Bayreuth from Wieland to crocodiles

Audience members headed to the Bayreuth Festival weren’t happy. The train route from Nuremberg, the principal way to reach this small town in northern Bavaria, was suspended because of construction. They would have to take a bus instead. It would be slow. It would be uncomfortable. Yet much of the renown of the festival, which runs through Aug. 28, has been rooted in its inaccessibility, in its steadfast resistance to speed and comfort.

I wrote about the Bayreuth Festival for this Sunday’s New York Times Arts & Leisure section. For the record, I took the bus out of Bayreuth and its seats were more comfortable than those of the Festspielhaus.

I do plan on writing about the rest of the Ring here, but I have been busy with this and other deadlines, as well as moving into a new apartment in a new state (hi, everyone in Northampton, MA!). I am also going to Written on Skin this weekend. More later.

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There Will Be Wälsungs (Castorf Ring, 2)

After an animated Das Rheingold, Frank Castorf’s Bayreuth Die Walküre is a rather flat affair. There are rumblings of a larger plan, but as expected they’re more like suggestions of themes than anything systematic. For one thing, the narrative isn’t linear. We’ve gone from an indeterminate trashy American motel in Rheingold back to the 1880s. The 1880s in–you guessed it!–Baku, Azerbaijan. (Sorry if you did not, in fact, guess it. Perhaps it is helpful to remember that Castorf is from East Berlin.) There’s an oil drilling boom and once again people/gods/dwarfs/singers are destroying everything. The Wälsungs Siegmund and Sieglinde, however, don’t have any real place in this ecosystem, and this turns out to be a problem. Musically, though, this was a very strong installment, making the cleft between sound and stage ever wider.

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Real Housewives of Valhalla (Castorf Ring, 1)

Many of Bayreuth’s audience members can tell you about Ring cycles going back decades. They know the Ring very well. Not only that, but when we–and now I mean all of us–go to Bayreuth we engage with Wagner in a certain way: immersed, initiated, as part of a thread of history.  We are here to contemplate, to chew over things. We see the Ring as a work whose meaning and presentation has changed through the decades, as works with life cycles and symbolic significance. And of course the works themselves construct their own, internal networks of meaning.

The challenge of Frank Castorf’s Ring, now in its third year, is that it cannot be read in those terms. It rejects those premises. The more you ask what it “means,” the less you will see what it is.

Here are a few thoughts on Rheingold.

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Götterdämmerung: Euro crash

Andreas Kriegenburg’s Munich Ring is about society and community. How do people treat each other, how do large groups organize themselves, and how do we tell our own stories? The Ring, he suggests, is about what happens when people stop seeing each other as, well, people, and lose our connection with the natural world. Götterdämmerung is of a piece with this narrative, but in other ways weirdly unrepresentative, specific in its setting and clunky in its narrative where the others had been elegantly abstract. But fortunately this performance had a great cast, most of all Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde and Kriegenburg’s sure hand with the characters didn’t leave him, at least. Is that enough for a whole Ring?

Wagner, Götterdämmerung. Bayerische Staatsoper Ring-Zyklus B, 7/15/2012. 

Musikalische Leitung Kent Nagano
Inszenierung Andreas Kriegenburg
Bühne Harald B. Thor
Kostüme Andrea Schraad
Licht Stefan Bolliger
Choreographie Zenta Haerter
Dramaturgie Marion Tiedtke
Olaf A. Schmitt.
Chor Sören Eckhoff

Siegfried Stephen Gould
Gunther Iain Paterson
Hagen Eric Halfvarson
Alberich Wolfgang Koch
Brünnhilde Nina Stemme
Gutrune Anna Gabler
Waltraute Michaela Schuster
Woglinde Eri Nakamura
Wellgunde Angela Brower
Floßhilde Okka von der Damerau
2. Norn Jamie Barton
1. Norn Jill Grove
3. Norn Irmgard Vilsmaier

