Archive for July, 2012

In order to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the normalization of relations between Japan and China, Tokyo’s New National Theatre and Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts have decided to expand their already existing technical cooperation to the co-production of a concert version of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida (albeit rather cut, more like what the Germans call “grosse Querschnitt”) for performances both here and in Beijing.

Is Aida a role for a dramatic soprano? This is an interesting question – the range, the length, the need to project above large ensembles suggest something like that, but there is an increasing demand of soft singing and lyric quality as the opera evolves to its end. If one checks the discography and schedules of opera houses, one soon realizes that there are few real dramatic sopranos tackling the role (Birgit Nilsson was probably the most assiduous exponent in this Fach in the last 60 years), but rather what one calls lirico spinto sopranos. Hui He would rather fit into this category – she has sung a great deal of Puccini and heavier Verdi roles in the leading theaters in the world, but Aida is probably her most dramatic venture so far (it seems she is planning to sing Gioconda and Senta). Some have dismissed her Ethiopian princess as lacking power around the passaggio – but I would say that some very famous Aidas have showed the same problem (Leontyne Price, for example). Today she actually sang beautifully – her round, creamy voice projected effortlessly, her high mezza voce is exquisite, she never sang bureaucratically, but rather invested every phrase with imagination and emotion, while avoid coming across too strongly. Her Italian is greatly improved since I last saw her, and she even sounds quite “Italianate” if one has in mind the way Italians used to sing in the 1950′s. She got away with pianissimo in some very tricky passages à la Caballé – and did it with good taste and sensitivity. Given her competition, I would say she is probably the most technically assured and varied Aida in the market these days, the vulnerability playing an important part in it.

Without the Judgment Scene (Radames went this evening straight from Già i sacerdoti adunansi to La fatal pietra), it is difficult to say something definitive about the mezzo soprano. Since Kasumi Shimizu had problems to pierce through in her middle register, I would say that Amneris is a bit on her limits, but she handle her limits very expertly, especially in what regards producing big, powerful high notes. Moreover, she has a very appealing tonal quality, with a touch of Grace Bumbry in it. A very interesting voice – I wonder what she could in German repertoire. Tenor Satoshi Mizuguchi too has a pleasant voice – warm yet bright, but his high register is tight and unflowing. He got tired during the evening and, if his acuti were still very firm, sustaining them cost him a visible effort. Baritone Chenye Yuan has a tiny bit of Piero Cappuccilli in his grainy, dark baritone, but his was a tad short in volume and had his fluttery moments. This is the second time I hear bass Hidekazu Tsumaya (Ramfis) and I am again impressed with the focus and the noble tonal quality.

Although the singing was often exciting, Junichi Hirokami’s kappelmeisterlich conducting often robbed the performance of its excitement. The Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra’s strings could have a richer sound, and this was particularly felt when brass instruments saturated the sound picture in an almost band-like manner. The conductor did display a welcome sense of organization and cleanliness, but that was much it. One rarely felt the necessary sense of climax building (number one requirement in Verdi) and his a tempo approach often meant that soloists attempts in rubato seemed nothing but lack of synchronicity. Finally, the collaboration of both theaters’ choruses was truly praiseworthy in its warmth and homogeneity.

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I have seen links to this blog under the explanation “reviews from Berlin”. Well, that is not exactly true. Like Kundry, this blog could say Fern, fern ist meine Heimat, but I guess that it would rather say, like Azucena, Ed è suo tetto il ciel, Sua patria il mondo. As much as intend not to cut the bonds with Berlin (really: if I am not here in March, this means that I am dead), alles was ist, endet: the Munich Ring was my farewell to Germany. Next month this blog will have a new home: a place where, thank God, classical music is really really appreciated, where people are really well informed about it, where excellent musicians are trained and work and where an established name is not easily discarded for the next novelty. If the musical scene there is not truly well known outside the country, this is probably have to do with an important language barrier. If my budget allows me, I intend to make it less mysterious for those outside it. So: ではまたすぐにね!

