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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Nuremberg’s Got Talent

If the Met’s performance Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg of last Saturday were one of its own characters, it would be Veit Pogner. Pogner, Eva’s father, is aging, jovial, traditional, filthy rich (he is, after all, a goldsmith), not a great thinker, and maybe hasn’t quite thought through all of the implications of his grand plans. This was a solid Meistersinger, and it was a pleasure to have Wagner back at the Met after too long an absence. Most of it was good and a few things were more than good. Except for Michael Volle’s fascinating Hans Sachs, it was not daring and it was not exciting, but some meat and potatoes Wagner like we haven’t gotten in a while.

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Parsifal and religion: a conversation

I went to the final performance of Parsifal at the Met last Friday night,
in the company of an old friend and great Wagnerian who also happens to
be a religious studies and South Asian scholar. Since religion is a part
of the production that I didn’t mention at all in my earlier review, I chatted
with him about it a bit.

Since we don’t talk about the musical side of things: Asher Fisch conducted this performance instead of Daniele Gatti. I found him perfectly fine but not as compelling. I think he was obliged to more or less follow Gatti’s tempos (the performance was a mere five minutes shorter), and I don’t think that conducting at Daniele Gatti’s tempos is advisable for anyone who is not Daniele Gatti (and, in some cases, perhaps not even then). I was actually more conscious of the slowness this time around, since he didn’t find the same amount of detail and shape inside those very drawn-out phrases. The Flower Maidens’ scene, however, was noticeably less hard-driven than it was under Gatti.

Now for the conversation. You may remember “Pelléas” from our earlier post on Die Walküre.

Pelléas: Let’s talk about balance. Because that’s what I think the big theme of the production is. The balance of men and women is the most obvious way that the theme is expressed, but it’s much larger than that.  We can think of balance between humanity and the natural world, but also a proper balance in the religious sphere that the protagonists of this opera operate in.

Zerbinetta: I agree that’s the theme but I want to hear more. Because honestly I hoped that I would see the production differently this time but I really didn’t. This may be due to the thought processes required to write my review of it, organizing your thoughts like that kind of fixes them in place.

Pelléas: Basically we’re in this post-apocalyptic world and the knights (men) have no idea how to deal with it, so they retreat into their own world. But they don’t just separate from the women, they also practice this strange version of Christianity that is wholly centered on the Eucharist, which they also pervert. But they forget everything else that is part of Christianity. The Eucharist is but one sacrament, sexual asceticism is but one lifestyle, men are but one gender. The production seems to be saying that the knights have gone down this greatly restricted path (and in so doing they’ve also forgotten even what they deem most important) but that they must more fully embrace the world, even the aspects that they may find to be sinful.  One image that perfectly represents this balance is Christ being pierced on the cross.  Both blood and water flow from the wound, the two central symbols of the production.  Now the piercing can seem like the most sadistic, vindictive act of violence, yet it also leads to the conversion of Longinus and is therefore celebrated.

Zerbinetta: Who is Longinus?

Pelléas: The Roman soldier who pierced Christ’s side on the cross. With the spear that is central to the opera.  The blood from the wound represents the Eucharist, whereas the water symbolizes baptism (I’m not reading anything into that; it’s standard Christian symbolic interpretation of the image).  In this production the blood is associated with the men, whereas water, and therefore baptism, is associated with women.

Zerbinetta: Which is why there isn’t very much of it. I thought the production could have done a better job telling us what Kundry’s deal was, too. Anyway, go on.

Pelléas: The dried-up river bed separating the men from the women represents this lack of balance.  Yet there’s memory of water flowing through the river (when Gunermez first goes to the bed the river briefly flows with water).  But the water will only actually flow through the river when Parsifal baptizes Kundry in Act III, beginning the process of joining men and women, eucharist and baptism, asceticism and sensuality back together. But the majority of the time the river only flows with blood if it flows with anything.

Zerbinetta: Remember, the riverbed is also the wound!
  
Pelléas: Yes. But in the knight’s lack of balance they only are concerned with the Eucharistic aspects of Christianity: the blood. If they participated in the balance of Christ then Amfortas’ wound would pour forth with both water and blood, but instead it is only blood, and it never heals. The choreography of the Eucharistic scene makes it clear that the knights remember some aspect of the ritual, but they don’t really know it. Their hand gestures mix Christian aspects of prayer with vague new-agey Eastern motifs. Additionally, the way they participate in the feast has this strange melding of the Kiss of Peace, with the men dipping their fingers into the grail, touching their mouths, and then bringing their fingers to the mouths of other brothers. But while the knights are busy pressing their fingers to each others lips the women are miming a more traditional Eucharist, lifting an imagined chalice to their lips. They remember the proper aspects of this ritual.