Dropping the mortals of Götterdämmerung into the world of decadent capitalism is nothing new (I think I may have even saw Peter Konwitschny in the audience). It’s also the logical continuation of the earlier installments—Rheingold’s pagan idyll interrupted, Walküre’s tribal combat, Siegfried’s Bildungsroman. But it is strikingly different in several respects. For one thing this Götterdämmerung is set in a very specific time period with a lot of specific references while the other installments worked with vague suggestion. For another, that time period is our own.
The use of the space is also very different. Instead of the beautifully irregular piles of supernumeraries we have a massive and severe modern edifice, a multilevel bank lobby of metal and glass with moving walkways and various office drones working in the background. One assumes that this is Frankfurt. Nature, in the form of a potted tree, a coat of amour and handy spear, and a Damien Hirst-like horse, is literally kept under glass. The people stare into their cellphones instead of at each other and spend the entire wedding taking pictures rather than watching.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We open with a great Norn scene that might have been the highlight of the whole evening, theatrically speaking. First we see projected on the proscenium a garbled second of CNN-like news, none of the visuals or sounds decipherable. Then the score starts. In a small, plain room, sit a group of people who apparently are survivors of a nuclear catastrophe. (Terror over the possibility of nuclear disaster is something of a German national pastime.) Rescue workers in protective suits wave Geiger counters at them and confiscate their radioactive family photos. The Norns, in their robed blonde god-wear, weave in between this scene with a ball of red yarn (a play on the German “roter Faden,” literally “red thread” but meaning the through-line or continual thread of a plot). The people aren’t looking at each other, they’re looking at their photos. Their homes, their families, their communities have been lost. This is the closest we will, in fact, get to seeing the Götterdämmerung, right here.
The mountaintop scenes are problematic, taking place in this small barn-like room in the middle of the stage. The giant main multilevel set is too big to shift, and the previous elegant, fast scene changes are no more. The many people onstage file around awkwardly, and later bring in with pieces for the main set, through narrow doors and with little of the grace seen earlier. This clunkiness might be part of the point, thematically speaking, but theatrically it’s a major drawback. Once we’re in the scene it’s alright. Nina Stemme and Stephen Gould are a much more mature-acting couple than Naglestad and Ryan in Siegfried, and “Zu neuen Taten” was, appropriately, more conventionally romantic and less youthfully exuberant, though still directed with a fine sense of detail.
Then we move into the glitzy-sleazy world of the Gibichungs, complete with giant projected ads on the set. The big unit-ish set means that the action departs literal representation much more frequently than it had previously (where we got almost every written stage direction in recognizable fashion), most notably an out-of-nowhere “Zurück vom Ring!”, but Siegfried does row his way over the backs of some capitalist drones. Meanwhile, Gunther gets a blow job, Gutrune is a slutty slut (who may have a dubious relationship with her brother—but since they’re rich moderns this one isn’t romantic), and the chorus appears as identically addressed slaves to the Euro.
Siegfried arrives in olden time clothes and gets redressed (as he does in the similar Konwitschny production) and his first loving vision of Gutrune finds her astride a giant €-shaped rocking horse. Siegfried has traded love for money. This may be just a touch heavy-handed, but the overall concept still kind of works. I get tired of the Capitalists are Evil schtick when we fail to acknowledge that the world of opera is itself firmly enmeshed in this system (less so in Europe than in the US, but I still didn’t see any of the Bay Staats sponsor BMW’s ads being mocked during the Rhine Journey), particularly when the person proffering it offers no substantive Plan B. And Kriegenburg doesn’t. But considering recent financial events, it feels remarkably topical.
Back at chez Brünnhilde, Waltraute displays a variety of nervous twitches suggesting that Valhalla is beginning to resemble an insane asylum of shut-ins. Siegfried straightforwardly arrives in Gunther’s blue suit with the Tarnhelm draped over his face, and almost seems to remember Brünnhuilde and realize what he’s about to do. But he doesn’t, and proceeds. In Act Two, Alberich shows up to find Hagen asleep with some hookers (who he later pays, proving he is not quite as completely evil as previously supposed), and we remember that the dwarf was the first person in the cycle to wear a modern suit, way back in Rheingold when he started enslaving people. Maybe capitalism is his fault? Hagen gets his cell-phone-wielding guys together and the wedding  celebrations proceed around a giant Euro sign. Brünnhilde is the only one who seems aware of her surroundings and what is happening, yet is unable to stop it.
Act Three takes place not in the country but in the wreckage of the wedding. It’s here that the concept becomes surprisingly unclear, as previously Kriegenburg has never done something like fail to provide a reason for why Siegfried is talking about a hunt. I’m not saying he needs to all the time but consistency is nice and the production seems to run out of steam at this vital point, while the moment-to-moment Personenregie is still exemplary. The actual conflagration itself is at first treated in very literal manner (with the exception of raining paper suggesting that the era of stories is ending), with a pyre just in the back of the set. During much of Brünnhilde’s heavy-duty singing, Gutrune distractingly tries to tote Gunther’s corpse upstage. Siegfried’s arm-raising to shoo Hagen away from the Ring is treated absolutely straight, but with Siegfried positioned stage center, feet pointing downstage, and with a creepy lighting effect, this most dubious of moments actually felt totally convincing. The rest, though, is debateable. As previously mentioned “Zurück vom Ring!” comes from nowhere, with Hagen panicking stage right over nothing in particular. Flames rise around Brünnhilde, she hands the Ring off to the Rhinemaidens (I think–this was in the upstage corner of the stage I could see less well), and then we are left with the panicky Gutrune. She is surrounded by some of the white-dressed picnickers from Rheingold and Siegfried, who embrace her in an affirmative meditation circle. If we can rediscover each other, we can create a new and more promising world. I think?
Gutrune is an odd character. In this production she starts off as an irritating vamp, but then in her solo scene, maybe one of the weirdest bits of the whole Ring, she transforms into a figure of some stature and possibility. As one of the only characters to survive the thing (THE ONLY of the mortals? I mean, the Rhinemaidens don’t really count?) and also one of the only ones to really grow and change, maybe she’s a logical choice for this gesture. But on the other hand, the Ring is not about poor Gutrune! Brünnhilde and Siegfried are grand, larger-than-life heroes, their love saved the world.
