Archive for the ‘Wagner’ Category

Lohengrin, Bayreuth Festival, July 2012

29 July, 2012

This intriguing production by Hans Neuenfels, now in its third year, concentrates on the people rather than the distant historical setting in which Wagner sets his opera. The stage action starts already during the overture with Lohengrin in an antiseptically white room trying to get out, which he eventually achieves by simply walking backwards through the door. Like the Flying Dutchman, Lohengrin desires a redeeming human love, but being forced to reveal his true origins in Act III he must return from whence he came.

King and subjects, all images Bayreuther Festspiele/ Enrico Nawrath

Yet he is on a mission to the land of Brabant, and finds it in uproar. The king is weak, unable to walk a straight line without wobbling, and the people are rats — shy creatures unable to do much when faced with forces beyond their control. Ortrud and Telramund’s scheming to capture the crown is displayed in video imagery of rats, and after Lohengrin defeats Telramund, the dialogue between the schemers at the beginning of Act II is set in the context of an overturned coach signifying their crash, with rats coming out of nowhere to take whatever wealth they still possess.

Elsa wounded by the accusations

Elsa, victim of her own naivety, has become reliant on semi-divine intervention to exculpate her for the disappearance of her brother. She is blind to Ortrud’s clever sorcery, unaware that its diabolical power caused her brother to vanish. But Elsa’s great fault is to question her redeemer rather than her accuser, and when she finally compels him to reveal his origins, the lighting for In fernem Land was superb. Lohengrin was warmly lit in centre stage, while Elsa stood front stage-left in a very cold light. After this distressing scene heralding the end of their love, the boat that comes for Lohengrin carries an egg containing an embryo who stands and severs his own umbilical cord. Elsa’s brother has returned and a new era dawns, but Elsa is beyond help.

Ortrud and Elsa

Such are the essentials of this production, and Annette Dasch sang Elsa beautifully, her first entrance showing huge purity of tone, pitch, and presence. Both she and Lohengrin were the same singers as last year, and Klaus Florian Vogt gave an outstanding performance as the title character. Like Elsa he started with great vocal purity and lack of assertiveness, yet quickly took a bolder attitude when addressing the king. This year Wilhelm Schwinghammer sang the king, portraying him as a very weak character, and Samuel Youn made a very fine Herald, just like last year. Thomas J. Mayer and Susan Maclean as Telramund and Ortrud were very strong, both in characterisation and vocal power, but the main plaudits must go to Dasch and Vogt, who were cheered to the rafters, with particularly insistent stamping and cheering for Vogt.

Elsa and Lohengrin

Conducting by Andris Nelsons was super — the overture was terrific and the Act II dialogue between Elsa and Ortrud reached sublime musical heights. There was huge audience appreciation for everyone, except a smattering of boos for the director — but they do like to boo at Bayreuth. This is a clever production, very well revived, and the dramaturge, Henry Arnold has a particularly good essay in the programme, discussing Wagner’s intentions.

For an alternative perspective on this production, see my review from last year.

Performances continue until August 25 — for details click here.

Der fliegende Holländer, Bayreuth Festival, July 2012

29 July, 2012

The 2012 Wagner festival at Bayreuth started in dramatic fashion when the singer in the title role for a new production of The Flying Dutchman suddenly pulled out. Evgeny Nikitin, covered in body-tattoos from his former career as a heavy-metal singer, found himself the focus of attention, and although claims of a swastika seem unfounded, his presence became a hot issue and he withdrew. The festival administration, once run by Hitler admirer Winifred Wagner, took no chances on that score, but all turned out well, and Samuel Youn, who replaced Nikitin, fell to his knees at the end, gratefully accepting thunderous applause for a powerfully sung performance. Adrianne Pieczonka sang a glorious Senta, and her father Daland was warmly portrayed by Franz-Josef Selig as a suave, lightly-bearded character in a double-breasted suit. Benjamin Bruns delivered a beautifully sung helmsman, and Michael König a passionate Erik.

