Posts Tagged ‘Wagner’s Das Rheingold’

This concert performance in the Hong Kong Kong Cultural Centre marks the beginning of an ambitious project: the first official international recording of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen made in Asia*. The first concert two days before was actually the Hong Kong première of Rheingold. Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden, the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s musical director, is confident that this is going to establish the HK Philh’s reputation as a world-class orchestra. The audience, at least, proved to be truly international (and the level of concentration and silence in the hall is certainly exemplary).

In a hall of modest size, Maestro van Zweden decided to out-Karajan Karajan in the chamber-like orchestral sound, emphasis rather in dynamic and colouring rather than articulation and clarity and the choice of some light-toned voiced in key roles. Although the Hong Kong Philharmonic cannot compete with the Berlin Philharmonic in exuberance or richness of sound, it faithfully followed the conductor’s intent of producing different colors to establish an aural “setting” for each scene. The performance lacked the sense of building tension (it worked rather on “terraced” levels of loudness – purely orchestral passages ON in loudness and OFF when the singers were there), but the sense of theatre was furthermore guaranteed by the prominence given to vocal soloists, who felt comfortable to scale down to conversational volume whenever they deemed appropriate. Something van Zweden has not in common with Karajan is his keenness on having woodwind upfront in almost Mozartian interplay with singers. This all could have meant that the performance was particularly exciting, which unfortunately is not the case: most key moments lacked any sense of climax, especially Alberich’s curse, where the conductor proved rather reticent than propelling, or in Donner’s Heda-hedo, which turned out quite polite. Most surprisingly, the six harps on stage sounded a bit off focus in the context of the aural picture and failed to produce the crystalline effect of the rainbow bridge. However, I do not want to sound blasé: this evening was certainly fun, and the contrasted and characterful cast has a big share of responsibility in that.

I have to confess that I was not entirely idea convinced by the idea that Matthias Goerne could do justice to the role of Wotan, even in Das Rheingold. I had seen him only once in a Wagner opera, as Wolfram, and found him lacking volume and projection. In this evening’s ideal circumstances, that was definitely not the case. Although his voice often has a muffled sound in his middle register (which translates as “velvety” in a Hermann Prey-ish way when the repertoire is either Bach or Schubert), he has healthy low notes and could gather his energy to deal with heroic high notes reliably if not truly freely: pressed by the needs of piercing a loud orchestra, his high register lacks roundness and color and often sounds tenor-ish in sound. His interpretation is that of a Lieder singer, working on details rather than on the big-picture. While this could make him sink in the background when dealing with his colleagues’ more flamboyant personalities, it has also given his Wotan a very particular atmosphere, as if he ran on a different rpm than all other characters. That distance was in itself an interesting “theatrical” effect, one that made Wotan some sort of outsider in his own game. In any case, I would be surprised if he accepted to go further in Die Walküre.

The very international cast meant that the accent in some singers were a bit more evident than in others. In any case, with one exception, every member of the cast seemed to be completely in control and able to use the text with craftsmanship. For instance, Egyptian-born baritone Peter Sidhom has exemplary diction and truly crispy enunciation of Wagner’s libretto. He also seemed to be having the time of his life playing a 100% bad-guy Alberich. His voice is a bit soft-centered in its middle register, but he relies on a very bright and forceful edge to produce the necessary ping in this part’s difficult full-intensity, angular phrasing. His sharp sense of humor was a welcome tool to add dimension to a role often made too uncongenial. In that sense, his interaction with Kim Begley’s Loge was in the core of this performance. The English tenor is a veteran only in age: his voice – a Charaktertenor with a nasal sound à la Robert Tear albeit with Spitzentöne to make some Heldentenors envious – proved to be in excellent shape once it warmed after a fluttery start. There is indeed a splash of Gilbert and Sullivan in his Loge, but very aptly so. The two other tenors in the cast proved to be very well cast: Charles Reid (Froh) has a beautiful voice with spontaneous and firm high notes and David Cangelosi is simply the best Rheingold Mime I have ever seen or heard, his approach refreshingly three-dimensional and varied. As always, Kwangchul Youn steals the show as Fasolt, here ideally partnered by Stephen Milling’s dark-toned, perfectly-focused Fafner.