Waltraute: wrong about the give
back the Ring thing
Except, maybe, it didn’t, because everything is still burning up. Wagner’s ending is tricky, isn’t it? There’s tragedy in the plot and there’s hope in the music, and there’s ambiguity in the actual causes and consequences of the depicted events. Most directors, thankfully, are resistant to putting Fukushima or, if you want to be local, Dachau onstage to be followed by the music’s rebirth and redemption. I’m not sure if that’s something you could manage in a morally acceptable way, even it’s the direction in which the Vorspiel led. But putting Gutrune in the center seems like dodging the issue.
The circle of supers surrounding her encapsulate many of this project’s strengths and weaknesses. They look inward, to a closed system that could just as easily be a circular firing squad. What makes the faceless supernumeraries good, when we have seen that so many of the actual characters in this cycle are bad, even when they remember their human loyalties? To see the main characters so totally stripped of their metaphysical baggage, as people rather than symbols, can be refreshing. But it gives them individuality without symbolic stature, and meanwhile the anonymous masses somehow get to stand in for Universal Goodness. While the cycle creates many beautiful small moments, it tends to come up short in the big ones and leave us with little to hold onto,and the tender signs of humanity become an apologia for the lack of a larger vision. Gutrune may be minor, but there has not been a lot to say why Brünnhilde and Siegfried and Wotan and Fricka and all of them matter more. In the end I found the cycle’s minimalism frustratingly coy. It suggests and provides atmosphere, but despite many intriguing ideas it doesn’t have a strong and consistent connection to the central plot. Maybe that’s the point, that life is an unsolved and undirected puzzle and our only consolation is in each other, but that’s really unsatisfying.
The ideological sign-waving of this final evening felt like an attempt to inject some dramatic weight into something that almost floated away, but it leaves the cycle oddly misshapen.  Even without the Euro signs this production would have felt topical. Not only does the army of extras provide employment for a large number of freelance Müncheners, but its austerity is a fitting gesture in the current austere economy where few want to see the German government paying to reinforce the Bay Staats’s stage (even if they are still underwriting the daily business). And it has integrity of a sort: the indictment of bankers would ring far more false had this production not been an obviously low-budget affair. As a bang-for-its-buck enterprise, it exceeds other Rings to an exponential degree. In a confusing time it doesn’t presume to know the future.
But isn’t that the artist’s job, to tell us where we should be going?
Now for the music, if you’re still reading or if you are skipping to where I write about how Nina Stemme is the best. She is, in fact, the best.  She began somewhat tentatively but was soon letting out phrases of devastating size and power with a bronze, dark tone that is simply big. She is an unusually sympathetic and nuanced actress with clear diction, a great fit for this production, and made Brünnhilde a figure first of real joy and then of tragic rage and despair. The greatest weight of her voice is in the middle, and she has a habit of pausing before firing off her high notes (which are clearly her least favorite part of her range—this role lies very high for her), which tripped her up in phrases like this big one in the trio
But mostly just adds to the thrill. Her immolation found her audibly reaching her vocal limits but just pushing beyond them and never failing to find more somewhere. It’s a very moving effort, the more so because we all know it won’t last forever. I cannot imagine there is a better Brünnhilde today, I certainly haven’t heard one.
Stephen Gould has a weighty sound that matches Stemme’s well, and he makes a good effort musically speaking. His greatest asset is his scrupulous pacing, which left him still singing decently by the end of this very long role. His tone sounded managed, more pinched than usual, and he struggled with the high notes and skipped the “Mut” C entirely, but as Siegfrieds go it was an excellent performance. He is not as vivid an actor as Lance Ryan was in Siegfried but followed the directions ably. I have found him better in less strenuous roles, which is perfectly understandable.
Iain Paterson seems to be the world’s Gunther of choice at the moment. He sings it with great nuance and attention to the text, and in this production a wimpy sort of character (rather different from his more heroic take at the Met—I believe he is the only person who was in both the Munich and Met Rings). Anna Gabler has a round and darkish sound for Gutrune that was an interesting choice but didn’t always project. Eric Halfvorsen was a late replacement as Hagen (he is actually the fourth bass this production has seen in this single role–I guess we know which part of this Ring seems to be cursed) and sounded authoritative if not bone-crushing. His solo scene was appropriately malevolent, though the scene with Wolfgang Koch’s again excellent Alberich was perhaps less tense than usual. The Norns were not tquite first-rate with the exception of the second, Jaime Barton, a voice that would like to hear again and I probably will. The Rhinemaidens were much better and blended very well. It was nice to finally hear the chorus, who made up for three operas of absence by chest-thumping through this one with enthusiasm.
Kent Nagano’s conducting worked in this installment. The pacing can be slack and he seems far too laid-back to make enough of an impression in big pieces like the Funeral March, but like Kriegenburg he found a certain groove. The orchestra had its best night of the cycle and played very well, particularly the strings and lower brass, both of whom have real dense substance to their sound when required. I enjoyed his elegiac, chamber music approach to the Norns’ and Rhinemaiden’s music, and though he could have milked the ending for a bit more the last 30 seconds were exquisite.*
This was in many ways an impressive and beautiful cycle, and one with a remarkably good cast with real dramatic imagination and committment. But modesty may not be a virtue when working with the Ring, and Nagano and Kriegenburg could have both stood to show a little more vision, however lovely their miniatures were. While Kriegenburg took small-scale stage directions directly, he showed little interest in the larger trajectory of the characters, nor did he create one of his own that incorporated them in a convincing way. I’m willing to believe that our fascination with technology is a gateway to the Apocalypse, but I wish I had a better idea of what Siegfried had to do with it.