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Staging a Ring cycle is probably a director’s most challenging enterprise: the plot is contrived; there obviously is a “message” to deliver, a message not restricted to a specific moment in time, but originally intended to a specific audience (i.e., the Germans); and an added insight, an opinion, a point-of-view is expected. But the philosophic side does not replace the scenic side of the task: you may read all the books or – easier – surround yourself with those very clever people who write the cryptic texts in the program, but if these ideas don’t make into the stage action – and they rarely do, for stage gestures have to be immediate to be effective* – then all that has been in vain.

I am sure that Andreas Kriegenburg has a plethora of ideas about the Ring – and he definitely has lots of ideas (and experience) about theatre in general, but I have the impression that “in general” is the keyword here. For instance, this is a production centered on people: the stagehands are visible, the stage effects consist of choreographies, in the end (I mean in the Götterdämmerung) the world as we know ends because it is not anymore about people and the “redemption through love” music is represented by the seid-umschlungen-Millionen white-clad group from the Rheingold in a collective hug on poor Gutrune. But the problem is that all this seems to follow its own plot while the singers playing Wotan, Siegfried, Alberich et al seem to be a burden the director had to bear in order to tell his story rather then being the story.

This has been more evident in Götterdämmerung than in the other operas: here the action seems to be set in Frankfurt – after all, the Rhine is nearby and the big euro-symbols (very much in evidence – Gutrune is usually seen riding one) in  a bank headquarters’ lobby (the Gibichungenhall) seem to corroborate the hypothesis – not very far-fetched if you bear in mind that the Bundeskanzlerin couldn’t find time to go to the UN environment conference in Rio because the Euro was considered a priority over mother nature. Back to Wagner: as usual, the Gibichungen are shown as new money with ostentatious habits. Their corporative lobby is made of steel and glass, nature is reduced to a Damien-Hirst-style horse sculpture and a Patrick-Blanc-style vertical garden, there are many cleaning ladies in uniform sadistically molested by Gunther (Strauss-Kahn references?), while Gutrune plays the vamp to the executives who respond to Hagen’s calls to arms with mobile phones. However, nobody finds it strange when Hagen has a spear at arm’s length when one is “needed” or when Brünnhilde decides to burn Siegfried’s dead body just outside. What I mean is, the action is updated when the director has an idea about it. When he does not, things are carried out as in the libretto, regardless of how nonsensical it looks on stage.

There are staging problems too. The sets for the bank lobby are too complex to be dismantled and put together; therefore, a structure very similar to a barn was concocted downstage for all the other scenes. Forget about Brünnhilde’s rock – she has to make do with a bench in there. The norns too were transferred to the barn – plus a whole bunch of refugees from Fukushima (these sisters learn their never-ending wisdom from CNN here). The scenes that are too complex for the barn are basically set in the lobby – the Rhinemaidens make a short walk from the Rhine and “swim” on a gigantic Euro symbol.  The end of the world too has not much room to happen: it is shown very far away upstage behind the lobby’s walls in a very believable pyre that does not affect much of the structure however. Hagen basically watches to the whole thing from one corner until he decides, for no specific reason, to shout, “hands off the ring!”, even if the ring had not been there for a while.

In musical terms, the performance is an improvement from the previous installments. First of all, the orchestra had a more immediately Wagnerian sound, in the sense that it was big, rich and very much in the center of events. Second, many of the atmospheric orchestral effects that misfired in the previous evenings here seemed more successfully achieved. Third, the pace tended to be more agile. Actually, when the score has a propulsive rhythmic figure to support it, Kent Nagano would respond to it more or less effectively, but as soon as the structure becomes more fluid, depending on the maestro’s beat to move forward, things tended to sag. But this is a fault one can find in many a conductor who ventures into Wagnerian territory. Although the orchestral sound was usually very beautiful, there were mismatches and the occasional blunder in the brass section too.

