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Twerp it.

In Opera, Review on September 30, 2018 at 9:25 am

Review – Salome (English National Opera, Friday 28 September 2018)

Salome – Allison Cook
Jokanaan – David Soar
Herod – Michael Colvin
Herodias – Susan Bickley
Narraboth – Stuart Jackson
Page – Clare Presland
Jews – Daniel Norman, Christopher Turner, Amar Muchhala, Alun Rhys-Jenkins and Jonathan Lemalu
Nazarenes – Robert Winslade Anderson and Adam Sullivan
Soldiers – Simon Shibambu and Ronald Nairne

Dancers – Corey Annand, Kazmin Borrer, Hannah Flynn, Iona Kirk and Nicole Neolove

Director – Adena Jacobs
Designer – Marg Horwell
Lighting Designer – Lucy Carter
Choreographer – Melanie Lane

Conductor – Martyn Brabbins

It was somewhat ironic that the most successful moment in ENO’s new production of Salome, was the precise moment when other productions have usually not been as effective. Namely, Salome’s Dance.

But here, Adena Jacobs pitched it almost perfectly. A pity, as the rest of the evening failed in all but three instances, completely flat. Salome should disgust, excite and ultimately leave you feeling slightly queasy. This production left me totally cold.

This was a shame as it opened stun such promise. The  clarion-like tenor of Stuart Jackson floated beautifully out into the auditorium. No hint of strain, his mellifluous tenor, coupled with crystal clear diction was a joy to listen to. I’m not quite sure why he was made out to be a cocaine addict (if that was what his bleeding nose was meant to infer), but his was one of only two completely coherent and three dimensional characters in the entire production.

The second was the magnificent Susan Bickley. Her Herodias was superb. Vocally secure coupled with incredible acting that was wonting in the rest of the Antipas family. Whenever she was on stage, her commanding presence was formidable. Finally, all credit to the Jokanaan of David Soar. I was relieved when he shucked his stilettos and his singing was impassioned and wonderfully coloured. There were moments when I almost though the Messiah would arrive on stage.

Sadly, the rest of the cast only passed muster. This Salome is clearly a work in progress with some moments of promise in Allison Cook’s performance. Musically, her diction was, like the rest of the cast, impeccable. However, while there was much to admire in her singing, all too often it was either underpowered – more overwhelmed by Brabbins’ conducting – or under the note. The use of Sprechstimme in this role adds depth to the portrayal but the singer must also have laser-like precision of each and every note. Dramatically, this production couldn’t decide ‘who’ Salome was. The transition from waif-like princess through petulant child to suicide and/or victim was not wholly convincing.

Similarly, her step-father fidgeted from crazy to petulant to spoiled without first anchoring the character with any coherence.  Indeed, from the onset it seemed that direction from the director was rather hit and miss, focusing on individual dramatic peaks in isolation rather that providing an overall narrative syntax.

From the headless My Little Pony complete with guts made of s comfort blanket, to Herod’s Santa sack, the production team seemed to have approached the opera as a bag of tricks and symbols to be thrown across the stage haphazardly. The most striking and effective scenes were those with Jokanaan despite the all too obvious emasculating stilettos.

So it was a surprise, and a relief that this production offered a coherent and uncomfortable Dance. From Salome’s sexualised poses reminiscent of the kinds of portrayals we see in mainstream media everyday to the tweaking of the four dancers was both riveting as well as almost too uncomfortable to watch. So a shame that the Dance was so unsupported by particularly lacklustre and sterile playing as I’ve ever heard from ENO’s orchestra. The closing scene, with some of the most erotic and evocative music ever written was dramatically undermined by having Salome not reveal Jokanaan’s head. There is nothing remotely erotic or shocking about singing to a plastic bag. Therefore, it felt like the final denouement – rather non sensical as it wasn’t derived from any of the narrative that proceeded it – was bolted on simply to provide a frisson of shock.

Surprisingly, in terms of the orchestral playing, I was disappointed by the ENO orchestra. Their usual lustre and brilliance was missing, and Brabbins more often than not failed to find the right balance between the pit and the stage.