Daland and Dutchman, all images Bayreuther Festspiele/ Enrico Nawrath

The singers, including the fine chorus, were superbly supported by Christian Thielemann, hidden away in the covered orchestra pit of this extraordinary opera house. As one of today’s greatest Wagner interpreters, he gave the music huge excitement, starting with the overture, which brought out and contrasted the elemental power of wind and sea with the plaintive call of the woodwind.

Senta and her toys

The Dutchman roams the seas, halting every seven years to seek redemption through true love, yet this production contains no ships, save a small dinghy at the beginning seating the sea captain Daland and his helmsman. When the Dutchman arrives with his tiny suitcase and strange skin condition, a girl in sexy lingerie tries her luck, but he rejects her. Daland then offers his daughter Senta, whose conventional world is represented as a factory packing electric fans into cardboard boxes. Her yearning to get away is hardly surprising, and her red dress is the only real dash of colour in this dull environment, apart from her cardboard toys splashed with red paint.

Senta’s simple environment contrasts with the hugely elaborate set at the start, showing an alien, electronic world from which the Dutchman emerges, yet the studied uniformity in both worlds emphasises Senta as the one who is different. Subtlety and irony are absent, and for his first production at Bayreuth, 30-year old theatre director Jan Philipp Gloger may have underestimated the power and clarity of Wagner’s music to such a sophisticated audience. After the stamping and cheering for singers and conductor, his production team was greeted with a barrage of boos.

Senta and her Dutchman

In a question and answer session the following day, the director apparently gave clear and reasonable explanations of his interpretation. For example when the Dutchman first arrives he rolls up his sleeve and appears to stab himself in the arm. To the audience this looks rather as if he were giving himself an injection, but in fact it demonstrates that he does bleed when wounded. Later in the opera when he has fallen for Senta his arm bleeds, showing he has become flesh and blood. Such explanations are obviously helpful, but the production should not need them.

Apparently Herr Gloger could relate details of his production to the music itself, which may help explain why the conductor, Christian Thielemann — a great Wagnerian — endorsed him so clearly during the curtain calls, despite the adverse audience reaction.

Performances of Dutchman continue until August 24 — for details click here.

Götterdämmerung, Longborough Festival Opera, LFO, July 2012

19 July, 2012

After the success of previous years with Rheingold, Walküre and Siegfried, and now with this production of Götterdämmerung, Longborough Opera is ready for a full Wagner Ring next summer. The gold stolen from the Rheinmaidens, which Alberich turned into a ring of great power and Wotan stole from him to pay for Valhalla, is eventually returned to its original home. In Götterdämmerung, Wotan’s schemes, with the world tied into treaties carved on his spear, broken by Siegfried in the previous opera, are now turned to ashes by forces beyond his control, and for a comparison with the Eurozone crisis see my essay Eurodämmerung in History Today.

Norns, all images LFO/ Clive Barda

One of the great advantages of putting on Wagner’s Ring in a relatively small venue such as Longborough, in what is essentially a chamber opera setting, is that the main characters are brought very much down to earth — caught up in someone else’s drama, and impelled by forces they barely understand. Götterdämmerung however starts with the Norns, cleverly portrayed here as immensely tall women, and ends with the Rheinmaidens, shown as desirable ladies in lovely long dresses. These forces of fate, and of nature, frame the opera, along with the demi-goddess Brünnhilde, sung with immense power by Rachel Nicholls, her voice commanding passion, and eventually redemption. It was a super performance, and we are fortunate that she will sing the same role next year for Longborough’s full Ring cycle.

Brünnhilde in Act I

As Siegfried, Mati Turi matched her vocal heft, and as Hagen, Stuart Pendred gave a fine portrayal of careful cunning, while also assuming the role of a gang boss, as when he calls up the vassals in Act II. His diction was brilliantly clear, and at the end of the second scene in Act I his voice swelled with the orchestra as he carried his breath beautifully into the words des Niblungen Sohn. His half-siblings, Gunther and Gutrune were very well performed by Eddie Wade and Lee Bisset. Gunther, despite great vocal strength and physical presence, showed admirable weakness with his body language, before finally standing up to Hagen, who stabs him with a knife; and Gutrune showed a kindly nature, lying down to embrace her brother’s corpse towards the end — a nice touch.

