant lighting effects (flickering red at the end – you get the idea?) it was impossible to detect much ‘staging’. I do detest seeing music stands on the platform during concert opera but I tempered my annoyance at these by realising how generous the casting was to younger artists, many of whom were either British or who trained here. Having said that though, there was no excuse for the veteran American Gordon Hawkins holding his score during his short ‘Schläfst du Hagen, mein Sohn!’ scene. If he cannot sing it without the music then I certainly could, though you might not want to hear it!

The one directorial moment I did detect was Stig Andersen removing the tie he had put on to ‘mimic’ the more strait-laced Gunther, so identifying his more easy-going Siegfried. It would also have been good to have some coordination in what the singers wore; Siegfried and Gunther did indeed wear similar suits but Hagen was in formal tails, and among the women, apart from some pink shades for Gutrune and Waltraute, everything else was uniformly black, or silver-grey. Christine Brewer looked initially very dowdy but reappeared for the ‘Immolation’ in more vibrant flame-effect colours. The Rhine daughters who sang delightfully were lined up by size reminding me of the old Corbett-Barker-Cleese ‘I look up to him and he looks down on me’ sketch.

So we were all left to concentrate on the singing and the music. In the programme we were given (yet again) the 1929 verse by ‘Diogenes the Younger’ to highlight how popular ‘Wagner Nights’ were then – ‘The week begins with Wagner’s frenzy:/ Perchance the Overture Rienzi./ Anon we trace the subtle line/ Of Siegfried’s Journey to the Rhine;/ Some tenor earns a great ovation/ For singing Lohengrin’s Narration.’ – but this was used to explain how ‘bleeding chunks’ are not a fashionable form of Wagner presentation these days. In fact Donald Runnicles’s fervent account of the score lacked much in subtlety and insight but gained by being blisteringly exciting. He took every opportunity when there was no human voice intruding, metaphorically to rub our faces in the orchestral sound, allowing the audience to luxuriate in the wonderful playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra – with some important individual contributions notably from the brass and woodwind. Mr. Runnicles was a sensitive accompanist to the soloists but even so the thought that this was still just a joined-up series of ‘bleeding chunks’ was never far away. Wagner would surely not have approved of the prominence given to the orchestra with the singers squeezed to the very front of the platform or entering from the Arena. Runnicles enjoyed being so centre-stage because he is, I think, much more revered abroad than here in his own country. Scottish-born, there even seems a bit of showmanship from him at the podium because he looked like a cross between his compatriot Billy Connolly and Kenny Rogers dressed as a gambler in a Western film.

Danish tenor Stig Andersen was a slimmer, more plausible-looking Siegfried than Jon Fredric West had been and showed great charm. As he preened his luxuriant hair, it seemed possible that he was more in love with himself than either Gutrune or Brünnhilde. Admittedly, he wasn’t given much help by Paul Curran’s ‘staging’: when singing ‘Ha, schönstes Weib! … Gunther, wie heisst deine Schwester?’ – he had to be inflamed with passion to stage right with the full width of the platform between him and Gutrune at her music stand on the other side. His voice was often quite lyrical and though he has been performing the big Wagner roles for many years now, his not overly huge voice shows little wear and tear and retains great stamina: enough Heldentenor heft in fact not to disappoint in the big moments. Like most singers of his fach these days he uses his vast experience to surmount moments where any vocal problems might be revealed.

The three young Norns were well-balanced, but to start of off well they needed to attack the words a little more in order to make the listener believe they were really privy to all that had gone on before. Alan Held (Gunther) had the opportunity to be more commanding in persona and voice than many stage directors would allow him to be, but was not well-watched by Gweneth-Ann Jeffers’s attachment to her score : she needed better use of language and more involvement in what she was singing. Scottish mezzo Karan Cargill is a name new to me but she was a striking Waltraute and commanded attention throughout her Narration, helped by Runnicles’s determination never to slacken his grip on the flowing tempo he was establishing.

