I once had a teacher who would invariably give me the same piece of advice whenever I looked frustrated for not being able to achieve something: if you want the result, concentrate on the process. Although Herbert von Karajan is usually remembered for his megalomania, he was an artist of unsual perseverance, fastidiousness and discipline. Although he would hardly admit it, he was always looking for the best and, therefore, always open to development. For instance, his ambition of conducting Italian opera led him to Milan where he could learn from working with the likes of Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi. Or he would mention in an interview how much he admired a particularly passage of Tosca as conducted by Victor de Sabata. His Wagnerian projects were even higher in purpose. Name an important artist related to the master of Bayreuth – and you will see that somehow somewhere Karajan had worked with him or her at some point. In other words, before he finally launched his greatest project – the Ring conducted and directed by himself in a festival created also by him – he had researched every kind of approach and gathered all kind of experiences in order to have a very clear idea of what he wanted to do.
But that is not the most important part. The real formula to success there was the fact that he truly concentrated on the process. As the Easter Festival has shown in two documentaries screened in an exhibition in the Salzburg Museum, Karajan took the pains of coaching his cast in painstaking detail, rehearsing his orchestra obsessively, recording everything before stage rehearsals began and minutely blocking the gesture of every Valkyrie on stage. As the narrator of one of these videos explained, “he left nothing to chance”. That was the spirit of the Easter Festival – knowing that the audience was being served the absolute best because there was a mastermind there making sure that the best was being served.
When I read that the Easter Festival was celebrating its jubilee by paying a tribute to Karajan’s inaugural 1967 production of Wagner’s Die Walküre and reviving Günther Schneider-Siemssen’s sets in a new production directed by Vera Nemirova and conducted by Christian Thielemann, I decided that I had to see this. I have been introduced to Wagner’s music by friends who had regularly seen Karajan in Salzburg and never ceased to tell me about the paramount standards of these performances (they would also made me frustrated by saying that neither CDs nor DVDs could give an idea of how splendid everything was). As expectations can play tricks on one’s perceptions, I have decided to keep them low – but this evening’s performance has surprised me in how wrongly things can go with a big budget and prestigious forces.
If I say that the best thing in Vera Nemirova’s production is the scenery designed by Schneider-Siemssen, I am still not even close to explaining how poorly conceived and executed it was. To say the truth, there is not truly a concept there: the audience left the theatre without any new information or extra insight about this story and these characters. However, one could clearly see how amateurishly staged it was. Characters would most often than not do things opposed to what the text requires (for example, they would leave when they were supposed to stay or stay when they were supposed to leave); actors would be placed in a way incoherent to the action (Sieglinde says she is watching the veins in Siegmund’s temples although they are 10 meters apart); or things were just wrong (Wotan doesn’t shatter Siegmund’s sword, the pieces of which would inexplicably later appear in Brünnhilde’s hands). In an interview, Ms. Nemirova says she rejected the original costumes, because they did not make the characters look like real people. I wonder what kind of people she knows, for everything looked terribly unconvincing. At least, the 1967 costumes had some éclat, which is more of what I can say about the ones seen this evening, which look like everyone went for their morning run but Sieglinde, who is dressed as Snow White’s evil stepmother.
In any case, I could have lived with the school-pantomime direction if the musical performance had made it irrelevant. The Staatskapelle Dresden is one of the world’s best orchestras, as one could hear (and marvel at) Myung-Whun Chung’s Fauré/Saint-Saëns concert on Friday and Franz Welser-Möst’s Mahler concert on Saturday. One could also hear that in Christian Thielemann’s own Bruckner concert on Sunday (in spite of problematic French horns). But not today. The extra rich and warm strings were often reduced to inaudbility, the brass section would sound unsubtle and glitch-prone, ensemble was often unclear and disjoint, tempi had inexplicable fluctuation and many a mannered unwritten “dramatic” pause, not to mention the high level of false entries that could suggest the highly improbable hypothesis of insufficient rehearsing. I have already seen Thielemann conduct Die Walküre in Bayreuth: although there could be lack of expression and drama, the orchestral sound was invariably rich and beautiful. On hearing the undernourished and unbalanced orchestra this evening I could only wonder if he wanted to try a Karajan-esque “chamber Ring” approach. If that was indeed the case, that was not a very good idea. Differently from Thielemann, Karajan was able to adapt his orchestral sound into a transparent, light but penetrating sound that would envelope singers’ voices without drowning them.
The main victim of this misconception was act I. After an underpowered and awkward opening, the performance never seemed to settle in its meagerness of sound, surprisingly high level of mistakes and indequate casting. Act II was only marginally better due to the contribution of individual singers, which seemed to inspire the conductor to let himself and the orchestra go a little bit more. Predictably, Wotan’s long monologue set a new lowest level of uneventfulness the purpose of which seemed to be offsetting a staid closing scene. As in Bayreuth, act III would show a palpable improvement, but only after a band-like and vulgar Walkürenritt. Maybe the sound of ten singers on stage had the power of finally eliciting an orchestral sound of Wagnerian proportions. Brünnhilde and Wotan fortunately could benefit from the transformation and offer the first truly moving moment in this performance. That would not last to the magic fire music, when the proceedings returned to their heavy, unstuble and unclear standards.
On paper, Anja Harteros is an interesting idea for the role of Sieglinde. Hers is a sizeable soprano with enough warmth in its low reaches to deal with Italian roles such as the Leonora in La Forza del Destino. The actual performance, however, had very different results. The part seats on the least congenial area of her voice, which often sounded smoky and astrigent. The advantage of a lyric soprano in the role is the dynamic variety and sense of legato, as one can hear in Gundula Janowitz’s performance for Karajan. Not this evening, though: Ms. Harteros’s singing had very little variety and affection. Also her attempt of an interpretation seemed mannered, as much as her stage attitude had more than a splash of the grande dame, an odd choice for an orphaned girl forced into an abusive marriage against her will. Her twin brother took the improbable shape of Peter Seiffert, who looked old, tired and bored as Siegmund. Although it is still a beautiful voice that projects well in the auditorium, the low notes are left to imagination and the high ones are open in tone and unstable in quality, some of them sung in indeterminate pitch. Although both of them were quite hearable, the conductor seemed keen on keeping the orchestra very low whenever they were on stage. Georg Zeppenfeld’s noble and round-toned Hunding did not help to create much sense of drama.
Act II had compensation in terms of singing. Although Christa Mayer’s mezzo could do with a little bit more color, her Fricka was forcefully and intensely sung. Her theatrical engagement seem to inspire the musicians in the pit into offering a little bit more in terms of commitment. Even if Vitalij Kowaljow’s bass does not sound as voluminous in the Großes Festspielhaus as it had at La Scala, it remains a voice of admirable firmness and beauty of tone throughout the complete range. If he has clear diction and sense of line, act II still lacks spontaneity and expression, but he lived up to the challenge of the closing scene, when he showed control of mezza voce and musicianship. The shining feature of this performance, however, is Anja Kampe’s sensitive, touching Brünnhilde, sung in the ideal blend of velvet and steel. The sincerity of her interpretation and her naturalness and emotional generosity made it a beautiful tribute to the singer who took this role here 50 years before, Régine Crespin, whose Brünnhilde was also exemplary in its wide expressive range.