The ladies were also uniformly excellent. Michelle DeYoung is a rich-voiced Fricka who uses her registers provocatively. At some point, she lost a bit concentration, and this is a role that needs constant engagement. In any case, it is always a pleasure to hear a singer with riches of voice and personality in a role often cast “from the ensemble”. Deborah Humble’s Erda is very classy throughout the whole range, and Eri Nakamura, Aurhelia Varak and Hermine Haselböck were perfectly cast as the Rheintöchter.

* I use the word “international”, because  Takashi Asahina’s recorded a complete Ring for Fontec with the New Japan Philharmonic and an all Japanese cast in the 1980’s.

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Maybe inspiration did not last long, but Rheingold is by far Robert Lepage’s best effort in his staging of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen. Here we find the best use of the “machine” and, maybe because there is so much going in the plot, singers have more to do and look less left alone (as in the remaining installments). Seen live, the effects are even more impressive than in the movie theatre.

The fact that Rheingold’s music is very “busy” may explain why Fabio Luisi is more comfortable here than elsewhere. There are lots of “micro goals” for him to concentrate on while most scenes have a clear rhythmic lead to follow. The orchestra was in very good shape and, except for the fact that some scenes lost steam and energy has to be built from scratch. Erda scene, for instance, was low valley to build up from and the closing scene resulted less climactic than it should. All in all, a good performance, strongly cast.

Replacing an indisposed Stephanie Blythe after having appeared as Mère Marie in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites, Elizabeth Bishop proved to be a first-rate Fricka, actually more varied, especially in what regards acting, than Blythe herself.  Wendy Bryn Harmer is a full-toned Freia and Meredith Arwady is a forceful but not fully idiomatic Erda. As he did in Munich, Stefan Margita was clearly the audience’s favorite as Loge. He actually was in better voice here than at the Bavarian State Opera, his singing smoother and even more fluent. He also made far more of the staging than Richard Croft on the telecast. Robert Brubaker was probably the loudest Rheingold Mime I have ever heard. Considering that he has sung the Emperor in Frau ohn Schatten (in the Deutsche Oper Berlin, for instance), this is a curious piece of casting. Richard Paul Fink’s Alberich finds the role of Alberich a bit low and heavy for his voice, but he is a good actor and has good diction. Greer Grimsley has never been a noble-toned Wotan, but a very powerful one with exciting high notes. Although Franz-Josef Selig is still a commendable Fasolt, it is sad to see how his beautiful voice has been deteriorating. In his brief contributions, Hans-Peter König (Fasolt) proves to be again a great asset in the Met’s Ring. One cannot forget Dwayne Croft’s firm-toned Donner.

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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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Here we go again with Götz Friedrich’s old, old, old production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold. I understand that producing a new Ring could be too expensive for the Deutsche Oper Berlin and it’s sure better to have an old Ring than none, but I don’t believe that these reprises are doing justice to Götz Friedrich: this Ring looks its age and those who are sampling it for the first time in the XXIst century won’t leave the theatre understanding why Friedrich was such an important director. Paraphrasing Christa Ludwig’s famous quote about time to retiring, it is always better to say “pity it’s no longer there” than “pity it still still there”. The good news is that Jasmin Solfaghari’s Spielleitung looks more like “stage direction” than Søren Schumacher’s last year. This doesn’t mean that it looks effective – it does not – but again, it is better some than none. There is now an attempt of making comedy that I find quite distracting and blocking is still awkward, especially when singers have close interaction.

