Posts Tagged ‘Uncategorized’

The Daughter of the Regiment

March 14, 2010

 The fact that the opera may entertain a lighter subject matter than universal human tragedy or esoteric quest does not mean that it is likelier to succeed. On the contrary, failed comedy is a failure if people are not entertained. This one, however, is a very big success.

This is a French-language opera by an Italian composer. It is a story of  a young girl, Marie, found as an orphan baby, adopted and raised by a French regiment stationed in the Tyrol Alps. Young Marie falls in love with Tonio, a boy of an enemy nation, who for the sake of love is going to join the French army. The conflict between love and military duties is about to be resolved when at the gate of the regiment’s barracks appears Marie’s mother, introducing herself as her aunt, comes to take her illegitimate daughter with her, now that she is a wealthy woman, to her home in Paris.

The stage consists of extra-large-print military maps over a bumpy stage floor and the corners of the maps protruding upwards resembling the peaks of the Tyrol Alps. The NATO star is shining at the other end of the sky. The wash of long johns for the entire regiment is on the clothesline across the stage with a bucket of potatoes ready for peeling.

Natalie Dessay is a perfect Marie with her wiry body and a hairdo and voice of spiky shape and character. Ms. Dessay genuinely feels the colours of this tomboy character and delivers one after another gems in her acting and singing alike. Her finely tuned expressiveness resembles the innocent humour of Walt Disney’s early cartoon characters. At the other end of the spectrum her farewell to the regiment is sung in rich emotional nuances and a precise rendition.

Juan Diego Florez admitted in an interview that the emotional, slow sequences are far more demanding for him than the famous 9 high Cs in a row. Mr. Florez too is a triumphant success in this role.  

The musty and blasé old aristocracy and its hierarchy of servants are depicted in the grotesque well-choreographed motions in the second act topped up by the smashing appearance of Dawn French as La Duchesse, producing superb visual and orchestral synergy.

The most charming scene visually, near the end, is the arrival of the devoted Tonio, who enters at the top of the military tank followed by the entire regiment, His arm pointing victoriously  toward his beloved Marie. Utterly cute.

The recitatives are well acted, dramatized and staged. Felicity Palmer is remarkable for the steady voice of her lower register whether in recitative or while singing.

Every detail in this production was well developed and craftily assembled into one firmly coherent  and smashing whole, with an enthusiastic sound from the orchestra and the superb cast of singers. The most difficult of comedy, the farce, was produced to the delight and amusement of any audience. Big bravo to all.

No wonder that the production has been revived, but the perfect blend of this cast would be difficult to surpass for any contemporary contenders.

Love for sale – the story of Traviata

March 12, 2010

 

La Traviata was my first thoroughly explored opera. On the following pages I will share my impressions of several different versions, most of which were produced within the last decade. Half of them are traditional and the other half are modern, Zeitgeist, or so-called Regietheater, versions. Regietheater is a term that refers to a production in which the role of the director is creative in introducing contemporary elements, usually related to scene, décor, costumes, altering libretto instructions, and transposing the story into a new place and time, thus bringing the main idea closer to the contemporary spectators. Since video technology made it possible to preserve the images and reach much wider and less prejudicial audiences than the regular attendees of live performances, the popularity of this approach seems to be on a constant rise. Hurray!

The story of La Traviata is based on Alexandre Dumas’ famous romance novel “Lady with Camellias” which was inspired by a real-life mistress or courtesan and her premature death due to tuberculosis, or to use the popular euphemism, consumption. The story in short goes like this: beautiful. free-spirited. young woman Violetta lives showered with the attention of many wealthy, elderly men  eager to take pleasure in her youth and beauty, which they honour with material reward. She attends parties and other night life entertainment, and that is all she does, celebrating in her own way living in the here and now, by submitting herself to the life of sensual pleasures. At one such party she meets Alfredo, and the famous male-female chemistry does the rest. They are madly into each other without any inhibition. Violeta’s conflict lies in the entrapment of love: committing herself to one man to the exclusion of all other men. Alfredo has already made his commitment by building his life on traditional values: marriage, children, and family.

