Posts Tagged ‘Wagner’

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.

Die Feen, Chelsea Opera Group, Queen Elizabeth Hall, March 2013

18 March, 2013

Wagner was 20 when he wrote this opera, and it was never performed in his lifetime. Seeing it in Fulham forty years ago I was amazed at its sophistication, and delighted with the Chelsea Opera Group’s concert performance last night.

The two main characters, Arindal and Ada have the same names as in Wagner’s first but uncompleted opera Die Hochzeit (The Wedding), yet the situation is quite different. The political union in that opera is replaced here by a love that is politically almost impossible since Arindal is a mortal prince, and Ada an immortal from the fairy world. She decides to give up her immortality, though knowing this is fraught with difficulty since the spirit world will strike at Arindal giving him ample reason to curse her. He does, and all seems lost. Yet true love triumphs, and the resulting redemption prefigures the world of Wagner’s later operas, with precognitive echoes of Tannhäuser in the music.

Conducting by Dominic Wheeler produced fine energetic playing from the orchestra, bringing this early Wagner very much to life. At one point in Act I he stopped the music to bring the soloists back into phase with the orchestra, but after that it all began to gel, with Danish tenor David Danholt singing strongly in the role of Arindal and New Zealand soprano Kirstin Sharpin singing beautifully as Ada. At the start of Act II the chorus laments the attacks of the enemy, but Elisabeth Meister as Arindal’s sister Lora chimed in strongly, and her solo expressing the brave hope of seeing her brother again drew spontaneous applause. This suddenly moved the performance to a higher level, and Ada’s big aria Weh’ mir … (Alas, the fearful hour draws nigh) confirmed it.

Excellent singing from the three male courtiers, Andrew Slater (bass), Andrew Rees (tenor) and particularly Mark Stone (baritone). Ben McAteer showed strong diction in the minor baritone role of Harald, Emma Carrington sang a lovely mezzo as one of Ada’s two fairy attendants, and Piotr Lempa was a wonderful bass in Act III as the voice of the magician Groma, and as the Fairy King who eventually bestows immortality on Arindal after he has released Ada from petrifaction.

Wagner never again had such a simple happy ending in his redemptive dramas, and discounted this early effort. But what a treat it was to hear such an excellent performance, and congratulations to Chelsea Opera Group and conductor Dominic Wheeler for putting it on.

Parsifal, Metropolitan Opera live cinema relay, 2 March 2013

3 March, 2013

A stunning performance with a wonderful cast under superb musical direction by Daniele Gatti could make for a series of tiresome superlatives, so I shall start with a more interesting observation.

Kundry, Parsifal, Gurnemanz, all images MetOpera/ KenHoward

Kundry, Parsifal, Gurnemanz, all images MetOpera/ KenHoward

This endlessly intriguing opera allows every production to bring out some new aspect. The brilliant Bayreuth production relates it to the history of Germany in the first half of the twentieth century, but this one by François Girard has a more ethereal nature in which I found myself drawing a comparison between Act II of Parsifal with Siegfried.

In that middle section, Evgeny Nikitin, whose body tattoos caused his last minute rejection as the Dutchman at Bayreuth this past summer, made an extraordinary Klingsor reminiscent of Alberich in Siegfried. Here was a magician who held power by his determination to thwart the world, but is being defeated by forces beyond his control. And as Katerina Dalayman’s seductive Kundry cast her spell over Jonas Kaufmann’s simple, yet nobly portrayed Parsifal, singing of a mother’s yearning and a mother’s tears, I almost expected him to burst out with O heil der Mutter, die mich gebar! (O hail to the mother who gave me birth). But this is not Siegfried. Parsifal has a hidden inner strength and finally bursts out with Amfortas! …, recalling his great mission to relieve the enduring pain and mortal failure of the king, and renew of land of the Grail.

In Act III as he blesses Kundry, allowing her to die in peace, and heals the wound of Peter Mattei’s agonized Amfortas, so he can do the same, the excellent lighting and video designs by David Finn and Peter Flaherty change the bleak landscape to one of warmth and sunrise. Everything is entsündigt und entsühnt (redeemed and atoned for), though the subtitles gave a very odd translation of the German at times.

