Archive for the ‘Wagner’ Category

Erotic and Esoteric Tristan and Isolde

February 3, 2013

This season the Canadian Opera Company’s home in Toronto is the place for revival of the 2005 production of  “Tristan and Isolde”, originally staged at the Opera Bastille in Paris. The truth of the proverbial phrase, that less is more, has been proven in this production of “Tristan and Isolde”. The acting role of singers was almost eliminated. The purpose of the costumes was to attract no attention whatsoever. The key visual elements of the stage are work of a visual artist Mr. Bill Viola. They are films and images projected onto the large screen in the background depicting the movements of water and fire, light and air. The majestic currents of Wagner’s score in its breath-like rhythm took the central role and carried each of us in the audience to a private inner journey. 

Peter Sellars in his director’s notes provided a reading of this libretto from the perspective of an esoteric quest with purification, awakening and transformation corresponding to the three acts of the opera. In light of his director’s notes, and stimulated by the visual projections on the screen, I attuned to the different roles in this opera as different aspects of a human being rather than as a plot with different characters. From this perspective, the representations of the sexual, emotional and intellectual in a human being were depicted in their polarity by Tristan and Isolde, Brangäne and Kurwenal, and Marke and Melot. Under the command of conductor Johannes Debus, Wagner’s orchestral reflections on love and death filled the air with scintillation and splendour, pulsating sublime erotic waves. “Tristan and Isolde” felt like a sacred initiation.

It occurred to me that instead of a traditional wedding ceremony, perspective spouses should be asked to listen to “Tristan and Isolde” while sitting silently and looking each other in the eyes, holding each other’s hands for the duration of this opera. After such an experience their gut feeling would crystallize more clearly towards yes or no, giving them a lot better idea if they want each other in marriage.  The rate of divorce might drop significantly if a couple who wish to become married are required to perform such a marriage test ceremony.

We were privileged to hear Ben Heppner in his signature role as Tristan, Melanie Diener as Isolde, Alan Held as Kurwenal, Daveda Karanas as Brangäne, Adam Luther as Shepherd, Robert Gleadow as Steersman, Owen McCausland as a Young Sailor, and Ryan McKinny as Melot. My favourite was Franz-Josef Selig as King Marke. The experience of listening to his singing resembles what I imagine might feel like raking your fingers through the treasure chest of the finest jewelry of pearls, gold and precious stones. 

The theatre felt like a giant pod where we the spectators were seeds being immaculately fertilized by waves of heavenly sounds from the stage and the pit, and at the end released into the cold winter night to grow the light with which we were impregnated.


The Copenhagen Ring

March 11, 2011
Copenhagen Ring

The Copenhagen Ring, available on DVD, was recorded live in May 2006 at the Royal Danish Opera. The mastermind of this production, who directed all four operas, is Kasper Bech Holten, the artistic director of the Royal Danish Opera. There are two main conceptual lines for this Ring. Firstly, it was promoted and labeled as a “feminist” Ring, and secondly, each of the four operas take place against the backdrop of one of the decades of the 20th century.

In reference to the feminist or feminine element of this Ring, the commentaries I have read mostly revolve around two things. First, the instructional text which appears on the screen as a preface to Rheingold explains the silent video footage played during the instrumental passages, showing Brünhilde as she searches dusty books and rolls of her family’s archives of Valhalla.  “Brünhilde has just betrayed the man she loves more than anything in the world. Now she wants to find out how it came to this. She seeks back to the beginning, to her father’s attic to find the family mementos, and she starts to recall how it all begin…”

The second and most often discussed element of this interpretation is the alteration of ending.  Kasper Bech Holten relies on the fact of life that a love life sometimes results in pregnancy.  In Götterdämmerung, Brünhilde appears visibly pregnant and at the end she does not vanish into the flames of Valhalla but rather emerges after giving birth, with a newborn baby in her arms. This intervention on the libretto is one of those brave and clever moves that does not violate the original but finds an opening in the libretto to allow a fresh and different symbolism to emerge and provoke thought. Some productions have shown that Wagner’s own stage instructions can be altered with the result of providing a fresh and new insight into a rich material of myth and legend.

The term “feminist” may unduly reduce and stereotype the subtle and broader meaning revealed by this Ring, which examines the period of history in which violence and reliance on the materialistic point of view have marked the key quality of the twentieth century. The feminine, life-bearing feature, at the end refers to a rediscovered quality of rebirth, new beginning and forgiveness. It gives hope that with it a new consciousness will arise…

Is there anything more desirable and worthy in a man’s life than the love of a great woman?  In search of a great woman and her love the 20th-century-man directed himself outwardly. He set the goal to rule the world. The Industrial Revolution harnessed mechanical forces and conquered the unchartered territories of new continents. Men had launched wars worldwide on large and small scales, setting in motion havoc and mayhem. The accumulation of wealth and concentration of power reached peaks beyond imagination. The drive to succumb the world to his powers led the 20th-century man to assert himself as a conqueror and a ruler of natural resources and scientific discoveries. This was accomplished by violence and force.  Indeed the magnitude of destruction in the 20th century was unprecedented.

But the elixir of eternal youth remains beyond reach.

Das Rheingold is set in the 20s-30s of the past century. Alberich is an aging wealthy man tired of earthly riches, decadent in his lifestyle and spared from of any inner restraint. He can have all that can be had, but he does not have vigour and innocence of youth. The Rheinmaidens, depicted as three seductive and beautiful women tease, provoke and ridicule the old man’s lust. Alberich lures them to the bottom of an empty swimming pool, where in the captivity of an aquarium swims a naked handsome young man, not quite a boy any longer, and not a mature man either. Alberich carves out his heart in a desperate attempt to have that which cannot be acquired by stealing or by violence.

Alberich cannot accept himself and his transformation inevitably leads to degradation. He becomes  a being of a lower order, which takes place in a sort of scientific laboratory. His downfall continues in a chamber which resembles a morgue with walls of white ceramic tiles, chains bolted to the walls to accommodate any degree of torture and eliminate the possibility of physical resistance by the tortured. The scenes that follow require a strong stomach.  Stabbing burning cigarettes against Alberich’s neck constitutes a minor degree of violence. In a gruesome scene of mutilation, Alberich’s arm is cut off with a knife, spilling blood everywhere.