Hagen

The orchestra pit at Longborough extends far beneath the stage, and Anthony Negus marshalled his musical forces with great effect. The orchestra played beautifully, giving life to Alan Privett’s excellent production, whose simple but effective designs by Kjell Torriset were very well lit by Ben Ormerod. Among many fine theatrical moments, the lighting for Hagen’s dream dialogue with his father Alberich was very good, and with Albert Rivers as Alberich this came over well as an otherworldly visitation.

The singing by the chorus and the supporting soloists was extremely good, and I particularly liked Catherine King’s body language as Flosshilde when the Rheinmaidens appear to Siegfried at the start of Act III. By this time, Brünnhilde has rejected her sister Waltraute’s request to give up the ring, and now the Rheinmaidens fail to persuade Siegfried. The Norns’ rope of destiny has already broken and only Brünnhilde can bring final redemption, which she does with great vocal power, while Hagen lurks nearby, awaiting his chance. But the forces of nature sweep him aside and blue light suffuses the stage, bringing this Twilight of the Gods to its final conclusion.

Further performances of Götterdämmerung take place on July 22 and 24 — for more details click here.

The Flying Dutchman, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, April 2012

29 April, 2012

Sudden darkness in the auditorium … the orchestra struck up, and we were treated to great power and sensitivity from the baton of Edward Gardner. The silences were silent, the quiet passages quiet, and the loud passages with the chorus came over with huge force.

All images by Robert Workman

This new production by Jonathan Kent starts in the overture with a little girl being put to bed by her father Daland the sea captain. She dreams of the sea … the wild, windy sea, shown in video projections designed by Nina Dunn. Then as the opera gets underway we see huge designs by Paul Brown filling the stage from top to bottom, with lighting by Mark Henderson embracing the video effects and giving beautiful colour changes during Daland’s lyrical dialogue with his daughter, when salvation beckons.

Clive Bayley as Daland

In the end when the Dutchman chides his would-be saviour, Senta for her apparent unfaithfulness he silently vanishes from the party throng, she smashes a bottle . . . and it’s all over. She dies and he is redeemed.

Entrance of the Dutchman

James Creswell as the Dutchman exhibited superb restraint and nobility, both in voice and stage presence, and with Clive Bayley portraying Daland as an engagingly earnest father to Senta, this was a cast rich in wonderful bass tones. At the higher register, Stuart Skelton was a brilliant Erik, the young man in love with Senta. He is a star in the ENO firmament. As Senta herself, Orla Boylan gave a somewhat uneven vocal performance with some strong moments but a flaccid stage-presence.

Senta at the party

The Dutchman has been wandering the planet for countless years, and in Jonathan Kent’s production we see him dressed in a costume from two hundred years ago, contrasting with the girls working in a modern assembly shop where a costume party turns wild, threatening a gang rape of Senta . . . but suddenly the Dutchman’s ghostly crew sing powerfully from off-stage, scaring the living daylights out of the revellers. This is the same director who has produced Sweeney Todd now playing in the West End, so perhaps a bit of the Sweeney darkness has invaded Wagner, but that’s no bad thing, and the chorus carried it off superbly. They were wonderful.

The Flying Dutchman is the first of Wagner’s operas in the regular canon of ten, and this was the first time Edward Gardner has conducted any of them. I look forward to more!

Performances continue until May 23 — for details click here.

Götterdämmerung, Metropolitan Opera live cinema relay, February 2012

12 February, 2012

Rossini is said to have commented that Wagner had some beautiful moments, but terrible quarters of an hour. Whether this is genuine, I don’t know, but Rossini never heard Götterdämmerung, which is riveting, from the Norns with their rope of fate at the start to Brünnhilde’s immolation at the end. In the right hands with the right singers Götterdämmerung is magnificent, and the Met gave us a whole string of superlatives.

