Archive for August, 2010

Valkyrie, Bayreuth 2010

August 22, 2010

Christian Thielemann: Conductor, Tankred Dorst: Stage Director, Frank Philipp Schlössmann: Set Design, Bernd Ernst Skodzig: Costume Design, Norbert Abels:  Dramaturge, Johan Botha: Siegmund, Kwangchul Youn: Hunding, Albert Dohmen: Wotan, Edith Haller: Sieglinde, Brunnhilde: Linda Watson, Mihoko Fujimura: Fricka, Sonja Mühleck, Anna Gabler, Martina Dike, Simone Schröder, Miriam Gordon-Stewart, Wilke te Brummelstroete, Annette Küttenbaum and Alexandra Petersamer: Valkyrie.

It is the third year that live web broadcast has been available from the Bayreuth Festival. On August 21 of this year,  anyone with a computer could watch the live performance of the Valkyrie for a small charge.

Conductor Christian Thielemann, the Bayreuth Festival’s music director, leads the orchestra.

The cast of this year’s  production of Valkyrie, which was first staged in 2006, was excellent. Linda Watson as Brünnhilde is introduced in the interview during the break as an investment banker from California. Her singing is confident, her voice resonant, strong and soaring, with a beautiful bronze quality in her high notes. Mr. Albert Dohmen, introduced as a lawyer by education, sings Wotan with the voice of a wide, strong, effortless flight upwards and plush, deep and steady lower tones. Mr. Dohmen said that he enjoys walks through the forest and a glass of a cold beer to boost his voice.  Ms. Mihoko Fujimura as Fricka may be dramatically the best-shaped character with well-nuanced high notes, but somewhat narrow, uncertain low tones.  Mr. Johan Botha is well paired with Ms. Edith Haller. They sing Siegmund and Sieglinde  with a strong lyrical quality.  Mr. Kwangchul Youn as Hunding was also well suited for his acting and singing role. The sound of the orchestra is shaped to support the story telling and the unfolding emotional contents. 

This Valkyrie did not bring anything alarmingly new or particularly original to the staging of this opera under the director Mr. Tankard Dorst, a veteran German playwright described in Wikipedia also as a story teller.  The overall impression is that the stage directions are more or less followed; the creative flavor lies in small details.

The symbolism of the world ash tree as a vital force is equated with electric energy. It is materialized on the stage with a fallen old-fashioned life-size electrical  post, the top of which together with wires and porcelain cups crushing through the left wall and landing in the middle of Hunding’s hut. The stage mise-en-scene of this Valkyrie is strikingly similar to the one in the production of Mr. Patrice Chereau.

During  the first scene of the second act we see a graffiti on the wall:  “You love life, we love death”. In one of the supporting video clips  Mr. Norbert Abels the dramaturge, explains that it was the slogan of the Taliban in the 80’s. This detail unfortunately has not been developed enough to provide more insight into a densely loaded spectrum of possible meanings for this cryptic slogan. This example illustrates a broader impression about this Valkyrie, that there are  threads that were not well-developed or woven more tightly into this production. 

The area of the Valkyries’ gathering in Valhalla is a semi-ruin neglected to the extent that the corpse of a man with a slashed throat is hanging over the rock. The era of the post-industrial age is hinted at with items such as automobile tires thrown among the discarded industrial wooden palettes, on one of which Brünnhilde will fall into her enchanted sleep. 

Mr. Bernd Ernst Skodzig, the costume designer, approached the task with a great deal of enthusiasm.  Hunding wears an old-fashioned military uniform with an overcoat suitable for some kind of a troope commander resembling some characteristics of the WWII German uniform style and with added details of an Asian flavour.  

Sieglinde’s dress looked undistinguished, even boring, until it occurred to me that it makes her look like a caterpillar, which in itself opens up a little side chapter on the link between a phase of a caterpillar to metamorphosis into a butterfly and the role of Sieglinde seen as a stage in the formation of a hero. There is some material for thought there. Siegmund’s appearance comes across as an archetype of a fairy tale brave man dressed in a colourless, simple, functional outfit, with a belt and a buckle similar to the ones I remember seeing in the illustrated books of the Brother Grimm’s tales. The costumes of the gods combine the elements of ancient solemnity, symmetrical cubistic geometrical lines, with the forms drawing inspiration from the haute couture a’la John Galliano.  All very fascinating. However, it appears that Mr. Skodzig looked too closely at his drawings and too little at the people for whom these costumes are made. The physique of the individuals who are to wear these costumes ought not be neglected at a risk of making them look grotesque and unsupportive of their character profiles.