Based on some historical data the true story may as well be like this: Around 1840 there lived  Alphonsine Plessis who came to live in Paris for the reasons that may be further researched. Some sources suggest that Alexandre Dumas younger was one of those who enjoyed her company. Franz List, Wagner’s father-in-law was allegedly another of her admirer. She  died at the age of 22.  Alphonsine knew the laws of the world and despite  her tender age she understood very well that she is not entitled to a relationship based on love, being deeply on a path of selling her body and beauty for living.

Violetta and her Alfredo throw themselves into an intense, sensual affair. The reality comes knocking on Violetta’s door in the form of Alfredo’s father, who has practical concerns for his foolish son who went mad for a courtesan. He choses to negotiate the break-up with Violetta. He visits Violeta at her countryside home to beg her to let Alfredo go, telling her that Alfredo’s connection to her may ruin the family plans for other provident marital arrangements. Violetta is wounded to death. But she knows very well the laws, especially those unwritten. Bleeding the life force rapidly from that event on, she promises to the father of her beloved, that she will abandon his son Alfredo. She sacrifices her feelings, her love knowing quite well that in that world there is no place for such love.  She meets Alfredo by chance at one of the festivities, where he, believing in his mediocre self centered importance that she tossed him away, humiliates her publicly, insulting her carried away  by his selfish narrow-minded ignorance. Violetta’s health spirals down rapidly as she throws herself back into a whirlwind of the oblivion of the oldest trade she is into. Her illness progresses. Next we see is that she is dying. Before she leaves this world comes Alfredo with his father to honour her noble sacrifice.  Violetta dies.

A traditional production would follow this story with the strict adherence to the costumes, decor and mannerism of the period and to the literal letter of the libretto instructions, limiting itself to a better or worse level of mime. If the soprano diva is beautiful it is an asset and the difference between various productions is measured in the level of lavishness of the set, decor and costumes. Such a production has a limited maneuvering ground to elaborate the characters or the drama between the actors/singers. They usually sing standing beside each other while exchanging fatalistic statements. They often act as if engaged in declamation entrusted to the audience. The advantage of a traditional production is in the focus on singing and music as opposed to the artistic freedom of reshaping a message of the story in the language of décor, costumes, acting and scene. There are also mid-way attempts to retain some elements of the original set and throw in one or few elements of modern times. Such gimmicks hardly add anything more than a brief amusement to the spectators, which is a dangerous way to treat your audience. It does not yield lasting impressions and if not well woven into the tissue of the entire production backfires with the disapproval of critic and audience alike.

Strict adherence to the libretto and the original stage instructions prevents the universality of the theme from reaching audiences several centuries later. Esthetics change, appearances change, décor changes, and fashion changes. At the time it was composed you could buy for pennies the paintings sold today for millions of dollars…one has to be educated to catch all the fine lines that stem from the piece. To connect the audience with the drama, to have them recognize the opera’s theme in the world around them, it helps to cut through the distracting alien layers of odd costumes and the furniture you now see in films, museums or houses of very rich people. On the other hand, dressing the singers in jeans may not be enough to anchor the story in our world.

If the production team shuts its eyes and ears to these changes what is left is imitation. A modern production takes the liberty of altering the elements of the stage and gives a more contemporary appearance. In doing that it is essential to have a concept, an underlying idea, a clear picture of what you wish to say, and in doing so consistency helps, or at least it prevents the risk of a job half done.