Salome should be a tough opera to watch a well as to listen to. The sensuality and brutality of the music should elicit an uneasy emotional response; and the drama doesn’t need to be overtly shlocking to shock. Read the rest of this entry »

A Very Shakespearean Wagner

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on July 13, 2011 at 9:09 pm

Lohengrin, Bayerische Oper, Munich, July 2011

• Kristinu Sigmundson – Heinrich der Vogler
• Lohengrin – Peter Seiffert
• Elsa von Brabant – Emily Magee
• Friedrich von Telramund – Evgeny Nikitin
• Ortrud – Waltraud Meier
• The Herald – Martin Gantner

• Director – Richard Jones
• Designer & Lighting – Ultz
• Conductor – Kent Nagano

The Nationaltheater in Munich, home of the Bayerische Oper, is a beautiful building. The impressive exterior, and marble halls hide an exquisite gold gilt auditorium contrasted with pinks and reds. It was the perfect setting for this memorable performance of Lohengrin.

Admittedly I initially came for this performance to see two of my favourite sopranos – Adrienne Pieczonka and Waltraud Meier – but on the night the role of Elsa was performed by American soprano, Emily Magee.

I best start with the production itself. This was by Richard Jones and his common production partner, the singularly-named Ultz. I’ve seen many productions directed by this pair. The most memorable was The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant at English National Opera. It was an unusual choice and, despite what many said, a brave and creative decision. If only ENO would take creative risks like that now rather than assuming or rather hoping that plucking a random director will work. Not only did Petra capture a real sense of ‘a time’ but Jones’ trademarks – attention to detail and most importantly, a real effort made to engage with and work with the singers to analyse their characters and develop real, tangible personalities – was evident throughout. And the same attention to detail shone through brightly in Munich.

The production itself was – to say the least – quirky, another Jones/Ultz hallmark – but enjoyable and thought-provoking. When it premiered it drew a great deal of criticism. I can’t pretend to have unlocked Jones’ intention so what I write here is my own interpretation.

This definitely wasn’t a ‘traditional’ production of Lohengrin. In a sense this was a ‘voyeurs’ production. From the start, even as the audience came into the auditorium, Jones had the action unfolding on stage. Before the prelude, a single draftsman working on a building plan; Ortrud alone before the Second Act; and finally a fully completed shell of a house, complete with flowery border. All that was missing was the white picket fence. But I’m pretty sure it was in the audiences imagination as it was so clearly in mine.

In a sense the stage was also ‘naked’. There was a single curtain backdrop towards the front of the stage to create the King’s court. As a result everything felt ‘temporary’ which of course is, in some ways, a theme of the opera. Lohengrin never intends to stay. He is merely the catalyst for events that need to happen to ‘cleanse’ Brabant.

Because in Jones’ mind, Brabant is a damaged place. The Orwellian Herald further underlined Brabant’s sinister aspect. Gottfried, Elsa’s brother is missing. After the prelude, the chorus shuffle on. The setting is anonymous. The costumes made hints at eras but nothing is clear, nor clean cut. The men are in branded Brabant jackets, some in suits, some in t-shirts. The women are similarly attired – only their multitude of A-line skirts skirts suggesting any sense of matronly uniformity. Only the main characters, and Telramund’s conspirators – in their sharp grey suits – stand out.

The King, with his sense of almost forced optimism is in sharp contrast to Telramund and Ortrud – the magnificent Waltraud Meier. With them Jones has gone beyond mere cyphers determined to take charge. Ably abetted by Meier and Nikitin, they are a couple of pure malevolence who stalk the stage. Indeed they are Macbeth-like in their calculated evil, and like their Shakespearean counterparts it is Otrud who until the last is the stronger of the two. A foil to Telramund’s own weakness and mental frailty.

Elsa, as expected, is detached, almost catatonic. But Jones delves deeper. From her first appearance, her shuffling gait as she carries white bricks across the stage and through the doors to the set concealed by the single backdrop of two doors below a set of arcane heraldic symbols says it all. Elsa is ‘damaged goods’ and suspected of murder. She carries a folded poster of her brother, like those used when a child is missing. No one is able to interrupt her catatonic march until she is forcibly restrained by one of the King’s guards. Even then she does not immediately register the reason.