After the initial accumulation of capital in the symbolic blood sacrifice of Alberich’s arm,  the journey of the man through the 20th century takes us to a colonial compound where the family of gods negotiates its first collective agreement with the industrial forces of labour and management (Fasolt and Fafner).

With the soaring of the industrial era the family of gods wave to the audience their good-byes as their ocean liner departs to the New World, marking the end of one epoch and the beginning of a new one.

(It was long ago that I last saw Die Walküre of the Copenhagen Ring. I lent my DVD to someone who has not returned it yet. I do not keep track of negligent borrowers but I gently remind them it is a sign of fine character and respect for natural obligations to return borrowed items.)

Siegfried takes place in the 70’s when it appears that the outwardly manifested violence of the early decades of the century has subsided with the end of Vietnam war, under the outburst of rock-‘n-roll music and the hippie movement. Mime’s dwelling shows a dining room and kitchen, which abound in hyper realistic details, suggesting a pedantic character of the householder but failing to contribute much to the story. Siegfried’s room on the second floor features a poster of Jimmy Hendrix, an oriental rug and string instruments on the wall. Violence went underground, veiled by the secret lab experiments on human psyche exploring the effects of the threat of violence and evolving into a new form of violence: imaginary threats of danger. The key weapon of violence became the menace of an evil enemy, a deadly weapon, an imminent danger, a threat of attack. Violence grew by word of violent threat, such as we see in action today in various forms of alerts and possibilities of terrorist threats of a mysterious enemy ready to strike at any moment. Recent local news speaks of an emergency landing of an overseas flight to Europe, during which coffee spilled on the dashboard in the cockpit sent an automatic message of a terrorist attack to the control tower and the flight had to be grounded even though it was obvious that the message was wrong.

The stage director chooses levels of the house (ground floor, second floor and basement) to tell the story of Siegfried’s inner growth and search. It is an interesting metaphor sometimes used in esoteric texts referring to different aspects of a human being.

It is the main floor where Mime, whom we may associate with intellectual learning, teaches Siegfried about the outside world. This teaching is tailored in a similar way modernday western public education aims at teaching narrow, distorted fragments aimed at passing the threshold of literacy. It does not aim to provide a comprehensive overview of a certain field of science or the humanities, to empower and stimulate critical thinking and creativity. Mime as well as the rulers of the modern day world does not need a Siegfried who is free and strong. Mime needs a Siegfried who would serve him and his selfish purpose to rule the world. Mime’s anvil is a typewriter and his sword is a pen. The 20th century accelerated the speed by which words travel. The widespread use of telegraph, telefax, and electronic data made the word about anything instantly accessible all over the world. With these new forms of communication, new forms of violence emerge.

One of my dearest scenes is Wanderer/Wotan’s visit to a bedridden and heavily medicated  Erda attended by a nurse and portrayed as a dying patient in a hospital bed.

When Siegfried set himself to kill the dragon, he finds him at a command table from which many cables carrying words in various forms branch out from his underground compound. The “Needlehole” looks like a nuclear shelter of sorts, resembling  the grey and dreary architectural nightmares built on both sides of the Iron Curtain to hold and cultivate fear.

Siegfried’s room on the first floor (in USA and Canada usually referred to as second floor) is a reference of sorts to the most liberated period of the 20th century, a short-lived spirit of liberation unprepared for the harsh realities of the world which thrives on wars, from Korea and Vietnam to the Balkans and Afghanistan.

I have wished to write about the Copenhagen Ring for a long time, and the delay is not only because I couldn’t find the Walküre DVD. This one has to do with Götterdämmerung. My personal obstacle was in laying a necessary distance from my own views and experience about the Yugoslavian civil war in the 90s, and the fact that the Copenhagen Götterdämmerung takes place in the particular context of this civil war.

I came to the conclusion that this context unfairly reduced in scale the story of Götterdämmerung, which is the story of mankind. This is not to say that a universal question cannot be presented on a smaller scale or even an individual plane. The shortfall of a civil war as a contextual field, its mediators and peacekeepers included, is its inherent murkiness. There is no room for a hero.  The only fallen heroes of any civil war are civilians in their anonymous collective bulk. Gibbichungs are hence represented as an overly narrowed-down subspecies of the unconscious biomass of mankind. The Hagens of today rule the world and a marginal anonymous smuggler of booze and cigarettes in the Balkan’s unrest is merely his temporary remote servant.

My objection to this Götterdämmerung is the excessive and unambiguous identification of the Gibbichungs with Serbian national symbols such as the WWI military uniform, Christian Orthodox Cross, and registration plates on a Mercedes which reads “Knin 001”, all pointing out to one particular side within the Balkan civil war. Not that Gibbichungs are in small supply among Serbs, but the application of recognizable symbols does not offer meaningful reading. There is nothing wrong, in principle, with the explicit and specific symbolism, but it requires consistent and intelligible use, which is not the case here. Also it does not do justice to Wagner by reducing unduly the Gibbichungs to a context of events not yet ripe for interpretation on the scale that Wagner demands. The origin and nature of forces that drove the Balkans into yet another bloodbath still await important revelations. As a matter of fact they continuously keep popping up. Another shortfall with using the context of any civil war is that civil war flames burn well only when any potential resemblance of a hero is safely removed, disabled or channeled out through draining of a particular territory by means of refuge and immigration. Civil war feeds on the elderly young and infirm. There are no heroes in civil war.

Irene Theorin

This production of the Ring is visually impressive, with an excellent cast of singers throughout. The inexhaustible, sheer force of Irene Theorin’s voice as Brünhilde is a phenomenon in itself.  The enthusiastic and agile Stig Andersen as Siegfried carried around his bulging belly with admirable ease. My personal affinity goes to James Johnson as Wanderer, Ylva Kihlberg as Wellgunde and Gurtrune, Randi Stene as Fricka and one of the Norns, and Sten Byriel as Alberich. The impressively physically fit Guido Peavatalu first performs ten honest push-ups and then starts singing.