The final scene, all images MetOpera/ Ken Howard

Robert Lepage’s production with its set of long planks on pivots, along with Etienne Boucher’s lighting, allows transformations that in the final scene show Brünnhilde riding her horse onto the funeral pyre and disappearing into a mass of flames washed away by the Rhein. The set allows the Rheinmaidens to swim up and slide down those planks as they tease Siegfried about the ring, and after Gunther has got blood on his hands by cradling the dying Siegfried in his arms, he washes it away and we see the river run red. Glorious effects, but I only wish the translated sub-titles were more accurate. Hagen’s final words are Zurück vom Ring! (Get back from the ring), not ‘Give me the ring!’ And if that was a choice made in the context of the production the same excuse does not apply in some other cases. My point is that we heard such fine diction and it jars when the words are mangled in translation.

Brünnhilde and Siegfried

This is a minor quibble of course because the singing and character portrayals were unbeatable. Jay Hunter Morris is the most convincing Siegfried we are ever likely to encounter. He imbues the role with a joy and vivacity I have never seen equalled. Such a sweet smile he gives the Rheinmaidens when they ask for the ring, and his retelling of past deeds during the hunt was enchanting. Lepage’s production even brought the shadows of those ravens onto the stage before Hagen struck the fatal blow. And what a Hagen we had here in Hans-Peter König. His soliloquy Hier sitz’ ich zur Wacht at the end of Act I scene 2 was hugely powerful, with the production providing added value by seating him between two pillars, in a great chair that finally disappeared through the floor. His call to the vassals in Act II was terrific, and this extraordinary singer portrayed his character as a cunningly smug operator who, despite the dark make-up, reminded me of that Scottish politician attempting to pull Scotland out of the United Kingdom.

Hagen and Siegfried

The Alberich of Eric Owens looked so shrivelled as he appears to Hagen at night, a clever transformation because Owens is a large man. And that other dialogue between Brünnhilde and her sister Waltraute was full of angst. Waltraud Meier showed fearful determination as she visited her sister, yet gradually exhibited a sense that she was out of her depth with Brünnhilde’s newly found passion. Such a tragedy that Brünnhilde is then accosted by an unknown stranger who has walked through the fire, and this was cleverly done with Siegfried’s head covered by the net of the Tarnhelm, which he helpfully removed at one point so the audience could be sure of who he was.

His blood brother Gunther was superbly sung and portrayed by Iain Paterson, who looked very much the part, far slimmer than his recent Don Giovanni at the English National Opera. With Wendy Bryn Harmer as his sister Gutrune, the pair of them were attractively eligible, exhibiting determination and weakness at the same time.

Gunther, Brünnhilde, Hagen

Finally there was Deborah Voigt as Brünnhilde, who opens things up immediately after the Norn scene, and brings it all to a close at the end. She was magnificent and one can see her as the wife of the man who will now rule the world after Wotan’s will has been broken. But like Siegfried she is cleverly deceived by Hagen, giving him the secret of how to kill her hero,and only when the scales have fallen from her eyes can she find the right course of action. Her immolation scene brings all to a close, and the lighting does the rest, as the flames recede into the distance carrying the gods away, and the Rhein purifies the world of Alberich’s transgressions and Wotan’s plans and deceits.

Wonderfully sensitive conducting by Fabio Luisi throughout, ranging from pellucid chamber opera to a full-throated roar of polyphony. I eagerly await broadcasts of the full Ring cycle in 2013.

This broadcast in 2012 is rather well-timed in terms of the Euro crisis — see my Eurodämmerung essay comparing the Ring with the Euro.

Götterdämmerung, The Ring, and the Euro

12 February, 2012

As the Metropolitan Opera in New York completes its Ring cycle with Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), could there be an analogy with the fate of the Euro?

My review of the Met’s live relay of Götterdämmerung will appear on February 12.

Eurodämmerung

Wagner’s Ring starts with the Niebelung, Alberich forging a ring of power from gold he stole from the river Rhine, using it to create vast wealth. In the meantime the gods construct the mighty palace of Valhalla, without having the money to pay for it, so they trick Alberich out of his treasure in order to pay the giants who did the work. The giants then demand everything, ring included — one kills the other, turns into a dragon and guards his treasure.