*One unsung hero of this cycle is the curtain-puller (so to speak). Every sing act has ended with a curtain of absolutely impeccable timing and perfect speed. This is NOT an easy job. I also want to thank the audience for taking a nice few breaths of silence at the end before clapping. Maybe community isn’t dead after all!

Photos copyright Wilfred Hösl

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Siegfried: Into the woods

Some of this Siegfried is much more conventionally wacky Regietheater than the previous Ring installments. I mean, if you ever can call a very fake jogging bear, a lot of glitter, giant bellows, and some dancing inanimate objects conventional. (Hey, this is Germany.) But it’s of a piece with the earlier installments, with an element of fun energy that works with this exuberant score. The cast had this energy. Even the conducting was almost exuberant!

Wagner, Siegfried. Bayerische Staatsoper Ring-Zyklus B, 7.13.12 Musikalische Leitung Kent Nagano

Inszenierung Andreas Kriegenburg
Bühne Harald B. Thor
Kostüme Andrea Schraad
Licht Stefan Bolliger
Choreographie Zenta Haerter
Dramaturgie Marion Tiedtke
Olaf A. Schmitt.

Siegfried Lance Ryan
Mime Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Der Wanderer Thomas J. Mayer
Alberich Wolfgang Koch
Fafner Rafal Siwek
Erda Jill Grove
Brünnhilde Catherine Naglestad
Stimme eines Waldvogels Elena Tsallagova

After the feudalism of Walküre, we return in Siegfried to, at first, a happy egalitarian utopianism. Unlike anyone else, dumb Siegfried can see the extras as people, and as individuals. They start off waving around cotton clouds and spreading a grassy green carpet to establish a naïve, sunny setting (think of the Stuttgart Ring’s Siegfried). As Siegfried questions Mime, the grubby little hut repeatedly disassembles itself and we see some of the action enacted upstage. In many cases I have found this kind of illustration ineffective, redundant in a way that distracts from the live action of narration. But the twist here is that Siegfried is watching the events. We see him discover his past; it’s an active part of the drama rather than merely a filler of empty stage space.  Then the Wanderer arrives looking for all the world like Gandalf.

The sword forging is a real party, one of the first spectacles in this whole cycle. Siegfried invites all the supernumeraries over to help and they bring giant bellows and other forging equipment, some short segments of pipe are dancing around for no particular reason, and the strikes of the hammer are punctuated by glitter sparks.  It’s a bit much but so little of this production has gone for big effects that it was a fun change of pace.

Act Two starts with the Wanderer and Alberich meeting like vigilantes in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Then Siegfried’s wanderings take him to some very dark woods of adolescence. The bird is represented both by a bouncy girl in a white dress (the singer) and a super carrying a bird puppet, and the former gives Siegfried a tentative introduction to his libido. The pipe and horn moments are, as usual, played for laughs, with a very incompetent oboe cadenza and purposefully bad miming of the horn passages, provoking Siegfried’s ire at the unseen hornist (somewhat hilariously, the horn player is credited in the program but the oboe player is not). Eventually he comes to something that looks like a supersize version of the hoard’s vault from Rheingold, with extras hanging on walls replacing the blocks of gold. Fafner is a writhing mass of extras hanging on a frame, a striking if not particularly practical effect. The Alberich-Mime scene is even more noir than the Alberich-Wanderer one was, beginning with both pointing guns at each other.