Michael Schønwandt conducts with joy and ease. He aims at a homogenous density and balance rather than amplifying the drama or protruding in any particular direction.

It appears that the set and costume designers Marie i Dali and Steffen Aarfing operated with a generous budget for this production, which adds a bonus of remarkable visual effectiveness. The make-up designer also seems to have unlimited supply and on occasion got carried away with ideas of adding horror and drama to the already abhorrent Alberich. With the notorious Danish attachment to close-ups in filming, the make-up seems to be the weakest link in this otherwise interesting and worth-watching human-centred Ring. It is difficult for any non-phantasy Ring to avoid comparison with the Stuttgart Ring, and even more difficult to escape its influence. Yet, the artistic originality and the coherent theme of man’s craving for power and violence juxtaposed to Brünhilde’s wish for new life out of the ashes of the old world cannot be denied to the Copenhagen Ring. It is a DVD worth having and repeatedly enjoying.

Das Rheingold by Robert Lepage, the Ringmaster

October 11, 2010



The HD broadcast cinema première of the Met’s new Das Rheingold is a result of several forces currently in action in North America which determine the most desirable flavour of the market. The production team understood that the visual faithfulness to the stage notes and the imagination of the Star Wars fantasy are not the energies which carry  power and appeal today. The minimalist stage is acknowledged as a prevailing trend. The groundbreaking minimalist set of Willy Decker’s Traviata, which brought up a simplistic yet versatile handling of the very limited set, influenced the basic concept behind $16 million worth of 45 tons of machinery, of which we see, on the stage, 24 versatile planks that move and rotate in various directions. The lighting is also acknowledged to have larger potential than what was traditionally employed and with the new technologies it could create excitement of its own. Particular attention was paid to remove any associative value of the set and costumes to anything remotely linkable to a particular human experience of any historical or contemporary context. The characters are dressed in a hodge-podge of fantasy outfits which include a caveman’s fur (Fasolt and Fafner); an early medieval infantry-warrior outfit and hairdo (Wotan); a turn-of-the-20th-century generic-style gown (Fricka) and a 21st -century firefighters’ fireproof undergarment in “all new material” (Loge). The costume designer seems to be very fond of breastplate hinting at a fashionable 6-pack-style abdomen, which came across as repetitious and somewhat boring.

When simplifying the set and costumes to the bare-bone impersonalized basics, the vast associative field is released for the creative reading-in or interpretation. The space so liberated in La Traviata in Willy Decker’s production is filled with passion, forbidden love, suffering and death, which are the core human elements of that story of a man and a woman in love. In Das Rheingold, however, there are different underlying human characteristics and emotions at play: vanity, greed, duplicity, envy, hatred, ruthlessness…which beg for context in this highly symbolic plot. But some media and critics voiced and voiced again exactly where North America stands on the matter of interpretation, by expressing unambiguous relief that “Lepage has shown no inclination to reinvent the Wagnerian wheel: there are no harlots prancing atop hydroelectric dams, Wotan is not portrayed as a Victorian robber baron (while still clutching his spear), Fricka is not garbed as a dominatrix, Alberich doesn’t wear a business suit.” The reference to the heresy does not even get close to mentioning the “sacrileges” committed in the Stuttgart or the Copenhagen Ring, which would probably qualify  as satanic interpretations of Wagner.  

My main aftertaste after watching this Rheingold is that I experienced something very mesmerizing in appearance and sound and rather sterile on my operatic palate, without any “aha” or “epiphany” or “deja vu” in my aesthetic digestive system.

The musicians and singers are all very good and it is a thankless task to mention some for their voice and singing and neglect others. Ranking highest in my rating is Richard Croft as Loge. Mr. Croft  made the most of his role by displaying vocal subtlety and gentleness in a character that is ruthless and cunning. Eric Owens as Alberich dressed in mauve patent leather overalls with plenty of impractical lacing brought to life the vanity, duplicity and avarice that goes with this character. Stephanie Blythe as Fricka and Wendy Bryn Harmer as Freia are both the strong authoritative voices we associate with the will of the gods, but perhaps too authoritative at the expense of the frailty suggested by their predicament.

Bryn Terfel’s voice is mighty and confident although somewhat lacking in character colour, which can hardly be a fault on the singer’s account. The set, his costume and the costume of his wife would give a great deal of cluelessness to anyone who had to find the voice of such a Wotan.

Maestro Levine conducted the orchestra with the excellence we are accustomed to.

This is the first time that I realized that something may be lost in transmission by watching an opera on the screen instead of live performance. The visual effects of the singers and their stunts hanging on suspension wires in mid-air must have been an awesome impression. Too many close-ups were at the expense of a chance to see the whole stage, which is what live spectators see all the time.

The experience of this Rheingold left me mesmerized in a similar way I felt mesmerized when as a child I watched a circus performance, but without much mind-provoking material to carry home. Would I like to see this Rheingold again? Probably not. But it would be good to hear it on CD.


Messenger From Fafner’s Lair

September 2, 2010

In the September edition of the OperaNews, a culture critic of The Washington Post, Mr. Philip Kennicott, in a clairvoyant vision proclaims the end to the Wagner’s Ring. His prophecy is prefaced by the following statement:

“By rights, Wagner’s Ring shouldn’t exist, or at least not as we know it.“

Had Richard Wagner had a benefit of Mr. Kennicott’s advice and had listened to what he had to say “the three decades of creative effort could easily have been diverted into other, more immediately lucrative and successful projects – a string of Tristans and Meistersingers, rather than the solitary behemoth of the Ring“.

He points out  the necessity to shorten its unruly length. His view is founded on the current market format preferences in film and publishing. For those reasons Mr. Kennicott believes that the Ring stands in the way of market trends as if artistic creation inherently should start with  financial statements and as if art is an industry.  Concerned about Ring’s  inevitable end, and in order to meet prepared this turn of misfortune  Mr. Kennicott suggests trimming the Ring down.

