Posts Tagged ‘Guy Cassiers’

Götterdämmerung, Staatsoper Berlin, Schiller Theater, April 2013

11 April, 2013

When the Rheinmaidens playfully tease Siegfried at the start of Act II, their musical movements were far better than the unmusicality of the irritatingly intrusive dancers, who reappeared in this final part of The Ring. Their manipulation of silk sheets was fine, but this is the first time I have seen opera ladies move more gracefully than dancers, which suggests Belgian director Guy Cassiers should abandon them and let Wagner’s music speak for itself.

Act 1, images ©MonikaRittershaus

Act 1, images ©MonikaRittershaus

Under Barenboim’s direction it did so in spades, with a grippingly emotional Siegfried funeral march movingly complemented by a  red glow in the lighting. But after this the production failed to carry conviction. Siegfried’s arm merely flopped to one side rather than rise in warning to Hagen, who stayed where he was before quietly leaving the stage. He suddenly returned from stage-right to shout Zurück vom Ring, before barging his way through the onlookers to get to the Rhein, but why wasn’t he anxiously waiting and following Siegfried’s body with his eyes? It didn’t make sense.

Nor did some of the video imagery of faces with tongues hanging out, but there was fine singing in abundance. Waltraud Meier, an exceptional Sieglinde in Walküre, returned to sing Second Norn with a lovely evenness of tone, and reappeared strongly as Waltraute in a well wrought conflict with Brünnhilde. Iréne Theorin was commanding in that role, singing with effortless intensity. Siegfried was boldly sung by Andreas Schager, slim, youthful and convincing, as was Mikhail Petrenko as Hagen, and Johannes Martin Kränzle reprised his deeply powerful Alberich. Anna Samuil returned from her Freia in Rheingold to sing Gutrune, and Gerd Grochowski was an immensely effective Gunther, his firm voice complementing a melancholy stage presence that reminded me of a younger Jeremy Irons. His performance was an unexpected pleasure.

Brünnhilde, Hagen, Gunther

Brünnhilde, Hagen, Gunther

Overall, this production has its strong points, particularly in the lighting and some of the better video imagery, but its weakest points lie in the use of dancers. Rheingold was particularly bad in this respect, and Walküre was easily the best part, and the only one in which dancers were entirely absent. An interview in the Walküre programme showed Belgian director Guy Cassiers to have some rather naïve political ideas that included blaming Europeans for much of the poverty in the world. Perhaps his attitudes stem from Belgium’s poor colonial record, but noting that Wotan is cleverer than many of today’s politicians is a bit jejeune.

That Monsieur Cassiers is inspired by concepts relating to the interplay between good and evil, and success and failure, is no bad thing, but the unifying force that makes this Ring work so brilliantly is surely the musical direction by Daniel Barenboim. That plus a clever choice of singers who fitted their roles made this a hugely musical pleasure.

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Siegfried, Staatsoper Berlin, Schiller Theater, April 2013

8 April, 2013

The first two operas of this cycle experienced slight problems: orchestra lights failed a couple of times during Rheingold, and stage backdrop lighting flashed and failed in Walküre. But Siegfried saw a more serious disruption when the eponymous hero failed to show up for Act I. Why, we were not told, but the role was admirably sung from the wings by Andreas Schager, with an assistant stage manager going through the motions on stage. So vocally effective was Schager that Daniel Barenboim brought him on for a special curtain call at the end of the act, and the audience roared their appreciation.

Awakening, all images © Monika Rittershaus

Awakening, all images © Monika Rittershaus

Canadian tenor Lance Ryan thankfully turned up for Act II, which was just as well since Schager was singing in a concert performance of Zauberflöte with the Berlin Philharmonic under Rattle later the same evening. At the end of Act II, Ryan declined a solo curtain call, and at the end of the opera, after a superb performance in Act III, the restrained applause marked audience disapproval for his early absence.  But he was exceptionally good, and I regret not hearing him in all three acts. His final scene with Iréne Theorin as Brünnhilde produced glorious singing, and his Sei mein! followed by her beautifully gentle Oh Siegfried! Dein war ich von je! was a moving moment.

Forging the sword

Forging the sword

Of course Daniel Barenboim in the orchestra pit was the magician bringing Wagner’s great moments to fulfilment, and this third episode of the Ring was a musical triumph. Peter Bronder sang and acted strongly as the ill-favoured Mime, and Norwegian bass-baritone Terje Stensvold gave a commanding performance as The Wanderer.

Mikhail Petrenko sang a strong Fafner from behind the stage, but here we find one of the problems in this Guy Cassiers production. The dragon was portrayed by five dancers wafting a vast printed silk sheet, but since the voice came from elsewhere this lacked conviction, and after the dragon’s death they attached themselves to Siegfried, making interminably dull geometric patterns with five swords. The dismemberment of voice and body had already occurred to the Woodbird, with a double performing insipid and unmusical movements on stage while the singing Woodbird (Rinnat Moriah, a perfectly handsome young woman) was off-stage.