All might be well. The gods got something for nothing, but Wotan — king of the gods — having paid off his debt, wants to return the ring to the Rhinemaidens, and the remaining three operas in the cycle deal with the consequences. His plan is a deep one. He fathers two children, Siegmund and Sieglinde, and forges a sword that can be used to kill the dragon. The children grow up together but are later split apart, like West and East Germany, and Sieglinde is forcibly married to a man who doesn’t love her, like East Germany’s marriage to the Soviet Union. They reunite, become lovers, and Siegmund acquires the sword that Wotan created. But Wotan’s wife forcefully objects, and Wotan, realising Siegmund is not the free hero he thought he’d created, changes his mind. With his spear, the mighty instrument on which all treaties are engraved, he breaks the sword.

Siegmund is then killed, but Brünnhilde, daughter of Wotan and the Earth goddess Erda, rescues Sieglinde, and their son Siegfried is born. He becomes the free hero that Wotan originally intended, re-forges the sword, kills the dragon and takes the ring. He then breaks Wotan’s spear with all its treaties, and wins Brünnhilde as his wife.

Angela Merkel knows the story. As a Wagner aficionado she not only attends the opening of the Bayreuth Festival in her official capacity, but goes privately to further performances, and can surely see Wotan’s spear as a metaphor for the treaties of the Euro. It has already cast down the sword of democracy wielded by George Papandreou of Greece — no sooner did he hold it aloft than he was quickly forced from office. But what if someone who is now mightier than they are wields the sword? Chancellor Merkel as a good European is aware of the problem, so she has her solution. Strengthen the spear, strengthen the treaties.

This might work … but then again it might not. Look at Wagner’s Ring. Like present day united Germany, the fearless hero Siegfried is the son of a brother and sister, and if the Germans themselves raise the sword of democracy against the Euro treaties, what then?

In the third opera, after Siegfried has killed the dragon, taken the ring, and broken the spear with all its treaties, Wotan resigns himself to the idea that his days are over, and that his grandson Siegfried will inherit the earth, but … it doesn’t turn out that way.

As we move into the fourth and last opera in the cycle, Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods) the Norns, daughters of Erda, are spinning the rope of fate. From the past they can read the future, but other forces are at work, and the rope tightens … then breaks.

Alberich, creator of the ring, has a son Hagen intent on reclaiming it. Hagen schemes against Siegfried and Brünnhilde, deceiving Siegfried, who in turn unwittingly tricks Brünnhilde, and in the resulting confusion she reveals how Hagen can kill Siegfried. The deed is done, the body with the ring is carried home on a mighty funeral procession, and Brünnhilde finally realises the awful truth. She immolates herself on Siegfried’s funeral pyre, and in the resulting conflagration, not even Hagen can secure the ring. The Rhine overflows its banks and the Rhinemaidens sweep forth to take it back to its original home.

This is the end of Wagner’s Ring, but the composer allowed opportunities for avoiding such a dramatic meltdown. After Siegfried has given the ring to Brünnhilde as a wedding gift, one of her sisters comes begging her to return it to the Rhine, but she refuses. Pity, because one of the lessons of the Ring is that if you refuse to give it up it will be taken from you, and you will die, then or later. In the first opera one of the giants suffered this fate, in the third opera it was the dragon, and now in the final opera it happens to Brünnhilde. Hagen deceives Siegfried into losing his memory and taking it from her. Now Siegfried has the ring again, but before Hagen kills him the Rhinemaidens appear and ask for it back. He refuses. The only person who ever gave up the ring voluntarily was Wotan himself, in the Prologue, and that only because the wise earth goddess Erda rose from the depths and insisted.

Can anyone give up the Euro? Does anyone have a plan to return it from whence it came without Europe falling into semi-destruction? Wotan had a plan, but changed his mind, and his uncertainty compounded the problem.

It may seem fanciful to compare the Euro with the Ring, but great stories hold our imaginations because they appeal to unconscious feelings and knowledge. The Euro was created from a sense of idealism, to increase the unity and prosperity of Europe. But like the ring it holds its owners in thrall, and its destructive aspects could yet lead to a mighty conflagration.