Everyone is entitled to his view, but  Mr. Kennicott goes on as if this is the objective truth. Why does Mr. Kennicott feel that we all have to marshal our likes and dislikes into fitted boxes shaped by The Washington Post and Mr. Kennicott, and consume same and standardized strings of the art industry?

In the voice of exaggerated enthusiasm Mr. Kennicott gets carried away as far to promote the profile of the emerging artist of the art industry in the “world of unified economies”: clean-shaven and orderly “law abiding“ and “well spoken“, “community builders“ in the “economic communion of the world”, “urgently looking for their place in society“.

Mr. Kennicott continues to ponder: “How much longer can Wagner’s Ring retain its exceptional status? “

The Ring has earned its exceptional status. It runs counter to all the unforgiving vices of its author. The waiting list for Bayreuth is 10 years long and it is safe to say that it is a bestseller. Wherever it is staged it attracts attention. It is a status symbol of a town aspiring to be cosmopolitan. There can hardly be a metropolis without having staged a Ring. So, what is it really that bothers Mr. Kennicott? The Ring is not in any crisis, and yet Mr. Kennicott claims to find the very Achilles heel of the Ring.

It may sound harsh but it appears to me that Mr. Kennicott does not understand the artistic integrity and its fragile and sensitive nature. It can survive in poverty but not in bigotry. The artistic urgency is the truth that has to find its way out no matter what, and if the life of an artist stands in the way of this emerging truth it is usually a very unfortunate life which not seldom ends in poverty, insanity, social inadequacy riddled with suffering and pain. Mr. Kennicott is trying to convince us that it is all forever gone, and that the artists of today are genetically modified species with new and improved corporate genes.

Mr. Kennicott goes on to convince us that Siegfried should be removed from the Ring because heroism is out of fashion. And when heroism goes out of fashion it is dead, and there is no market for it. So, we learn in so many learned and flashy words the agenda written between the lines:  The Siegfried is to be clipped out  from the Ring.

And why is that so?

The Siegfried opera is the story of a hero on the assignment of „search and destroy“. Siegfried goes to find the dragon and kills him. The dragon is a hoarder of the world’s wealth, the holder of the power that rules the world. Now, with a hero killing the dragon, that may be ill understood. Some people may get sinister ideas out of that plot…

Mr. Kennicott introduces his conclusion by another question:

„Does dragon-slaying have any poetic resonance in an era of oil spills that can destroy in a few weeks an entire ecosystem? “

I don’t know about you, but the creature who spills the oil and destroys an entire ecosystem evokes in me an image of a dragon. It is by mysterious synchronicity that the current edition of the New Yorker has an excellent text on some of the biggest dragons of today. Third-ranking dragon hoarding only 35 billion dollars just after Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are the brothers Koch, the hoarders with annual revenues of a hundred billion dollars. They support cancer research in generous donations and at the same time lobby vigorously for the legitimacy of their toxic products since they happen to be manufacturers of carcinogenic material. But that is corporate integrity.

 Artistic integrity is something else. It is understood in some European national economies. The prospect of having a potential new Mozart buried in a ditch again, or a future new Wagner of tomorrow evicted feels uncomfortable on the national collective consciousness, so they decide to have government funds available to artists with food shelter and old age taken care of for those who qualify to busy themselves with muses. Those nations who entrust support of art to pork belly merchants, and oil spilling dragons, and their tastes may be unconsciously eating their own most refined flesh, with the aid of Mr. Kennicott’s wisdom for a better digestion.

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.

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.

Who rules by perjury?

July 27, 2010

Stage directors: Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, Conductor: Lothar Zagrosek, Siegfried: Jon Fredric West, Mime: Heinz Göhrig, Brünnhilde: Lisa Gasteen, Wanderer: Wolfgang Schöne,  Alberich: Björn Waag, Fafner: Attila Jun, Erda: Helene Ranada, Waldvogel: Gabriela Herrera, Staatsorchester Stuttgart

After composing the score for the first two acts of Siegfried, a decade went by before Wagner completed the third act of this opera.  Acts one and two of Siegfried are a side story in the Ring cycle which tells us how one becomes a hero and a free man. A precondition to becoming a hero is fearlessness. However, in the world in which there are beings who renounced love for the sake of power it is a mortal danger for a hero to fall in love. Siegfried tells us the story of a fearless hero rising to the task and who has fallen in love.

Inserted in this narrative about the growth of a hero and his falling in love is a short but essential episode. The chief god Wotan visits Erda, the wisest women ever and the mother of Brünnhilde, for advice. Erda hopelessly laments over the state of humankind. Humankind today, two world wars, one cold war, and many civil wars later,  is in an  equally lamentable state, and we can easily recognize in Erda’s sad resignation many manifestations in our everyday experience by merely reading the headlines. If we pause to think of the state of the world today Erda’s question to Wotan can be asked on many levels and in many instances. Here are Erda’s questions in the original and  several available translations from the German language:

“Der den Trotz lehrte, straft den Trotz? Der die Tat entzündet, zürnt um die Tat? Der die Rechte wahrt, der die Eide hütet, wehret dem Recht, herscht durch Meineid?”

“How can pride’s teacher punish pride? He who urged the doing punish the deed? He who rules by right, to whom truth is sacred, scorn what is right and rule by falsehood?” [Andrew Porter]

“He who taught defiance punishes defiance? He who prompted the deed is angered by the deed? He who guards what is right and watches over all oaths  shuns what is right and rules by falsehood?” [Stuttgart’s Siegfried]

“Is he who is responsible for the deed wrathful when it is carried out?  Does he who defends the right and enforces vows strike down the right and rule by perjury?” [Weimar’s Siegfried]

“Does he who thought defiance scourge defiance? Does he who urged the deed grow wroth when it is done? Does he who safeguards rights and helps uphold sworn oaths gainsay that right and rule through perjured oaths?” [Copenhagen’s Siegfried]

It is also equally difficult today as it ever was for a free man to forge himself. Is every discourse reduced to be marginal, a mere lip service? Where is the place where the acts matter and the words bind? One wonders who a fearless hero of today may be and who would be the first to recognize him. Would he be seen as a hero or as a madman?