When Nina Stemme began to sing, she seemed to be in the Helen Traubel-ian shape she showed in Barenboim’s Valkyrie at La Scala: her middle register was at its most focused and even the low notes were rich and integrated, not to mention that she were handling her lines with almost Straussian fluidity. But – and that was a problem for Traubel too – as soon as things started to get perilously high, this warm-toned Swedish soprano had to push, a bad sign. In her second appearance, she seemed to have recovered and sang with amazing abandon. Act II is a tough piece of singing – and exposed high notes come in plenty. Pushing is something that works once, twice, but not three times in this kind of writing without evident loss of quality. At this point, many low passages were just hinted at, some consonants had been left to imagination, breath pauses started to grow in number and a couple of high notes were shortened. Although she was evidently unhappy about that (she appeared at curtain calls puffing in relief), she was able to keep up with the dramatic demands of the scene. Fortunately, Wagner gives the soprano some time to rest before the Immolation Scene, which she negotiated expertly until things became high and fast again. Then she proved to have nerves of steel and managed out of technique and willpower, for she was reaching the very end of her resources. This is the first time I see her in this opera and don’t know if she was below her usual form – it seemed her voice was dying to sing Sieglinde, so velvety and voluminous were his middle and low registers – but if the role’s high tessitura is usually that demanding for her, I ask myself if it is wise to sacrifice herself in the name of Wagner as she did today. Of course, I have seen sopranos who in their best voice weren’t able to offer something as appealing as Stemme did today, but a hard-day work it was and one could hear that. My respect for her commitment and professionalism – but I wonder if she had found any fun in it.

The role of Siegfried is basically too high for Stephen Gould. This tenor is a shrewd singer with a very solid technique and an untiring voice and thus he sang his part without any serious accidents. This is a basically unsingable role and the fact that a singer has sung it more or less like Wagner wrote it without giving the impression of being about to collapse is already something to be praised, but one who had heard Gould as Siegmund or Tristan wouldn’t recognize in the rather taut vocalism and pinched high notes his customary warm tonal color and poise in strenuous passages. As he was more occupied with getting the job done, his interpretation was restricted this evening mostly to stage action – he has a congenial stage presence and could follow the director’s comedy touches without making them extraneous.

Attila Jun was a very dark-toned Hagen who relished the bad-guy routine with some very earthy singing, but who could be tremulous in some moments. Although Wolfgang Koch could do with less off-pitch effects, his Alberich is sung with such conviction and richness of voice that he can’t help sounding convincing. Iain Paterson was a cleanly sung Gunther – the voice has a restricted tonal palette in this repertoire, but he uses the text expertly and is a very good actor, with a Michael Caine-ian attitude that made the role more interesting than usual. Anna Gabler has developed since I last saw in this role – the voice sounds bigger without any loss of roundness. The direction made the role rather incongruent, but she embraced the directorial choices, relishing the vamp-ish moments. Michaela Schuster was an expressionistic Waltraute, very wide-ranging in interpretation, her mezzo easily projecting in the hall. The Rhinemaidens were exemplarily sung (again Okka von der Damerau is a name to keep in mind), the norns not particularly so (Jamie Barton excepted – a truly beautiful, interesting voice). Since the promising Irmgard Vilsmaier (3rd norn) is being upgraded to the role of Brünnhilde in some quarters and had a bad time with her high notes this evening, I wonder if she shouldn’t make a complete check-up in her technique while it is still time. As Julia Varady once said, a soprano should always sing something like Donna Elvira’s Mi tradì now and then and she’ll see if something is not working properly. Finally, the Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera offered aptly sung with raw energy and commitment.

* I don’t mean that the concept has to be simple – it might be complex as you wish, but what you see on a stage is only what you see on a stage. There are not footnotes on the supertitles.