Exactly how is not known, but in creating his Ring cycle, Wagner went through several different endings in the final immolation scene with Brünnhilde. The Feuerbach ending, the Schopenhauer ending … Where are the philosophers when we need them? The best laid plans of mice and men, of Niebelungs and gods, can go awry, and if the rope breaks … Far better to return the Euro to its Urheimat voluntarily. Pity there’s no-one who can do it.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, December 2011

20 December, 2011

This was Antonio Pappano’s first Meistersinger for the Royal Opera, and from the start of the overture to the final chords of Act III, more than five hours later, his peerless conducting drove Wagner’s comedy forward with huge effect. The chorus too was excellent, from the first four-part harmony in the church to their final embrace of Sachs and Walther on the meadows by the river Pegnitz.

Wolfgang Koch as Sachs, Emma Bell as Eva, Simon O'Neill as Walther, all images Clive Barda

Among the principal singers, some could hardly have been better. John Tomlinson was the best Pogner I ever remember seeing. This man, who is happy to give up his daughter as bride to the winner of a song contest, can sometimes appear a bit pompous, but Tomlinson’s delivery of Pogner’s Act I monologue was hugely powerful. This is where he extols the art-loving German burgher, frequently misrepresented abroad as caring for nought but money. It’s a key moment and so often comes over too weakly. Tomlinson’s characterisation of the role was so strong that the revival director even had him pushing Sachs around towards the end of Act III, urging him to embrace Eva and Walther. Add to that the excellent portrayal of Kothner, the head of the guild, by the ever reliable Donald Maxwell, and you only wish everyone on stage fitted their roles this well.

Toby Spence as David with the apprentices

Some did, and Toby Spence was an enormously likeable David, whose Act I explanation to Walther of what makes a mastersinger, along with the extraordinary list of tones he delivers, was riveting. Here is surely a future Walther. His fiancée Magdalena was very well portrayed by Heather Shipp, who seems to make a speciality of these awkward supporting roles, and Eva was well sung by Emma Bell, who showed angst and joy in equal measure. Her adored Walther, with whom she is willing to elope and defy her beloved father, was Simon O’Neill, whose voice I found too heldentenorish for the role, though he certainly delivered Walther’s various songs with great power. I only wish the costume department could have provided him with a better white outfit for Act III — cloaked for his delivery of the prize song it was better, but those shoulder wings … I know it’s Christmas, but this is not pantomime. Beckmesser’s black costume was much better, and his role was finely sung by Peter Coleman-Wright, though several comic moments were noticeable by their absence, perhaps due to a lack of stage direction. However the fight scene after he has attempted to serenade Eva at her window is cleverly staged, as is the appearance of the Nightwatchman, strongly sung by Robert Lloyd.

Emma Bell as Eva with John Tomlinson as her father Pogner

And then there is the main character, Hans Sachs, sung by Wolfgang Koch, who has performed the same role in Frankfurt (2006) and Vienna (2008). In Act I he came over less strongly than either Pogner or Kothner, and I found the Flieder monologue of Act II disappointing. Of course it’s a huge role and he must reserve himself for Act III, where his response to the crowd in the final scene and his final speech, Verachtet mir die Meister nicht (Don’t despise the masters) to Walther and the assembled company, came over well. But earlier in Act III, the Wahn monologue in the first scene and the later response to Walther’s question on what makes the difference between a beautiful song and a master song, were delivered in a matter-of-fact way as if they were academic lectures. With the Wahn monologue I felt I was listening to a defence of the Euro by a male version of Angela Merkel. Koch has a lovely tone to his voice, but I missed the repressed emotion of these important soliloquys, and the unrestrained emotion when he threw a chair across the room, just before Eva sings O Sachs! Mein Freund! was by contrast quite over top, though that would be due to revival director Elaine Kidd.

