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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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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Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Salzburg Festival

I went to Die Frau ohne Schatten in Salzburg, and I wrote about it for Bachtrack.

This year’s festival brings a third complete Frau
to Salzburg, conducted by Christian Thielemann and directed by Christof
Loy. The Wiener Philharmoniker, the orchestra of the premiere, is in
the pit, and they and Thielemann were unquestionably the highlight of
this performance.

You can read the rest here. A few more comments and more pictures right ahead.

First of all, the PR made out like Christof Loy based his production off a historical event–a recording in the legendary Sofiensaal–but that recording took place in the Musikverein. Details, details.

I was excited to see a big new production of Die Frau ohne Schatten, because of the music but also because it’s both a very difficult work to stage and one that presents a lot of opportunities for cool stuff. As the woman sitting behind me said, in English, “they have this fantastic production in LA, when the Empress talks about fish, there are the fish!” Well, maybe that’s not quite what I was thinking of. Actually this opera has a lot of problems, like how women’s sole purpose in life is baby-making and if they do not devote their full attentions to baby-making they are BAD.  Director Loy even points out that this should not fly today in his program book interview. I agree! But I don’t think his solution of simply declining to stage most of the opera in favor of yet another theater-in-theater setting is any kind of solution at all. He doesn’t even seem interested in the piece, and there’s nothing really to make us interested in it. I found this vaguely offensive, like he had just refused to do the job which he had been assigned.

But the music was, indeed, fantastic.

When is Herheim going to get around to directing this one? Just a suggestion, opera houses of the world.

More pictures:

Theater-in-theater business (Empress)
Don’t ask. I can’t explain. (Dyer’s Wife)
The score DID sound vaguely Elektra-like upon the axe’s first appearance.
Michaela Schuster makes the awesomest facial expressions.
There is perhaps something interesting being said in this stage image, but what it is beats me.

 Photos copyright Monika Rittershaus/Salzburg Festival

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Petrenko and the lyric Symphoniker

Kirill Petrenko and the Wiener Symphoniker brought an unusual program to the Musikverein this week: Zemlinsky’s Lyrische Symphonie, Liadov’s The Enchanted Lake, and Scriabin’s Le poème de l’extase. I wish I could have written about this sooner, because there were a disappointing amount of empty seats at Wednesday’s first of three concerts and it was really worth hearing. The Lyrische Symphonie can be easily described as a Das Lied von der Erde rip-off, and as a series of lush orchestral songs for two alternating vocal soloists set to Asian poetry, there are obvious similarities. However, Zemlinsky’s musical language is quite different, and so are his poems’ themes. Petrenko and the Symphoniker’s account was monumental and dramatic.

The first movement was gloriously un-transparent, not dissected as much as a thick, ever-shifting carpet of sound. After hearing many technically overworked and clinical performances recently, it was a lovely change to hear the whole orchestra together instead of eliciting reactions such as “oh, hi, oboe section!” The soloists were excellent and carefully traced the work’s journey for youth to love to loss, but Petrenko’s focus was more on the orchestra than on them. Baritone Wolfgang Koch sounded somewhat flat and detached in the first movement, but warmed up to an imposing, passionate delivery in the other movements. Suddenly ubiquitous soprano Camilla Nylund was much better suited to this work than she had been to Rosalinde or Salome, her silvery sound projecting perfectly but never losing its freshness. Her “Sprich zu mir, Geliebter” was beautifully floated.

This was a very smartly put-together program. Anatoly Liadov’s brief, quiet tone poem The Enchanted Lake is another shimmering atmosphere piece, but one of greater delicacy, recalling a Russian Debussy. It served as a good introduction to Scriabin’s heady Poème de l’extase, whose chaotic structure and kaleidoscope of themes was, like the Zemlinsky, a dazzling exercise in orchestral color and balance. And, at the end, we heard how very, very loud an orchestra of this size can be. But it never felt gratuitous.

The concert was hindered by some spectacularly ill-timed coughing, and was met with a disappointingly lukewarm reception. I thought it was unusual and glorious.

Wiener Symphoniker, Kirill Petrenko, conductor. Musikverein, 2/23/2011. With Camilla Nylund, soprano and Wolfgang Koch, baritone. Program: Zemlinsky, Lyrische Symphonie, op. 18; Liadov (Lyadov/Ljadow), The Enchanted Lake, op. 62; Scriabin (Skrjabin), Le Poème de l’extase, op. 54.