The line between fine and too much

March 8, 2010

A year after Willy Decker’s La Traviata, Rolando Villazón sings in a traditional production in Los Angeles with Renée Fleming as Violetta. American native and darling, Renée Fleming, whose voice is often referred to as liquid gold had to have the best Alfredo of the day–Rolando Villazón, that is. It is obvious that Ms. Fleming studied and very intently prepared for her role. Maybe too intently.  She sings as if with a clear determination to add something new to this role. To any such aspiring artist commendable advice is given by the brilliant light-versed American poet, Ogden Nash, in a verse that goes something like this:  “Listen, Rembrandt, why don’t’ you add little red here…”.In other words, with less eagerness she could have done much better.  In his review for the Opera News, Ira Siff does not hesitate to call her efforts “gilding the lily”. So the result is a peculiar, dull, shallow and flat sound in many lower register vowels and too many excessive shrieks. Her vocal ability does not sustain her efforts. To put it gently, she approaches dangerously close to the borderline of kitsch. I heard Renée Fleming in a recital in Toronto several years ago, and ever since then I have been under the impression that she may run out of her voice. There is a sense of something precisely planned and calculated in her singing which induces anxiety in a listener.  Villazón was singing with all his might and lungs. The production, effervescent with luxurious costumes and a stage rich in detail, creates perhaps too much of a distracting commotion without adequately benefiting the final result, which raises the question: why would anyone bother making yet another lavish period production?

Mr. Brian Large who directed the video version could have spared us, the home audience, by editing out numerous interruptions of frantic, exaggerated applause.

Peter Mussbach on being and nothingness

March 5, 2010

Peter Mussbach’s Traviata on DVD, as performed in 2003 at the Aix-en-Provence festival promises on its cover the story of a death and love. That is what it delivers. And so much more.

While Willy Decker’s Traviata is the last breath in the joy of life, Peter Mussbach’s Traviata is one long last breath of death. Gracious Mireille Delunsch is the Violetta. Her lyrical voice of subdued expressiveness and a flavour of fragility convey this agony with searing emotional authenticity. Matthew Polenzani’s Alfredo is well nuanced in emotional spectrum and depth. His Alfredo feels almost as equally unfortunate as Violetta and only slightly less tragic remaining throughout, firmly centred in the role. Željko Lučić, my fellow compatriot from the non-existent Yugoslavia, gifted with a gorgeous voice of remarkable width and an echo of a cathedral bell, was an impressive father Germont thanks mostly to his vocal ability. It would be utterly mind-spinning had his acting be a little more fine-tuned. I cannot quite pinpoint what was imperfect there, maybe a little excess of intent was visible, but this comes under the category of hair-splitting.

There is a custom in some cultures that if a girl dies before she gets married she is buried in a wedding gown. Such funeral apparel is the only dress this Violetta wears. In fact she appears as already dead.  There is only one moment in this Traviata when Violetta appears alive, and that is when she meets the father Germont. This is the only time she is trying to negotiate something for herself in her earthly life, the only occasion when she for a moment she considers her life a reality. That is when she losses the only thing that matters to her. But, did she ever have it in the first place? Was it yet another illusion? Everything else before and after this moment of attempt to be in this world to claim her love, is either recollection of a nightmare life passing before her as if  she is a remote, detached observer from another world, or everything just fades away and becomes reduced to mere flashes of fluorescent light in the darkness.

The entire opera appears as one final prolonged look back at the life already gone in which there was nothing anyways, only some shadows and distant noises. This becomes strikingly obvious in the scene which takes place in the countryside home.  What in the libretto is suggested as a country house where Violetta and Alfredo enjoy their passionate love affair, Mr. Mussbach stages as Violetta’s lifeless body lying on the ground, face towards the floor, over which, as if he does not notice her, Alfredo sings his exaltation of redeeming love into a void emptiness . Was her love ever a possibility, regardless of her terminal illness, regardless of her past?

The cold empty black stage remains unchanged throughout. It is divided into front and back planes by a transparent black curtain. It is all one big nothing. The dynamic is created by intermittent film footage superimposed over the images of the story as it unfolds. The film depicts a road as an unambiguous symbol of a life path. Violetta’s life is a speedy highway trip through the rainy night. This life by night is from time to time seen through a rainy windshield from the position of a traveler in the hands of an invisible driver in an invisible vehicle. The road sometimes turns into a tunnel. Maybe it is the same tunnel in which another young woman, a real princess, met her death in the arms of her forbidden lover. There are other hints at fallen heroines of life depicted in this story. Some people recognize in Violetta’s hairstyle and dress hints at Marilyn Monroe. Life and fiction abound with inspiration for the theme of  the tragic fate of love without the blessing of social approval.

