Guy Cassier’s “Ring of the present moment” does not belie its concept. Those who have seen it in Milan have now discovered an updated version in Berlin. If Cassier has reacted to some of the criticism of his La Scala première, then he deserves double praises for polishing his staging. Act 1 set looks less empty, the projections reflect changes of mood more sharply… and, most of all, there seems to be stage direction for his singers now. Siegmund and Sieglinde react to each other, Brünnhilde has a touching issue (as in expression affection by touching the person one loves) with her too formidable father later to be transferred to a passionate Siegmund and finally dealt with in the opera’s closing scene – it is still all too elementary, but it already makes all the difference in the world. In the end, if this production is too basic and overreliant in empty aesthetics, it definitely does not stand in the way when musicians are willing to add some emotion into the proceedings. And they certainly have.
As this is the last performance in the run, I have the impression that Daniel Barenboim has decided to give free rein to his impulses, sometimes to the surprise of his singers, what added an urgency and vividness of expression rarely caught so uniformly in a cast as this evening. Barenboim opted for very rich sonorities, with revelatory highlighting of woodwind, impressive sense of theatre and protean orchestral sound. Although he had a very good cast this evening, the orchestra stood in the very core of the events, a paragon of flexibility itself – in terms of tempo, tone coloring, accent – carrying drama forward by magnifying the expressive power of soloists or challenging them in expression. At moments, I almost jumped from my seat with the impact of what the Staatskapelle Berlin was doing. The occasional white-heat approach tested these musicians at times: a hectic closing scene to act I, a hard-edged magic fire music and a somewhat rushed, almost Mozartian Winterstürme. It would be difficult to describe the many interesting features of this evening’s performance – sometimes a performance just catches fire and this one certainly has.
Anja Kampe’s rich soprano is focused and young-sounding and yet aptly expands to warm, powerful climaxes when this is required. She achieves a perfect balance between vulnerability and earthiness, what makes her an ideal Sieglinde. Her ecstatic singing of the “redemption through love” was one of the highlights of the evening. Although Ekaterina Gubanova’s Fricka was still more powerful in Milan, her performance this evening had power, class and engagement to spare. Mikhail Petrenko, unfortunately, had his hooty and/or throaty moments as Hunding, but his characteristically Russian bass fits the part. Simon O’Neill (Siegmund) is capable of some impressively loud notes, but the voice is distressingly nasal and his attempts at animation often sounded Mime-esque. He did sang solidly, but in a cast such as this evening’s, he sounded basically uninteresting.
This is my first experience with Irene Théorin’s Brünnhilde. Hers is not a phonogenic voice: it is very metallic, a little bit tremulous in the middle and a bit short in the bottom. But if there is one high dramatic soprano in activity these days, she is it. Her endless supply of effortless blasting acuti is something to marvel. For a change, a singer who tosses her ho-jo-to-ho’s as if she were having fun with it. And at the same time Théorin finds no problem in scaling down to mezza voce, even in some very tricky passages. Her Todverkündung and act III had many breathtaking moments when she just floated pianissimi in a touchingly intimate manner. But there is more than this in this invaluable Swedish soprano. I couldn’t help noticing how alert an actress she is, responding to events on stage in an immediate and convincing manner – and her facial expression in her long scene with Wotan in act III was exceptionally moving. That scene brought the audience to tears – and the partnership with René Pape’s Wotan has a great share of responsibility.
I know I myself had become skeptical about Pape as Wotan since his Milanese Rheingold, but this evening he made an important stab at it. At this point in his career, nobody doubts his ability to portray nobility and authority. It is an exceptionally rich, warm, dark and beautiful voice – the question being how he would survive the test of singing in the Heldenbariton tessitura. The answer is difficult. When the phrase is congenial, he produces some impressively round and forceful high notes. When it is not, the voice sounds a bit straight and devoid of color, but never ugly, one must say. This is the last show in the run and I cannot say how wisely he dealt with the role before, but today his long act II narrative seemed to tire him. After that, he had to manage his resources to get to the end, which he did with a little help from Barenboim’s fast tempi in the most testing passages. All that said, he can soften the tone adeptly and takes advantage of that to produce the sort of sensitively varied singing one expects from a Lieder singer. Der Augen leuchtendes Paar, for example, was so touchingly sung that one felt ready to forgive the German bass everything. My 11 or 12 readers (I see that I have a few more these days…) might be asking themselves if Pape is bound to be the great Wotan of his generation. As I was telling a friend at the theatre today, there are two kinds of Wotan: those who fight with low notes and those who fight with high notes (and there used to be James Morris…). Not long ago, John Tomlinson too had to find a way through the high-lying passages in the role, as many others before him. Pape has the advantage of an excellent technique that allows him to scale down instead of up when he needs some variety and the voice is naturally big, what exonerates him from forcing. Judging from this evening’s really moving performance, I would say that it is definitely worth the effort!