This production by Graham Vick is immensely colourful and I loved the lighting design by Wolfgang Göbbel. The blue light shining on the front curtain for the prelude to Act III, the light coming into Sachs’s study through the windows, casting shadows as people moved in front of them — it was all very carefully thought out. With a raked stage in Act III the view from the Amphitheatre was as if one were looking down on the proceedings, which was good, but I would have preferred some images of the river and meadow, rather than plain sides and a wooden floor.

But this was a musical triumph brought to fruition by Pappano, the orchestra, the chorus, and some superb singing.

The New Year’s Day performance of this opera will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 from 14:45, and performances at the Royal Opera House continue until January 8 — for details click here.

Siegfried, Metropolitan Opera, Met live cinema relay, November 2011

6 November, 2011

In the final part of the intermission feature from the second interval, as Renee Fleming went to meet Bryn Terfel in his dressing room, he said he was wondering when she would get round to him. Was he feeling left out? Perhaps so, but never mind because in the third act he was superb as the Wanderer. When Siegfried asks, who are you then, who wants to restrain me? Terfel’s lengthy response came over superbly, with a strong focus on Wotan’s psychological angst, ‘wer sie erweckt, wer sie gewänne, machtlos macht’ er mich ewig!‘ (whoever wakes her, whoever wins her, would render me powerless forever!).

Mime and Siegfried, all images Ken Howard

This production by Robert Lepage, brilliantly conducted by Fabio Luisi, brings nuances in the score and the libretto that had previously passed me by, and in Act I, Gerhard Siegel gives one of the finest portrayals of Mime that I have ever seen. After his encounter with the Wanderer, and his failure to ask the one question he really needs answering, he muses on what he has just learned: that only one who knows no fear can kill the dragon. He has already forfeit his head to the Wanderer and knows that Siegfried will lop it off unless he learns fear from the Dragon Fafner. But how can he kill the dragon if he learns fear? “Verfluchte Klemme!” (Damned dilemma!) he sings, and you feel for the poor fellow who has devoted eighteen years to bringing up the boy who will kill the dragon, but will also finish his own ill-fated existence. Gerhard Siegel acts everyone else off the stage, making me think of him as an Asperger’s victim embroiled in teenage fantasies that he can never fulfil.

Siegfried and the Sword

As for the real teenager, Siegfried, Jay Hunter Morris sang the role with huge conviction. There are not many people in the world who can do this well, but their number has just increased by one with this great new Heldentenor, and the intermission features showed he was utterly dedicated and loved what he was doing. He looked the part too, as a Christ-like figure full of spirit, rather than the rambunctious oaf he sometimes appears.

Alberich and the Wanderer

Eric Owens reprised his wonderful Alberich from Rheingold, and Patricia Bardon looked and sang a beautiful Erda, with Deborah Voigt bringing back her Brünnhilde from Walküre. After a mythical eighteen year sleep, and a real absence of over four hours while the other singers have warmed up, or even died, she has to come in with Heil dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht! and it’s a tough call. As she began expressing her love for Siegfried, the voice took on more confidence and she was terrific.

Brünnhilde and Siegfried

One of the odd moments in the last scene is when Siegfried loosens the breastplate of the sleeping hero, and cries, Das is kein Mann! This sometimes sounds foolishly naive but the way Jay Hunter Morris tackled it, facing the audience with this revelation, it all made sense. Making sense is a vital feature of this production, and Terfel helped bring out the subtleties of Wotan’s dilemmas. Technically I regret that the shards of the sword looked fake, unlike the eventual sword itself — an important point when you have close-ups on the cinema screen — but the Woodbird flitted around like a well-rehearsed pet animal, and we shall doubtless see more of these clever 3D-projections in other productions.

Der Fliegende Holländer, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, October 2011

19 October, 2011

Jeffrey Tate in the orchestra pit gave Wagner’s Flying Dutchman a wonderful clarity, helped of course by the singers, particularly Anja Kampe as a beautifully pure voiced Senta. This was the role in which she made her Covent Garden debut when the production was new in 2009.