4.parsfd_7893a

The cinematography by Barbara Willis Sweete was exceptional, giving us a full stage picture with close-ups that never intruded to spoil the magic. In fact it enhanced the production in some places, as when Parsifal and Gurnemanz travel together to the Grail and we hear those wonderful lines Ich schreite kaum, doch wähn’ ich mich schon weit. Du siehst mein Sohn, zum Raum wird hier die Zeit (I scarcely step yet seem to move apace. You see, my son, here time is one with space). The camera views them from below, and manages the feat of rendering Gurnemanz larger than Parsifal.

As Gurnemanz, René Pape gave a performance of huge power, with fine diction. In Act I his expressions of emotion gave us a man who cares deeply for his beloved land of the Grail, and in Act III his sanctification of Parsifal was a sublime moment. The whole cast sang superbly, as did the chorus, and Carolyn Choa’s choreography for the Flower Maidens was attractively subdued and musical.

Good hosting by Eric Owens, who was a memorable Alberich in The Ring, and congratulations to the Met for this intelligent screening of Wagner’s final opera.

Götterdämmerung, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, September 2012

2 October, 2012

Under Antonio Pappano’s direction the orchestra gave us a lyrical and multi-layered interpretation of Wagner’s score, ranging from soft moments to huge power.

Norns, all images ROH/ Clive Barda

After the prologue with the Norns, followed by Brünnhilde and Siegfried, things really opened out in Act I with John Tomlinson as Hagen in the hall of the Gibichungs. He was riveting as he explains to his half brother and sister, Gunther and Gutrune, how they might win fabulous partners. Too fabulous of course, but they are easily fooled by this son of Alberich, who then gave a superb monologue as he sits to keep watch, ending deeply and darkly with des Niebelungen Sohn (the Niebelung’s son). Dimly lit, he remains sitting for the rest of the act as Brünnhilde is first visited by Waltraute and then by Siegfried’s transformation as Gunther.

Mihoko Fujimura as Waltraute showed wonderful stage presence and diction along with huge strength and purity of tone, outshining the uncertain stage presence and excessive vibrato of Susan Bullock’s Brünnhilde. She rose effortlessly over the orchestra, ending with a wonderfully defiant Walhalls Göttern weh! (Woe to the gods of Valhalla).

Brünnhilde with the Gibichungs

In Act II, Tomlinson as Hagen steals the show, quietly of course at first when he is addressed by his father Alberich, very assertively sung by Wolfgang Koch in a little boat in the air, like a one-eyed, heavy-set version of the Mekon. As the Gibichung scenes follow, with Stefan Vinke as a boldly ingenuous Siegfried, Peter Coleman-Wright as a grandiosely weak Gunther, and Rachel Willis-Sørensen as a very strongly sung Gutrune, Tomlinson once again became the focus with a powerful call to the vassals. After Brünnhilde arrives his gaze follows her, and when he persuades her and Gunther that the only solution is Siegfried’s death, his voice took on extraordinary colour.

In Act III Stefan Vinke as Siegfried has just the right tone and bolshy attitude when meeting the Rheinmaidens, and when the hunters arrive he gives a fine account of his earlier life, urged on by Hagen. Hagen’s murder of Siegfried and subsequent attempt to grab the ring from him was very effective, and the orchestra then swept us forward with a superb funeral march. Weakness only occurs later at the hall of the Gibichungs where instead of Brünnhilde dominating Gutrune, Rachel Willis-Sørensen had the more powerful stage presence, though after feebly raising an arm just before Starke Scheite, Susan Bullock as Brünnhilde sang strongly at the end.

The final scene of Keith Warner’s production has Hagen taking the ring from Brünnhilde only to be overwhelmed by the Rheinmaidens. Images of the gods are suspended over fires, and young people come onto stage as if representing a new world order, but I would prefer the music without too much imagery. All in all, however, a memorable Ring cycle under Pappano’s musical direction, and a nice touch at the end was the entire orchestra appearing on stage for the curtain calls.

There are three further Ring cycles, the final Götterdämmerung being on November 2 — for details click here. There will also be a live broadcast on Radio 3 on Wednesday, October 24 at 3:45 pm, and Christmas broadcasts of Acts I, II and III on January 2, 3 and 4 at 4:30 pm.

Siegfried, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, September 2012

30 September, 2012

Wotan’s meeting with Erda that starts Act III of Siegfried is a focal point in his demise.  After awakening her for advice she tells him to ask Brünnhilde, their daughter bold and wise, but learning Wotan has cast her aside, she asks why he who taught defiance punished defiance, why he who ruled by vows now rules by perjury. Wotan responds angrily, and in most productions Erda simply sinks back down into the earth, but in Keith Warner’s staging he stabs her in the side with his spear and she slumps over the side of her throne.