Zerbinetta: I got that it was a new Eucharist but I sort of assumed that was because the production wanted it to be abstract and not built on specific Christian doctrine.

Pelléas: I saw too much literal, traditional Christian symbolism to think that the director was trying to distance himself from Christianity.

Zerbinetta: But the wound isn’t a natural condition, it’s the cause of their problems! It’s because Amfortas was enchanted by Klingsor and gave in to Evil Woman.

Pelléas: Amfortas was enchanted by Klingsor to give in to his version of Evil Woman. The flower maidens don’t represent real femininity. They represent the overly sexualized, virginal fantasy of men.  (Come on, white dresses [more like night gowns] gradually bloodied by dancing around in the pools of blood; you can’t represent an imagined or fantasized deflowering any more literally than that!)  They’re under Klingsor’s control. It’s because of this idea of women that the knights separate themselves from other women, but the only place that this fantasy actually exists is in Klingsor’s domain. The actual women are normally sexualized (they leave on their high heel shoes whereas the men take off their dress shoes) but they aren’t hyper sexualized.

Zerbinetta: So my next question is, I guess, what prompts Parsifal’s turn towards Mitleid? And why does he have to wander however many decades between Acts 2 and 3? Did not really come up with an answer to this myself. 

Pelléas: Water represents the form of balance that the knights lack. It is the water that comes from Christ’s side, the water of baptism, to complement the blood. There are projections of rippling water throughout Kundry’s seduction of Parsifal in Act II. It starts out rather small and subtle and then builds in intensity. The fact that her seduction is NOT sexy is important I think, it’s enough to be believable, but not as over the top as the flower maidens. Her costume as both flower maiden (in Act II) and normal woman (in Act I) represents her ability to be a bridge between the unbridled sexuality of the flower maidens and the unrealized sexuality of the normal women. When she kisses Parsifal the water images begin to be broadcast around him. They’ve never been projected for him before.

He’s been exposed to the proper balance of sexuality, but he’s so startled that he can’t accept it yet.  So he wanders. But then in Act III he has finally come to accept it. He’s able to embrace water for himself, most importantly in his baptism of Kundry which brings water to the stream again.  Only after he baptizes Kundry can he step into the women’s realm. Although he and Kundry have been the two characters who have been able to really approach the border and pass things across it, no one has actually crossed that border until this point.  (As a total aside, for a wonderful book on the many valences of water as a female symbol, especially for female sexuality, that is both celebrated and denigrated in the Christian tradition, check out Catherine Keller’s Face of the Deep.)

Zerbinetta: I did notice that was when he crossed the river! That’s also a key point in the musical development–the pure fool diminished seventh that represents Parsifal is heard with the grail rhythm underneath it for the first time–so I really appreciated the timing.

Pelléas: Well, I can’t comment on that bit of music theory 😉

Zerbinetta: In general this was not the most Leitmotiv-conscious production but they did get that one perfectly. You said that balance is the most important thing, but I think of this as a more Buddhist concept than a Christian one. In a similar category, there’s the Schopenhauerian negation of the Will which you haven’t really mentioned but still seems to me to be very important element of the work, though perhaps not of Girard’s interpretation of it. (Also in the Eastern category, there is a LOT of obvious yoga in Act 3.) But the symbols you are discussing here are all very specifically Christian. What do you think of this mixture?

Pelléas: It strikes me very much as a 19th century orientalist looking at Buddhism or The East.  A lot of philosophers at the time viewed India as this pristine, primeval abode of uncorrupted man.  None of this really had much to do with India, but with projections of what these Westerners wanted their present, future, or past to be.  I think it’s appropriate to have all of the symbolism be Christian in this context, because it’s honest about what Wagner and a lot of other philosophers were doing with India at the time; the philological study was excellent but the philosophical understanding was a mess.  So we’re getting at this concept of balance, but balance such a vague idea that it could be Western, it could be Eastern, it could show up anywhere.  The wound in Christ’s side is just as good a metaphor of balance as Buddhist equanimity or Vedantic absorption of the Self into the Ātman.  But even if we’re using Eastern ideas to get there our aims are fully grounded in Western sensibilities and desires, in this case to realize an authentic, historical, dogmatic, balanced Christianity. 

The moment when Parsifal tells the women to intersperse with the men he comes closest to giving an authentic sign of the cross as he does in the entire production (and blesses not only those on stage, but the audience too). So even in this cathartic moment Girard is opting for something akin to Christian orthodoxy. 

Zerbinetta: On a more basic note, do you have any comment on the interplanetary projections? I wasn’t sure about them and some people in my comments section were as well.

Pelléas: I have no clue. It seemed rather lame to me. Definitely not symbolically interesting.

