Die Walküre: Put a Ring on it

After a very disappointing Rheingold, the Wiener Staatsoper’s Ring picked up a bit for last night’s Walküre. Adam Fischer’s conducting was more exciting, and Edith Haller and Christopher Ventris made an acceptable pair of Wälsungs. The rest, uh, I’m still worried.

Wagner, Die Walküre. Wiener Staatsoper, 3/7/2011. Production by Sven-Eric Bechtolf, conducted by Adam Fischer with Juha Uusitalo (Wotan), Eva Johansson (Brünnhilde), Edith Haller (Sieglinde), Christopher Ventris (Siegmund), Michaela Schuster (Fricka), Günther Groissböck (Hunding).

Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s Walküre isn’t quite so bare-bones as the Rheingold, with a few more enigmatic symbols scattered about, but it still doesn’t work. The Ring is too complex and epic to reduce to minimal character work, particularly when the direction is as generic and unilluminating as it is here. I’ve seen many productions at the Staatsoper that have been more desperately static than this one–actually, the blocking keeps things moving pretty well. But the determined lack of vision and meaning is fatal. It’s not a political Ring, it’s not a mythic Ring, it’s not even a look-at-this-fancy-stage-tech-shit Ring. It’s not an anything Ring. Seriously, if you’re not going to be ambitious when you put on the Ring, when the hell are you going to be?

The unit set is slightly different from that of Rheingold, this time consisting of looming white art deco-ish walls. These eventually serve as a giant projection screen for the expected leaping flames. Chez Hunding is adorned with a single ash tree trunk going through the simple dining room table; these trees multiply for the second act (which otherwise features the same styrofoam rocks as the mountaintop of Rheingold). For Act Three, we get a lot of horse statues. Dress continues to be vaguely early-twentieth century, but not strong enough to make a point. The Valkyries are wrapped in tinfoil prom dresses as they manhandle various heroes, and Brünnhilde’s glittery taffeta gown–with a drop waist and pleats, words cannot do this dress justice–recalls the faded fashions of Viennese ballgoers. Between this and Anna Bolena, I suspect some fabric baron left a giant bequest of iridescent taffeta to the Staatsoper.

Beyond the looks, there’s not a lot to talk about, staging-wise. A dead wolf is hanging out in Act Two and the scattered golden heads seem to suggest bits of the remaining Rheingold (huh?). The Valkyries’ excited swarming around Sieglinde as soon as her pregnancy was announced (OMG babyz!) really ticked me off. Much of the action is too dimly lit, particularly the end of Act Two, where we can barely see the Todesverkündigung and fight (the latter is also placed awkwardly far upstage). Also, note to Siegmunds who wish to dramatically reach over their heads and behind them to pull swords from trees: it kind of ruins the effect when you look up.

I’m sorry about the shortage of pictures in this post, but the Staatsoper website didn’t provide any others. I assure you that you aren’t missing much.

Adam Fischer again stood in for ill music director Franz Welser-Möst, and his conducting had greater tension and more drama this time around. Unfortunately, a lot of ensemble problems remained, and the clarity was still less than optimal. Putting the two halves of the brass section on the extreme opposite ends of the pit (horns are house left, trumpets and trombone and tuba house right) can produce a great enveloping effect, but they seemed to have issues playing together, particularly in the prelude. But pit-wise it was adequate, if not top rank.

Edith Haller was a bit of a puzzle as Sieglinde. She has a white, old-fashioned sort of sound that is interesting and distinctive, but can turn opaque and seem short on overtones, particularly on her thin high notes. Her production was uneven and nervous at times, but she’s a good and natural actress in this most impassioned of Wagner roles. Christopher Ventris made an alright Siegmund, with consistent, clear tone that while powerful was short on heroic weight. I can imagine why he is better known for singing Parsifal, which he will be doing at the Staatsoper later this month. His performance was also marred by a number of pronunciation mistakes. His first “Wälse!” seemed to acquire an “r” at the end, leading my companion in the peanut gallery to quip, “I was sure he was going to add ‘-Möst.’”

Among the godly, things were shakier. Eva Johansson’s Brünnhilde suffered from faulty intonation, a giant wobble and screamed high notes. She did seem to be giving it her best, and was physically convincing onstage (though her collapse at the end was cringe-inducing), but the singing was often painful to hear. Juha Uusitalo’s Wotan ran out of gas before the end of some of the long monologues and was often overpowered by the orchestra, and he remains a blank as an interpreter. Yet this was still a more alert and nuanced performance than is his norm.

The supporting singers suggested a higher standard than was sustained by the leads, as can happen at the Staatsoper. The Valkyries were a solid, wobble-free yet loud bunch. Günther Groissböck again stood in for Ain Anger, this time as Hunding, and while healthy of voice he read a bit youthful and vocally compact for the role. Michaela Schuster’s vicious Fricka was again great fun, despite her sometimes blowsy singing.