Act I, all images ROH/ Clive Barda

This deeply flawed Wotan, whose downfall may be represented by the crash-landed aeroplane we see in Act I, was superbly portrayed and sung by Bryn Terfel, and his encounters with Mime in Act I, Alberich in Act II, and Siegfried in Act III were beautifully represented. While Wotan is the key to this opera, the cast was a strong one despite the illness of Wolfgang Koch as Alberich, which led to an interesting last minute scramble.

According to Kasper Holten, who appeared on stage before the start, Koch informed the ROH this morning that he would be unable to sing, so they flew Jochen Schmeckenbecher in from Vienna. Holten smilingly told us he was already on his way through passport control, and from the wings in Act II, with Koch acting the role on stage, he gave a fine performance.

As Mime, Gerhard Siegel was in excellent voice, his acting superb, and in Act II this scheming liar dons an ass’s head whenever he speaks his true thoughts to Siegfried. This is a nice aspect of the production, as is the representation of Fafner. After he puts on the tarnhelm, turns into a dragon and is fatally wounded, Siegfried places the helm on the floor, lifts it up and the head continues to sing. Later he brings the dead head to stage front, placing it next to the body of Mime. While still alive, Eric Halfvarson sang a wonderful Fafner, his deep notes carrying an air of otherworldly wisdom and menace. Lovely singing from Sophie Bevan as the Woodbird, and her clever contemporaneous contortions on the trapeze were a wonder to behold.

Woodbird and Siegfried

She interacted well with Siegfried, whom Stefan Vinke portrayed to perfection as a strong brash fellow. His powerful singing had a great clarity of tone, and he seemed entirely at ease on stage. Sadly this was not so true for Susan Bullock’s Brünnhilde, and though her voice showed charm, particularly in unaccompanied passages, her stage presence failed to convey the power of this role. Whether she will have the imperious glance to face down Gutrune in Act III of Götterdämmerung remains to be seen on Monday.

End of Act III

The orchestra was on top form under Antonio Pappano’s direction, giving great support to the singers, and I loved the percussion work by Stefan Vinke’s Siegfried as he tempers the sword. A wonderful performance all round, and such a pity that Bryn Terfel is now out of it. His response to the thunderous applause was admirably restrained, and he seems to be happy to be just one of an excellent team.

There are four Ring cycles, the final Siegfried being on October 31 — for details click here. There will also be a live broadcast on Radio 3 on Sunday, October 21 at 2:45 pm, and Christmas broadcasts of Acts I, II and III on December 28, 31 and January 1 at 4:30 pm.

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.

Das Rheingold, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, September 2012

25 September, 2012

This prologue to Wagner’s Ring promises a feast of fine singing and acting in the remaining three operas of the cycle.

All images ROH/ Clive Barda

Alberich and Rheinmaidens, all images ROH/ Clive Barda

Bryn Terfel sang as well or better than I have ever heard him in the role of Wotan, emphasising maturity and self-awareness, showing he realises he has set in motion something against which the treaties on his spear will be powerless. His acting left the audience in no doubt that they were witnessing the start of something very dangerous, confirmed by Loge’s later warning when he sings of the gods hastening to their end.

As Wotan’s wife Fricka, Sarah Connolly sang beautifully, giving the role a hugely feminine charm, and in two days time it will be intriguing to see how she and Terfel interact in their difficult conflict during Act II of Walküre. Such a pity however that fratricide has removed Iain Paterson’s magnificent Fasolt. His engaging appearance in flat cap, carrying a measuring rod of five cubits length, was well matched by his superbly lyrical singing, and when Fafner strikes him down we see the action very clearly as he falls forward against the glass wall facing us.

Gods and telescope

This is one of many fine aspects to Keith Warner’s production, revived by the director himself. The descent to Niebelheim is accomplished by the floor rising, revealing a coldly lit, colourless realm where a cadaver lies on a hospital trolley, and Alberich rapes a woman tied down to another trolley, though Wotan eventually sets her free. Niebelheim is a thoroughly nasty world, but this production also has its light moments. Alberich’s transformations using the tarnhelm are amusingly effective, and right at the end of the opera, the shrewd but flippant Loge takes one of Freia’s golden apples, slices it, and cooks it in a frying pan!