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I have a friend who says you cannot ruin a performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth – the cast may be awful, the director may be an imbecile, but the Bard’s text will shine through nonetheless. Is it Wagner’s Siegfried something similar? I don’t know, but I have realized that, in many performances of the tetralogy in my recollection, it was Siegfried the most effective in the lot (before my 13 or 14 readers ask me which one tends to be the worse, this is Die Walküre). Is it the propulsive rhythms, the inescapable necessity of crisply declaimed texts teaching where the right tempo is, the vertiginous action? This evening, for example, the energetic nature of the music has certainly led Kent Nagano into the right direction. Of course, the score did not give him the pulse and the precision he ideally should have, but the tension between a score that almost ran ahead by itself and a conductor who wanted to round off its sharp angles brought about the dynamic lacking in the previous evenings. Act I was particularly interesting – its raw energy transformed into “classical” buoyance with an important help of the Bavarian State Orchestra deluxe strings. Act II proved that the physicality of Mime and Siegfried’s interaction was probably the antidote to the other evenings’ flabbiness – once Mime was killed, the rhythmic backbone seemed to disappear and some awkwardness and disjointedness seemed to prevail again. The real clarity that was never really there became more evident. This afflicted act III especially:  the opening scene sounded arthritic and purposeless, the Siegfried/Wanderer passage lacked tension and, when I feared for the worst, Brünnhilde’s awakening reserved the audience some surprises. The lyrical episodes sounded truly lyric, Nagano’s lack of propulsion almost passed for a Furtwänglerian suspension of time (again – exquisite sounds from the orchestra, even if French horns had their bumpy moments), but then Siegfried wanted some action and things turned out rather messy than exciting.

Once one adjusts to Catherine Naglestad’s somewhat shrewish middle register and recessed low notes, there was plenty to delight in her unforced high notes. Her smooth attack, development and finish in exposed acuti were often revelatory, particularly in Ewig war ich, lovingly sung. When things would develop into something more properly heroic, one could see that this is not really her repertoire, but I cherish the way she caressed – as I have almost never heard it – these difficult Wagnerian phrases. Although Jill Grove is a bit on the light side for Erda, it is always a treat to find a true contralto in the role, especially a fruity, firm-toned one. Anna Virovlansky was also an ideal woodbird – her diction clear, the tone fresh and lovely and the high notes rich and easy.

Lance Ryan’s forte has never been legato, tone colouring and the kind of subtlety that lies behind the word “cantabile” –unfailing stamina, clear diction a naturally animated stage attitude are in the core of her performance as Siegfried. One is truly amazed of how in control of his resources he is, particularly in the most demanding passages (the forging song being the showcase of his abilities). Nevertheless, my memory may betray me, but I have the impression he was truer to pitch in Bayreuth two years ago. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s Mime shows no surprises – he builds his performance around the distorting vocal effects character-tenors seem to find inevitable in this role. Wolfgang Koch was in strong voice and offered the most dramatically gripping performance this evening. He is definitely one of the best Alberichs of our days. I have seen Alan Held a couple of times and my first impression this evening was that he has reached the peak of his abilities. His Wanderer fulfilled all the basic vocal requirements of the role – his bass-baritone was firm, rich and homogeneous – and he sang with authority and animation, but he would soon start to tire, his high notes gradually became colorless and by the end he was basically grey-toned. Rafal Siwek was a very dark-toned Fafner.

Andreas Kriegenburg’s production started off full of ideas – this was very much a Siegfried from the point-of-view of a child. Act I sets seemed to have sprung from a schoolchild’s drawing, with the kurogo stagehands (actually, the should be called shirogo, for they were all dressed in white…) carrying cotton clouds on stick, hidden under a green carpet through which their hands carried daisies etc. There were many clever ideas going on – and the 40 extras on stage were a helpful device to operate vertiginously fast set changes, but they were often really distracting with their little slapstick parallel actions, particularly during the forging scene. Act II turned around a striking-looking dragon consisting of the actors under a red lighting plus eyes and fangs. Unfortunately, the device was not truly agile, making for a particularly frustrating scene with Siegfried. The final act seemed to be the victim of short budget – using the extras as sets and props were rarely an illuminating resource (with the possible exception of the Erda/Wanderer scene), but seemed rather a necessity to wave plastic and fabric into “oceans of fire”, both literally and metaphorically (the closing scene, when the comic touches elicited too many laughs while Brünnhilde and Siegfried are sealing the fate of the universe, among other things).

