Posts Tagged ‘Waltraud Meier’

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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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.

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.

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.

Wagner at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, a retrospective, February 2010

17 February, 2010

Five Wagner operas in six days — LohengrinRienziDer fliegende HolländerTannhäuser, and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg — was quite a marathon, but well worth it, particularly for three of the productions. Lohengrin and Meistersinger, both under the direction of Götz Friedrich were excellent, and Philipp Stölzl’s Rienzi gave us an intriguing representation of Hitler and the Nazis — very appropriate when one recalls that Hitler loved the opera and possessed the original score, which presumably went up in flames in the bunker when he died. Interestingly enough, Wagner had already disassociated himself from this early opera well before he died, which was before Hitler was born. Of the other two operas, the production of Tannhäuser by Kirsten Harms was effective in the first two acts, but disappointing in the third, while the one-act Holländer was given an absurd production by Tatjana Gürbaca. Opera houses that put on such nonsense shoot themselves in the foot, as word gets around and many seats remain unsold.

Some of the singing was outstanding. Anyone who did not attend Tannhäuser missed a superb performance by Stephen Gould, who seems perfectly suited to this role. In November 2011 he will sing it at the Wiener Staatsoper, where he will also perform Siegfried in the last two Ring operas. Mentioning singers who fill a role to perfection, I thought Torsten Kerl performed very well, and was convincingly narcissistic, as the title character in Rienzi. And a similar wonderful pairing between singer and role was Klaus Florian Vogt as Walther in Meistersinger. It’s one of his main parts, along with Lohengrin, and I would rather have seen him in that opera than Ben Heppner, whose power seems to have weakened in recent years, though he retains his lyricism. As it was I thought the best performers in Lohengrin were Waltraud Meier and Eike Wilm Schulte, who were wonderfully mendacious as Ortrud and Telramund. King Henry the Fowler was also very strongly sung by Markus Brück, who gave us a superb Beckmesser in Meistersinger, young, smug and appallingly lacking in self-esteem — it was a wonderful act. Holländer is hardly worth mentioning since the singers cannot do their best in such an absurd production, but I found the strongest member of the cast to be Hans-Peter König singing Daland, as he did a year ago at the Royal Opera.

As far as the conducting went, Jacques Lacombe’s rendition of Holländer came over well, and since the production was so awful I kept my eyes closed and concentrated on the music. Sebastian Lang-Lessing did well with Rienzi in the cut-down version that was performed here, and I very much liked Michael Schønwandt’s conducting of Lohengrin. Ulf Schirmer did well with Tannhäuser, but although I found Donald Runnicles’ conducting of Meistersinger to be very sensitive to the singers, I wasn’t sure he had taken enough time to rehearse. Being later in Wagner’s oeuvre than the other operas during the week it is musically more sophisticated and I felt there was some raggedness in parts.

Altogether, however this was a great week of Wagner. I particularly loved the Götz Friedrich productions of Lohengrin and Meistersinger, and found Rienzi stunning after a rather dubious first half. Congratulations to the Deutsche Oper for putting it on in this new Philipp Stölzl production.

Lohengrin, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Wagner Wochen, February 2010

10 February, 2010

This Götz Friedrich production, with sets and costumes by Peter Sykora, has a warmth and immediacy that emphasises the human weaknesses and machinations of the story. Friedrich’s excellent staging is well supported by the performers, particularly Waltraud Meier, who plays the evil Ortrud with subtle malice, and Eike Wilm Schulte, who portrays a fiercely tendentious Telramund with a commanding voice — this nasty pair both exhibit great stage presence. King Henry the Fowler was beautifully sung by Markus Brück, and Elsa was well portrayed, with suitable frailty, by Ricarda Merbeth. She sang well and I only wish she’d shown less tension in her face during Act I, as I prefer to see Elsa exhibit sublime confidence in finding a champion against the malicious accusations that she has killed her young brother Gottfried. The hero she awaits, who will defeat Telramund and his sorceress-wife Ortrud, is Lohengrin himself. This was Ben Heppner, who sang out boldly with great lyricism, though his stage presence was mainly notable by its absence.

The orchestra was excellently conducted by Michael Schønwandt, and I loved the horns on stage, and later off-stage. These were glorious instruments without valves, beautifully played by Gerhard Greif, Kurt Kratz, Ulrich Riehl and Joachim Weigert. The staging and the music were both very fine, and the lighting was quite remarkable. The gradual fade-outs on Telramund and Ortrud, and the glow on Elsa, were particularly well done. The bridesmaids and church choristers were nice touches in this production, and as Elsa enters the church at the end of Act II she pauses to look back at Ortrud, a moment that was well lit and dramatically emphasised.

Although Lohengrin is my least favourite Wagner opera — I find Act II overlong, and have a secret admiration for Rossini’s alleged comment that, “One can’t judge Wagner’s opera Lohengrin after a first hearing, and I certainly don’t intend hearing it a second time” — this production is wonderful, and perhaps the best I’ve ever seen.