Act Three I found to be the weakest of the cycle so far. The Erda section, again wreathed in mud, works well enough, but then the tempo of the staging slows to a standstill. With the help of a some enormous plastic drops the extras become a kind of fire or river or something, and basically stay there until Brünnhilde enters. Things were briefly made more interesting when half of the Wanderer’s broken spear rolled into the orchestra pit (luckily not the pointy end). The action had up to this point moved quickly, and this just sort of stops. The setting for the awakening involves a giant bed and an enormous amount of red fabric, and is not the most attractive, but the staging of the meeting itself is great. It’s a question: do you want to see two awkward virgins try to figure it out or do you want to see the world saved? If it’s the latter you might find this staging somewhat flippant but I thought it was unusually sweet and convincing. My favorite thing about this cycle may be how it never considers its charaters, mortal or not, as anything other than real people.

Also, had Kriegenburg staged the ending in a more conventionally grandiose and triumphant way it would have rung false. Because this isn’t a cycle where a ton seems to be at stake. It is, so far, a nice story with some beautiful moments but it has a modesty that is, depending on your perspective, either refreshing and disarming or possibly utterly infuriating. I am still leaning towards the former, because the chamber approach seems to reap large rewards (and not everything has to be apocalyptic, really), but I’m not entirely decided.

I enjoyed much of the orchestral contribution, this really is a first-rate group. Nagano I could live with this time around. Pacing and excitement certainly could be better, but this performance basically worked. The forging was genuinely loud, the dragons snarly, and the end taken with a meditative lightness.

Lance Ryan is a wonderfully animated Siegfried with a wide grin and endless energy both physical and vocal. He can get through the opera and still sound decent, well, as decent as he did at the start. His tone is not ingratiating, he does not do legato, intonation can be dicey and sometimes the sound is pretty ugly. But it’s a very large voice and his command of it, as well as his ease onstage, is complete. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Mime also did not have a pleasant voice but as Mime who does and he made the character unusually complex, not as much pure villain as a kind of pathetic loser who, somehow, might actually care for Siegfried.

Thomas Mayer was less impressive as the Wanderer than he was as the Walküre-Wotan, somehow just not standing out as much and sounding a little more wooly than stentorian. His spear breaking was nicely done, however. (The spear heading into the pit is such a provocative bit of symbolism—the gods’ power shifting to the composer’s orchestra—that some director should do it on purpose.) Wolfgang Koch is a super Alberich, looking like a gangster and sounding monumental if sometimes vocally overacting.

Catherine Nagelstad’s soprano is less Brünnhilde than Puccini—I can’t imagine her singing any of the other ones at least—but she was interesting here, singing with all the legato and nuance that Ryan lacks. Her middle voice can be wiry but her high notes are effortless and big, and she was appropriately radiant. Elena Tsallagova was a late replacement as the Waldvogel but was charming and sweet-voiced, though among this cast her German stuck out as unclear. Rafal Siwek was very low and rumbly as Fafner, and Jill Grove was an actual contralto as Erda.

I am looking forward to Götterdämmerung later today!


More photos (all copyright Wilfred Hösl)

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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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The Munich Ring assembles: Rheingold

This is the first Rheingold I’ve seen
that starts not in inky ur-darkness but in full light. Initially, the first
installment of Andreas Kriegenburg’s beguilingly simple Munich Ring seems most notable for what it
leaves out: big ideological statements, giant snakes. One expects to get one or
the other. One is rarely deprived of both. The most provocative thing about
this production is how mild-mannered and small it is, but its intimacy and its as of yet faultless sense of dramatic effect are so quiet as to creep up on you, then there
they are, and there is a Ring.

(Unfortunately one other thing, namely the
conducting, was happy to remain calm and quiet as well.)

Wagner, Das Rheingold. Bayerische Staatsoper Ring Zyklus B, 7/10/2012. cond. Kent Nagano, dir. Andreas Kriegenburg, sets by Harald B. Thor; costumes by Andrea Schraad
Licht by Stefan Bolliger, Choreographie by Zenta Haerter. 