Another weak spot in this production are stage movements. From time to time it appears that a commotion on the stage is entirely arbitrary. The singers are not relating to each other even when the dramatic context requires interaction.

A broadcast of a theatrical performance has to be mindful not to engage in too many close-ups. The art of filming discovered long ago the theatrical importance of  the passive. I believe that Mr. Sven Nykvist, recipient of two Academy Awards as a cameraman, who worked with Ingmar Bergman, was the first who discovered the relevance of the passive side of the scene by shifting the focus of the camera from the person who speaks to a person listening. The entire stage has to be seen most of the time. Otherwise it may happen that some seemingly irrelevant stage detail becomes neglected and home viewers may be deprived of seeing and hearing  subtle artistic statements. Such was the character who was sitting in the background during the second act, reading newspapers and who went off the stage with the bicycle. Due to poor editing his purpose on the stage remains enigmatic because it could only be seen by an accidental inclusion into the frame. On the other hand we do not necessarily need to see if the singer acting the enchanted sleep during the long scene is actually blinking or swallowing. That is irrelevant.  

The period between the acts was most instructional for the web spectators, providing a great deal of information about the technical features of the backstage and introducing some singers in a short interview.

Siemens has to be praised for demonstrating a fine and tasteful sponsorship of this web event and providing the broadcast free of obnoxious advertising, even its own. Marketing experts would probably pull their hair and scream in disbelief at the fact that the available attention of a worldwide audience is “wasted” transmitting live a fixed camera view of the auditorium filling in slowly during the last 5-6 minutes of the intermission with a single line over the screen:” Siemens wishes you a good time”. To us viewers it allowed an opportunity to stay in the mood as if we too were in the theatre, and our minds to relax and quiet down for the act that followed. Siemens, please keep it that way.

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Death of a hero and the end of the world order

August 14, 2010

Stage director: Peter Konwitschny; Conductor: Lothar Zagrosek; Brünnhilde: Luana DeVol; Siegfried: Albert Bonnema; Hagen: Roland Bracht; Alberich: Franz-Josef Kapellmann; Gunther: Hernan Iturralde; Gutrune: Eva-Maria Westbroek; Waltraute: Tichina Vaughn; Woglinde: Helga Rós Indridadóttir; Wellgunde: Sarah Castle; Flosshilde: Janet Collins;  Nornes: Janet Collins; Lani Poulson; Norne Sue Patchell.

The stir and unrest among Wagner’s worshipers at this year’s Bayreuth Festival opening night concerning Hans Neuenfels’s staging of the Lohengrin, and in particular the lab-mice and rat costumes he utilized, proves the point of Gotterdammerung that the world as we know it will sooner vanish than endure and adapt to a change. The booing of Neuenfels is a symbolic killing, or a call for lynching showing the worrisome attachment to form and a resistance to an opening of the mind which if art cannot cure, the acts of violence most certainly will not.  

Wagner tells it all in the Götterdämmerung.

The opera starts with the breaking of the thread spun by the three Norns:

“The threads are breaking,

Cut by the crag;

The rope loses

Its hold on the rock;

it hangs raveled and torn;

while need and greed

rise from the Nibelung’s ring;

and Alberich’s curse

tears at the strands of the cord.”  (translation of Andrew Porter)

In Peter Konvinschny’s Gotterdammerung the Norns are ethnic women in distress. The patterns of headscarves reveal that one is Turkish, another East European. (It would be interesting to examine does the integration of gastarbeiters through Wagner’s opera staging precede their political and citizenship integration?) The Norns tell us that the world order as we know it is at an end. From this doomsday prophecy we are taken to Brünnhilde’s rock, where Siegfried is preparing to leave, eager to do “glorious deeds”.

Siegfried appears dressed as a cartoon image of a cave man, a Flintstone character, featuring the psychological contents of joy and naïveté. As such, hero Siegfried descends among mortals. He encounters Gunther and Hagen, Alberich’s sons representing the forces of evil, corruption and greed, joined together in their everlasting craving for power. To such forces a hero has always been either an obstacle or a vehicle to gaining power. Therefore, Siegfried has to be used for their purposes and then annihilated. This is more or less what takes place.