As for the musical aspects of this evening’s performance, I have to confess that last year’s was so disappointing that it was not really a great challenge to offer something better this evening. First of all, the orchestra was in far better shape tonight. One could feel that conductor Donald Runnicles had to scale down for his mostly light-voiced cast, but at least the orchestra had some sound even in those moments. That said, I still find it unconvincing – if the conductor is not going to offer hallmark lush Wagnerian sound, why not opting for clean accents, forward movement, clarity and excitement? As it was, many moments sounded dull and one could often feel time pass. Last year, the Deutsche Oper had a trump card that made the evening memorable, Tomasz Konieczny’s Alberich for the ages. Having to live up to this standard is an unfair demand on Gordon Hawkins, whose weighty, dark and grainy bass-baritone cannot produce the same kind of impact. He does not seem to have the proper personality to the role – and sometimes his more self-contained attitude and rich tonal quality made me think that Wotan could have been his role if he had clearer consonants and more variety as a whole. As it was, his Alberich was rather well-behaved than gripping. Although Mark Delavan’s voice was a tiny little bit opaque in its higher reaches this evening, his Wotan has clearly developed since last year. He is more comfortable on stage, his text is somewhat crispier and his heroic top notes more integrated. But there is still a lot of road before him until he achieves true musical and dramatic impact. Daniela Sindram’s light but well-focused Fricka was sensitively sung and she has enough presence to bring her role off the background. Let’s see what she is going to do tomorrow. Burkhard Ulrich’s vivacious Loge is consistent with last year’s performance, but it is Ewa Wolak’s excellent Erda who deserves the “special mention” in this cast, an exemplary performance.

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As the optimistic person that I am, I have decided to give the Cassiers/Barenboim Rheingold a second chance; maybe last time at La Scala was just a collective bad day and I was curious about the new pieces of casting. In an impossibly positive scenario, Cassiers could have rethought his concept after the unanimous dislike he met with. But no – he is a man of conviction. I should admire that – if I had been given a free ticket maybe…

To make things worse, this time I could read dramaturg Michael Steinberg’s explanatory text about the production*. In it, he says that he and this production’s creative team are opening a new era in the staging of Wagner’s Ring: all stagings since the 1980’s represent a throwback from Chéreau’s revolutionary historical concept, while Cassiers would be basically “in the same line” as the French director. But, nota bene, Cassiers is  supposed to be a development from that concept: his Ring “will show how the globalized world of 2010 is still based on the Wagnerian vocabulary of 1870”. More than that, it “won’t begin in 1870 and move towards 1945, but rather develop from our days – it will take place in the ‘now'”. I know, I too was curious to see how they intended to do this: “these aesthetics work with the double meaning of  ‘projection’, as understood by Freud and others. On one hand, projection is the photographic and cinematographic technology – an image is projected from one source onto a surface. On the other hand, a projection has also psychic dynamic that comprehends the externalization of internal experience and (in symbolical sense) the ascription of emotional causes and attributes to a secondary, external source”. OK, now I got the cameras under the waters of the Rhine, but I guess Mr. Cassiers and his team should have rather learned with Chéreau the craft of true stage direction. I’ll make it easy for them: the art of knowing how to place actors on stage and give them meaningful attitudes, instead of having Friedrichstadt-Palast-like choreographies to portray that.

If I have to compare this evening with that in La Scala, the performance tonight seemed more technically finished (especially lighting), but the cast seemed less animated (particularly Stephan Rügamer). I cannot say if it is my imagination, but some scenes seemed cleaner, the Rhinemaidens less messy, Fasolt and Froh less lost in the context and, maybe it is because Berlin saw the thinner Wotan in the history of opera, his suit looked far less salvation-army-style than the one given to René Pape in Milan. On the other hand, Fricka has a kitschier gown to deal with.

Musically speaking, the dyspeptic approach to the score in Milan was unfortunately not accidental. Although the orchestra seemed more recessed here in Berlin (I don’t think that the mini Bayreuth-hood on the pit has any acoustic consequence), with a clear advantage for the singers, the extra sonic beauty of the Staatskapelle Berlin involve some exquisite orchestral effects, particularly in the rainbow bridge episode, what is always helpful in the context of slow tempi. In any case, the absence of rich orchestral sound will be for many Wagnerians (me included) a coup de grâce in Barenboim’s chamber-like (?) new approach.

