Posts Tagged ‘The Ring’

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.

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Die Walküre, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, September 2012

27 September, 2012

A pivotal point in Wagner’s Ring is Act II scene 1 in Walküre where Fricka faces her husband Wotan. A strong presence is vital here and Sarah Connolly gave a superb portrayal, avoiding the danger of playing her as overbearing but firmly and gently persuading her husband that he is in serious error. It was beautifully done, and she kisses him before he asks Was verlangst du? Her demand that he abandon the Wälsung finally succeeds, and as the scene ends, Bryn Terfel’s Nimm den Eid (Take my oath) was sung with a gravelly resignation.

Valkyries, all images ROH/ Clive Barda

His representation of Wotan is more mature than during initial performances of this Keith Warner production seven or eight years ago, and he ranged from gentleness to fury with great conviction. In talking to Brünnhilde in Act II scene 2 he showed serious introspection as he sings of giving up his work and longing only for das Ende! Recalling the words of Erda that allude to Hagen’s birth signalling the end of the gods, moves him to real anger, and his In meinem Busen berg’ ich den Grimm (In my heart I hide the fury) was delivered with huge effect. The orchestral ending of that scene under Pappano’s direction was superb.

As Brünnhilde, Susan Bullock started rather nervously after the misfortune of needing help from a stagehand to detach her harness, but for a performer to make her first entrance down a forty-foot ladder is surely a bit of an ordeal. She warmed up later, and at the start of Act III scene 3 her War es so schmählich (Was it so shameful), delivered initially without orchestral accompaniment, was beautifully sung.

Siegmund and Sieglinde

The final ending was an orchestral triumph, and so was the beginning with Pappano delivering a feisty prelude including wonderful thunder from the kettledrum after Siegmund enters, and beautiful playing from the solo cello. When John Tomlinson later enters as Hunding, driving his axe into the table, the drama moves into top gear and his initial Du labtest ihn? was unusually powerful. Followed by his Heilig ist mein Herd (Holy is my hearth), including a brief handshake with Siegmund, it became quite clear who was master here. A hugely commanding portrayal, only rivalled by La Scala’s new production in December 2010 with — wait for it — Tomlinson again. Yet in Act II after facing Siegmund with Wotan taking a hand, he suddenly shows uncertainty and fear, and rightly so as Wotan drives his spear into him, having done the same to Siegmund.

Valkyries and Terfel as Wotan

As Siegmund himself, Simon O’Neill gave a moving performance, singing with huge conviction and animation, and with fine chemistry between him and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde. Faced later with Brünnhilde in Act II his So grüsse mir Walhall (Then greet Valhalla for me) was simply riveting. When Sieglinde awakes, the stage is suffused with new energy, and in Act III her emotional O hehrstes Wunder! Herrlichste Maid! was beautifully delivered, with a lovely ringing quality to her top notes.

Altogether a super Walküre, grounded by Bryn Terfel’s brilliant performance as Wotan. We shall miss him in the final opera, but his reappearance as the Wanderer in Siegfried on Saturday is eagerly anticipated.

There are four Ring cycles, the final Walküre being on October 28 — for details click here. There will also be a live broadcast on Radio 3 on October 18 at 4:45 pm, and Christmas broadcasts of Acts I, II and III on December 25, 26 and 27 at 4:30 pm.

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 Walküre, Metropolitan Opera live cinema relay, May 2011

15 May, 2011

The second act of Walküre is the axis about which the whole Ring turns, and I’ll restrict my remarks mainly to that part.

In the first Ring opera, Rheingold, Wotan is persuaded to give up the mighty ring that he stole from Alberich. This is when the earth goddess Erda appears from the depths warning him to Flieh’ des Ringes Fluch! (Flee the curse of the ring). Now his own wife, Fricka appears demanding he rescind his support for Siegmund who has broken the bonds of matrimony by taking Sieglinde from her loveless marriage. So often this comes over as a petulant moment, but Stephanie Blythe as Fricka exhibits a powerful presence, and in Robert Lepage’s brilliant production she rises from behind the stage set and, like Erda, compels Wotan to change his mind.

Wotan and Fricka, all photos Metropolitan Opera/ Ken Howard

The dialogue between her and Bryn Terfel as Wotan is superbly done, and as she demolishes his claims that Siegmund is a free agent, he is aghast. Yet Blythe manages not simply to demand, but cajole, becoming emotional and shedding tears. As she does so, Terfel’s Was verlangst du? (What do you ask/desire?) came through with heartfelt anguish, and by the time he sings Nimm den Eid! (Take my oath) he is utterly defeated. He then countermands his orders to Brünnhilde, who will later tell Siegmund of his fate. In scene 3 of Act II we find Siegmund and Sieglinde, superbly portrayed by Jonas Kaufmann and Eva-Maria Westbroek, as they reappear following their magnificent love scene in Act I. They showed wonderful chemistry together and after she falls asleep, and Brünnhilde appears to Siegmund alone, Kaufmann gave a riveting portrayal of his determination not to be defeated by Hunding, nor be a victim to Wotan’s change of heart. He showed immense nobility as he responded to Brünnhilde with So grüsse mir Walhall (Then greet Valhalla for me), and when he realises his fate is to die in battle, and tries to bring down the sword to kill both himself and Sieglinde, it is only Brünnhilde’s shield that stops him.

Siegmund and Sieglinde in Act I

This is a second turning point in Act II. If Brünnhilde had obeyed Wotan then the lovers would die and the gods would live on while Fafner continues guarding the ring. But it is not to be. Siegmund’s love has moved Brünnhilde to disobey Wotan, allowing Sieglinde to escape after the battle with Hunding, and as Siegmund lies mortally wounded she is spirited away. Wotan’s anguish was palpable as he cradles his own son, the dying Siegmund in his arms. Terfel is remarkable, brilliant, outstanding in his portrayal of Wotan. As he sweeps his arm sideways to dismiss Hunding, his emphasis is on the second Geh! Here is a god whose anger and frustration will lead eventually to the twilight of the gods.

Brünnhilde arrives on high carrying Sieglinde

In Act III the Valkyries tremble before Wotan’s arrival, declining to help Sieglinde. Brünnhilde then takes charge, deciding to send her to the East with the shards of Siegmund’s sword, and naming her unborn baby, Siegfried. Eva-Maria Westbroek then launched into Sieglinde’s O hehrstes Wunder! (Oh, most sublime miracle) as if it were the high point of the entire ring, and for her it was. We do not see her again. Yet although I may praise the singers for bringing out these high points to perfection, it was only through James Levine’s sensitive and powerful conducting that all this was possible. He brought huge emotion from the orchestra, building up to the great moments so that they came on the audience with enormous force. Levine’s conducting of the so-called Ride of the Valkyries was done without any of the bombast that sometimes spoils this orchestral prelude to the third act. His sensitive support of the singers, along with the staging in which the Valkyries could sing front-stage made the first two scenes of Act III come over beautifully.

The rather thankless role of Hunding in Act I, and briefly in Act II, was strongly sung by Hans-Peter König, and the entire cast sang superbly, including Deborah Voigt as Brünnhilde, though her facial expressions did not always suit the emotions she was expressing in the music. She was such a wonderful Isolde for the Met in 2008, but she is singing Brünnhilde for the first time, and I’m sure she will bring more depth to the role in the last two operas of the Ring next year.

This new Ring is already showing a unified sense to the staging, as the Valkyries and Rheinmaidens both appear at the top of a slanting set, and I look forward to Siegfried in November, and Götterdämmerung next February.