Zerbinetta: They didn’t bother me too much one way or another. OverallI I thought the production was very clean and elegant and modern. It might be a little too minimalist for its own good, though.

Pelléas: I still have questions about the production. It seems that the men are the ones who are reacting baldy to the ecological disaster. They separate from the women. They become ascetics while convinced that women are hypersexualized (when they aren’t), they misremember the Eucharist (whereas the women remember it but can’t perform it), they forget baptism. Yet why are the women basically passive the entire time? Why do they wait calmly for Kundry to seduce Parsifal and then have Parsifal convince the men of their folly? Why aren’t they more active in trying to restore the balance that the production says that they hold the key to?

Zerbinetta: Yeah, that is a problem. I am tempted to say “because Wagner didn’t write them in the score, and Wagner’s music is so gestural that it’s pretty hard to add that much” but then you look at Herheim’s Parsifal and, like, NO. You could. That’s what the ladies in Act 1 and Act 2 have in common, passivity, and it’s why I didn’t really think that there was an existential difference between the two (as in one group was real and the other was enchanted or projections of Amfortas’s or Klingsor’s desires).

Pelléas: Well, the lades in Act I are simply passive, but not under anyone’s control. The flower maidens are definitely in control of Klingsor. The way they all writhe in unison is like a creepy anime film. Whereas in the prelude I believe the men separate from the women, but it’s only when the men depart that the women move to coalesce into their own group. They passively accept their rejection, but aren’t actively controlled by anyone.

Zerbinetta: Also it occurs to me that, intellectually, this production is very French. Is it OK to say that? I mean, it gives you these big ideas that are kind of vague but immensely evocative, it’s like reading Zizek or something. (I am aware that Zizek isn’t French. And that Girard isn’t either.) You like it and it’s kind of inspiring but at least for me you try to really process its meaning and it ends up like mist, or, well, Wagnerdampf. I can’t help it, I’m intellectually Germanic, I want everything to be logical and add up.

Pelléas: I feel that it’s important to try to point out the deep symbolic nature of the production. Because when you approach it in that respect it’s all actually quite coherent and logically argued. It’s quite ingenious actually, because so much of this symbology is in the libretto itself, so Girard isn’t upsetting the traditionalists.  But he supplements it in subtle ways and makes it much more intellectually compelling than they would be otherwise.

Zerbinetta: Well, I like your reading, but it’s relatively narrow. While I find it overall more convincing, ingenious, and detailed than Opera Cake’s, I’m not sure about treating these things like puzzles, and this one in particular seems almost actively resistant to specific interpretation. Kind of like Parsifal itself, I guess. You used to have to haul out to Bayreuth just to see it. It does a lot to present itself as a mystic, precious artifact that is full of meaning–but just try explaining exactly what all of that meaning is!

At the same time this production leaves open so many ways of thinking about it, and I think most of them are on the whole progressive and positive. There are poisonous, dangerous messages in most traditional readings of this piece (arguably the most Wagner-adjacent ones), whatever the beauties of the music, and this production seems to avoid those pretty much entirely. That’s important. To salvage a message like this out of it seems to be a significant achievement.

Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met

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[Tenor] + Wagner

It’s Wagner Year. In case you did not remember that the composer was born in 1813, two very prominent German tenors would like to remind you with their new CDs. (It’s Verdi Year too, but he’ll have to wait.)

Klaus Florian Vogt’s Wagner was released in Europe in January, Jonas Kaufmann’s Wagner internationally this week. The former is, for Americans, a bit tricky to locate, and thus I have not heard it yet. Amazon does have it… out of stock. (It’s not available as a download as far as I can find.) The latter is on iTunes and Amazon and such.

It’s hard not to compare and contrast because the two have extremely different voices yet—particularly if you include their earlier CDs in this fach, Kaufmann’s Sehnsucht and Vogt’s Helden—they are singing almost the same music. No, really, they are:

(*on a different Jonas Kaufmann CD. Also, sorry about the chronological issues above.)

In both cases this includes roles neither has attempted onstage
(yet, at least)—in Vogt’s case Tristan, in Kaufmann’s Tannhäuser, and
Siegfried and Rienzi for both.

(The below will be old news for anyone who has heard these guys, but if you haven’t it should be interesting.) Vogt has an unbelievably pure, angelic timbre that sounds like it is not of this earth. On recordings his voice resembles a very light tenor, but somehow live he projects perfectly over a large orchestra (though as Siegmund I thought his low notes were lacking). He has lovely diction and tends towards dramatic understatement, making his singing hypnotically placid. While he has sung Lohengrin at the Met (a while ago), most of his career is in Europe, as suggested by the minimal American availability of this CD. His most popular role is Lohengrin, here is his “In fernem Land” from Bayreuth in 2011. Andris Nelsons conducts.