Throughout the performance the stage is lit with a somber light which does not shine but rather merely reveals the dark joyless shadows of equally dark and joyless people passing by Violeta only remotely. The line between illusions reality and hallucinations is blurred. It is all real and unreal at the same time. That is perhaps the greatest effect of this production.

The only time in which we see a crisp and refreshing light akin to sunlight is when long and painful agony ends.  

In spite of merciless reduction in colour and décor, this Traviata delivers this tragic story in flavours stronger and sharper than any other Traviata I have seen. 

The DVD should contain a warning for the emotionally infirm not to watch this production without access to the shoulder of a responsible and balanced adult.

La Traviata of Willy Decker

March 1, 2010

When the director’s name precedes the names of the greatest singers in a production, something extraordinary has happened. It will probably not be earlier than a hundred years from now that we see something so clean, dazzling and radical as Willy Decker’s La Traviata of the 2005 Salzburg Festival. The newly released program of the Metropolitan Opera NY prides itself in cloning this production now, five years later, with different singers and it is scheduled for the upcoming New Year’s Gala.

In many aspects this is a revolutionary performance that has changed the face of how opera may also be staged, bringing to life a broad specter of emotions and exploring to inconceivable depths the dramatic tensions of this deeply human drama. We are fortunate to be contemporaries of Willy Decker, who has approached libretto with a radical intervention.

The entire scene throughout all three acts consists of a bare white oval wall with the door on the left side, on the right side a simple, giant clock of a design such as is usually seen in railway stations. Along the entire length of the wall runs a built-in bench following the shape of the wall.  The seed of this simplicity can be traced back to the scene in act one of the 1994 Covent Garden production of La Traviata. But now it is reduced to the bare bones. A couple of simple Ikea couches,  floral drapes and a bottle of champagne are the only additional props.

The cast is perfect: Anna Netrebko as Violeta, Rolando Vilazzón as Alfredo, and excellent in the role of Alfredo’s father is Tomas Hampson. 

Exemplifying in this role the “living in the moment” lifestyle fully anchored in the character, Anna Netrebko becomes  Violeta with full physical and emotional presence, delivering her role in an unending series of emotionally charged and focused exchanges  with Alfredo, generating the unparalleled dramatic peaks rich in flavours and nuances. Such a Violeta is complemented by the superb singing and acting of Villazón, who upholds the drama revolving around Violeta, gentle, fragile and dying.

Passion is in conflict with duty, and it is in this conflict that Willy Decker turns upside down a deeply rooted prejudice against the fallen woman who by falling passionately in love shows that in the bosom of such a woman may well beat the heart of a noble princess.

Violeta suffers and cries, loves and dies, as such a princess. Bruised and hurt, humiliated and abandoned, she remains true to herself to her stellar substance; such is Violeta as Willy Decker sees her.

Thomas Hampson as father Germont, with his high-pressure bottled anguish and rigidity, delivered a well paced  and most remarkable character portrayal in singing this role.

The whirlwind of life is portrayed as a faceless crowd of uniformly dressed men holding champagne glasses swarming around her or looming over her head according to the libretto’s demands.

Willy Decker also reduces the stage relevance of ephemeral characters, such as Flora Bervoix or Annina, to the absolute minimum. On the other hand a new person on the stage, the personification of Death, is expanded into the permanent, silent presence of a mute and grim man. Brilliant.

One secret of this masterpiece production is the meticulously studied choreography. No single movement is left to arbitrary improvisation. The result of this serious study is that every single snapshot of this production may be easily considered to be a photograph of a Rene Magritte painting.

I hope that the marketing team of this production has realized that in the images of this La Traviata as posters lays a considerable potential for revenues.

La Traviata – an Italian take on the early 70-ties

February 28, 2010

An example of a well-modernized Traviata is the production of Robert Carsen, Conductor: Lorin Maazel, Violetta: Patrizia Ciofi Alfredo: Roberto Sacca; Germont: Alfredo’s father: Dmitri Hvorostovsky.