Christine Brewer’s Brünnhilde was too impassive during Acts I and II but finally woke up – better late than never – with her change of dress for the Immolation. Everything from declarations of love, to fighting off the rape of the ring and her oath-swearing, would have benefited from her taking her head out of the score and looking out into the audience. Hers is an old-school Wagner voice: if you have not heard her, think Flagstad or Rita Hunter. Her soprano is clean, well-schooled, a little plummy and totally risk-free. She never challenged her voice until her closing pages where she showed a few strong top notes that she employed craftily. She is not one of my favourite sopranos in these situations and how good a sound she makes is tempered for me by the amount of sight-reading she appears to do: preparing the role better should bring her greater confidence. Was this her first complete Götterdämmerung ? I cannot find any confirmation of this but if she goes on to perform this in a proper staging then she will need to be made to find the ‘soul’ of this character by a competent director.

I leave my final words to a great British institution, Sir John Tomlinson, and it pains me to say that despite the audience lifting the roof off the Royal Albert Hall at his ‘curtain call’, realistically a museum or archive is the place to which they should consign his portrayal of Hagen. I have been listening to Wagner for more than 30 years and use this review to say that however much he ‘ chews the scenery ‘ now – what scenery there was in this performance, and however wonderfully he can still communicate inner thoughts by a simple arching of an eyebrow or express them by his magnificent diction, this role is now vocally a trial for him, distressing to watch him struggle through and often even to listen to. Hagen is a completely malevolent, black-hearted villain, but Sir John’s recent performances at Covent Garden and here makes him a devious, cunning, blustering buffoon – an evil Falstaff if you will. Sir John Tomlinson probably has many roles still to explore but it is probably his fame and the dearth of real Wagnerian singers that keeps him coming back to caricature Wotan, Wanderer and Hagen when his best years are behind him. I say this as as someone who has seen him in these roles in Britain, Berlin and Bayreuth – to mention just the Bs – and it remains of course, just one person’s opinion.

Jim Pritchard

The Guardian

The final instalment of the Proms’ four-year-long Ring cycle was effectively an in-house BBC production that reunited some of the artists involved in an equally memorable Tristan und Isolde at the Barbican in 2003. For this performance, Donald Runnicles conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and Christine Brewer sang Brünnhilde for the first time in London. Both were phenomenal, though there were inequalities elsewhere.

Runnicles’ approach is, by and large, swift and urgent. There was a strong sense throughout of a world hurtling towards both physical destruction and metaphysical liberation. A violent lyricism underscored the playing, which was consistently superb, even in the second interlude of act one, where Wagner’s often cruel brass writing can expose the slightest slip in the instrumentalists’ technique.

Brewer’s Brünnhilde, meanwhile, was by turns exultant and vulnerable, pouring out her passion for Stig Andersen’s Siegfried in phrases of ecstatic beauty, and dignified and scornful in moments of anguished betrayal. As always, the amplitude of her voice was remarkable, though there were hints that the role took her to the outer edge of her vocal limits.

Andersen, however, was not in her league. He is a boyish, credibly naive Siegfried, but his voice is on the small side and he showed evidence of strain in his upper registers. Gweneth-Ann Jeffers was the uninvolved Gutrune, and the trios of both Norns and Rhinemaidens were uneven. The choral singing, however, from the combined forces of the BBC Symphony Chorus and Singers, was electrifying in its weight and power. An occasionally flawed Götterdämmerung, but nevertheless a great one.

Tim Ashley | 14 Aug 2007


As the portentous chords sound at the start of “Götterdämmerung” (immaculate in both ensemble and intonation on this occasion), one has the sense of embarking upon an epic voyage. So, in a sense, one is, though it is a journey begun three evenings previously, in the ‘Preliminary Evening’ of Wagner’s great tetralogy – “Das Rheingold”.

In the case of this Proms performance, the drama was set in motion three years ago, with Sir Simon Rattle conducting “Das Rheingold” with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, followed by the Royal Opera House’s “Die Walküre” in 2005, featuring Plácido Domingo and Bryn Terfel. A less obviously ‘starry’ “Siegfried” last year with Orchestre de Paris under Christoph Eschenbach was, nevertheless, a most satisfying one.