Wotan Johan Reuter
Donner Levente Molnár
Froh Thomas Blondelle
Loge Stefan Margita
Alberich Wolfgang Koch
Mime Ulrich Reß
Fasolt Thorsten Grümbel
Fafner Phillip Ens
Fricka Sophie Koch
Freia Aga Mikolaj
Erda Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Woglinde Eri Nakamura
Wellgunde Angela Brower
Floßhilde Okka von der Damerau

I have stated ad nauseum my belief
that a Ring director needs to have some big, clear ideas
regarding the Ring’s
meaning and why it matters to us now. Without some interpretive
substance the audience is in for a lot of meandering hours. Kriegenburg seems reluctant
so far to provide anything this sweeping and this Rheingold at
least is ideologically neutral. For something this austere to hold our
attention the storytelling has to be first rate. But its mellow tone is so far
quite effective and sympathetic, and makes its pitch for relevance mostly
through the actions of its characters. I can’t think of another attempt at a
small-scale, emotionally intimate chamber Ring
(though I’m sure there have been some of which I am unaware) and while it’s a
counter-intuitive, one might say anti-Wagnerian* idea, I am intrigued, and
curious as to how it will work out over the course of the cycle.

The means are the simplest. As the
audience files in to sit down, a small army of white-dressed people seem to be
placidly picnicking onstage (not pictured). As the music starts, they strip off their clothes
and paint each other blue. Yes, it sounds weird, but the Ring is weird. They then crouch down to form the moving, living
Rhine. They are, in fact, most of the set, forming battlements as the backdrop
of Valhalla, a muddy circle around Erda, and of course staffing Nibelheim
(whipped and occasionally thrown into a pit). This is a story told by this
strange collective, sometimes looking like our own and sometimes not. Only at
the start are they are individuals, sometimes they are slaves, sometimes they
are even inanimate.

Alberich is crucified, sort of
The costumes for the main characters
are modern to varying degrees, Fricka’s black dress and Alberich’s slave-driver
suit looking the most like ordinary clothes. The gods all sport matching platinum hair. The Personenregie is engaging in a
sensitive straight theater sense, steering far away from grand gestures and
clichés of characterization. For once the gods’ human moments are
representative of their basic humanity, not played for laughs as an
ice-breaking, tension-releasing punch line. But Kriegenburg’s virtue is the action’s clarity and natural, human quality, not its interpretive innovation. The actual relationships, while shown
with more clarity and nuance, aren’t too different from what you’d see in Otto
Schenk. Alberich is still slimy, Wotan still overly proud, and Fricka still
belligerent, and so on. There are resonances in Alberich the slave driver and Fricka the housewife, but they’re vague.

The production offers nearly literal  and conventional representation of all the action and objects, to an extent that I’m not going to describe most of it in detail except to say that it all works smoothly. The big effects are utterly simple and some of
the most effective I’ve seen. In Nibelheim, Alberich’s transformations are
accomplished by some supernumeraries briefly shining bright miner’s lights into
our eyes, the snake is a ribbon of fire and the frog a child or small woman who
is carried off (as the gold had been earlier). Like the visible foggers, they
don’t try to fool us (the transitions between scenes feature some silent-film
style titles telling us what happens), and yet something about them is perfect

There’s something beautifully
elegant and poetic about the whole thing, mythic while still human and real, and while we know exactly how it works but we have never seen it done quite like that before. There
were dull patches, though, which might partly be due to a) the fact that I
usually find dull patches in Rheingold,
which is a lot of talky exposition and a few bit set pieces and relatively
little actual action or b) because the direction did turn static at times but
really I think the fault is c) Kent Nagano’s limp conducting. I was warned to
prepare for extreme slowness but I think the tempos were fairly average. The
thing is he just feels very, very slow. And dull. Wagner this un-commanding,
this relaxed, is not something I can sign on with. The orchestra played, I
think, well enough, but rarely made their presence definitively known. Maybe he
took the production’s modesty too much to heart.

The cast was for the most part
excellent. They are less likely than their Met counterparts to be described
using the term “powerhouse,” but the Nationaltheater is smaller, and Nagano is
a very voice-friendly conductor. The enunciation of the text was fantastic all
around and I could understand all the words rather than the odd phrase that I
could in New York. (Important factors: local language, theater size.) Wolfgang
Koch was an artfully sung yet forceful Alberich, and the downstage setting of
the Rhine (as well as simple “water”) really helped the character-building in
the first scene (with solid Rhinemaidens, particularly Okka von der Damerau’s
Floßhilde). The other highlight was Stefan Margita’s Loge, sing with a
distinctly individual timbre that seems perfectly suited to the role: nasal and
cutting but somehow also expansive. I also kind of love the concept of Loge as
half crazy uncle and half used car salesman.