Ekaterina Gubanova’s sensuous-toned if not completely incisive Fricka is an improvement from Milan. The other newcomer deserves more explanation: I don’t believe that Hanno Müller-Brachmann is going to add the role of Wotan to his repertoire, but is rather covering for René Pape, who has to sing Boris Godunov at the Met. His bass-baritone is impressively well-focused in the whole range; his technical security is such that he finds no problem in producing dark bottom notes and heroic top notes. The sound is, however, a bit slim and lacking weight, not to mention that the upper end of the tessitura may sound a bit clear. However, his main advantage over René Pape is his verbal specificity. Instead of painting with broad atmospheric paintbrushes, Brachmann delivers the text with crystal-clear diction and admirably precise declamatory abilities. The overall effect might not be the most grandiose around, but he does keep you interested in the proceedings. In any case, in a large hall with a powerful orchestra, I have the impression that Wolfram or maybe Beckmesser would be more appropriate for his voice.

Johannes Martin Kränzle was in far healthier voice here than in Milan. He is a vivid actor with a forceful voice, but his open-toned approach to top notes is a no-go for the more dramatic scenes. Stephan Rügamer was a bit less exuberant – also in the acting department – this evening. In any case, his Mozartian Loge is always interesting. It is a pity that he cannot do without the nasality that distorts his vowels. Again, Kwangchul Youn offered the most solid Wagnerian performance of the evening, but Anna Larsson proved to be here more convincing than in Italy. Maybe Ewa Wolak (at the Deutsche Oper) has spoilt the role for me, but the Swedish contralto still sounds too soft-grained for this role to my taste.

* It had been published at La Scala too, but I could not find it among thousands of pages of advertisement.

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I have nothing new to add to the discussion about the Met’s new Ring, but in any case I would like to join the general opinion about it, based on what I could see on the movie theatre. Has the Met spent its millions wisely? I would say no – Robert Lepage’s machine cannot help being interesting, but it’s hardly a deus ex machina in a production that has nothing to say and no stage direction other than rescuing singers from being smashed by the revolving structure. And there are the costumes – if a breastplate is everything Lepage and his creative team had to say, the Met should have spared the money and kept Otto Schenck’s old production. If I am allowed a question – I would be curious to hear why, amidst all those technological niceties, a decent transformation scene for Alberich and an impressive entrance for Erda could not be provided. Tell me about anti-climatic. I know: the Rhinemaidens scene is indeed visually striking and the God’s entrance in Walhalla is clever, but I certainly don’t understand why suspending singers from wires was thought to be a good replacement for true theatrical direction:  the puppeteered Loge making his cautious steps upwards on the ramp looked particularly uninspiring.

What is beyond doubt are James Levine’s Wagnerian credentials – I dare to say that his bold, clear, forward-moving and dramatic account of the score is more exciting than the one available on DVD from a couple of decades ago. The house orchestra also seemed to be in great shape. When it comes to singers, it is difficult to say the last word judging from the broadcast, for the Met’s mikes can make a Natalie Dessay sound like a Birgit Nilsson, but judging from my experience with those singers live in that venue, I guess I can have an idea. The female side of the cast was indeed uniformly strong: Stephanie Blythe’s grandly powerful Fricka is a Wagnerian classic of our days, Wendy Bryn Harmer’s golden-toned Freia was extremely satisfying (also in the acting department) and the three Rheinmaidens (especially Lisette Oropesa) were all spirited and pleasant on the ear. If Patricia Bardon was a bit small-scaled as Erda, her voice is still aptly dark and she is always a classy singer. Among the men, the evening’s Alberich deserves special mention. The reason why the whole episode involving Wotan, Alberich and Loge in Scene 4 was not a complete fiasco in terms of theatrical action was Eric Owens’s ample, dark-toned bass-baritone, intense delivery of the text and forceful stage presence. And I saw this as someone who had close-ups on the screen. I can only guess that someone in Family Circle was asking him or herself why nothing was happening on stage at that point. Both giants have been cast from strength with Hans-Peter König and Franz-Josef Selig, who relished the competition, offering both vehement, passionate performances. Gerhard Siegel’s powerful and characterful Mime is also worthy of mention. Musicianly and elegant as Richard Croft’s Loge was, he does sound out of his element here. He delivers his lines somewhat cautiously, is often underpowered by the orchestra and has too noble a voice for the role, not to mention that he lacks the necessary ebullience. As for Bryn Terfel’s Wotan, I must confess I have found him far more comfortable than I expected. My experience with the Welsh bass-baritone live has invariably shown him grey-toned, fatigued and lacking volume, but I must have had bad luck. In any case, here I have to mistrust the microphones, i.e. I wonder how voluminous he really sounded live. As heard here, although the voice is not rich nor particularly noble, it seemed quite vivid in the whole range. His acting was quite inexpressive, but he found space to color his text quite successfully. Let us see how he is going to deal with the far more testing part in Die Walküre.