For the uninitiated in the Ring, the plot of this opera goes like this: Siegfried, who is Wotan’s grandson, came into existence against his grandfather’s will.  Wotan called for the death of Siegmund and Sieglinde even before Siegfried was born. That the gods devour their children is nothing new among gods. As a punishment for saving Sieglinde, who died upon giving birth to Siegfried, Wotan banished his dearest daughter Brünnhilde from Walhalla into enchanted sleep. It is very interesting that Brünnhilde has done what Wotan restrained himself from doing, although he wanted to do the same thing. Brünnhilde took the unprecedented liberty and “decided to be herself”. (Last time I heard that a semi-goddess was described as “deciding to be herself” against duty was when Mr. David Starkey, a royal historian, described the life of Princess Diana when asked to comment on her tragic and premature death.)

From that enchanted sleep Brünnhilde can be awakened only by the man who takes her as his wife.  At the end of the Valkyrie, Brünnhilde’s “not-guilty” plea does not set aside Wotan’s judgment. It is mitigated only by making it difficult for a coward to reach her.

Siegfried, a man who made himself free, a fearless hero, kills the dragon effortlessly and undergoes a transformation by acquiring the ability to understand the birds and see through evil intentions. Siegfried learns from the bird that there is a maiden, asleep, who can be awakened only by a fearless hero who can reach her by going through the fire that surrounds the rock where she is asleep. Intrigued and inspired, Siegfried goes towards Brünnhilde’s residence.

From the time his mother died Siegfried has been in the care of Mime, a dwarf character of cunning and low substance. Mime’s goal is to use Siegfried to get the magic ring which gives the power to rule the world. Fearless and equipped with his horn and the newly forged sword, Siegfried conquers the dragon and takes the hoard and the ring. From that moment on, the only goal Mime has is to take the ring from Siegfried and get rid of Siegfried, offering refreshment which is in fact an attempt to poison him and take the ring for himself. However, Siegfried kills Mime.

When Siegfried reaches the Rock he finds an armoured warrior that to his surprise turns out to be a woman. It is Brünnhilde.  This is the first time Siegfried experiences fear. It is the beginning of his unfortunate fall, which is to happen in the next and last of the operas, the Twilight of The Gods.

At the centre of this opera is the actualization of Siegfried’s potential powers through the process of inner transformation and the beginning his discovery of their limitations. Also, the roles of Mime and the Wanderer provide for any production a fertile opportunity to say in symbolic language that our times resemble the features of these characters. Of the many different productions that I have seen, each brings  more elements and it never exhausts the potentials of this story.

In the Siegfried of the Stuttgart Ring we find that Mime is depicted as an ordinary person of his time and generation. We find him in a basement household with a kitchen and dining room resembling the design of the sixties. Mime could be anywhere between mid 40s and early 60s when youth does not replenish itself and the signs of aging become visible. His home is a mirror image of such an age: it lost its lustre of newness, freshness and good maintenance, and the signs of wear and tear are visible: ragged upholstery and broken glass in the windows of this basement dwelling.

This Siegfried appears to belong to the generation of the sixties. He looks like a rebellious young man, dressed in jeans, sneakers and a T-shirt with “Siegfried” printed on the front. He resembles the generation of the post WWII western world which has yet to find its purpose in life. This young Siegfried has nothing more to learn from Mime, and Mime cannot give a satisfactory answer to his questions anymore. Siegfried finds no excitement in bringing home as a trophy the invincible Russian bear, with a military insignia upon his hat, having been finally crumbled down just a few years before the staging of this Ring.

The chief god Wotan as a wanderer comes in the appearance of a biker, the epitome of an earthly power, sovereign and impenetrable but marginal and marginalized. His strength is lacking in purpose and it does not exceed its self-serving consumerism without the potential of reaching any further than its niche scope, purpose, and territory.

The second act shows a dark, bare space divided across the stage by the infamous-looking wire fence behind which resides the dragon Fafner. In front of the fence waits Alberich. The fence has a warning of its deadly dangers. And there is a sort of traffic sign prohibiting the use of a hero’s horn. Alberich looks almost inconspicuous in his unremarkable dark suit. The only thing that betrays him as helpless is that he is barefoot. Although he can put out burning cigarettes with his bare feet, his powers are useless.

Heinz Göhrig’s Mime is portrayed as a human being, allowing thereby an interpretation of Mime as an aspect of Siegfried’s personality rather than a separate character. The scene of Mime’s masturbation, maybe the most daring thing seen on the mainstream opera stage so far, is played out  straightforwardly, honestly and thoroughly and with the dignity of the artist remaining intact. Quite a task for someone who is a singer in the first place. The quality of this scene and the way it was acted out reminds me of post WWII German currency with its solid, ever-growing market value, or the way Germans make cars or surgical equipment.

Siegfried, who already conquered and defeated the invincible Russian bear, goes to face the darkness behind the wire and fearlessly meets the world of our worst human fear. The world behind the mean-looking wire fence is a prison of sorts, or a torture chamber. Perhaps a Stasi master interrogation room? In a chair placed at the centre, with a powerful light bulb straight above it, a bottle of spirits within reach, as if taking a rest from the business of extorting a confession, with its back turned towards the audience, sits the fearful giant-dragon dressed in the same t-shirt as Siegfried. When Siegfried comes face to face with it, he finds a person dressed like himself with the mirror image of the “Sieg Fried” on the dragon’s t-shirt. Is the dragon a projected mirror image of his own self? Spiritual teachers of different denominations all agree that fear is an imaginary phantom which we project onto the outside world from our imagination. Whether generated by our own imagination or stimulated from the outside onto our mind, fear enslaves and paralyzes the human spirit like nothing else. The possibility of deliberately inducing fear from the outside for the purpose of control and manipulation is explored and documented in the fascinating book written by a fellow Canadian, Naomi Klein, “The Shock Doctrine”.