Each of these previous instalments had casts from productions that were in repertory at the time – or which were being prepared. For the final ‘day’ of the ‘Ring’ cycle, it would appear that the artists involved were brought together specifically for the occasion under the experienced guidance of Donald Runnicles (Music Director of San Francisco Opera), who has worked at Bayreuth, though he has not conducted the ‘Ring’ there.

A cause of particular satisfaction was the high quality of orchestral playing. I have rarely heard the BBC Symphony Orchestra sound so responsive in recent years, with the players seemingly relishing the music of a composer who is hardly staple fare for them nowadays. One recalls, however, that, in 2002-03, this orchestra and conductor gave separate concert performances of the three acts of “Tristan und Isolde” which were recorded and released on Warner Classics, with Christine Brewer (Brünnhilde at the Proms) as Isolde.

The ‘Prologue’ of “Götterdämmerung” introduces the Three Norns who give important information – not previously related in the story – about Wotan, but whose future predictions are cut short by the snapping of their rope. The three singers were well-matched and individually telling – especially the bright soprano of Miranda Keys. The orchestral introduction had already demonstrated the strengths of the playing, though arguably the cello section was a little too suave in its delivery. Not so in the subsequent ‘dawn’ interlude where they – and their colleagues – played most expressively; a remarkable and effective spacious tempo allowed the music to breathe naturally and the awkward ‘turn’ to be played without smudging or rushing. It was a pity, then, that later, Brewer omitted hers. The brass was strong but not strident. Throughout, solos were firmly played – those by the first horn (Nicholas Korth) and bass trumpet (Duncan Wilson) especially so. The trombones and tuba (Sam Elliott) provided firm foundation for the whole instrumental sonority. Principal woodwinds were also superb – a particular word of praise for Emma Canavan’s bass clarinet – and off-stage brass placed appropriately and whose contributions were most dramatic in impact.

In their rapturous duet, the qualities of Christine Brewer and Stig Andersen were made manifest. It is difficult to find singers who can encompass the extremes that Brünnhilde has to, from womanly warmth at the one end of the scale, to venomous anger at the other. Brewer was largely more successful in the former than in the latter. I understand that this was the first occasion on which she had sung the complete role, in which case her understanding of the part will surely deepen with more experience. She evinced expression and tenderness in this duet and had clearly husbanded her resources for the final ‘Immolation Scene’, where she delivered the necessary authority and strength of utterance. She missed an entry in Act Two, but she elicited empathy for this remarkable character, so richly drawn verbally and musically by Wagner.

The composer was less kind to tenors, and whilst Stig Andersen is currently one of that rare breed – that is someone who can actually sing the part of Siegfried – his voice is not really ‘big’ enough. To be sure, he has most of the notes (though not, it would seem, a responsive top C, which he omitted in the second act and barely delivered in the third), but one missed a degree of ‘light and shade’, with much of the music being sung at a consistent level of volume. However, there was no denying his eloquence in his death scene, which was finely shaded.

Runnicles gave a spirited reading of ‘Siegfried’s Rhine Journey’ and made a judicious transition to the domain of the Gibichungs. I have seen Alan Held in productions which have made the character of Gunther appear silly – if not downright ridiculous – so it was good to be able to appreciate his strong singing and considered characterisation of one who is a ruler, even if some of his motives and judgements are flawed. Gweneth-Ann Jeffers initially seemed somewhat reticent, though she grew in confidence and was particularly moving in her third act monologue before the return of the hunting-party bearing Siegfried’s corpse. I prefer a rather brighter soprano tone for this part, but Jeffers’s warm timbre had its own appeal.

As so often when he appears in Wagner, Sir John Tomlinson is a force to be reckoned with. His portrayal of the scheming Hagen must be the definitive one of our time. He has the kind of baleful tone that is ideal and his relishing and delivery of the text (a legacy from his work with Reginald Goodall?) is something some of his colleagues might emulate. I have seen him several times in this part, yet he never suggests even a hint of ‘routine’. His summoning of the vassals – aided by first-rate choral singing – was suitably both terrifying and thrilling.