Siegfried and dancers

Siegfried and dancers

Good lighting and sets, except that the forging of the sword was essentially done by atmospheric lighting and seven flat screen videos, plus a few tap-taps in the upstairs part of the set, as if a saucepan were being mended. Otherwise I liked the intriguing design for Mime’s home, which Wotan navigated with admirable aplomb as it turned from horizontal to vertical. Forest lighting was wonderful, and the meeting of Alberich and the Wanderer in Act II was very effective. If the superfluously irritating dancers had been absent, this act would have been perfect — they were not there in Walküre, and I’m sure most of us hope for the same with Götterdämmerung.

This performance was on April 7, and the final instalment of The Ring takes place on April 10.

Die Walküre, Staatsoper Berlin, Schiller Theater, April 2013

6 April, 2013

What a spectacular ending to Act III this was, equalled in my recent memory only with Barenboim in the same production at La Scala in December 2010.

All images © Monika Rittershaus

All images © Monika Rittershaus

His sensitive handling of the orchestra framed those hugely gentle scenes between the sympathetic Wotan of René Pape and the intensity of Iréne Theorin as his daughter Brünnhilde, when for example when he tells her she is the daughter of the world’s wisest woman, and later when she coaxes him away from consigning her to a fate worse than death. These were tranquil and beautiful moments, as was the encounter between Brünnhilde and the noble Siegmund of Peter Seiffert when she announces his impending doom.

Yet all the singers came over with great force at times of high drama. Peter Seiffert’s cry to his lost father, Wälse! Wälse! in Act I had huge lyrical force, with the orchestra at full tilt, and Waltraud Meier gave Sieglinde a sublime intensity after Brünnhilde dissuades her from death by telling of a Wälsung in her womb. Rette mich Kühne! (Rescue me brave one) had tremendous lyrical force, and when Brünnhilde gives her the shards of the sword, and names him Siegfried, O hehrstes Wunder floated high above the orchestra, ascending to the gods themselves.

Wotan and Brünnhilde

Wotan and Brünnhilde

These great turning points in The Ring are powered by forces that Wagner extracts from deep mines of cultural history, but he sets it all going in dramatic style with that wonderful Act I. Here Seiffert and Meier beautifully vocalised their mutual passion, and the strongly youthful Hunding of Mikhail Petrenko represented the determined world of honour killing, supported by the fiery Fricka of Ekaterina Gubanova. And when Hunding kills Siegmund in Act II he does not merely fell him with a sword, but thrusts a spear through his body as it lies on the ground.

As he stands victorious on stage-right, Wotan on stage-left quietly commands him to kneel before Fricka. He remains motionless, and as Pape firmly emphasises the second Geh! he falls dead. Earlier in Act II, Pape showed utter exhaustion after telling Fricka she could take his oath, and his beautifully crafted portrayal of Wotan’s self awareness allowed him to project huge power in the final moments of Act III. As the music crescendos, his Leb’ wohl! to Brünnhilde swept with huge power through the orchestral sound.

Wotan's farewell to Brünnhilde

Wotan’s farewell to Brünnhilde

After the final bars the audience gradually recovered from the magic, and the sustained applause took in more than one appearance on stage by the full orchestra, and numerous curtain calls for Barenboim and the soloists, including the Walküren in their voluminous dresses. Immensely cumbersome though Tim Van Steenbergen’s costumes may be, they are effective, as is this whole production by Guy Cassiers with lighting and assistance on set design by Enrico Bagnoli. Thank goodness the dancers from Rheingold were entirely absent, leaving us to savour the heart and soul of the music.

This performance was on April 5, and Siegfried continues on April 7.

Das Rheingold, Staatsoper Berlin, Schiller Theater, April 2013

5 April, 2013

The lights went down and all was silence. In the partially covered pit the conductor was invisible but slowly a quiet E flat emerged. Daniel Barenboim’s restrained conducting allowed huge clarity for the singers and plenty of scope for the brass at big moments. It was a coolly intriguing prelude to The Ring.

Alberich and Rheinmaidens, all images ©Monika Rittershaus

Alberich and Rheinmaidens, all images ©Monika Rittershaus

The stage was filled with water, albeit shallow, and Alberich and the Rheinmaidens were like a boy with three teasing girls splashing around in the water. After their mockery he is defeated and soaking wet. Then comes the gold motif and we’re off and away.

After Alberich takes the gold, dancers enter. They form everything from an arch for the entrance of Wotan and Fricka, to a throne for Alberich and an animated tarnhelm. They also writhe and express themselves to the music, but not everyone will like this aspect. Some of us prefer less distraction. It seems that the director, Guy Cassiers is keen to see perpetual motion on stage, whereas many in the Wagner audience are doubtless more keen to listen to the orchestral sound and the singers.