It was staged in Venice, in the theatre La Fenice where this opera had its première. It is fitted into the late 60s or early 70s, which is consistently reflected in the decor, costumes, hairstyles, etc. A creative playground for any production of Traviata is to see what they have done out of the gypsy song and matador dance. This Traviata is a wonderful counterpart to the famous film La Dolce Vita. (This film should be a part of the mandatory curriculum in schools if we as a species intend to have art survive in the post-industrial era). Mr. Carsen gives us a superb Las Vegas-burlesque, unbuttoned, liberally choreographed show on stage as his rendition of the gypsy and matador songs. It is perhaps more liberal than what taste would permit on the American continent even a few decades later. (May we be reminded that the “Last Tango in Paris” was over the limits of permissible freedom for the North American censors). This of course does not matter a bit for the smooth flow of this effervescent gig. I read somewhere that the theme of this Traviata is money. It would be an unfair simplification. It is much more than that. It is a testimony of an era the main feature of which may be social and sexual liberation and a sobering truth that some other old underlying laws remain in full effect. This Violetta is not a prostitute in a vulgar sense; socially she may well be an upscale woman, a star on the rise in an artistic field, or simply an aspiring young woman who does escort service as a part-time boost to her otherwise slim revenues. Maybe she has to pay the rent to be able to have this big chance in her life, which only a big city can offer. While the prelude is playing she is semmi-dressed in her dark green boudoir taking, or rather, snatching money from the passing men who are handing it to her. This symbolic scene suggests that prejudice and hesitation are dispensed with, and the nexus between the money and negotiated sex is right there. Alfredo is a photographer, a paparazzo. This detail is very well matched to the story. Patrizia Ciofi delivers her singing with a visible strain which may be hard for closeups, such as made available on the video recording, but somehow this strain works excellently for the role for one who makes a living of her own flesh. Her voice is sharp and accurate.  A scene in which Violetta has to endure the raging jealousy of Alfredo is delivered here with the chilling effect of a pain absorbed as a murderous blow to her heart  and condensed in Violetta’s absent-minded look into nothingness while she is slowly walking away from the place where she was humiliated by her beloved. Brava Patrizia Ciofi! This scene just goes to say how much in emotional effect may be extracted with a good staging acting and singing. In the production of Willy Decker La Traviata (which to my delight will soon be posted, so keep visiting this little blog!) we see at this point a nasty explicit scene of a domestic assault and physical abuse when Alfredo (Villazón) is shoving the money into Violetta’s (Netrebko) mouth and décolleté.

Roberto Saccà as Alfredo is correct but unremarkable, coming across as an agitated superficial and cute toy-boy for this Violetta, a mere catalyst to the tale of a drama awaiting sooner or later any woman who strays, hoping that she can outsmart the devil. Seen as a whole, such an Alfredo is perhaps the best and wisely made choice.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who is very dear to me, sings as always superbly. He  is camouflaged behind a pair of spectacles. He does not act or exaggerate anything. He sings with the fraction of his larynx & lungs with such an ease equal to, for example, the second gear of a turbo high-acceleration engine. Only when he sings Russian songs do I hear Hvorostovsky open up a bit to his mind-spinning singing capacities. We are yet to see him unleash the energy he is gifted with. For a while I was disappointed by his rather bland acting, but on second thought that subdued delivery of Alfredo’s father works well in the entire concept, leaving the space for the beginning of Violetta’s neurotic breakdown.

For me personally the greatest visual achievement in depicting Violetta’s demise is the opening scene of Act III where Ciofi lies on the floor covered with a fur coat, the snowy screen of a malfunctioning  TV set on the floor, an open, half-empty industrial size bag of cement next to the scaffold wall, beside the open bathroom door. A masterpiece! This image should be given to the fine arts students as an assignment in still life.

Green banknotes bills with the image of Giuseppe instead of Benjamin falling as autumn leaves are a sweet touch adding to the set of metaphors in this coherent and powerful production.

