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Die Walküre – Triumphing over the set

20 Oct

I’m still on a high after the ROH Walküre on 18th October.  Most of the reasons why I was ambivalent about Rheingold are still there, but the wonderful things about this performance overcame them and I found myself increasingly engrossed and in a way which transcended the feeling that I was “at the opera”.

The programme talked about family relationships looking at fathers and children. But it also struck me that there is something strong in this opera about marriage and we see two different failing or failed marriages which you cannot but contrast with the love of Siegmund and Sieglinde.  In Act I you have (very vividly depicted here) the abusive nature of the Hunding/Sieglinde marriage where Hunding has Sieglinde completely in thrall. And then there’s the Wotan/Fricka scene where Fricka pretty much by virtue of going on and on and applying emotional blackmail, trounces Wotan.  What interested me particularly in this performance was that Bryn Terfel’s Wotan suggested a respectful tenderness towards Fricka and a suggestion that this is a relationship that has endured, however unsatisfactory it may be, albeit at the same time that he was rather patronisingly telling her that she didn’t know what she was talking about.  This wasn’t just the marriage of convenience between two people who hate each other, as you often see.  With Sarah Connolly’s implacable, emotionally secure but deeply unhappy Fricka, this scene was one of the most fascinating of the cycle so far.

But Walküre is, pretty much, Wotan’s opera and Terfel demonstrated what a wonderful Wotan he is. What I admire most about him is his ability to sing this music softly and as if it were dialogue in a play. This huge man, with a vast voice, can sing softly and tenderly creating a hugely moving character.  He knows absolutely what Wotan is thinking and communicates it – passages you expect to be loud and hectoring become persuasive, explanatory. I got the depth of his love and trust for Brünnhilde and his anger at her betrayal, the bitterness at sacrificing Siegmund and the sheer regret at the loss of them both.  One of the things that he brought out for me, as well as the love, was the transition from the god who, at the start, still thinks he can control everything and, by the end realises that he can’t, that his role is simply to watch.  And that gives a link to Siegfried.  I’m looking forward impatiently to his Wanderer.

Last time I saw this here, Susan Bullock stepped in as Brünnhilde for an ill Lisa Gasteen and I remember being astonished by her assured performance then.  With proper preparation this time, I thought she was very fine indeed. It’s not a voice I would instantly think of for the role – it’s not as full and powerful as, say, Nilsson (who is?) and it also lacks the voluptuousness of Eva-Maria Westbroek who, as Sieglinde, sounded as though he voice was bigger.  And yet there is a steely stamina there and, like Terfel, an ability to use the words and music to convey the thoughts. I don’t normally think of the Ring as  particularly moving series of operas – fascinating and interesting but not that emotional – but when Bullock talked to Wotan about love in Act III, the colours that she found there, combined with Pappano’s achingly responsive conducting, brought tears to my eyes.  This was someone who had been changed by her experiences in Act II.  Bullock’s hoydenish opening turned into someone who had chosen what was to follow.  The dialogue with Wotan was so intense that she caught you up in her joy when he announced that he’d be surrounding her with fire.  The way that she developed the character in this opera bodes well for the rest of the cycle.

The others were of an equally high calibre.  Westbroek was a generous, beautiful Sieglinde.  Simon O’Neill has the heft and stamina for Siegmund but if, like me, you’ve always thought that heroic warriors were, well, fit and probably youthful, then he can’t really be a visually acceptable Siegmund. John Tomlinson was a vicious thug of a Hunding and, as ever, it’s wonderful to hear his voice and his intelligence in Wagner.

Pappano was in complete accord with his singers and, even if the orchestra wasn’t as completely secure throughout the evening as it had been in Rheingold, this was a reading that sounded “right” in that it worked with the production and the singers so that the emotions, the ideas were reflected in the orchestra.  He weaves the textures in the score beautifully – I remember particularly the passage for ‘cellos and woodwind in the first scene as Sieglinde and Siegmund have their nervous introductions – the two voices there were perfectly balanced and gave huge pleasure as well as commenting on what was going on onstage.

Keith Warner has to take a lot of the credit for a performance as intelligent and effective as that.  His direction of the interaction between the characters is outstanding and shows such knowledge and thought of the text that it’s a privilege to watch.  And yet you admire this in spite of sets and the sheer clumsiness and occasional inconsistencies of parts of the staging and the sheer heaviness of the set.

Perhaps I’m just too literal, but in my experience you do not have a fan working in a room where there is also a blazing fire (Siegmund warms himself against it).  The furnishings chez Hunding suggest wealth (and, indeed, Hunding suggests that he has wealthy patrons so some of this has clearly rubbed off).  They include a nicely upholstered chaise longue with ram horn decorations which is clearly also a shrine to Fricka and one which Brünnhilde is put to sleep – ürather a good touch).  If this is right, I think that Hunding might want to keep his wife in something rich rather than the typical Sieglinde-fustian that she wore here.

It’s a very busy set.  Hunding’s house is set clumsily within the Magic Mountain set that we had for the gods in Rheingold and which is now derelict for Act II of this (looking slightly like the preparations for a house clearance).  When the house flies up for the end of the love duet, the steps up to it have to fold up like the steps into an aircraft – and you’re watching that rather than concentrating on the lovers.  There’s still the ladder leading to Valhalla until Siegmund destroys it with Nothung after the Todesverkündigung – a nice, flashy gesture but is this the right place in the cycle for it or is it even appropriate? I felt that the revolving wall revolved rather too often while the door placed in it looks random, inelegant.