Jon Fredric West as Siegfried reconciled the qualities of sweeping self-confidence characteristic of adolescent daring, energy and an insecure confusion associated with the encounter with a first erotic love. His Siegfried is potentially everyman at a certain stage in life.

Wotan’s visit to Erda takes place in an underground laundry room in an advanced state of neglect and decay. While the growing of Siegfried into a fearless hero takes place in the darkness of the underground and night, his meeting with Brünnhilde takes place in a space illuminated by light.

Lothar Zagrosek, as it was pointed out already in previous reviews of the Stuttgart Ring, follows the narrative with his interpretation of the score, which is neither self-aggrandizing nor oblivious to Wagner as a storyteller. Siegfried is a story of a personal journey through life. With that understanding I find that focusing on the vocal qualities, or the lack of them, in this opera is secondary to the overall theatrical interpretation. This Siegfried digs into the mind-provoking territory of the libretto, having the form serve the substance. That is why this review ends here, as it cannot be a substitute for the first-hand experience of watching and listening to a journey every Wagner admirer must take personally while enjoing each particular production of Siegfried.

Shock and Awe of Regietheater

July 14, 2010

Stage director: Christoph Nel, Conductor: Lothar Zagrosek, Siegmund: Robert Gambill, Sieglinde: Angela Denoke, Wotan: Jan-Hendrik Rootering, Brünnhilde: Renate Behle, Hunding: Attila Jun, Fricka: Tichina Vaughn, Gerhilde: Eva-Maria Westbroek, Ortlinde: Wiebke Göetjes, Waltraute: Stella Kleindienst, Schwertleite: Helene Ranada,  Helmwige: Magdalena Schäfer, Siegrune: Nidia Palacios, Grimgerde: Maria Theresa Ullrich, Rossweisse: Margit Diefenthal,  Staatsorchester Stuttgart

Those Wagnerians who also happen to be enemies of Regietheater may find themselves in distress watching this production. It may be advisable that the DVD be labeled with a yellow alert (the orange or amber alert being saved for Siegfried). Implementation of crude materials in the production of this Valkyrie include, inter alia, industrial plastic sheets, veneer plywood panels, a conveyor belt and an air mattress. Despite coarse “packaging” the substance delivered within comes across as gentle and refined, (unless your senses and mental faculties are stuffed with brittle prejudice, in which case a mind/sense cleansing treatment may be beneficial).

The opening scene of Act 1 starts with the shadows of Sieglinde and Siegmund projected onto the wall, which depicts Siegmund in a position suggesting a thrusting resolute motion although in fact he stands frozen, while Sieglinde is sitting on the table with her bent legs resting on the chair a few steps in front of him. Their shadows projected onto the wall resemble an image of a pair, she as an invalid missing her legs from the knees down, and he assuming a sturdy and resolute pose. The door through which Siegmund entered the home of Hunding closes behind the pair, forming the dark enclosed space, a cocoon of sorts, outside of which and along the seams of  its structural plates the piercing light shines in, forming a cage of bright vertical lines. Within this space reverberates the erotically charged process amidst the casual but fatal encounter between two semi-gods: Siegmund and Sieglinde.

The transformation starts from the chance encounter to the bonding, into a solid unity where the two of them as two lost and missing parts become united into the one whole. Breaking the walls of this cocoon is breaking the shell of the container through which they step up and out of it, landing on an elevated level in a pose of monolithic counterpoint.

This process depicts the mystery of the birth of a new man who creates himself, where two seeds connect to form a new one which grows. Siegmund’s outfit hints at a male gene, a chromosome or a spermatozoid. He wears a white hoodie and short white pants with a blue jacket tied around his waist, sleeves knotted and hanging over his crotch.

As he awakens to recognize his other half, his outfit gradually changes into a black wrestling shirt conveying the athletic spirit of a man who is ready for whatever is ahead of him, wearing his blue jacket zipped half-way up.

The result of this pro-creation, in which Siegmund and Sieglinde become one being, happens in breach of bonds under Fricka’s jurisdiction. As in Rheingold, Wotan is again facing an impossible choice—this time either to destroy his children or to overrule the will of his loveless wife Fricka. Wotan’s fatal mistake here is in upholding the form that Fricka is protecting: the form and bond of involuntary marriage. Wotan sides with Fricka with no regard that the marriage of Sieglinde and Hunding is conceived through forceful submission. It is the same as in our modern-time justice: once the form is created the substance within it gains legitimacy, and the question of validity of its coming into existence becomes irrelevant. How can the marriage of Hunding and Sieglinde be guarded by a god if there was no free will when it was formed? Why does Wotan defer to Fricka? What order is Wotan upholding by allowing that the man who created himself, a free man, his own lost son Siegmund, has to die? What bond did Siegmund breach?

Much to Wotan’s resentment his choice is that Fricka’s verdict remain in effect and Siegmund/Sieglinde’s life stands no chance. In the world of Wotan’s authority, power prevails in struggle with love.

Jan-Hendrik Rootering delivers Wotan’s famous monologue in Scene 2 of Act 2 with genuine resignation and melancholy that has the rare quality of being sincere. While he talks to Brünnhilde it feels as we are witnessing, almost overhearing, a very private and authentic confession. It was this production, more than any other that I have seen, that brought up this monologue in its full human dimension.  The way Jan-Hendrik Rootering acted it equals the quality seen only in the best of actors.

Singing of Robert Gambill has a nasal streak which turns out to be an asset in this role giving his Siegmund a fine sentimental quality maintaining throughout remarkable vocal depth and width.  Angela Denoke gave her Sieglinde a voice rich in gently curvy phrasing  and a gem stone clarity and density. They both demonstrated vocal and acting capacity to rendering their respective characters with the corresponding energy,  intelligible phrasing, shaped up in a coherent unit that conveys the meaning.

Atilla Jun as Hunding although endowed with a good voice came across blunt in phrasing and lacking sensibility for character shaping dynamism.