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Although Die Walküre is the most human-scale work in the tetralogy, it is strange how elusive it is to stage directors, who seem to be more comfortable among the gods: how often does one sees how lonely and unhappy Sieglinde is, how vulnerable and desperate (and therefore capable of some very dangerous deeds) Siegmund is, how the fact that they are siblings in a family “hated by everyone” (Hunding’s words) makes them a couple? Certainly not this evening. Andreas Kriegenburg considers that Die Walküre is crossed by two axes – war/love, male/female – the impossibility of love in a world of violence makes it possible for an impossible love to exist. Well, this is a clever thing to say – but Kriegenburg was hired to stage and not to say clever things. In his staging, Sieglinde lives in some sort of female community (plus Hunding) that collects dead men’s bodies to be buried. They don’t have to go very far to find them – most of them are hanging from the ash-tree just above the table where they eat (this does not seem to bother them). There are some girls with lanterns on the palms of their hands who work as some sort of collective searchlight or sometimes as some sort of kurogo “invisible” stage-hands. From the point-of-view of the audience, it basically looks as if Sieglinde had 20 servants that make all the hard work while she makes sad expression for a Siegmund on the other side of the stage. Later their purpose would be something like a human-screen for Sieglinde and Siegmund’s love-making. Apparently, two is company and 22 is voyeurism.

If act II is a bit all over the place, at least it has some interesting ideas. Wotan’s “new position in the world” means that he no longer has time for being a warrior and has to perform executive duties. The set shows an audience hall more or less 1940’s in style with a large Romantic painting showing a forest scene on the rear wall. There is a desk too. Fricka, some sort of Jackie O-like first lady in a party gown, and Wotan do not need armchairs, they have each 10 waiters who double as furniture when they need to sit down. These godly couple likes to break glasses with their own hands during their discussions, but none of the 20 servants care to clean anything. Kriegenburg loves his stage machinery, and walls and ceiling go back and forth, up and down throughout. While Wotan is about to end his scene with Brünnhilde, lots of war survivors appear on stage, but with an impatient sign of his hand, they drop dead. The rest of the act takes place among the dead bodies and extensive usage of stage lift.

I had written that Zenta Haerter’s choreographies were effective in Das Rheingold. Not this evening, I’m afraid. Wagner’s music for act III had to wait for more or less 8 minutes while 14 girls in nightgowns played horsy. Yes, we’d got it on the first 30 seconds “ride of the valkyries – the girls are the horses”, but then the audience lost its patience around the fifth minute and started to boo and shout angrily. Then the act began – the horse girls went somewhere upstage, while the valkyries had long leather reins to play with. After heavy usage of stage lift, Brünnhilde and Wotan are left alone. In the end, she is raised on a round platform while the no-longer-horse girls come with some sort of flammable cable and gather around Brünnhilde. Yes, Siegfried wouldn’t be afraid of that – probably of the girls (as you remember – he had never seen any girl before getting to Brünnhilde’s rock) – so image of fire is projected everywhere to make it more formidable. Final curtain.

Does this sound uneventful? Now think of it with Kent Nagano’s conducting on the background. “On the background” is an apt description of the musical performance. Regardless of tempo, this conductor’s more evident feature is flaccid accent. When the music requires a more considerate tempo, as in the final scene of act I, the warmth of the Bavarian State Orchestra’s strings and the fact that singers could whisper over the recessed orchestral sound made for some sense of Innigkeit. Under the baton of other conductor, one could go for chamber-music like transparency, but although one could always hear woodwind, the articulation was so lazy, the structural coherence left to imagination, that the results couldn’t help being dyspeptic. When energy was required, you got drums and brass louder than the rest of the orchestra but without much consequence. Even then, the impression was of flabbiness – one felt like throwing a box of Viagra in the orchestral pit.