And you feel there are self-imposed hindrances.  It’s a nice idea for Brünnhilde to descend by the ladder from Valhalla but isn’t that really compromised by her undoing her safety harness when she gets to the bottom: wasn’t there another solution?  You feel that Terfel has to worry too much about where to leave his spear and his cloak and when to put them on again.  The mattress for the Valkyries’ ride just looks random and silly.  More seriously, I didn’t get why Sieglinde had to wander round the stage during the Todesverkündigung and I found that this, together with the projection of the rotating wall frustratingly distracted me from what Miss Bullock and Mr O’Neill were doing in one of the most important scenes in the entire cycle.  I think it’s a definite failure that you are left looking at the white wall while Wotan puts Brünnhilde to sleep behind it.  Presumably this is to give Terfel the time to attach the contraption to his hand so that he can hold the magic fire in the next scene and to find a way of getting a spear and breast plate for Brünnhilde by the chaise longue, two items that have rather obviously not been part of her acoutrements for the rest of the opera.  This feels like laziness.

I don’t underestimate the problems of staging the Ring but it’s frustrating that so much that is strong and good in this performance is compromised by a design concept that simply doesn’t have the flexibility that’s needed.  The singers and conducting triumphed over the problems and made for a great evening.  I just felt that it might have been easier for them without the distractions.


Die Walküre at Opera North

24 Jun

My mother is a Ring novice.  She had been with me to the Opera North Rheingold last year and loved it.  This year, before going to Wallküre, we watched the DVD of the Chéreau Rheingold to remind her of the plot.  I hadn’t seen this before, though obviously I knew it by reputation.

I enjoyed it but was interested how, in lots of ways, it seemed almost old hat.  In 1976 it was fairly revolutionary for gods to be explicitly human and for a link to political theory and 19th century history to be made.  Now we’re used to it.  We also expect the level of detailed acting and the sense of liberation that you get when the character shrug off the traditional sort of costumes that you don’t believe anybody ever wore.  The singing and acting is really fine.  Indeed, I suppose the one thing that still strikes me as controversial are Boulez’s tempi – fast and I can understand why people feel they undercut the magnifiicence of the music – but shouldn’t we be questioning that, given what’s going on in front of us?

I wanted to write a bit about that because of the contrast that it provided with the Walküre, that we saw at the Sage in Gateshead the following evening (23rd June).  For those who don’t know, the Opera North Ring is a “concert staging”.  The action takes place in front of the orchestra with the singers in evening dress.  Behind the orchestra there are various projections intended to give some sort of background, together with a bit of narrative and the translation of the text.

Crucially, the singers have learned their roles and have been strongly directed. And decisions have been taken about what they do.  They sing straight out to the audience.  It is very rare for them to address each other directly, but they do obviously listen and react.  And because there are no props and this is a concert, there is no need to have elaborately staged fights.  At the end of Act II, Wotan gestured to the audience and Hunding simply crossed his arms as if in death and stood stock still before walking slowly away.  The fact that it was not a full staging allowed a simple, very satisfactory approach to a scene that so often looks a mess on the stage – there is a lot of music to cover not very much action.

There were some things missing.that you would get from a full staging. You don’t have the opportunity for the incredible opening image of the hydro-electric dam of the Chéreau Rheingold or, thinking of the Warner Royal Opera House production, of Wotan at the begnning of Act III of Siegfried desperately struggling against the storm.  The projections, of forests, water, rock and fire, provide fairly neutral backgrounds and don’t provide particularly thought provoking images.  The emotions are internalised and so you miss the opportunities that a staging might provide for Siegmund and Sieglinde to demonstrate their attraction to each other.

It enables you to concentrate on the text: the translations are readily and easily readable and, because there is less happening between the performers you can engage with those more easily. This can be a mixed blessing.  I’ve never been able to follow the Wotan/Fricka dialogue so closely and ditto Wotan’s narration to Brünnhilde, but, equally, I didn’t find that this helped me resolve those nagging questions like: “what are these treaties that bind Wotan?” “Why will letting Siegmund live mean the end of the gods”, as Fricka argues, and “How exactly is this superhero going to save the gods from Alberich?”.  In fact, I found these questions were accentuated and the dissatisfaction that I always feel with this aspect of the Ringincreased.  And where in the past I have felt that this may just be a result of my own intellectual inadequacy, I’m now pretty sure that it’s Wagner’s fault.  I’m also not sure that it really matters.

Anyway, my mother came out feeling that what she had seen was as good as any staging could have been and loving the way it enabled her to concentrate on the music.  I saw what she meant and there was no question that, as a performance, this was infinitely preferable to the Mariinsky version at the ROH a few years ago and also confirmed my view that there is nothing wrong with the ROH’s own production which halving the design budget couldn’t have solved.

The performances demonstrated what a fine orcehstra Opera North has, how intelligent a conductor Richard Farnes is and that you didn’t have to make allowances.  Alwyn Mellor was a beautiful Sieglinde and made me wonder why she isn’t used much more often in glossier houses.  Annalena Persson has the looks and intellgence for Brünnhilde and a large steely voice that works well in the earlier parts.  Erik Nelson Werner sounded marvellous as Siegmund in the first act – a really beefy, free heldentenor – but sounded tired in the second.  Béla Perencz seemed a tad under-powered for Wotan in the second act but was clearly saving his power for the third act where he produced a stream of untiring sound where many Wotans tire.  If anything, he could have been a bit more subtle there.  His voice doesn’t have the nobiliy of, say, Bailey or Terfel, but if I were an opera house manager, I’d be signing him up for Pizarro and Telramund straight away.  Katerina Karnéus was determined, beautifully sung Fricka and Clive Bayley an ideally black Hunding.  The Valkyries were strong.

Above all, there was a sense of sitting in an audience that was hungry for Wagner, that was engaging with the singers and the story and who did not for a moment feel they were being short-changed by this concert staging.  I don’t think that they were and it confirmed my admiration for the way in which Opera North turns its limitations into strengths and can produce an intensely satisfying experience.