Tichina Vaughn as Fricka, although impressive vocally, was not equally precise in acting this role.

Renate Behle was perhaps a somewhat unfortunate choice for the role of Brünnhilde. Her voice is lacking the strength and authority one would expect to hear in Brünnhilde.

In his monologue Jan-Hendrik Rootering brought to life the deeply concealed quality of life of those human beings who rise in power to a point above and beyond the competitive and transient. This quality may be experienced by monarchs or individuals whose riches are beyond quantifiable measurements. The loneliness and isolation which happens at that level is unimaginable for ordinary mortals. It is from the highest point of this loneliness that Wotan speaks of his sorrowful optionless ‘choice’ to demand Siegmund’s life. And from the mindspinning heights of his might what is it that he fears most? He fears the one whom he tricked with fraudulent pretense, a powerless Alberich. So we see that compromised integrity always turns out to be a fatal crack leading to inevitable doom in the lives of gods and humans alike.

The dead bodies of the fallen heroes are delivered  to the Valkyries’ quarters as  mannequins in crouching positions carried on the conveyor belt, the  ash tree sword  appears as a projected light in the shape of a sword, the paper wings of Valkyries, are some of the props in this production, which serve it well, blending in with its functional purpose.

This Valkyrie tells us that anything built on a foundation which came into existence by breaching a bond, through force, fraud and false pretense remains corrupt and is doomed to failure. It is then only a matter of time until the structure resting on such ground will collapse.

Christoph Nel as stage director and Karl Kneidl as stage and costume designer produced an environment consistent with their reading of the Valkyrie, occasionally brazen and provocative but thoroughly contemplated in detail to aid an interpretation of the Valkyrie which parallels the world of the gods with the world of humans perhaps not so much on the contemporary and actual plane but rather along the questions of ontology and esoteric conundrums. The symbols they utilize are witty, humorous, and liberal and show enviable artistic courage without crossing the line into a territory of prank or blunder. Their stage and costumes are esthetically unflattering, which is consistent with the modern theatrical German view of theatre as a field where the freedom of expression is constantly pushed forward and may include “shock and awe”, as opposed to a view of theatre as a business model where the forces of marketing, PR, advertising and headhunting join in utilizing opera and theatre to advance national prestige and seduce the benefactors into writing fat endowment cheques.

The orchestra supports and complements singing without overriding it demonstrating a great deal of subtlety under the control of Lothar Zagrosek and bringing up the quality of Wagner’s music which complements visual and performing aspect of his opus.

Rheingold and Realpolitik

July 1, 2010

Stage director Joachim Schlömer, Conductor Lothar Zagrosek, Wotan: Wolfgang Probst, Donner: Motti Kastón, Froh: Bernhard Schneider, Loge: Robert Künzli, Alberich: Esa Ruuttunen, Mime: Eberhard Francesco Lorenz, Fasolt: Roland Bracht, Fafner: Phillip Ens, Fricka: Michaela Schuster, Freia: Helga Rós Indridadóttir, Erda: Mette Ejsing, Woglinde: Catriona Smith, Wellgunde: Maria Theresa Ullrich, Flosshilde: Margarete Joswig, Staatsorchester Stuttgart

Stuttgart Rheingold is a one-act opera, with the same set throughout. It takes place in the  atrium of a building resembling the style of the Thirties. It may be a bank or a big corporation. The vertical symmetry of the two-level space hints at a rigid and conservative spirit.  In the centre of the floor area is a large fountain.  On the bottom of the fountain is the Rheingold, the glittering metal gold in different but familiar forms such as goblets, plates, chains, jewellery, etc. The rheinmaidens are three  joyful,  gracious young women hairstyled and made up in the loose and liberated fashion of the early post-WWII period, dressed in navy blue track pants and blouses of navy style. They are reminiscent of the look of the young American women captured in the documentary photographs kissing and hugging with the navy officers returning home after WWII. 

Wotan, the god of contracts, and his little pantheon of the guardians of the covenants and seals, holders of the keys and commanders of fire, know the magical power of gold. They know the power of glittering appearance through which the chaos of the world is tamed into submission. But the magic is illusion insofar as appearance is often misleading. So what appears as conquered and tamed in fact demands constant patrolling and the whip, or else entrophy creeps in and the chaos is back sooner than expected.

The drama of Rheingold revolves around the trouble of Wotan on the pay-day for the  contract with the giants for building the Walhalla castle. Wotan, the supreme authority and guardian of the sanctity of contracts, appears as a businessman on one side of the deal.  The two giants as the other party keen on specific performance are actualized in this production as a builder/mason, maybe mortgage lender, and his muscle man, a Mafioso.

Wotan has to make an impossible choice, compromising the supremeness of his authority either by refusing to fulfill the contract, or by allowing the giants to take Freia away. Instead of Freia he offers a sacred object, the Rheingold, which is, after all, just gold. Wotan, on the advice of  Loge, decides that the stolen Rheingold will not be returned to its lawful holders.  Instead, Wotan will keep it and use it to settle the claim with the giants and prevent the payment in flesh by obtaining the release of Freia, the goddess of youth. This is where the demise of the gods begins.

The speciality of this Rheingold is that all the characters are on the stage most of the time. This intervention of the director allows for a deeper exploration of the characters of this drama, out of which a new reading emerges.

The key figure in this Rheingold is Loge, a dealmaker, facilitator, and special envoy.  He is assisting Wotan through the contract with the giants, facilitating the alteration of its terms and arrival at the final settlement. It appears that Alberich’s theft of the Rheingold was  masterminded by Loge, who awaited Alberich to do the dirty work, all with Wotan’s blessing. Robert Künzli, who sings and plays Loge, resembles the Godfather strikingly well.