Even if Anja Kampe seemed to be in more flexible voice both times I saw her in Berlin (in a smaller hall, truth be said), she is still a radiant, ideally cast Sieglinde. I felt sorry for her in her farewell to Brünnhilde – she was about to launch the “redemption”-motive and she took three seconds to realize that she was alone there, the orchestra was still playing Debussy. It felt uncomfortable trying to carry all the hope of the world alone. Katarina Dalayman has everything to be an ideal Brünnhilde – the voice is big, warm and full and she phrases with unusual elegance, but the high notes do not come naturally to her. Or rather: she can hit some impressive percutant acuti provided they do not come too close to each other. When they do (as in the ho-jo-to-ho’s), she gets tired dangerously fast. In order to prevent that, she shortens note values without much ado.  It seems that she took the decision of saving steam in act II, but then the tenor and the conductor made the Todverkündung so uninteresting that she suddenly decided to plug in and save not only Siegmund but the whole scene (too late unfortunately). I have the clear impression that Sophie Koch has carefully listened to Christa Ludwig’s recording for Georg Solti – and right she did, for it is with the masters that one is supposed to learn. Her voice, of course, is lighter than the legendary German mezzo soprano’s, but she is a cunning singer and made it work in her voice – actually, Nagano could learn from her how to produce impact in restricted dynamics.

When Sieglinde says that the echo of her own voice sounds similar to Siegmund’s, this generally sounds as something only a Romantic character would say. Well, this evening, it sounded less impossible than usual, for I cannot think of a tenor as light in tone as Klaus Florian Vogt in the part of Siegmund. The low tessitura generally involves a baritonal voice in the role – and hearing a voice far from virile in it was a puzzling experience for me. Although his tenor is definitely not heroic, it is curious how hearable it is. When the tessitura was congenial, such as in Winterstürme, this brought about a fresh lyricism to the role – but the role requires more than that. In exposed heroic moments, such as the Wälse sustained notes, he sounded nasal and strained and you could hear that (his voice is very projecting and there was very little orchestral sound to speak of). The Todverkündung scene simply did not work – he cannot properly support low notes, some of them were barely sung, he often seemed to be speaking and not singing the text and he produced far more breathing pauses than any other  Siegmund I have ever seen. As usual, he was hugely applauded – so I guess that James King must have done everything wrongly in his performances.

When describing a particular singer, a friend of mine said, “her voice was more vertical than horizontal, if you can get my meaning”. These words describe Thomas J. Meyer’s voice very aptly. It is a truly forceful voice, but not really voluminous. When he has to operate on the lower end of his range, the sound is rather juiceless and unflowing. On the other hand, when the phrase is congenial, he can produce some big top notes. In heroic moments, he is often harsh of tone and pushes more often than he should – but he has a big personality and makes it part of a bully-approach to the role. And he pulls it out somehow. It is surprising that he could soften his tone for the closing scene and find a tonal palette that he could not count with in his long act II narration, where he successfully compensated by emphasis and clear declamation. I cannot help thinking that he is doing too much too soon – John Tomlinson made many Handel and Mozart recordings before tackling Wagner. James Morris, for example, had his share of Rossinis and Mozarts too – and, differently from Mayer, sang Banquo and not the title role in Macbeth (if you think that Morris’s Wotan had easier and more spacious high notes than Mayer’s, this seems something to be taken in consideration). Ain Anger was a very good Hunding, dark-toned, comfortable with the low notes and really menacing. Finally, I thought that the Bavarian State Opera could find a more efficient team of valkyries. Something was really wrong this