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Fidelio in Munich: Led to freedom

Of all composers, it’s Beethoven who we think we understand. The greatest achievement of Calixto Bieito and Daniele Gatti’s strange Bayerische Staatsoper Fidelio is how it disrupts our expectations and banishes calcified certainty and cliché. The prison exists only in the minds of the alienated characters, and Leonore finds that freeing her husband isn’t quite as simple as finding him and dressing him in a suit. The production’s fragmented dreaminess and vaguely unfinished quality can be frustrating, but its handful of revelatory moments and wonderful performances add up to a powerful experience.

Beethoven, Fidelio. Bayerische Staatsoper, 1/5/2010. New production by Calixto Bieito, sets by Rebecca Ringst, costumes by Ingo Krügler, lights by Reinhard Traub. Conducted by Daniele Gatti with Anja Kampe (Leonore), Jonas Kaufmann (Florestan), Franz-Josef Selig (Rocco), Wolfgang Koch (Don Pizarro), Laura Tatulescu (Marzelline), Jussi Myllys (Jaquino), LazArt Quartett.

Sit back, guys, this one is going to take a good amount of space. Also, I again had a restricted-view seat, and the chance I missed something important is pretty good, alas.

This production does not take place in a literal prison. The set is a shifting maze of glass and metal, in the first act a vertical structure of floors and ladders and, in Florestan’s cell, a horizontal one of hallways. Each character is a captive of this strikingly beautiful Borgesian labyrinth, each inside their own private mental prisons, alienated by the proverbial Modern Condition. Each has an obsession that prevents them from reaching the labyrinth’s center and the freedom found there. It’s a Bildungsroman for the Cormac McCarthy set.

Before the overture, Leonore opens the opera by reciting a Jorge Luis Borges poem. Here it is in English (it’s from In Praise of Darkness).  Maybe the labyrinth doesn’t have a center at all; whether there is any escape is a key issue of the production:

There’ll never be a door. You’re inside
and the keep encompasses the world
and has neither obverse nor reverse
nor circling wall nor secret center.
Hope not that the straightness of your path
that stubbornly branches off in two,
that stubbornly branches off in two,
will have an end. Your fate is ironbound,
as is your judge. Forget the onslaught
of the bull that is a man and whose
strange and plural form haunts the tangle
of unending interwoven stone.
He does not exist. In the black dusk,
hope not even for the savage beast.

The overture that follows is not the Fidelio but full-blown Leonore No. 3, here given a schizophrenically dissociated performance by Gatti, moving between Zen-like waves of crescendos and decrescendos and frantically fast sections. Onstage, Leonore takes off her shirt and binds her breasts. This is important: it is the denial of her sexuality and single-minded need to find Florestan that prevents her from escaping the labyrinth, not the lack of Florestan himself. (Giving the woman her own purpose in life, what a concept!)

Bieito has eliminated the spoken text almost entirely and inserted short quotations from Borges and McCarthy in its place. But they do not serve remotely the same function; most are some variation on “I am trapped in the labyrinth,” offering a few moments of spoken interlude between the musical numbers. The series of musical numbers does not present us with the plot but the various characters’ more or less independent psychological prisons, all products of the constraints of modern society. Rocco wants money. Marzelline wants sex, and Jaquino is, as could be expected, a rapist. Don Pizarro wants power. Leonore, determined and capable but denied a full life, struggles with literal ropes attached to the labyrinth in “Komm, Hoffnung.” In the Prisoners’ Chorus she puts pictures of Florestan’s face on the scattered prisoners, as if that would transform these momentarily free men into her husband and thus free herself. When some bits of the plot intrude into the sung texts it is as if they are fragments from some other world.

The first act exists entirely in this kind of timeless abstraction; in the second the labyrinth is lowered to a horizontal position and we disconcertingly enter the world of characters and events (we also acquire a number of hanging acrobats who descend from the flies, symbolizing floating freedom and such). What exactly is wrong with Florestan is unclear (perhaps mental illness, perhaps resigned into an exceptionally bad case of modernist alienation), but despite his vision of Leonore and attempts to climb out of the labyrinth, he is mentally elsewhere and scared of anyone who comes near him. Leonore dispatches Pizarro with both a bottle of water smashed over the head and acid thrown in his eyes.