And it is only when the entire stage is revealed that we understand the significance of the lone draughtsman. It is Elsa who, in her workman’s overalls, is building a home, the significance of which didn’t become clear to me until the final act.

Interestingly Jones downplays the arrival of Lohengrin himself. In other productions this is often the dramatic focus of the opening act. Granted, Lohengrin arrives carrying the necessary – and animatronic – swan, but this is not ‘a moment’ in the dramatic sense. Indeed, could they have made Lohengrin look any less the hero in his grey trousers with their silver stripe and blue shirt?

For Jones the attention is in the detail. There is no single dramatic moment in the first act. Even the attempt to burn Elsa at a hastily built stake has a surreal-like quality. Ortrud stalks the stage in her suit and management-look hair style, watching everyone. A sharp contrast to Elsa in her workman’s outfit. Women versus child. Telramund, with his overly excited manners, is a man on the edge. Dangerous. Lohengrin is not a hero. Rather he looks like an accidental tourist.

Even Telramund’s challenge, Lohengrin’s defence of Elsa’s honour and the ensuing sword fight had a strange detached, pantomime quality. Indeed the only act of real aggression is when the King rips the symbol of Brabant from Telramund’s coat and throws it on the ground at the close of the First Act.

Interestingly as the main curtain fell, the audiences response was polite and somewhat muted. But the characters had been set and, I believe, Jones deliberately lulled the audience into a false sense of security, almost making us, by extension, placid participants in the drama itself.

The Second Act opens, as I have already mentioned, with Ortrud alone, seated at the far side of the stage. She sits there like a coiled spring exuding menace and her thoughts are only broken when her husband storms in. He is clearly a broken man. Gone is the smart, buttoned-up noble of the preceding act. Here, shirt undone (and displaying Nikitin’s impressive tattoos), he stumbles and sways across the stage, every so often spying on events behind the backdrop through spy holes in the door. Jones does not have him depict anger as the key driver for revenge, but rather abject humiliation. Pulling a pistol from his pocket he attempts suicide, only to be stopped by Ortrud. Icily calm, she lays out their new plan to destroy both Lohengrin and Elsa. And here, Jones suddenly ratchets up the tension. The audience was suddenly rapt, pulled forward into the drama.

What followed – spurred on by the incredible vocal and acting talents of Meier and Nikitin – was momentous. Again I was drawn to a comparison with ‘the Macbeths’ in the evil motivation that drove them both. The interplay between husband and wife was electric. More than once Telramund attempted to hurt his wife and Ortrud’s reaction made it cleat that this was, at heart, an abusive relationship. And each time he failed. Not through weakness but because it was clear that she was in total control of him. Ortrud was all about control and Meier’s portrayal was faultless. Her call for revenge – to Wotan and Fricka – was chilling and again the only moment in the whole opera where Jones/Meier allowed the character to seemingly lose control.

This was the turning point in the drama and Jones now ratcheted up the momentum inexorably. The backdrop rose to reveal the house much closer to completion, Elsa surveying her creation. The subsequent scene between the two leading ladies – watched by Telramund – was brilliantly acted by Meier and Magee, with the former’s calculating approach to confuse and thereby befriend the bride-to-be all the more chilling by Ortrud’s stealthy movements.

The tension of wedding scene itself – and the confrontation between the key protagonists – was almost unbearable. Changed into her bridal gown, Elsa seemed to find a new inner strength, if only momentarily, as she faced up to Otrud, who once again stalked across the stage as if hunting prey. Typically the arrival of Lohengrin marks a shift in the balance of power as the hero takes the leads and sees off Ortrud. Not in Jones’ production. Again Lohengrin was made to seem weaker and – most tellingly – he played into Elsa’s own insecurities. Never have I seen an Elsa so unconvinced about being a bride.

The curtain went down and the audience – particularly when Meier appeared – went wild.