La Traviata – Angela Gheorghiu a rising star

February 26, 2010

Of all the traditional Traviatas in my humble consumer’s rating this, the one with young Angela Gheorghiu seen at the Royal Opera Covent Garden in 1994, is the best. Georg Solti, who died few years later and who conducted La Traviata for the first time, gave the orchestra a crisp, somewhat militant tone, with precision and edge more suitable for Mozart perhaps rather than Verdi. Angela Gheorghiu was 28 at that time and a spectacular rising star. She sings with a volume and passion that dominates the scene. Yet it is evident that behind the sheer energy of a perfect, powerful, unrestrained, cultivated voice there is still a great potential waiting to unfold in the coming years.   The first act is set in an oval-shaped wood-paneled salon consisting of a huge two-wing door and–apart from the central floral arrangement–an empty space. The emptiness serves well to emphasize the focus on the gorgeous period costumes and the singing. It is a perfect example of successfully combining a minimalist simplicity while remaining true to the period costumes. It is well centred without the attention-distracting china glassware and cutlery so often seen as inevitable props in the first act.  

The emotional edge is reached in the second act when Violetta realizes in disbelief that Alfredo’s father has come to ask her to relinquish what is most dear to her –Alfredo. There are definite moments when you can feel goose bumps, chills and thrills up and down your spine thanks to Angela Gheorghiu’s youth, ambition, confident surrender to soar with her feelings and God’s gift of an extraordinary voice of diamond clarity with the power of a steam-engine. The set, portraying a country house, evokes the serenity and simplicity of Vermeer’s ambient. Violetta’s dresses are designed and made with subtlety, ranging from delicate pastel shades of yellow, pigeon blue and beige to the glamorous femme-fatale crimson red, black lace décolleté  and gloves. Regrettably, Frank Lopardo as Alfredo is not equal in charisma and character to such a Violetta. Apart from vocal correctness he does not offer more, remaining invisible in Gheorghiu’s shadow throughout. Old Germont, Alfredo’s father, is a believable character well suited for this role.

The night atmosphere is constant except for the second act where the daylight freshness is brought up as a refreshing contrast. Viewed today, this production a decade and a half later, still stands out head and shoulders above other traditional productions I have seen in every aspect.

A decade and a bit later…

 

In 2007, thirteen years after her 1994 Covent Garden success, we see a mature and confident diva, Angela Gheorghiu, perhaps with a hint of agitation concealing the boredom of routine singing yet another Traviata, this time in one of the oldest opera houses, La Scala, of Milan. I guess that everything may wear out in life. Even the effect of being showered with frantic applauses after a few hours of intensive singing.  For this special occasion a reputable film director’s name, Liliana Cavani’s, appears in the credits. And that is more or less where it stays. There is nothing in this staging which reveals that a hand of a master is pulling the strings together. Everything is ordinary, already seen and uninventive. In Act Two the scene is cluttered with furniture and on the right-hand side stands a couch located so close to a billiard table that it annoys the spectator who would try to imagine anyone playing pool. Or is this dysfunctional furnishing arrangement perhaps a staging hint of Violetta’s glorious days of fun forever gone now? Unclear.  At one point there seems to be a purpose in the billiard table on the stage but even the video editing was poor.  If the intention was to show the neglect and decay the message did not come through. Attention is given to the costumes and the intent that no cost would be spared to make a great conventional production is visible. The Alfredo is sung by Ramón Vargas and is an unfortunate choice beside the imposing diva, who is glowing in her mature beauty and exuding the spirit of a woman whose best years have just passed. Mr. Vargas also fails to connect with Ms. Gheorghiu in creating the mutual dynamics and directs his emotional lines into an empty air. The emotional effect is not produced and it feels unconvincing and lacking in energy. Maybe if we close our eyes we may get more out of this production, because they are, after all, great voices.

Weimar Ring – a neglected DVD production

February 10, 2010
  
A year ago, in January 2009, that is, The Ring in the production of Staatskapelle Weimar and the Deutsche National Theatre was released on a DVD by the “ArtHaus Musik”. The time of this release was somewhat unfortunate because the Copenhagen Ring, which was released about the same time, has been receiving rave reviews. The Copenhagen Ring is perhaps more fascinating with its theatrical devices and occasional shocking details, which left the Weimar Ring unjustly neglected.  By sharing my personal reflections I hope to bring some justice to this extraordinary production.   

