Die Walküre: Bring up the bodies

This Munich Ring cycle seems to be
slowly moving through time, having started Rheingold
in a timeless prehistory with a communal pagan celebration of nature and Walküre attaching itself firmly to the European fin de siècle. This is a period beloved of many a Wagner
director (above all Chéreau), who map the powerful but declining gods onto the
fading aristocracy. Kriegenburg isn’t as specific as Chéreau when it comes to
filling in the details, and the whole thing works more by vague suggestion than
allegory. The crowds of people, in Rheingold
representatives of natural elements and then Alberich’s slaves, are now
servants in a world that has developed social hierarchies.

That wasn’t much of a lead-in, sorry, I wanted to get right to the point because this was an excellent Walküre!
First: if you’d like to see this cycle for yourself, you can watch Götterdämmerung live on the Internet (or on a giant screen in Max-Joseph-Platz, should you be in Munich), free, tomorrow 15 July at 17:00 Munich time. I highly recommend it! More information here.

Wagner, Die Walküre. Bayerische Staatsoper Ring Zyklus B, 7/11/2012.
Musikalische Leitung Kent Nagano

Inszenierung Andreas Kriegenburg
Bühne Harald B. Thor
Kostüme Andrea Schraad
Licht Stefan Bolliger
Choreographie Zenta Haerter
Siegmund Klaus Florian Vogt
Hunding Ain Anger
Wotan Thomas J. Mayer
Sieglinde Anja Kampe
Brünnhilde Iréne Theorin
Fricka Sophie Koch

Sorry to be getting behind with the writing but this cycle hasn’t been getting much attention in English so I wanted to find time to do my usual medium-long form thing. I wrote most of the staging portion before I saw Siegfried on Friday. I will try to get to writing about that before I go see Götterdämmerung on Sunday.

The wheel is not being reinvented in this cycle, or perhaps more accurately it isn’t rolling anywhere it hasn’t rolled before. But it has a dramatic honesty and nuance that just works very consistently and naturally.

We open to see a slightly weakly choreographed battle between Siegmund and a bunch of people (Siegmund has perhaps been too busy of late taking the next swan to Bayreuth [along with Wotan, apparently] to keep up with his fight rehearsals, but he was in fine vocal health), then switch via stage elevator to chez Hunding. The expected tree is decorated with hanging bodies and populated by a silent and mysterious handmaiden staff. Hunding takes “this house looks like a funeral parlor!” to a whole new level by having the ladies washing corpses on some tables as the action proceeds. All together, this made me think of it as a less immortal variation on Valhalla, complete with Wunschmädchen and dead heroes. Siegmund and Sieglinde aren’t able to get close to each other for a long time and tend to tell their stories more to us than to each other, but when they finally do look at each other they make it count.

Valhalla is, in contrast, orderly, with a male staff. Hanging on the wall is a murky 19th-century landscape—an ironic gesture to the sort of gloomy backdrop so often used for this piece as well as the natural world the gods have subjugated. Fricka seems to be the forgotten trophy wife trying to keep the house together, and both she and Wotan repeatedly break glasses of water in anger, again overpowering a natural element. In the next scene the servants become corpses or rocks littering the Wälsungs’ escape route, where they are watched by Brünnhilde well before the start of her scene. As Siegmund fights Hunding, the two rise on the rear stage elevator, heartbreakingly far from Sieglinde’s reach. The act ends with Wotan running to kneel over Siegmund’s body.

Act III begins with the now-notorious horse ballet, a troupe of silver-clad ladies (more like very determined flamenco dancers than tappers) stomping and gasping at length a capella, which you can see on video at the bottom of this post. So far it is just about the only thing in the production unusual enough to upset anyone, but it’s a big thing and a few minutes into it the audience started yelling, a few with a force that suggested they should audition for Siegfried. I could take it or leave it, myself, I’m not offended but didn’t think it added anything and it made me wonder if I should be thankful that Kriegenburg hadn’t been more creative elsewhere. The following Ride of the Valkyries is excellent in the scary rather than the hearty mode, with the dead heroes in the form of bodies on tall sticks. The rest proceeds as expected with actual flames (smallish ones) surrounding Brünnhilde at the end, whose flickering seems much more appropriate to the music than their more popular, smoother projected cousins.

Kent Nagano’s conducting was more assertive this time around, and while it was still short in terms of tension and energy the situation was not as dire as Rheingold. The orchestra, while sometimes a little sloppy in the details, has a great sound when they get going.

The cast was very strong. Anja Kampe’s Sieglinde was the highlight of the performance for me. Though I am just about always susceptible to Sieglinde, Kampe has an incredibly vivid and sympathetic presence, abused and downtrodden but emerging as tragically triumphant. She sang with real abandon and her edgy high notes are exciting, her less than opulent middle voice not as much but she lives the music. Klaus Florian Vogt’s Siegmund was the rest of the audience’s favorite. He’s an odd duck, with a clear, almost blank voice that projects effortlessly despite its featherweight tone. Some of the music works well form him, notably a sweetly lyrical Winterstürme (also on video at the bottom of this post) and the clarion higher phrases of the Todesverkündigung, but this is a very low-lying role and many of the deeper parts were completely inaudible. As Siegmund I would prefer to hear a voice with more heroic heft rather than a Lohengrin innocent, but he had some moments. His acting is nothing like Kampe’s but he’s natural enough.

Iréne Theorin stood in for the ill Katarina Dalayman as Brünnhilde (Dalayman appears in the photos). She made her energetic, fist-pumping entrance straight from another, less subtle production (and proceeded to let out an exceptionally good battle cry), but over the course of the evening toned it down to fit in a little better. She is vocally convincing, with a big attractive tone and good sense for the musical line sometimes impeded by a large vibrato and a tendency to go sharp. For a last-minute replacement, a very classy performance.

Thomas Mayer was a fine Wotan and an improvement over Rheingold’s Johan Reuter. His voice is not large but is well-projected enough to always be audible, and his declamation of the text is clear and strong. He tired and delivered a slightly wooly Farewell but was both magisterial and sympathetic–I really like how this production shows the gods on a human scale without histrionics. Sophie Koch was again an impressive Fricka, and a physically very energetic one. Ain Anger was a young and lyrical but appropriately nasty Hunding. The only real vocal hitch was the Valkyries; it is hard to believe that the Bavarians couldn’t get together a stronger, more convincingly dramatic bunch. When all were singing together it was alright, but individually many sounded underpowered or ragged.

While this production is somewhat quiet, I’m finding a lot to like in its subtlety and humanity. (The only thing that really escaped me in this evening was some V-Effekt business with water bottles during the final scene that seemed to come out of nowhere.) I’m not sure how it will revive—it is the detailed character work that largely makes it special—but right now there’s a lot to like.

Photos copyright Wilfred Hösl. (More photos appear below the videos.)


The Horse Ballet (only a bit of the dance, then the Ride of the Valkyries)

More photos:

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