It was only during the Final Act, and the completion of the house, complete with bed, baby’s cot and high chair that the potential significance of Elsa’s building programme occurred to me. It was therapy. Therapy for Elsa to help her cope with the guilt of her lost brother. But it was also an act of atonement. Elsa building a home, and creating a family to replace him. Almost as if a house, family and child would make it all seem better. I don’t know if it was coincidental or not, but the picture of her missing brother was placed on the wall directly above the high chair. Jones’ attention to detail makes me think it was anything but that.

The Third Act played out traditionally – despite the almost comedic dance routine during the prelude – for the most part, bar two significant reinterpretations. First – and I accept that this is open to debate – it seemed to me that in the scuffle with Telramund, it is Elsa and not Lohengrin, that kills Ortrud’s spouse. To me this was a plausible and significant decision by Jones. First of all the death is accidental but secondly, Elsa now begins to unravel. Her retreat back into her original catatonic state is not so much to do with Lohengrin’s departure but her own association with death. As she is led onto the stage we are back at the beginning – Elsa being suspected of murder.

And secondly, neither Otrud nor Elsa die at the end. Lohengrin exits stage left and touchingly returns carrying ????. Elsa, momentarily revived by the return of her brother, slumps down onto a seat, once again withdrawn from the world. Ortrud, despite seeing the corpse of her dead husband, does not break down. She watches and continues to stalk.

And when the curtain closes it is Ortrud who has her her arm maternally around the young prince. But most chilling, the chorus all seated on the collapsed stage, putting pistols into their mouths.

Brabant has not been purified. Far from it. Brabant is in a worse place than at the start.

So, an incredibly thought-provoking production. Jones’ intellectual bent, his attention to detail, and his clear direction to all the singers never once threatened to swamp the story-telling. Instead it offered a fresh, and to me completely plausible reappraisal of the original story.

And the singers and chorus, so ably led by Nagano in the pit, rose to the occasion. The chorus – despite some dodgy acting – were superb. Their sense of ensemble and precision was brilliant. Nagano led the orchestra and singers like a master, bringing out a burnished quality in the orchestral playing – especially the brass – that was so sadly lacking when I attended The Ring in San Francisco a few weeks ago. Runnicles take note.

Kristinu Sigmundson as Heinrich der Vogler and the Herald of Martin Gantner were clear voiced, with excellent diction. However it was the four principals who made the evening not great – but in my opinion – momentous.

Peter Seiffert is a fine Lohengrin although not a strong actor. He has both the heft and stamina for the role and while he clearly sailed through the role, there were times when a little more finesse and lightness in the vocal line would have made a real difference.

The Friedrich von Telramund of Evgeny Nikitin was simply amazing. He captured perfectly how unbalanced the character really is, portraying with clarity his breakdown from First to Third act. His interactions with Meier – especially in the Second Act – were, as I said, almost Shakespearean in their delivery. Again he is able to carry above the orchestra and s attention to the words, the light and shade of his voice, made his Telramund a real character – not simply a man after power but a man whose pursuit of power was for evil.

Emily Magee had a shaky start but she did not warrant the booing at the end. Initial problems with intonation slowly disappeared so that by her confrontation with Ortrud she was in fine voice. And her acting was superb, capturing the vulnerability as well as the childishness of the character perfectly. At the end – and quite clearly the intention – this Elsa was not a girl to expire but rather to continue suffering.

But it was Waltraud Meier’s Ortrud who stole the evening. This Lady Macbeth in Wagnerian cloth was both consummate actress and superlative singer. Her mere presence on stage was enough to raise the temperature as she stalked and hunted out the other protagonists. Her abusive relationship with Telramund was at the core of her character and the decision not to kill her at the end was telling. Ortrud had – in all senses of the word – won. She had destroyed Elsa. Did not grieve the demise of her abusive husband. And she had the child. And her singing was simply breathtaking. I have seen her in other Wagnerian roles – Isolde in Paris for example – but Ortrud was made for her. The role sits comfortable in her range, and she negotiates the role with vocal precision married with clear and meaningful diction.