                

This Ring is brought to life under conductor Carl St. Clair, who is a music director of the Pacific Symphony (I found it on Google maps to be near Los Angeles, California) where he has been for the last 20 years. Carl St. Clair is also a general music director and chief conductor of the German National Theatre and Staatskapelle Weimar. A student of Leonard Bernstein, he is also known as the first non-European to hold this position. The brochure declares the theme of this Ring to be the generational conflict, but to me the theme was more along the lines of esoteric exploration.    

                  

The Rheingold   

                   

             

The prologue of the prologue opera starts with three schoolgirls as Norns who tell the tale of the stolen ring. The quest for eternal gold starts with a con-men Alberich presenting himself to the Rheinmaidens as a dwarf. Alberich is “dwarfed” by making him walk on his knees, creating the visual and motion effects very believable. For this purpose a special pair of boots strapped to his knees is cleverly devised.
The Rheinmaidens, a specie, rather than only three of them, appear as hands and heads and with the occasional nymph tail here and there as a prop. They guard the planet Earth behind the elevated, no-frills, concrete-like panel which reminds me of the makeshift panels encasing the seats of the state & army leaders during military parades. When the gold is stolen, the concrete-like barrier is removed, revealing the huge image of the planet earth somehow unguarded and exposed, as if setting in motion its inevitable ill fate.

Wotan’s royal residence is more like a neglected rundown shelter in which the chairs are stacked, the carpets are rolled up in haste of leaving the place, and the paintings are removed, leaving behind them their pale shapes on the wallpaper. The leftovers of an abandoned meal are neglectfully scattered over the bare dining table. Doom looms. Froh is dressed as an Italian-American gigolo, and Loge is, according to the DVD brochure, a psychiatrist. They are deep asleep in a hypnotic oblivion desensitized against any disaster exuding a spirit similar to that of drunken and tired wedding guests in Breughel’s paintings. Donner is dressed as a pathetic ringmaster with his oversized hammer and misbuttoned jacket, desolate of his powers as if relying solely on the magic of his sharply curled mustache.                

Fasolt and Fafner are in dichotomy: labourer and manager, the former dressed in archetypal overalls and the latter in a two-piece suit and tie–an executive-like outfit.                  

It would be unfair to single out any of the artists in Das Rheingold: singers, musicians, masters of stage and costumes–they all blend in unison producing a coherent, strong performance.                  

The most remarkable singer I wish to mention here is Christine Hansmann. With her charismatic appearance and a voice of mauve and dark purple hue she stages Fricka with nobility and a manner equal to the first goddess of Walhalla. Another memorable artist is Frieder Aurich (more of him in Siegfried).                  

Valkyrie                  

               

The Valkyrie brings the drama of singing and emotions to its peak. The set in Act I is a minimalist stage consisting of a slightly elevated runway that protrudes from the side to the middle of the stage. The background of a flat, white panel only occasionally slits into an opening, accentuating the dramatic arrival of Hunding and his guests. That is all. No ash tree, no props, no clutter. The drama of acting and singing has the entire stage for itself to develop and to densify with captivating, breathtaking power, as indeed it does. Willy Decker looms as an inspirational force, proving once again that the world of Rene Magritte is living a second round of life on the stages of European opera houses before the eyes of 21st century audience worldwide thanks to new DVD technology. Erin Caves as Siegmund and Kirsten Blanck as Sieglinde generate a genuine chemistry elevating the emotional drama to an electrifying peak.   Hidekazy Tsumaya as Hunding dominates the stage portraying this unpleasant character as a rigid abuser. Christine Hansmann shines again as noble Fricka, who is served by eunuch like smitten rams dressed in grey suits exuding in their body language (the stupor of their curled limbs) the submissive, obedient spirit of mid-managerial structures when in the presence of their superiors.                  