Sophie Koch is pushing her voice
singing Fricka but sounds convincing if sometimes one-dimensional, luckily her
sensitive acting gives her some nuance. Her stage presence is also less
tank-like than the norm, and Fricka is perhaps the most revised of the
characterizations here, almost becoming a Betty Draper. You think it is
bad that I haven’t mentioned Wotan yet but it’s not quite that bad. Johan
Reuter is on the lyric side and sings the role cleanly without making an
enormous impression one way or another. (He is not in the other installments.)

The giants benefit from walking
around normally (only sometimes standing on blocks made of human bodies and
appearing with enormous coats and hands), which seemed appropriate because neither
Philip Ens’s Fafner nor Thorsten Grümbel’s Fasolt were terribly imposing
vocally. Aga Mikolaj was a somewhat dry-voiced Freia.
I don’t think this is a Ring that has revealed its plan yet, and
I’m excited to see how (and in the case of the conducting, really hoping it
does), develop.
Note: I posted this after seeing the
second part, but I wrote the entire section on the staging before I saw Walküre and did not retrofit it (though
I could have…).
*Whether it is anti-Wagnerian or not
is a rather fraught question that you could write a book about. More to the
point, of all people I believe that Wagner is not one to whom we would wisely
swear absolute fealty? But that’s just me, a lot of the time.

Photos copyright Wilfried Hösl.
VIDEO: Trailer

Prelude (warning: mostly naked people)

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Der Ring, der nie gelungen: A Leitmotiv guide

the Norns argue about Wagner in the Copenhagen Ring

Robert Lepage says it’s the score-toting masses who have doomed his Ring. But a score is a bulky thing to bring along (and also a little useless, because it’s dark). What the efficient Wagner fan really needs is a pocket-sized Leitmotiv cheat sheet to consult beforehand. I’ve always wanted one, so I made one myself. It isn’t comprehensive but contains a good number of motives and, if you’ve never seriously studied the Ring, is more than enough to get you started (provided you can read music).

You can download it as a PDF here (go to File and “Download”). It is designed to be printed two-sided on US letter-sized paper (though it will work OK with A4) and folded in half to form a booklet, which is why the pages appear to be out of order. If you’re a Wagner novice, you should also read this introduction to how the motives function, and you can listen to them here.
If you’re an experienced Wagnerian you’ll probably find this handbook
too simplistic, but it still has the virtue of easy portability.

Email me if you find any egregious errors (I’m not promising there aren’t any), and enjoy. Print it out just to piss Lepage off, though he won’t be in the house tomorrow night. And don’t say I never gave you anything.

If you want to look for me at or after Rheingold tomorrow, I’ll be identifiable in the Family Circle standing section by my tasteful BAYREUTH BAYREUTH BAYREUTH tote bag. Since there’s no intermission, we might have to go to Valhalla afterwards. No, I’m serious, one really should go to Valhalla after Rheingold. It’s only logical. (The weird 8:30 curtain time precludes much time out for me, though.)

Preview the Leitmotiv guide after the jump.

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Der Ring, der nie gelungen: Comparing ticket prices

Shit, how are we going to pay for this thing?

I’m going to be standing for the Met’s Ring cycle starting on Thursday. This is due to the ticket prices, which are extremely high. The cheapest seats are in the Family Circle, where a full cycle runs $380 ($95 per opera). For reference, these seats usually top out at $45 per opera and resemble being three blocks away from the stage (though the acoustics are fantastic; I will be standing up there, actually).

I wondered how this compared to other opera houses, so I did some research. It turns out that the Met is indeed really, really expensive. Maybe that’s due to the $17 million production costs, as well as the phenomenon of “state subsidies” making things more reasonable elsewhere. Since there are a lot of big time Rings coming up in the anniversary year, I looked up some prices for tickets, noting three sections in each house (front orchestra AKA stalls or Parkett, somewhere in the middle of the price range, and the cheapest non-restricted view seats). The first table puts all the prices into dollars, the second has the same data but in euros. There are links to the production information at the end of this post–the Berlin house is Unter den Linden, and Paris is at the Bastille:

Edited to note: The Paris prices are for the subscription cycles, spread out over a few weeks. There’s also one condensed within-a-week cycle, and it costs quite a bit more, with prices between those of Munich and Milan. But it does include lots of booze!

A seat in the Dress Circle at the Met–hardly prime real estate–will cost you more than center orchestra in Paris, Berlin, or Munich. And the most expensive seats at Frankfurt’s cycle–conducted by Bayreuth regular Sebastian Weigle with a well-reviewed production by Vera Nemirova, first-class Siegfried Lance Ryan, and up-and-coming Amber Wagner as Sieglinde–will only cost a bit more than the Met’s Family Circle. (I didn’t even count the Met’s “premium” $2,600 seats as the top price, since they are comparatively few in number.)