So a memorable, brilliant Lohengrin. Jones delivered an intelligent production that took a new but clearly deliberate look at the story. The characters – one and all – were three dimensional and not your typical stand-and-deliver cyphers. And the quality of the singing was of the highest standard. In fact I would go so far as to say that this was one of the most enjoyable and challenging productions I have seen in years.

So it does beg the question. If this can be achieved in Munich why can’t it happen in London, New York or San Francisco?

Die Walküre – The Misintentioned Mechanics of Lepage’s Production

In Classical Music, Opera on May 6, 2011 at 7:21 am

Listening to – Violin Concerto, Faust/Brahms

Having attended the opening night and second performance of Robert Lepage’s production of Die Walküre at the Met, there was something distinctly ‘baroque’ about the whole evening.

It seemed to me that rather than the stage machinery and technology providing a foundation to enhance the drama, in fact the whole production seemed to rely almost excessively on the mechanics and, in a sense, forsaking Wagner’s own concept of Gesamtkunst. That is not to say that the music, and the performances were not, on the whole, incredibly strong, but throughout both the evenings that I attended there was a real sense that mechanical intervention had been permitted – or instructed deliberately – to take precedence. Indeed it was interesting to hear the interval and post-performance chatter. It wasn’t about the performances, or Levine’s conducting, but it had a distinctly ‘How the devil did he do that’ quality.

In a sense Lepage’s production sought – as they did in baroque and early 18th century opera – to overwhelm the audience with feats of mechanical engineering. Of course, this may have worked well in operas of earlier generations when gods, flying chariots, and flying scenery changes offered a distraction from the recitative that alternated with the arias for which the audience even stopped talking. But in Wagner where the music is – to coin a distinctly 18th century term – through-composed, then it almost served as a distraction.

The use of a single, if impressive, mechanical plateau of moving planks also leant itself to restrictions. While the opening, driven forward by Levine’s knowledgeable conducting and love of the score, looked visually arresting as the projections morphed from a snow storm, via a forest to the wooden piles of Hunding’s hut, it offered little, if any, sense of atmosphere or real location. There was no sense of the singers interacting with their environment. Surprising and not a little disappointing considering that Hamburg’s recent production demonstrated that even a ‘big white empty space’ could invoke a sense of reality and emotional projection. For most of the evening, it felt like singing from the school of ‘stand and deliver’, with isolated moments when what would have seemed like perfectly acceptable actions simply felt wildly over-acted and almost inappropriate. I call to mind in particular Kaufman’s rushing about the stage swinging Northung.

Similarly the Second Act – where Deborah Voigt came a cropper on her first entry on the first night and which clearly unnerved her for the rest of the performance – felt similarly devoid of a sense of place. The use of an eye as Wotan recounted the events at led him to his current predicament to Brunnhilde had a definite Tolkiensian feeling and similarly, the previous scenes involving Fricka, literally glued to her rams’ chariot, would have had an almost comical feel had it not been for Stephanie Blythe’s mesmerising performance. I wondered if Fricka had been condemned to her chariot for fear of her own safety.

The Final Act began and ended ‘on Broadway’. The Valkyries arrived riding the automated, moving planks which elicited much applause from the New York audience, and until the final denouément, it felt like Lepage only threw in a few animations of falling snow (or was it clouds?) for fear that the concentration of the collective audience would wander. Clearly Lepage doesn’t know his Wagner audience. The snow, or clouds, were a distraction.

The final scene, seeing Brunnhilde – well an actress, not Voigt – upended on a cliff face was visually arresting but provided none of the sense of scale of the previous production by Schenk. This was not helped by the fact that Terfel and Voigt had to exit ‘stage left’ so that Wotan could rise in the lift backstage to hoist pseudo-Brunnhilde aloft. By that point it didn’t surprise and seemed a real sense of anti-climax as the picture was already in the public domain and therefore the reveal was spoiled.

And maybe because of the restrictions imposed by the stages, the lighting was incredibly simple, with an over-reliance on spotlighting the singers and, I admit, in one stunning moment, Northung plunged into the oak. Yet bar this specific instances, lighting seemed to be limited to two settings – on and off.