Valhalla awaits

In the meantime Antonio Pappano’s conducting has moved the action smoothly forward, making two and a half hours seem like nothing at all, particularly with such very fine singing from the whole cast. Gerhard Siegel made a superb return to the role of Mime, but many of the cast were new. Wolfgang Koch and Eric Halfvarson sang strongly, making their House debuts  in the bass roles of Alberich and Fafner, and Maria Radner sang a glorious Erda. Stig Andersen made a cheekily lively, if somewhat ungainly Loge, Ann Petersen sang with real feeling in the relatively minor role of Freia, and among the Rheinmaidens I particularly liked Harriet Williams in the role of Flosshilde as she sings seductively to Alberich.

Word has it that the entire cast for this Ring is rehearsing very strongly both in terms of singing and acting, and I eagerly await the next three operas.

There are four Ring cycles, the final Rheingold being on October 26 — for details click here.

Parsifal, Bayreuth Festival, July 2012

31 July, 2012

The present extraordinary Bayreuth production by Stefan Herheim portrays Germany from before the First World War to the aftermath of the Second, with Parsifal representing the true spirit of the country, and Amfortas the one that lost itself in Nazi times.

Parsifal and Gurnemanz, all images Bayreuther Festspiele/ Enrico Nawrath

It all starts during the overture, with Parsifal’s mother Herzeleide close to death. Lying in bed, she reaches out to Parsifal as a boy, finally managing to embrace him before he runs outside with his toy bow and arrow. As the other four people in the room follow him with their gaze, the faith motive rings forth and Herzeleide dies. Later in the overture she returns to life holding a red rose, embraces her son and falls through the bed with him. The bed plays a central role, allowing transformations forwards and backwards through time.

Parsifal and Amfortas

As we move into Act I the boy has returned, and both Gurnemanz and Amfortas, desiring renewal and exoneration from suffering, look penetratingly towards him at significant moments. Amfortas once made the great error of falling prey to Klingsor’s magic, acquiring a wound that will not heal, and that fatal incident was seen in flash-back during the overture when Klingsor himself appeared on a drawbridge wielding his spear, while Amfortas embraces Kundry on the bed and they vanish into the depths.

This production plays with time. In Act I during that wonderful orchestral interlude where Gurnemanz and the youthful Parsifal travel together to the ceremony of the holy grail, we see Herzeleide give birth, with Kundry acting as midwife. The baby is ceremonially taken away by Gurnemanz, Herzeleide becomes transformed into Amfortas, and images of real World War I soldiers appear projected on the backdrop. Their counterparts enter the stage as chorus, swaying gently from side to side in an immensely powerful scene where the German Eagle appears in place of the swan that Parsifal shot. Thus ends Act I after nearly two hours of music and remarkable stage magic.

Kundry and Klingsor behind

Act II starts with wounded soldiers, and ends with Nazi banners, storm troopers, and the appearance of Klingsor on the balcony of Wagner’s Bayreuth house Wahnfried, a design used here as the set for much of the opera. Klingsor, dressed in blond wig, stockings and suspenders, lifts his spear, the lights go out, and Parsifal breaks the spell. In the meantime Kundry has appeared in a red dress, a white dress and finally clothed like Klingsor but with blue wings — a blue angel ready to seduce Parsifal. The Nazi era seduced many, but the spirit of Germany lives on, and in Act III while Gurnemanz stands in military uniform near the devastation of a flattened city, Parsifal returns. The ceremony of the grail is now transferred to the Bundesrat in Bonn, and a huge circular mirror tilted behind the set allows us to see everything from above. Titurel’s coffin is draped with the German flag, and as Parsifal performs the ceremony of the grail the mirror slowly tilts so that we begin to see ourselves, the audience, participating in this huge cleansing and renewal of the German spirit.

Final redemption

Burkhard Fritz sang a strong Parsifal, Susan Maclean likewise as Kundry, and Thomas Jesatko was a sinister Klingsor. Diógenes Randes came over well as the voice of Titurel, the chorus was excellent, and Detlef Roth was a sympathetic Amfortas, hugely powerful in Act I. Kwangchul Youn made a commandingly strong Gurnemanz, portraying the role with fine gravitas, and Philippe Jordan conducted with a sure hand. The whole performance came over with an air of magic, and it is only regrettable that this intriguing production leaves the repertoire at the end of the season.

This year was my second visit to the production — see also my review last year.

Performances continue until August 26 — for details click here.