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As one enters the auditorium of the Bavarian State Opera in order to find his or her seat for Wagner’s Rheingold, some hundred people dressed in white are hanging around on stage.  One can see three women in green among them and you can guess that they are the Rhinemaidens. There is not a set properly speaking – the stage floor, the walls and the ceiling are covered in wood parquet-style. Suddenly, lights dim, the sound of flowing water is heard from the speakers, the extras undress to their underwear, paint their bodies blue and… “oh, no!”, think the traumatized Wagnerian who has seen Rheingold at La Scala, “they are going to dance!!!”. Yes, they are. The dancers are actually the waters of Rhine river. But choreographer Zenta Haerter really does something out of it: the movements of the dancers do form a coherent mass that create the atmosphere rather than divert from it – sensuousness, playfulness, suspense and terror are convincingly portrayed in a way that, truth be said, could not exactly be described as “dance” and, maybe because of that, work far better than the Broadway-like steps devised by Sidi Libi Cherkaoui for Guy Cassiers.

In Andreas Kriegenburg’s Rheingold, the audience is not supposed to be tricked by effects: a guy with a fog machine appears on stage whenever smoke has to be produced; the giants are first seen as regular-size men only later to be made larger by props and (probably the less creative idea in the whole staging) Wotan and Loge’s journey into the Nibelheim is nothing but Wagner’s instructions projected on stage, while the two singers pretend to be walking. Nibelheim itself is very atmospheric – the Bauhaus version of one of those gold mines in an Indiana Jones movie in which slaves are flogged and burned alive when they collapse in exhaustion. The dragon/frog transformations are almost a practical joke on the audience – but, yes, it is a clever idea. As you have probably guessed, I found it far more interesting than what I expected, even if it must be acknowledged that much of what Kriegenburg and his team have devised work far better in the smaller hall of the Deutsches Theater and in the more “realistic” tempo of straight theater. As shown here, some major scenes seemed somehow empty – Alberich’s curse, the gods’ ascent into the Walhalla seriously lacked impact, for instance. In any case, not only was the cast well directed, but even smaller roles had some sort of three-dimensionality – Erda is ambivalent in her reaction to Fasolt’s death, Froh and Donner have a very conflicting relationship with Wotan, who himself is far more vulnerable than usual.

To say the truth, maybe Kriegenburg’s “clean” approach would have worked if the musical performance could offer him something to work with. Although the Bavarian State Opera has a very fine orchestra – a particularly beautiful, smooth string section – musical director Kent Nagano could not let them do what they are able to do (as one can hear in Wolfgang Sawallisch’s Ring, hardly a reference, but a paragon of efficiency in comparison). If I had to make it short, I would call this the most boring piece of Wagnerian conducting I have ever sampled in my life. The performance lacked a backbone in every aspect – it was rhythmically indistinct; tempi were sluggish, the orchestra lacked tone, and when it had to make some sound, it turned out noisy and poorly balanced; one would have to wait in vain for clear, precise, forceful attacks. Basically it could be used as an example of how NOT to conduct Wagner. The Rhinegold was premiered in Munich – and it deserved better in this of all stages.

Sophie Koch was announced indisposed and took a while to warm up, but would develop into a light but warm-toned Fricka. The other female singers proved a bit lackadaisical, but for three interesting Rhinemaidens, particularly Okka von der Damerau, a voice of Wagnerian proportions. Stefan Margita sounds as the Spieltenor-version of Klaus Florian Vogt in the role of Loge. The German audience likes these natural tenor voices and he got the largest share of applause this evening. Indeed, he sang spontaneously without ever forcing and with a very clear line. If Johan Reuter has the nobility of tone and the technical skills for Wotan, it is still a voice two couple of sides too small for the role. And this is the Rhinegold Wotan. Because of the very limited leeway, his singing was not really varied or illuminated by powerful declamation either. At first, Wolfgang Koch sounded like the kind of Alberich who gets away with an important amount of acting with the voice. Eventually I have noticed that, in fact, Koch denied his Alberich nothing: the tonal palette was wide and the physical engagement was intense. He lacked some steam now and then – and maybe a more “Wagnerian” conductor could have put him in difficulty, but he was the singer who – in purely vocal terms – brought the drama that was otherwise so scarce this evening. Finally, both Thorsten Grümbel and Phillip Ens were too soft-grained for the giants.

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