The marital reunion begins euphorically, and Leonore ditches her man clothes for a dress and Florestan his asylum-like pajamas for a suit, but after “O namenlose Freude” they draw away from each other, Florestan unsure of leaving and Leonore not sure who this is that she has finally found. Then, where Mahler and Bernstein put Leonore No. 3, a string quartet descends from above and plays an excerpt from the slow movement of the Op. 132 string quartet, the Heiliger Dankgesang (only the molto adagio, not the “feeling new strength“ section). It’s a moment of perfect peace and stillness, and the hanging musicians seem to represent the consolatory, freeing, yet abstract power of art (cue Beethoven biography reference, and the program includes the text of the Heiligenstadt Testament). And yet it is only a momentary respite.

The finale confused me a bit. Don Fernando arrives in the personage of the Joker from The Dark Knight (some other parts of this production kind of recall Inception–I suspect that Bieito is a big Christopher Nolan fan), a deus ex machina who enters from the audience. He proceeds to shoot Florestan. While he does not remain dead onstage, I think he actually does die. Because the utopia of the finale is a freedom that can’t exist (especially when you’re in a Calixto Bieito production), and considering Florestan’s mental state, he isn’t going to be able to piece his life together again in this world, wife or no wife. The only release for him is death. The rejoicing of the reunion continues in some other space. But what does this mean for Leonore?

This is my biggest problem with the production: the characters exist in such isolation from each other. I think it may be too abstract for me; I miss having a plot and real characters instead of symbols of a vague existential struggle, and it was only during the more concrete action of the second act where I was fascinated (as evidenced by my descriptions–I really thought the treatment of the reunion was brilliant). The first half of Fidelio is inevitably a dramaturgical challenge, but this solution seems weirdly lacking in ideas, almost incomplete. And I missed the good old struggle for justice, however naive it might be. I guess I’m sentimental.

But the best thing about this production is how unnaive and unsentimental it is, how it expresses the power and desire of Beethoven’s score without lapsing into cliché. As intendant Nikolaus Bachler said at the post-show discussion, “The curtain goes up and there’s ironing! Always ironing!” But beyond avoiding ritual staging, Bieito expresses the central theme of freedom while pretty much destroying any comfortable historicist paean. He avoids the ideological truisms of black and white truth and Western idealism that are attached to Beethoven and this work in favor of something more unique and intensely personal. (My problem with most Beethoven presentations is encapsulated in the subtitle of Edmund Morgan’s Beethoven biography, The Universal Composer, a phrase that presents so many cultural problems that I don’t even know where to start.  Bieito is an antidote to this.) It might be neither fuzzily inspirational nor coherent, but it has many other virtues, and its freshness and complexity are definitely some of them.

Musically, Daniele Gatti seemed like almost the right conductor for this production. He is willfully strange, with weirdly slow tempos and unexpected shifts, sometimes overwhelming the singers and sometimes lacking in coordination and rhythmic crispness (from the stage, this could have had to do with the production). But the static quality and unexpected twists seemed to fit with a production this unconventional, and his strange waves of music certainly sounded alien. The orchestra, particularly the strings, sounded very good, though occasionally a little bewildered.

Anja Kampe made a tremendously badass Leonore. Her large, rich voice sometimes struggled through Beethoven’s murderous vocal writing and Gatti’s slow tempo in the first half of her aria. But her singing was expressive and heroic throughout, and her giant high Bs ideal for this role. She acted with remarkable sincerity through the considerable demands of the production, and her naturalness and honesty provided most of its soul. Jonas Kaufmann navigated the terrors of the aria with great dramatic eloquence, including a daring crescendo at the beginning and a trumpeting ending with strong high notes. And his vaguely autistic, tic-ridden Florestan was a formidable piece of acting. But after the aria he sounded under the weather, and sometimes was drowned out in the ensembles. (This was his return to the production after several illness-related cancelations, and he coughed several times mid-aria. Hilariously, half the audience immediately broke out in sympathy coughs.) Laura Tatulescu and Jussi Mylls were animated as Marzelline and Jaquino, both singing with clarity through their considerable acrobatics. Wolfgang Koch made an oddly soft-grained Pizarro. Franz-Josef Selig was an excellently sung Rocco with robust, round tone. As usual in a Bieito production, the acting and commitment from the cast was across-the-board great.

I found parts of this production massively frustrating, but there is more of it that will stick with me.  And, as you can see by the amount of words it took me to explain my thoughts about it, it certainly gave me something to think about.  As much as I love the triumph of justice, it’s going to be a little tricky to go innocently back to the ironing after this.

All photos copyright Bayerische Staatsoper.
Trailer (3 minutes):

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