Waltraute’s long narration was richly sung by Karen Cargill – this scene was, rightly, an expressive highlight. The trio of Rhinemaidens was led by the effervescent Katherine Broderick, though her lower-voiced colleagues lacked sparkle, and their blending was not ideal, with the lower lines sometimes unclear.

Donald Runnicles gave a largely propulsive reading (to the extent that Gordon Hawkins, a strong Alberich, was all but struggling to project some of his lines), though there were places where he eased up appropriately. I rather wished he hadn’t put his foot on the accelerator quite so much in the concluding moments of the first two acts, but some passages – including the very end – were extremely well-judged, and his control of the combined choral and orchestral forces in Act Two was exemplary.

Altogether, this performance brought the Proms ‘Ring’ cycle to a compelling conclusion.

Timothy Ball | August 12, 2007 Royal Albert Hall, London


The BBC Proms Ring cycle came to a conclusion this week with Donald Runnicles, director of the San Francisco Opera and an acclaimed Wagnerian, conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a concert performance of Götterdämmerung.

The last four years of the festival have seen a disparate series, with four different orchestras and casts presenting Wagner’s master-work, and this final instalment was a fitting end to an interesting experiment.

It might be a cheap shot to say that concert performances of The Ring have a huge advantage over some of the recent productions we’ve had to sit through; by doing away with poorly conceived stagings, we can concentrate solely on the music. However, Wagner’s instincts as a dramatist were every bit as secure as his musical ones, so not seeing the stage pictures his extraordinary imagination calls for means that unstaged performances can be equally unsatisfactory.

Take his highly dramatic opening scene of this work if most full stagings don’t quite capture the essence of the three Norns twisting and winding and passing on their rope of fate, then three ladies in evening dress lined-up and facing front certainly doesn’t, no matter how well-sung (which they were here by Andrea Baker, Natascha Petrinsky and Miranda Keys).

The shining glory of this performance was Christine Brewer‘s Brünnhilde, a magnificently sung portrayal that rode the orchestral clouds with as much ease as the Valkyrie’s horse, Grane. More earthbound was her Siegfried, Stig Andersen, who failed to cut through the dense accompaniment much of the time. When this wasn’t a problem, the appropriately blond Danish tenor was a solid rather than thrilling hero.

John Tomlinson can be relied upon to bring gravitas to his Wagner roles but he does appear to be straining these days and his Hagen looked fit to bust at the big moments. Alan Held gave a greater dignity to Gunther than the ambitious ninny deserves but Gordon Hawkins‘ Alberich was rather characterless, his brief scene (by Wagner’s standard) going for little.

Wagner’s cast of women was well-served by an impressive line-up that included Gweneth Ann-Jeffers as a lightweight Gutrune and a sound Waltraute from Karen Cargill. Katharine Broderick, Anna Stéphany and Liora Grodnikaite were a voluptuous trio of Rhinemaidens.

The BBC SO may not be used to tackling material this meaty but they coped admirably well, although Runnicles’ touch was on the light side and didn’t always plumb the depths of the score.

Unlike the earlier Die Walküre and Siegfried, this was not based on an existing stage production and, as a result, there was an absolute minimum of interaction between performers who were mostly score-bound. Often singers had intimate scenes at different sides of the stage and it was difficult to see quite what Paul Curran, credited as the “director”, had done other than organise the minimal entrances and exits. The half-hearted lighting effects hardly summoned up the ending of a world.

An opera of dawns and twilights, Götterdämmerung was both a starting point for and a culmination of Wagner’s great mythological epic. As an end to the Proms cycle, it was not a monumental performance but one that was never less than engaging and it kept the promenaders heroically standing throughout its six hour length.

Simon Thomas | 12 Jul 2007 [probably 12 Aug 2007]


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.

Dominic McHugh | Royal Albert Hall, 12 August 2007

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Broadcast (BBC Radio 3) from the BBC Proms 2007 (#39)
A semi-staged production by Paul Curran