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Tankred Dorst’s 2006 production of the Ring des Nibelungen for the Bayreuther Festspiele, due to be released on DVD in the end of the year, seems to turn around the concept that myths do not belong in the past, but still linger in the darker corners of our daily lives. Although the Rhinemaidens and Alberich are shown in a stylized Rhine, Wotan and the other gods dwell on the top of a decayed building that could perfectly be on Leipziger Straße in Berlin. While Freia’s fate is being decided, a couple of tourists appear and takes a picture – in case someone had not noticed by then that the setting is contemporary. Nibelheim is an industrial plant (yes, nothing new about that) where an engineer passes by Wotan and Loge, who are invisible to his eyes, to check the pressure on a couple of pipes. During the opera’s last bars, a kid from our days finds a remain of Fafner’s treasure, but the curse seems to keep its effect. He soon gets a beating from his friends, who steal it from him. Considering the premise’s absence of originality, the scene who curiously seem to work is the first one, the only not to fit the concept. The stage direction has nothing new about it – some key scenes, such as Alberich’s curse, hang fire – the sets were uninspiring and the costumes are not only extremely ugly, but sometimes also impaired actors’ movements.

All that said, the production is nothing but a footnote in a Wagner performance in which Christian Thielemann is the conductor. Although his tempi were quite deliberate, the richness and clarity of orchestral sound and the purposefulness in phrasing filled these tempi in a way that simply sounded right. The Festival orchestra played with tremendous gusto, strings were full-toned yet extremely flexible, the texture was dense yet transparent, the various sections blended perfectly, brass instruments offered flawless playing. In spite of the venue’s famously difficult acoustics, one did not feel that the orchestral sound was recessed (the covered pit did make the sound less bright, but never small-scaled) and the conductor was very sensitive but also very sensible in deciding when it was possible to curb his formidable forces to help out singers.

Albert Dohmen, for example, did not seem to be in very good voice – on its higher reaches, his bass-baritone sounded bottled up and limited in volume. Truth be said, he was often covered by the orchestra and detached in the interpretation department. Back in 2004, I had the opportunity to see him as Amfortas in Munich and clearly remember a very large and powerful voice, but recently it seems to have shrunk in size. Let us hope that tomorrow will find him in better shape. Andrew Shore is a good actor and his voice has the right sound for Alberich, but his high notes were unfocused and often rough. After one has seen Tomasz Koniecny in this role, one tends to find fault in everyone else these days, but it seems that the British baritone was experimenting some sort of fatigue this evening. It has become customary for Kwangchul Youn to steal the show when he sings Fasolt in The Rhinegold – the Korean bass’s dark, incisive voice is taylor-made for Wagner. Brazilian bass Diógenes Randes’s is velvetier in sound, but his Fafner did not lack menace. Wolfgang Schmidt, whom I saw back in 1997 as an ill-at-ease Siegfried at the Metropolitan Opera House, is now a powerful Mime who sometimes indulge in some Spieltenor mannerisms that do not really go with his basic tonal quality. Let us wait for Siegfried to say more about him. Clemends Bieber was a pleasant-toned Froh, but Ralk Lukas lacked slancio for his final and important contribution. Mihoko Fujimura is a light, efficient Fricka and Christa Meyer’s mezzo seemed a bit high for the role of Erda, even if she sang it quite commendably. Christiane Kohl, Ulrike Helzel and Simone Schröder were very well cast as the Rhinemaidens.

I will leave the best for last – Arnold Bezuyen’s impressively sung Loge and Edith Haller’s crystalline Freia. The Dutch tenor, in particular, deserves praises for his extremely musical phrasing, his intelligent word-pointing that never stands between him and true cantabile and his finely projected voice.

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