Although the references to the Mafia and the Godfather are popular and eloquent in their many qualities for associative and analogous parallel, if we watch this Rheingold from the presentday perspective we can see that the role of Loge in Walhalla may be better paralleled with the role of Richard Holbrooke in global politics and the Wall Street. (The New Yorker magazine of 28 Sept. 2009, also presents Holbrooke’s profile, but does not mention his 19 years on the board of directors in Lehman Brothers and  AIG. Both bankrupt.) Consistent with the overall theme of this Ring as distinctly German, it is a curious coincidence that at the time this DVD was coming into existence, Richard Holbrooke, formerly the US ambassador to Germany, was receiving a nugget of  German gold, the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit, probably as a special token of gratitude for making it possible for Germany to participate for the first time after WWII in an act of war on European territory.

Back to the Rheinmaidens. While Alberich is stealing the Rheingold, Loge is silently watching the crime in progress from the background. As soon as Alberich is gone Loge is the first to offer humanitarian aid by comforting the Rheinmaidens with warm military blankets. And while the distressed Rheinmaidens are being cared for, Froh Donner and Mime storm to scavenge the leftovers after Alberich has run away with the main loot.  

To this Rheingold, choreography and lighting are the key elements. The same setting remains throughout this opera, which limits the visual associative effect but provides the opportunity to amplify the relationship dynamics among the characters. No wonder that the director Joachim Schlömer happens to be an accomplished choreographer, a former dancer and a prolific creative leader of many ballet troupes, including his own. Since the Nineties his work has been shaping theatre and opera productions in Germany and abroad and enriching the performing arts with his studied and disciplined stage movements.

With minimal but very effective devices the opening stage space of neat apperance transforms itself into gradual decay and chaos. Winds blow dirt through the cracks, and the edifice, once solid, crumbles down into a semi-ruin. The world of Wotan is shattered forever. With the change of light and the air blowing in from several different points, chaos is created in an instant, preparing the scene for Erda’s appearance. They capture this ominous, dark moment and the complete change of atmosphere quite effectively.

Lothar Zagrosek leads the orchestra towards a strong and pronounced tone which tells its own story, while keeping the decisive and firm sound throughout. The key point of this production is that it maintains a good balance among different elements of performance. Singing does not override the visual dramatization and the sound of the orchestra, but rather blends in. All singers range more or less between good and very good, with the few notable exceptions approaching excellence, such as  Esa Ruuttunen as Alberich,  Robert Künzli as Loge, and Eberhard Francesco Lorenz as Mime. The Crisp and clear Rheinmaidens deserve special mention: Woglinde: Catriona Smith, Wellgunde: Maria Theresa Ullrich, and Flosshilde: Margarete Joswig.

The Stuttgart Ring – All things German

June 20, 2010


The video recording of the “Ring of the  Nibelung”, Wagner’s four operas, produced by the Stuttgart Opera, was recorded for the DVD release between 2002 and 2003. It was the third DVD-recorded Ring. The legendary production of the Bayreuth Festival with Pierre Boulez as conductor and Patrice Chéreau as stage director in 1976 created a very humanized Ring marking the hundredth anniversary of the first Ring première. The Boulez/Chéreau  production was set in a world already shaped by the industrial revolution with business suits replacing the mythical attire. It is considered to be most influential and, according to many, unsurpassed production of the Ring. The New York Metropolitan Opera DVD, under the conductorship of James Levine in 1990, brought the drama of these four operas into the context of fantasy-world characters maybe inspired by Star Wars. Although musically acclaimed for having a great cast of singers the Met’s Ring is not mind-provoking in a way that makes the connection with contemporary human issues transparent.

The Stuttgart Ring relates the plot back to human and contemporary elements. It is also provocative for its lack of hesitation to openly include graphic sexual content and powerful eroticism. The stage and costume designs are reduced to an understatement with an exclamation mark. 

The voices of those who find themselves offended by the Stuttgart Ring’s dramatization are loud and can be heard at the forums of layman as well as among the official critique. Yet, many agree that the orchestra and singing are remarkable. It is interesting to see how Wagner’s operas continue to polarize those who claim to be fascinated by his musical genius.

Although each of the individual operas of the Stuttgart Ring production have been directed by a different director and different singers appear in each in the roles of the recurring characters, there is a common ground for all four of them.

The Ring saga is about the world of human beings, how they established the order in which they enslave each other in a hypnotic dream in search of happiness through gaining power over one another.

The Stuttgart Ring is a good illustration of what in the North American operatic criticism is often referred to in a horrified voice as Regietheater. There is another term that more or less means the same: “Eurotrash”. This unsavory word found its niche territory in opera review discourse, a still lively enclave of permissible hate-speech. It is fascinating to see how the rigidity of expectation leads to a feeling of  betrayal. The words used to articulate this betrayal alas seldom fall short of vulgarity. All this because the production team of an opera took a creative liberty into their hands.  

In an interview by Per-Erik Skramstad and Mostly Opera  with Peter Konwitschny, the director of the “Twilight of the Gods” of the Stuttgart Ring, Mr. Konwitschny said:

The theatre is not a museum. The essence of a theatrical performance cannot consist of just showing the presumed intents of the author as they were displayed at the original première or, rather could have been displayed at the original première. The purpose of a theatrical performance primarily consists in having a dialogue with the audience about essential themes in society as well as in the lives of the individual.

The intention of the Stuttgart Ring is directed towards exploring the depths of human experience and has no concern for selling itself to anyone. Pleasing the senses or the expectations of those who consider art as a commodity and who would like to see  “value for their money” has not been a part of the consideration in this production. Those who get offended without realizing their own shortsightedness disqualify themselves on the grounds of snobbery, acknowledging thereby that for them appearance is paramount to substance.

There seems to be something genuinely German in the dramatization of this Ring. A parallel can be drawn in the timeline of these operas and the developing trends which affected Germany. It was around the Sixties that the rejuvenating energy of survival, which carried out the rebirth of West Germany after the devastating ruin of  WWII, started to wear out while the economy continued to outgrow the limits of the territorial boundaries. The Stuttgart Ring comes into existence at an interesting historical moment for Germany, the moment of repose, where yesterday’s contenders, the Soviet Union and America, voluntarily reduced themselves to a trophy and a con-man in thin disguise respectively… 

Stay tuned for a review of each of the Stuttgart Ring  operas appearing here soon.