What was equally surprising were the costumes of the characters. From the chain mail of Siegfried and the breast-plated armour of Wotan and the Valkyrie to the distinctly pseudo-Celtic robes of Sieglinde, Fricka and Hunding, the costumes would not have looked out of place in Schenk’s production which this replaced.

In the same way, any direction of the characters was simply lacking. Again I put this down to a reliance on the mechanics to convey the narrative and sense of action. For the most part, and as I have mentioned above, the mantra seemed to be ‘stand and deliver’ but there were moments of genuine acting and it is worth noting which singers seemed keen to extend beyond the restrictions imposed on them. At the end of the first act, Kaufman and Westbroek engaged in some ‘real acting’ as they declared their love for one another, and Stephanie Blythe, despite being condemned to her horned throne, managed to convey a real sense of anger, frustration and – dare I say it – lost love for Wotan.

Yet despite the distractions provided by Lepage’s set, the singing and playing was of an incredibly high, if not consistent, standard. The main cast were: Jonas Kaufman (Siegmund); Eva-Maria Westbroek and Margaret-Jane Wray (Sieglinde); Peter Koenig (Hunding); Bryn Terfel (Wotan); Deborah Voigt (Brunnhilde) and Stephanie Blythe (Fricka). On the First Night Westbroek was replaced by Wray for the second and third acts.

This was, I believe, Kaufman’s debut at the Met, and considering his repertory roles in Germany, his first Siegmund. He was, on the whole, impressive. Having already sung principal roles in Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and Rienzi, Kaufmann has a real sense of Wagner’s vocal line, and a brilliant and bell-like upper register. However Siegmund pushes the vocal range for tenors at both ends of the scale, and there were occasional moments when Kaufmann’s delivery of lower notes grumbled. However this was a small rice to pay for a vigorous and beautifully sung Siegmund.

Eva-Maria Westbroek was also making her debut at the Met, yet Sieglinde is fast becoming a signature role for her. Despite her incapacity on the first night, she demonstrated hat she is one of the leading Sieglinde’s of today, comparable with the likes of Angela Denoke who performed the role in Hamburg. Incapacitated on opening night, on her second night, Westbroek revelled in the vocal lines, effortlessly rising against the orchestra when she needed to but also capable of dropping to a deathly whisper as required in the second act. Her final scene before departing to the woods was vocally secure, beautifully phrased and rang out over the orchestra. Without doubt she will on day move from an impressive Sieglinde to an equally defining Brunnhilde.

Margaret-Jane Wray stepped in at short notice on the first night and delivered a finely rendered character. She is a fine Wagnerian soprano, with the heft for the role although – perhaps because of the last minute nature of her appearance – she occasionally over-sang. Regardless, it was a brave and heart-felt performance.

Clearly Deborah Voigt as Brunnhilde was the Met’s main focus. In costume she dominated the marketing for the production, and overall she did not disappoint. Despite her first night slip, she delivered a worthy Brunnhilde. Her musicality, and understanding of the role were never in doubt and she has gleaming top notes with an almost even tone through her range. However, and perhaps even on the second night she was still wary of the set, on occasion her voice would possess an almost metallic, harsh tone, particular in the upper register. Brunnhilde may be a role that Voigt wants to sing, but perhaps it isn’t ultimately a role that suits her. There were occasions when her voice felt too small for the role and she physically seemed to struggle. She is not – and perhaps never will be – a Brunnhilde in the manner of Stemme or Dalayman.

Stephanie Blythe demonstrated that despite the limitations imposed upon her, she is one of the leading acting singers in the stage today. She delivered a three-dimensional Fricka who – unlike the equally engaging Fricka of Lilli Paasikivi – was still in love with her husband and demonstrated a frailty that is certainly not the norm for Fricka. However, considering my distinct feeling of Lepage’s deliberate disassociation from actually directing the singers, I credit Blythe with this interpretation. And as for her singing? Simply wonderful. Hers is a rich and resonant mezzo, even throughout with a luxuriant, warm tone. It was probably the single moment in the whole production when all eyes and ears were focused on the singing and acting. The staging had melted away. Superb.