There is an intervening and a very important scene when a Valkyrie, Waltraute, Brünnhilde’s sister, visits Brünnhilde on her cursed rock in order to talk Brünnhilde into relinquishing the ring by returning it to the depths of the Rhine and thereby saving the world. But Brünnhilde, being previously reduced to the fate of a mortal woman, cannot understand this cruel demand to give up the ring which she considers as the symbol of love entrusted to her by Siegfried. She does not understand Wotan’s pain, that the world to which she too once brought divine guardianship is evil, corrupt and greedy beyond repair and has to vanish. She will understand that only when she sees her Siegfried fallen victim to those forces.  She will know that she is a victim too when she is dragged to her shameful wedding. Then, Brünnhilde will do what Wotan did not do in the Rheingold: return the ring to the depths of Rhine so that the world of evil does not prevail but perishes.

Mr. Konwitschny has pulled the theatrical strings tight and held them firm, the result of which is a simple and straightforward illustration of the story that holds the focus and makes the layers of meaning legible, intelligible and accessible.

Little information is available about dramatic soprano Ms. Luana DeVol, an American singer who had her début at the Met in 2007, at the age of 64! She, however, has been known to the European audiences since the 80’s. Ms. DeVol sings effortlessly and shapes up a mature and confident Brünnhilde. Two moments of Brünnhilde’s resolute but useless resistance are portrayed in powerful, dramatic body language. When Gunther, in the shape of Siegfried, comes to take her as his wife, Brünnhilde in an acknowledgement of her inevitable shame pulls, in one swift movement, her panties down to her ankles and walks towards the gallows of her fate, away from the audience. The second scene is when she is brought to the wedding, her hands tied by rope and dragged by Gunther. On arrival she lies down, face to the ground, as if taken hostage to her own wedding.

The voice of Albert Bonnema does not have the depth colour and strength one usually associates with the role of Siegfried. However, it turns out to be a fortunate and very subtle choice since the portrayal of the hero seduced by the lower in kind and ultimately destroyed by such, is well served by the light and airy vocal qualities of Mr. Bonnema.

Ms. Tichina Vaughn, who was Erda in the Valkyrie, shines in her bulky appearance and cute facial features as a lovable and sincere Waltraute. Her voice has a beautiful shimmering purple hue. Another rich performance, vocal and theatrical, came from Franz-Josef Kapellmann in the role of old Alberich, whose scheming and counsel to his son Hagen is another powerful scene in this opera.

I have not yet seen a well-defined Gutrune, or it may be that I am struggling in understanding this delicate character. The portrayal by Eva-Maria Westbroek is somewhat lacking in focus and definition.       

On the other hand, Roland Bracht’s Hagen is well defined with all accompanying signs of an evil and unscrupulous schemer.

The stage is based on a skeleton of a house as a building in progress, which represents the hall of the Gibichungs. Change is effected by the revolving stage and the alteration of photo backdrops. One backdrop represents a mountain gorge suggesting the landscape around Brünnhilde’s rock. The other shows a glowing image of the river Rhine in the foreground through an opening of which the Rhinemaidens emerge. Costumes are no-frills simple and straightforward. Props are chosen with a deliberate tendency towards cute and childish. So in this Regie production we have a traditional winged helm, a Tarnhelm which had the form of a wall mirror in Rheingold, now become a purse mirror in The Twilight of the Gods, the horse Grane is a hobby-horse on a stick, etc…

The only clearly Earthly characters, portrayed as human beings, are the Gibichungs who all appear as one personality in well-shaped and well-rehearsed scenes as an unconscious, easily manipulated crowd ready to kill or celebrate on demand following the voice of authority, unbothered with the need to understand. In that sense humankind has not changed from the time much earlier from the time Wagner wrote this drama and remains such till today.

It appears that the  present-day ratio between Alberichs Hagens and Gunthers on one end and wrathful Brünnhildes on the other end has not yet reached the critical point. Or, maybe I am looking at the indicators that are lagging…  The repentance of Mr. Maddoff The Greedy, was merely a glitch  rather than a sign that the twilight of gods who keep on ruling the world may be on the horizon.