Without great conducting and a more coherent production, this Ring continues to be less than the sum of its not very impressive parts.

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  1. Congratulatons from phoenix! It was worth the trip over here to read this! You certainly got to the gist of the matter without verbose apologies or excuses for the participants. What can I say except that I am grateful I wasn't there, with the exception of Edith Haller, who is a favorite probably because she is still able to support her tone steadily (unlike her over the topbilled colleague). To my ears too Haller has that gloriously Golden Age 1960's authentically retro sounding fullsizewide middle register you speak about, something like a great imposing plaster drywall waiting to be painted, but I'm afraid the housepainter might have got lost on his way over to Villa Haller. — Edith (along with the Staatsoper's "Meine Tochter hat recht getan!" Seal of Approval) might be indulging in the old carrot on stick routine (i.e., the policy of offering a reward for making progress towards benchmarks or goals but not necessarily ever actually delivering) …. and I'm not so sure Edith shouldn't be singing Berlioz' Troyens or Santuzza or Zaida (Dom Sébastien) or Carmen or Charlotte instead of Elsa & Sieglinde.

  2. Great post Zerb! If anything your posts have done, is they've taken a bit of mystique out of the Vienna State Opera. The grass is always greener on the other side of the pond, and I have some fantasy image of the Vienna State Opera being this awesome opera house with great singers and beautiful, edgy productions. Your blog chronicles the ups and downs of this house so well and it's made me realize that all repertory opera houses are basically the same.

  3. Valkyrie antics didn't bother me so much, given what we've seen so far it could have been a lot more uninteresting. Probably not what Bechtolf intended, but the way Fricka is the odd one out costume-wise makes her look a lot like Norma Desmond (am I imagining sequins and a green satin shawl at one point?). And a small gripe, but in Act III they might have cleared away the horses before Wotan's farewell – couldn't stop thinking about family holidays in France and a culinary bête noire of mine, the barbecued-until-acrid cheval haché.

  4. Ivy, I'm listening to the Ory broadcast right now on ORF and it's making me think about your point. I'm not sure if I agree that all rep houses really are the same, though they certainly all have ups and downs (and I'm hanging on to my ideal of the Bay Staatsoper as the paradise of great singing, orchestra and thought-provoking Regie). At the top places, the people are drawn from the same pool. For example, this Walküre probably suffered in casting a bit from competing Walküres in New York and Berlin, but later we get Stephen Gould as Siegfried, as neither of those houses are doing full cycles. And I think some opera houses are better than others at convincing people to act in coherent groups. The Staatsoper often has issues in this department, and doesn't seem to even care.

    SS, the thing about the Valkyries is that I like them when they're kickass like their music is. So they're already robbed of that by their silly dresses, and then as soon as babies are mentioned they totally forget their mission and go aflutter because, women and babies! Kind of annoying from a woman's point of view.

    Fricka DID look kind of Norma Desmond, though it was a peacock-feather coat with some sequins, not a shawl. Getting those horses off would have been clumsy due to the door situation, but I agree.

  5. … and I'm hanging on to my dream of the Bay Staatsoper as the paradise of great singing, orchestra and thought-provoking Regie.

    Ivy, some of the qualities that make the orchestra of the Vienna State Opera a perennial candidate for the world’s best – warm yet shimmering strings, golden brass — were detectable even in the disappointing Rheingold.

  6. Zerb, next time you're going to have to get Director Meyer coffee and pastries because you're loosing him business.

    I decided to bail from the Hollander in February, in part based on your review, and while I had been toying with the idea of going in June for the Walkure and the Mattei Onegin weekend* it looks like I'll be stayig in Munich. (I stayed away – with difficulty – from the Stemme Siglinede [probably her last] – last year so it was alway iffy in any case).

    I agree about Munich, of course, and while the singing both in terms of reputation and actual vocal quality is almost certainly at least as good and probably even a tad better in Vienna, Munich does have many advantages. Acoustics is one – even though the houses are roughly the same capacity and – notably – the quality of routine repertoire performances which are on average dramatically better in Bavaria.

    *BTW, why are there no weekend performances of the Katja Kabanova and thats something I probably would have made the trip for.

  7. To take your comment more seriously than you probably intended it, Marcillac, Meyer doesn't have to worry about business. Ticket sales could barely be better, I think for operas it is something like 99.8% capacity. But the Staatsoper audience and often administration is so reactionary and self-satisfied, in the sense that they are sure their way is the best and don't want to look beyond their own little comfort zone. It can be infuriating and very provincial.

    By the way, next season, Stemme is singing the Marschallin (!) and Tosca (!!!!!). That latter one strikes me as strange, but who knows.

    Phoenix, I think I agree with you about Haller. It's an interesting sound and she's a good performer but I'm not sure if it's all really working very well together vocally speaking.