Fellow blogger Intermezzo recently compared Ring prices between the ROH and Berlin’s Staatsoper Unter den
Linden, finding the cost in Berlin much less even including a flight from London and a hotel, which gives you an idea of the disparities here. But the Met’s even making London look a little bit reasonable.

Keep in mind that these opera houses vary greatly in size: the Met seats 3800, the Schiller Theater (Berlin) only 990, and the rest in varying intervals in between. So that back row in Berlin is a lot closer than the Met’s midrange Dress Circle.

The singers, however, are not so different, with lots of repeat offenders between cities. The champion has to be baritone Iain Paterson, who is singing Günther and Fasolt in cycles in New York, Berlin, Milan, Paris, and Munich. You can even seen the same production and conductor in Berlin and Milan–if you’re willing to compromise on weather and food go to Berlin, you will save a great deal of money.

Considering the dismal reviews the Met’s Ring has been getting (here are mine, and here’s Alex Ross’s), New Yorkers might be feeling a little ripped off.

All prices are taken from opera house websites for Ring cycles in the 2011/12 (New York, Frankfurt) or 2012/13 (ROH, Berlin, Munich, Milan, Paris) seasons. Currency conversion rates: 1 dollar = .61 GBP = .75 Euro.

Rings in Europe and the US:*
Metropolitan Opera, New York (c. Fabio Luisi and others,** dir. Robert Lepage)
Royal Opera House, London (c. Antonio Pappano, dir. Keith Warner)
Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin (c. Daniel Barenboim, dir. Guy Cassiers)
Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich (c. Kent Nagano, dir. Andreas Kriegenburg)
Teatro alla Scala, Milan (c. Daniel Barenboim, dir. Guy Cassiers)
Opéra National de Paris, Paris (c. Philippe Jordan, dir. Günther Krämer)
Oper Frankfurt (c. Sebastian Weigle, dir. Vera Nemirova)

*I would have included another American company but I could not locate any data for San Francisco’s recent cycle and Seattle’s 2013 cycle isn’t on sale yet. If you have any information, please email me and I would be happy to update.

**James Levine’s assistants will be conducting the final two parts of Cycle 3. I hope it isn’t insulting their skills to say that I think it is ridiculous the Met doesn’t have a single major international conductor handling all four parts of the cycle. When you charge these kinds of prices, your audience can get cranky like this.

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Lepage’s Siegfried and baby thievery

Not Lepage (Parsifal in Bayreuth)

Later I’ll have much more on last night’s premiere of Siegfried from the Met. But I wanted to deal with one point independently, because if I explained it fully in my real review it would hijack the whole post.

In Robert Lepage’s new production, we see Mime find the infant Siegfried during the Prelude. He sneaks up on the dying Sieglinde, grabs her baby, and runs off. (Please correct me if I missed something here, I was in the Family Circle and it was dimly lit. But that’s what I saw. It was quick.) This directly contradicts his later accounts of Siegfried’s birth, where he says Sieglinde also gave him the pieces of Nothung the sword and told him to name the baby Siegfried (and also presumably the identity of Siegmund, which Mime does not tell Siegfried). OK, Mime is plausibly an unreliable narrator and found those things out in other ways. But Lepage never does anything else to show or explore the implications that Mime is lying when he is talking to Siegfried about his birth, it’s left hanging.

But much more severe is the implication that Mime is not an accidental adoptive father but rather a baby snatcher. The character of Mime is already a locus of several topoi of antisemitism: greediness, a whining voice, a hunched walk. The idea of Jews stealing (Christian) babies is part of blood libel (a short history of the term is here), the accusation that Jews will use their blood in some ritual, historically one of the nastiest myths of anti-Semites. I may be hyper-aware of this particular idea because it was self-consciously presented by Stefan Herheim in his Bayreuth production of Parsifal. Kundry, dressed as a nurse, steals the baby Parsifal from his mother Herzeleide (see photo above).
I am honestly rather shocked that Lepage did this. There is no Get Out of Jail Free card when it comes to antisemitism and Wagner, you absolutely have to be aware of the issues and either avoid presenting racist stereotypes at all or clearly foreground them (as Herheim does above). (Following three sentences added later to clarify:) Lepage’s lack of dramturgical context makes the moment interpretively messy, but more grievously he replicates the dog whistle way that these topoi work. It seems like a random insertion if you aren’t familiar with the ideology, but if you know anything about the history of antisemitism you will make the association right away (Mime = Jew = bad). And I don’t think that this is an association that needs reviving.

I’m sure that this is cluelessness or naivité from a director who shows that he doesn’t know much about Wagner, but that no one else pointed it out is distressing.

Updated to add: my regular Siegfried piece is here.

More on the rest later today. Thanks to the Zwölftöner for his lecture on Mime and antisemitism when we saw Siegfried in Vienna last April.

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