Kaufmann is the more internationally known quantity, and his voice couldn’t be more different from Vogt’s: forceful, dark, heavy, and yet still brilliant on the top notes. He tends to sing with great variety of colors and dynamics, as well lots of drama. Here is his “In fernem Land” from La Scala in 2012, you can hear and see the differences. Daniel Barenboim conducts. Annette Dasch is Elsa, as she is for Vogt above.

I don’t want to review either of these CDs yet (I just downloaded the Kaufmann and have listened to it only once so far–but the Tannhäuser and Siegfried excerpts both knocked my socks off). Meanwhile, let’s talk about something superficial that doesn’t require listening to anything: why do all these CDs have such odd cover art? Cast your vote for the “best” in the poll below.

On his first CD, Klaus Florian wants you to join his cult. It’s like Scientology, but with more Leitmotiven. I went to the concert where he recorded this album, by the way, and I wrote about it. He didn’t wear armor.

On his first Wagner effort, Jonas tries to revive the Victorian “living painting” thing.

On his second CD, Klaus Florian has finally located the World Ash Tree! (Probably somewhere in the Englischer Garten.)

On his second Wagner CD, Jonas is auditioning for the operatic adaptation of Taken 2 (Getookt).

Which one is the most epic? (I don’t mean good, I mean, well, memorable.)

Which CD cover is the most awkward/awesome?
KFV Helden
JK Sehnsucht
KFV Wagner
JK Wagner
  
pollcode.com free polls 

(May not work on RSS views–click to the full entry to vote.) You know where you can find me again. (I’ll be reporting after tomorrow’s Parsifal premiere.)

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The Met Ring on PBS, plus Wagner docs on YouTube

Just in case you haven’t heard/seen/read enough about the Met’s new Ring cycle, those with American TV can take the whole thing in again on PBS this week. The fun starts with the documentary Wagner’s Dream [of the Planks of Doom] on Monday, September 9, and then actually starts with Rheingold on Tuesday. Do not adjust your television: it actually looks like that. James Levine and Fabio Luisi split conducting duties.

I wrote far too much about this thing when I saw it live, relive the magic here.

(A critic recently told me that he hopes he will never have to write another word about this cycle ever again. I have to agree.)

If you’d like to see something more stimulating, consider the classic Boulez/Chéreau Ring, if you haven’t seen it. You might also consider Harry Kupfer and Daniel Barenboim’s excellent production, Kasper Holten’s intelligent Copenhagen Ring, or the spotty but frequently brilliant Stuttgart Ring, split between four directors (Peter Konwitschny’s Götterdämmerung in particular is unmissable). Unfortunately, last time I checked none of them were on Netflix. Try your local library, or if you’ve got the money some of these aren’t as expensive as you might think.

On your local YouTubes you can watch two fascinating documentaries on the Ring cycle that have nothing to do with Lepage. The below video contains both: the first concerns the Chéreau Ring, the second, Sing Faster, shows the staging of the Ring at the San Francisco Opera. Both are super awesome and feature excellent vintage hairdos.

Sorry about the lack of blogging. There hasn’t been much going on in New York, and I’ve been so busy with work I haven’t been creative about finding other things to write about. See you soon.

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Parsifal from Bayreuth–watch online

This year Stefan Herheim’s revelatory Bayreuth production of Parsifal was taped and broadcast on TV. You can now watch it online. Don’t miss this one.

Herheim takes the story of Parsifal as the story of Wagner and Bayreuth
themselves, a journey from isolation to disaster to the possibility of
redemption. It’s challenging but will make you see the piece and hear
the music in many new ways. I saw this production live last year, with a slightly different cast and, from what I hear, slightly different production (I am watching this video tonight, so I can’t yet say how different). Here is what I wrote about it then. I also recommend Wagneroperas.net’s short introduction, which has links to many more reviews.

To be a ridiculous elitist, I expect the video is a poor substitute for the live experience. Camera direction is a problem with filmed Herheim–there’s always a lot going on and the camera strictly controls what you see, including some things and excluding others and governing when you move from one part of the stage to another. (I think Rusalka in particular was far more exciting live.) But this production is also about the journey you took to get to Bayreuth, and why you made that not uncomplicated trip.

That’s not meant to discourage you from watching this, indeed it would have been a travesty had this production not been filmed. (This is the last year it will be seen in Bayreuth before being replaced.)

The videos are on YouTube; I recommend downloading them because who knows how long they will stick around.

Act 1

Act 2

Act 3

Postscript: I warn you against listening to Parsifal and Bohème in close proximity. At some point you will hear, in your head only, Rodolfo crying out “Mimì!” followed by the Heilesbuße-Motiv (the descending arpeggio), and it will be really weird.

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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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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
anyway.

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.
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Prelude (warning: mostly naked people)

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