As far as I could understand, the Kanagawa Art Foundation has established a partnership with the Nikikai Opera Company that has resulted co-productions with Biwako Hall (in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture) of operatic performances since 6 years ago. For Richard Wagner’s 200 anniversary a new (at least, this is what I’ve understood) production of Wagner’s Die Walküre with international guest soloists has been featured.
The name of Belgian director Joël Louwers does not ring a bell with me. If I have in mind what I saw today, I would have remembered. Although Tina Turner sings “We don’t need another hero”, Wotan begs to differ by singing “Not tut ein Held…”. Why then the Mad Max aesthetics (in a high school musical production standard) have been chosen? Considering the prevailing cluelessness (there is an interview translated to Japanese in the program that might provide something that should stand in as an explanation, but I am unfortunately unable to read it), I would rather not hear the answer to that question. First, there is some serious misunderstanding going on here. For instance, the Todverkündung scene. Sieglinde is supposed to be asleep then – and this is no small detail. Not only do Siegmund and Brünnhilde mention the fact countless times, but also – if she is awake (as this evening) – there should be no surprise in act III on hearing the news that she is pregnant. On discovering that she is going to be a mother, she decides to go on living. So, if she had known it in act II, her whole attitude in act III would seem pointless. This is no isolated example of poor decision. For instance, the magic fire music is here background to Siegmund crashing a family dinner party (Wotan, Fricka and the valkyries…) in the Walhalla. Also, the staging itself is exotically conceived – in less than 5 minutes, curtains go up and down many times to show some tautological flashbacks (Wotan by the ash tree, the young Sieglinde surrounded by Hunding and his gang…) or some truly “illuminating” titles (“The Punishment”, “The Flight” etc). The director seems to hate the possibility of having characters on stage when not singing; as a result, whenever Wagner has an orchestral passage, short as it may be, there would come the curtains and flashbacks and/or titles. And Fricka – in this staging, we get to see Fricka all the time. She is so ubiquitous here that she has to be ironic when she says “Wo in den Bergen du dich birgst, der Gattin Blick zu entgehn”. Although there is some (misguided) insight here, the fact is that the Personenregie is also very superficial – everybody weeps when they are sad (Wotan included), Siegmund behaves as if he had some mental disorder, whirling Sieglinde ballroom-dance-style in every possible occasion. All that involved complex set changes – and this operation must be expensive. It is sad to see so much money spent that way, when something simpler, truer and deeper could have been achieved with lower costs (and more expertise).
Conductor Ryusuke Numajiri has built his career in his native Japan and in Germany (it seems he conducted Don Giovanni at the Komische Oper in Berlin, but I have missed that). For this performance, he had the joint efforts of the Kanagawa Philharmonic Orchestra and the Japan Century Symphony Orchestra in the pit. The prospects had not seemed encouraging, but Numajiri proved to be the right man for the task. The word “kapellmeisterlich” comes to my mind in the positive sense of someone who has built an orchestral sound (rather than profiting from an orchestral culture of a world-class team) within the limits and possibilities of his musicians. Also his approach to this music does not seem to stem from any established tradition, but rather from studying the score in its face value. The results were fortunately quite refreshing, if not thrilling, overwhelming or truly moving. First, the conductor made a virtue of his orchestra’s bright but recessed sound, achieving a comfortable balance for his singers in the context of an orchestral sound that was not truly substantial or full but that retained enough timbre nonetheless. Second, he gave his musicians time to produce the necessary effects within the minimal levels of quality. In other words, tempi were unrushed but not ponderous, phrasing was comfortable, musically clear even if not terribly expressive. Third, he let the music speak for itself and you might be surprised of how eloquent it can be – even with less than optimal forces – when there is not a conductor trying to force his personality into it. Of course, when a conductor has a striking personality and great talent, it can be even more eloquent. But how often does that really happens?!
Since I saw Yuka Hashizume’s Kundry last year, I’ve been eager to see her again – especially in Wagner. She is an extremely talented singer who deserved an international career. If her Sieglinde was not striking as I had imagined, it was still far superior to many singers I’ve seen in this role. Her fruity soprano has a unique blend of warmth and cutting edge, her lower register not only is extremely comfortable but also seamlessly connected into her perfectly homogeneous soprano. She is never less than stylish and utterly musicianly, scales down to beautiful mezza voce whenever this is necessary and has reserves of power for the key dramatic moments. This evening her interpretation was rather generalized and she missed the tingling effect in act III – but I would rather blame the circumstances. I was not truly excited about the opportunity of hearing Eva Johansson as Brünnhilde at this stage of her career, but I have to say that she was in exceptionally good voice this afternoon. She still has her sharp/emphatic/fluttery moments, but she proved to be far more disciplined that I could have imagined and sang with the kind of firmness and fullness I thought she had left behind long ago. There was little finesse and variety in her singing, and yet she could find a softer quality for her long scene with Wotan in act III. In comparison, Etsuko Kanoh’s Fricka was far more interesting in her subtle but sure word pointing and dramatic instincts, even if the role is heavy for her voice and her low register now lacks space and color.
This evening’s Siegmund was Tetsuya Mochizuki, a singer I have previously heard as Tamino (a performance that left me no good memories) in the New National Theatre. He is far more comfortable in Wagner – he knows the style, the Italianate touch is not unwelcome, the voice has an appealing old-style fast-vibratoish quality when not tested in dramatic passages (when it acquires a Spiteltenorisch edge) and he can phrase with elegance when he finds it necessary. Yet he is overardorous and hams as his life depended on it. He lost some steam in act II too. I’ve seen Greer Grimsley sing Wotan both in Berlin and in New York. In a good day, he can be a very powerful Wotan. And today was one of these days – he was the aural image of vocal health, singing with unfailingly firm and dark tone throughout. In the closing scene, I remember more subtlety and shading in Berlin, but I guess he just couldn’t resist to pour voluminous and rich sounds in the hall as he could do today. Last but not least, Koji Yamashita was very well cast as Hunding. The team of valkyries too deserve praises – especially the fearless Miyuki Hibino as Helmwige.