Loge and dancers

Loge and dancers

In this respect there was some very fine singing indeed. Johannes Martin Kränzle was a terrific Alberich, somewhat hampered by the dancers in this opera, and I look forward to his return in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. Superb diction and tone from Iain Paterson and Mikhail Petrenko as Fasolt and Fafner, plus a very strong vocal presence by Stephan Rügamer as Loge, and mellow attractiveness from Ekaterina Gubanova as Fricka. Despite a subdued performance as Wotan, René Pape came through strongly when necessary, particularly after taking the Ring from Alberich when he gloats that his new possession will raise him to der Mächtigen mächtigsten Herrn (the mightiest of mighty lords).

Alberich and dancers

Alberich and dancers

The Ring itself in this production is a sparkling glove, and when Alberich loses it the end of his arm appears cut off. The glove idea has the merit of making the Ring obviously visible to the whole audience, and when Wotan heeded Erda’s warning he gave it up by simply tossing it over his head.

Costumes by Tim Van Steenbergen put the giants in dark suits, and the representation of the male gods reminded me of some rather odd dictators (the late Kim Jong Il came to mind in the person of Donner), and British readers will know what I mean if compare the appearance of Loge to violinist Nigel Kennedy.

Good lighting by Enrico Bagnoli, who collaborated with director Guy Cassiers on the sets, and I liked the video projections that at one point seemed to suggest a future world. Their reflection on the water was very effective, but I gather from friends that this was not visible from all parts of the auditorium.

This performance was on April 4. Die Walküre continues tonight on April 5, unencumbered by dancers if my memory of La Scala serves me right.

Die Walküre, La Scala, Milan, December 2010

24 December, 2010

The mighty cathedral in Milan — the third largest in Europe after Seville and Rome — contains vast columns reaching up to an immense height. Nearby is La Scala with its four tiers of boxes ascending to two further tiers of row-seats, and during the final curtain calls the performers looked heavenwards to right and left, relishing the applause from the gods, while Daniel Barenboim, who conducted a magnificent Walküre, waved to the rafters.

Brünnhilde and Valkyries, La Scala photos, Brescia and Amisano

What a performance it was, in a new production by Guy Cassiers, with simple abstract sets by Enrico Bagnoli, and clever video projections by Arjen Klerkx and Kurt d’Haeseleer. La Scala has seen its share of Verdi operas with their powerful family relationships, but Wotan and his daughter Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Die Walküre is the equal of anything in Verdi, and here we had a young and glorious Brünnhilde in Nina Stemme. In the final scene, embraced by her father, with warm reddish light falling on her bare shoulders, she was the perfect sleeping beauty to be surrounded by fire until woken by a mighty hero in the next opera of The Ring.

That hero has yet to be born, but at the end of Act II, Brünnhilde drags his mother Sieglinde — magnificently sung by Waltraud Meier — away from the fatally wounded body of her lover and brother Siegmund, powerfully sung here by Simon O’Neill. After they leave, Sieglinde’s abandoned husband Hunding thrusts his sword deep into Siegmund’s dying body. This is too much for Vitalij Kowaljow’s sympathetic Wotan, father to Siegmund and Sieglinde, and with the emphasis on the second Geh! he sweeps a hand sideways, and Hunding falls dead. But what a Hunding this was, with his rich dark tone — the best I have ever seen — sung by Britain’s very own John Tomlinson. Wotan, of course, threw the battle to Hunding after his wife Fricka demanded it. She was strongly sung by Ekaterina Gubanova, and after his argument with her, his declamation “In eigner Fessel fing ich mich, die unfreiester aller!” (In my own bonds I’m trapped, the least free of everyone!) was strongly delivered with perfect diction.

John Tomlinson as Hunding

The appearance of the nine Valkyries at the start of Act III, in voluminous black dresses by Tim Van Steenbergen, was very effective. At this point, Sieglinde yearns only for death, but suddenly comes to life after Brünnhilde foretells her pregnancy. Her “Rette mich Kühne! Rette mein Kind!” (Rescue me, brave one! Rescue my child!) filled the auditorium, and her final “O herhstes WunderHeiligste Maid!” sailed over the orchestra and up to gods.

This was more than a miracle, it was opera magic, and at the end of the final act as red lighting bespoke the fire that would encircle Brünnhilde, an asymmetrical collection of twenty-eight red lights — a mathematically perfect number — descended from above. All praise to the production team and singers, but to no one more so than Barenboim, whose nuanced conducting brought out the full depth and passion of Wagner’s music.

For a more concise version of this review see the Daily Telegraph on 24thDecember.