The opening of  Act III is always a curious moment, to see how a particular production manifests the mighty ride of the Valkyries. What you encounter here is a carefree pillow-fighting morning of schoolgirls waking up in bunk beds. Just as we are recognizing the scene as akin to the cheerful atmosphere in Norman Rockwell’s illustrations, we are suddenly anchored back to Wagner’s reality by witnessing a graphic, bloody head of a male corpse protruding from the coroner’s bag.                  

Walkyrie

 

Catherine Foster sings Brünnhilde with all the rights tones in their right places but the role for some reason remains visually unfulfilled, which is even more noticable in Götterdämmerung.      

        

Sieglinde and her husband's dinner guests

 

               

Siegfried                

                 

The most striking feature of this Siegfried production is that it is brazenly confident. The stage is the archetype of a theatrical idea of a house. Its furnishing is reduced to a simple table with two chairs (my elementary school snackroom was furnished with such chairs and tables) a mop, a deep freezer with the control red light diligently turned on, and few “echte deutsche” Vileda cloths. As in any good staging each prop has its turn and its role. One couldn’t think of better props for Mime, dressed as a housewife in the bottom half of pajamas and a floral apron-dress, yet losing nothing of his masculinity. Remember the name of Frieder Aurich. He is the best Mime I have ever seen, approaching in dramatic enthusiasm the legendary cast of Heinz Zednik It is hard to say if he is a better actor or singer. His crisp pronunciation and reaching for an occasional deliberate falsetto infused this Mime with an emotion palpably invoking a sleazy, cunning, cowardly, manipulator such as Mime is. Frieder Aurich’s Mime is counterparted with a no less excellent Siegfried, brought to life here by  John van Hall. A young crude Siegfried goes through  forceful growing spells with each new entry to the scene which is cleverly accentuated by his outfit and the changes on his bear. The bear is depicted as an oversized toy-bear who in the adolescence of young Siegfried has protruding nipples and wears a bra. Fresh, original and daring. I have now watched this Siegfried at least 4 times and there is still more to absorb. Both Frieder Aurich and John van Hall are artists of the fine substance, well suited for their roles.  Wanderer is Tomas Möwes  (in Rheingold he is Alberich) whose voice of a somewhat longer wave length  and has a cylindrical and hollow quality that may not be appealing to every listener but compensates on the side of forcefulness. Erda is Nadine Weissmann a rather young singer with a bronze streak in her voice of marked clarity and depth. The aging Fafner is worth mentioning also for the excellent stuffed fabric sculpture-costume showing as an obese tired human. The forest-bird appears in this production here. It is Heike Porstein, who sings, dances and almost flies with grace and beauty equal to her role. Her ballerina-like body are complementing her role to full excellence. Regretfully, it is difficult to find any information about her.                  

               

Frieder Aurich as Mime and John van Hall as Siegfried

 

               

Götterdämmerung                 

After two viewings, the Götterdämmerung unfortunately appears to be the least remarkable of the four, failing thereby to wrap up this magnificent production. It appears that in the making of the Twilight of the Gods there seemed to be a lack of orientation and guidance. Whereas in each of the previous three operas the drama escalates to a new level in powerful broad strokes, the Götterdämmerung fails to deliver the climax. It is reflected in all the aspects: scenography, choreography costumes and music. singing and orchestral performance alike. The costumes are conceptually incoherent, the scenography is lacking in final touches. It feels as if it was produced in haste, under some constraints, or with lack of communication among the production team. There are hints of concept but they are under-developed to convey the idea clearly with vocal and instrumental renditions falling short of interpretational courage and edge. Brünnhilde’s horse, Grane, is personified by an elderly lady with long grey hair, and given too much of a focus, leaving us to wonder why. The overall impression is that it is rather unfortunate, as if the brewing process was interrupted and the final outcome came without required maturity and character. If this production may be given a second round of fresh attention from all participants and a chance to finish up and glue together the parts and pieces into an integral piece and in a more coherent way, we at the receiving end may be able to say that a remarkable Ring has been made with the aid of stick and a rope alone.