So to Terfel and his Wotan. It was a convincingly rendered role and Terfel is a fine singer. But he left me wanting more. He was in good voice and his characterisation was finely tuned – indeed his scene with Fricka was a highlight for me – but there was a sense that he was not engaged with the production.

And finally, what of Levine? He is an incredible conductor. His love of Wagner and his understanding of the scale and architectural expanses of score enabled him not only to draw fine playing from the orchestra and in particular the brass, but he also provided that real sense of the seamlessness so critical in this opera. His was richly deserved cheer and ovation at the beginning, middle and end of both evenings.

Yet, despite the excellent conducting and fine – and occasionally brilliant singing – I left the Lincoln Center feeling – like the singers – disengaged from the evening’s performance. Individually the performances were good, but with the exception of Blythe and Westbroek, they were not magnificent. And Lepage seemed to forsake any real sense of direction or narrative, relying instead on the mechanics of his staging for effect. Sadly, Lepage had tried – and in my view – failed in his self-professed goal – to marry twenty-first century technology with Wagner’s Gesamtkunst – the unity of music, text and scenic setting.

Perhaps they should have just given Schenk’s traditional sets a new coat of paint.

Almost Perfect Wagner

In Classical Music, Opera on April 11, 2011 at 9:10 pm

Listening to – The Valkyrie, Goodall.

Every so often along comes a production where the performances, conducting, production and direction all come together almost perfectly. Die Walkure in Hamburg was just one such occasion. What was more, having seen their production of Götterdämmerung last year which had struggled in places, the success of Die Walkure was all the more satisfying.

First the cast. Although the production boasted Angela Denoke as Sieglinde and Katarina Dalayman as Brunnhilde, the cast as a whole was incredibly strong. Falk Struckman’s Wotan was an incredible presence. His diction – even for a non-German speaker such as myself – seemed incredibly clear and his voice was strong through every register. Admittedly he did crack on a few top notes, yet it made little difference as overall his musicality dominated. Never for have I been so enthralled by Fricka as I was in this production. I had never heard of Lilli Paasikivi before arriving in Hamburg and admittedly the scene between Wotan and his wife in the Second Act often leaves me impatiently waiting for it to end. But on this occasion I was completely enthralled. Paasikivi is an incredible artist. Vocally she has a rich, characterful mezzo and her interpretation of the role was invested with the right balance of vengeful wife and vainglorious goddess. Even her silent appearance at the end of the Act carried great weight – a real sense of judgement achieved and a wife satisfied. She is a mezzo I shall be following with great interest from now on. The Valkyrie – as a group – are a difficult bunch to cast I would imagine. The individual roles are tough vocally and Wagner clearly gives each of them a distinct character. On stage this often means that they don’t sing completely well as an ensemble and their acting is wooden. They come across as individuals only, vying for vocal attention rather than – it often seems to me – listening to one another when the music dictates it. Not so here. As soloists they shone when required but when the ensemble was demanded they melded their voices. And as with every other member of the cast, their diction was clarion-clear. The role of Hunding was well observed by Alexander Tsymbalyuk With just the right balance of menace and cruelty. It’s a thuggish role musically and was well performed. He even managed to convey the ‘whining’ at the close of the Second Act before Wotan dispenses with him. Christian Franz’s Siegmund – who was announced as indisposed before the opera started – in fact performed incredibly well. I would imagine that on a good day his tenor is bright and clear. On the night he vacillated between caution and then recklessness, but his phrasing was particularly fine and particularly in the second Act his rose to the challenge. Shame he wasn’t Siegfried in last year’s Götterdämmerung.