The singers for the other main roles are different this time round, but none the worse for that, and the whole cast made a very fine team. Danish bass Stephen Milling came on very strongly at the beginning as a warm-hearted Daland, and Latvian bass-baritone Egils Silins sang the Dutchman with a noble bearing that was extremely effective towards the end when his voice carried enormous power. This was far better than my recollection of his performance in the same role at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin in the most frightful production I’ve ever seen. John Tessier gave us a feisty and strongly sung Steersman, and Endrik Wottrich was a forceful and anxious Erik.

Daland's crew in merry mood, all images Mike Hoban

The huge chorus was in top form, and musically this was excellent, helped enormously by Tim Albery’s production, which fully deserves a revival three seasons after its first appearance. The openness of the stage allows David Finn’s lighting to play a superb part. Singers are occasionally lit in ways that show only their head and shoulders, yet this can change to reveal the whole body, and the use of colours is very clever. Daland is warmly lit, the Dutchman is coldly lit, and when the Dutchman’s crew appear from nowhere they are in an eerie greenish light. This occurs in an enclave of the stage that previously opened up for Daland’s crew — who have been fooling around and even falling into the water — when suddenly … they scatter as the otherworldly crew take their place. After these ghostly sailors have finished their chorus the opening in the stage slowly closes and we see them no more. It’s very effective.

The phantom crew suddenly replaces Daland's men

The lighting brings out the phantom nature of the Dutchman who perpetually sails the seas, landing only once every seven years to seek salvation in a woman’s undying love. When it appears he may have found redemption this time, he too is cast in a reddish glow, but it is not to be.  As the gangplank to his ship rises, Senta clings on, but in the end she is defeated and takes her place centre stage with her magnificent three-mast model ship, and the lighting does the rest.

It’s a super production with an excellent cast — don’t miss it. Performances continue until November 4 — for details click here — and BBC Radio 3 will broadcast it on November 12 at 6 p.m.

Bayreuth Festival Retrospective, 2011

20 August, 2011

This year the Bayreuth Festival produced five different operas, opening with a new production of Tannhäuser, followed by four revivals: Meistersinger, Lohengrin, Parsifal, and Tristan, in that order.  I went to the first four, which included Katarina Wagner’s grotesque Meistersinger for which spare tickets were selling at half price, and no wonder. With a weak Walther this year it was even worse than I remembered. Tristan I avoided after the dull production and low quality performance of two years ago, so my sequence ended with Parsifal, which was stunning.

More on that later, but on opening night the Tannhäuser production team was roundly booed. Sebastian Baumgarten portrayed the opera as one vast recycling experiment, yet just behind me in the centre box sat Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Trichet, who represent the main people in control of another huge experiment, namely the Euro. I wonder if they saw the irony. In the Euro experiment, Greece is in the Venusberg, and Elisabeth represents the Euro, but rather than seek redemption in Rome, the Greek government must journey to Berlin and Brussels. In Tannhäuser we know the result. He does not gain absolution for his sins of excess, but there is divine intervention. In the real experiment, Greece has now started its journey, but regardless of what the Euro gods eventually decide, the omnipotent power on high is the bond market. That’s worth remembering because although the higher power absolves Tannhäuser at the end of the opera, there’s a final denouement: both he and Elisabeth die.

What a pity the director of Tannhäuser made no use of this ominous comparison, so that left just two good productions, Lohengrin and Parsifal. In Hans Neuenfels’ Lohengrin production I liked the rats and video projections, which gave a novel insight into a Wagner opera I care for less than others, but the real punch was from Parsifal. Like many people I’m sceptical of unusual productions, but Norwegian director Stefan Herheim’s bold conception was remarkable. It gave an overview of German history from before the First World War until after the Second. The wound from the Treaty of Versailles, the sorcery that Nazism did to a weakened nation, the huge loss of prestige, and finally the cure from paralysis with the death of the old Germany in the person of Titurel. It was an experience not to be missed.

Fortunately Parsifal will reappear next year — see it if you can. It will be shown in the company of TristanLohengrinTannhäuser, and a new production of Fliegende Holländer. As for the Ring, a new production will appear in 2013, the bicentenary of Wagner’s birth.