And of course, both Denoke and Dalayman were superb. I have seen both in other roles, most notably as Salome and Isolde respectively. On the evening Denoke had the slight edge but it was close. She is an intuitive and incredibly talented artist. Her voice cut through the orchestra, riding above the rich orchestration when required but equally delivering the purest sotto voce when needed. And her acting was simply brilliant. Over the course of two acts she went from broken women to lover to widow to heroine so convincingly that her final departure was almost too unbearable to watch. Naturally the audience loved her. From her first entry, Dalayman’s Brunnhilde was vocally to be reckoned with. She has the heft for the role but also the ability to float her voice. Again her performance in the Second Act helped me invest more attention than in the past, and she was superlative in the closing scenes. Occasionally she over-compensated vocally but only on few occasions. Alongside Nina Stemme she must be one of the leading Brunnhilde’s on the stage at the moment.

Simone Young was simply masterful. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I returned home and listened to Goodall’s The Valkyrie. Immediately there was a connection between the two. Ms Young drew such a glorious sound from the orchestra. The opening, always a thrilling moment, was both dripping with menace as well as propelled forward by a real sense of desperation. The brass throughout were particularly fine and her handling of the closing scenes demonstrated a deep love of the score. Leb wohl was a heart-stopping moment.

But the biggest surprise for someone like me who has a love-hate relationship with Personnregie was the directing and set design by Claus Gruth, Chrstian Schmidt and Michael Bauer. First the directing. It was clear from the beginning that a great deal of thought and work had been done here. Often with Personnregie actions are performed merely – it seems – to fill space. Not so here. Each action was invested with meaning. The characters really did ‘live’ their roles. The stillness created in the opening scenes was almost suffocating. There was action only when it was required and with the minimum fuss or excessive display. Three moments particularly stuck in my mind. First, in his return, Hunding’s disdain for his wife when he realises not that she has drunk his beer, but rather than she has used his tankard. Secondly when Brunnhilde washes her face like an errant child before being sent to bed early as punishment and finally, once Wotan has consigned her to sleep, he picks up her boots and looks at them, smiles and shrugs, as if reminiscing over a private yet happy memory.

Similarly the stage design was simple yet nuanced. The opening scene at first seemed like it was being performed on an all-white disco dance floor. A single door moved around the stage with a small kitchenette and table and chairs set at opposite ends of the floor. By simply moving the door, the director managed to convey a real sense of Hunding’s home without being intrusive or distracting. When Siegmund and Sieglinde ‘stepped outside’ as it were, you really believed it. I wondered how they were going to ‘reveal’ the sword. Simple. Wotan – who from the start was seen to manipulate the characters on stage, simply placed it in situ. With the opening of the Second Act, the set that preceded it became clear. Now we were in Wotan’s studio. Along the walls were architectural models – including the set of Götterdämmerung – and propped up against the wall a model of the world, partially covered in bubble wrap. Nice touch. But on the table was a light-box with a model, complete with figures, of the First Act. As Fricka and Wotan argued they moved the figurines around before finally tumbling the set over. Brilliant.

The Third Act was the weakest of the three but didn’t detract from the overall production at all. Set in what seemed to me to be a run-down orphanage, the curtain rose on the Walkure as errant children pushing the bunk beds around the room. And not one of them vocally faltered. Form the final dialogue the room was cleared, with Wotan nicely giving one of the beds a helpful kick off-stage. Now the lighting director came into his own. The starkness of the room allowed for the intelligent use of light and shade and the space was convincingly used by the two protagonists. Even Loge’s fire at the end was subtly done.

So all in all as near perfect production of Die Walkure as I have seen. Comparable, if not stronger than Zambello’s production in San Francisco. But I will revisit that when I seen The Ring there later this summer.

So of course this begs the question, why don’t we see productions like this in London? For 60€ I saw a production that was incredibly intelligent and superbly performed. Not a week before I left ENO’s dreadful production of Ulisse in the interval. As I said above, I don’t mind Personnregie but Ulisse was a poor man’s interpretation and vocally sub-standard. It communicated none of the finesse of Montrverdi’s magnificent music but instead dreadfully affected and falsely strained.

Perhaps when Kasper Holten arrives at Covent Garden we will see more European sensibility adopted. Perhaps ENO will find it’s mojo again soon. Until then my money and time goes to Europe.

Now back to Goodall.

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