La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Wagner: Das Rheingold

Hoff, Caves, Hansmann, Mowes, Aurich, Meszar, Tsumaya, Weissmann
Staatskapelle Weimar/Carl St. Clair
Stage Director: Michael Schulz
Arthaus Musik DVD 101 353 (166 min)
** $$$

There has been a proliferation of Ring Cycles on video in recent years. The latest entry is the Weimar Ring, this Das Rheingold being its first installment, with Die Walkure on the way. Premiered in July 2006 and taped in 2008, it features singers drawn mostly from the Weimar ensemble, none of whom is of international rank. German theatres have long abandoned traditional interpretations of the Ring in favour of concept productions. This one by director Michael Schulz underscores the strengths and weaknesses of this aesthetic. Before a single bar of music has sounded, three young girls – called Norns in the booklet – come onstage with hand puppets, reciting a few lines from Wagner’s original text on the Ring. This sets the tone, shall we say! In the first scene, the three Rhinemaidens are joined by their topless girl friends, for reasons unknown. Alberich wears fake boots and walks on his knees. The gods are a real motley crew. Visually there are some striking moments, even an occasional inspired stroke – I like the unveiling of Valhalla as a gigantic oil painting into which the gods enter at the end. But perhaps because of budget constraints, some of the sets look like they come from Wal-Mart. The singing is variable, from very good (Erda) to serviceable (Loge and the Giants) to the downright awful. There are too many unsteady voices – Fricka, Mime, and worst of all, the Alberich of Tomas Möwes, who cannot sustain a note without collapsing into a huge wobble. Problematic is the Wotan of Mario Hoff, whose high baritone, while pleasant enough, lacks the requisite authority and gravitas. One bright spot is the playing of the Staatskapelle Weimar under the knowing baton of Carl St. Clair. I’d hate to introduce anyone new to the Ring with this show. The high definition picture is exemplary – too bad the content doesn’t quite measure up.

-Joseph K. So

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Richard Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Copenhagen Ring)

Johan Reuter (Wotan I), James Johnson (Wotan II, Wanderer), Michael Kristensen (Loge), Stephen Milling (Fasolt/Hunding), Christian Christensen (Fafner), Sten Byriel (Alberich), Bengi-Ola Morguy (Mime), Randi Stene (Fricka), Anne Magarethe Dahl (Freia), Susanne Resmark (Erda), Stig Andersen (Siegmund/Siegfried), Gitta-Maria Sjöberg (Sieglinde), Iréne Theorin (Brünnhilde), Gisela Stille (Waldvogel), Guido Paevatalu (Gunther), Peter Klaneness (Hagen), Ylva Kihlberg (Guntrune), et al; Royal Danish Opera Chorus / Philip White; Royal Danish Orchestra / Michael Schønwandt
Stage Director: Kasper Bech Holten
Video Direction: Uffe Bogwartd, Peter Bogwartd
Decca 074 3264 (7 DVDs – 920 min)
*** $$$
Perchance, the numerical rating above reflects a split decision. As a performance of the towering central works of Richard Wagner, this production (box-titled as The Copenhagen Ring) might earn a charitable two stars based on orchestral performance and the energy displayed on stage. But, as a succession of evenings of riveting musical drama it is plainly worth double that. Billed as the first feminist Ring, Kasper Bech Holten focuses on Brünnhilde and stretches the cycle over a 20th-century framework – the entire 20th century. Wagner’s music is essentially complete (and performed well) and we hear most of the text but Holten radically revises character depiction and plot details and introduces a new layer of symbolism from end to end. As a Wagner performance, this can only enhance our admiration for the monumental artistic achievements of Barenboim/Kupfer (Warner) and Boulez/Chéreau (DG) in Bayreuth.

The composer’s meticulous (and often impractical) stage directions have been under constant modification since the 1950s. Holten’s is the most radical revision to date and he pulls up just short of parody. And yet he succeeds in realizing his artistic vision. The scene-setting Das Rheingold is typically the weak link in any performance of the cycle. This one exploits our curiosity and grips the attention throughout. To ring in some conspicuous changes to the ‘preliminary’ evening: 1) The opening scene is set in a drinking lounge where Alberich is getting hammered. The Rhine Maidens are bargirls who tease their way to catastrophe. Instead of mineral deposits, the Rhinegold is physically personified as a naked youth swimming languidly in the aquarium window of the bar. In a drunken jealous rage, Alberich slays him and cuts out his heart with a broken bottle. This is the ‘gold’ that is stolen to cast the spell in forging the ring. 2) John Reuter’s performance as Wotan (in Rheingold only) inspires an instant cautionary dictum: “Beware of an aroused, debt-ridden Wilhelminian dude with a spear in his hands.” He removes the ring from Alberich along with a forearm causing bloodshed of Texas Chainsaw Massacre dimensions. More gore follows… 3) Loge is depicted as a chain smoking yellow-press journalist who ends up knowing too much. Wotan slaughters him before he gets a chance to deliver his crucial, prophetic valedictory.

And so it goes. In Die Walkure, it is Sieglinde who draws the sword out of the tree and Wotan allows Hunding to scuttle away from the duel unharmed. Götterdämerung opens with ropeless Norns singing from the audience and the Gibichung are depicted as ruthless masked gunmen from the Serbian corner of the Balkan triangle. In the end, Brünnhilde declines to submit to immolation and departs with her off-stage newborn child (Yikes! The Wälsung walk among us! Well, maybe in Denmark.)

The production is of variable vocal quality. Stunning performances from James Johnson and Stig Andersen really carry the show in Die Walküre and Siegfried. Also notable are The Alberich of Sten Byriel, Stephen Milling as Hunding, Guido Paevatalu (Gunther) and Peter Klaveness, who presents an unforgettable psychopathic portrayal of Hagen.

Mostly Wagner, part scary movie, this set is not recommended for those approaching the Ring for the first time. It offers terrific entertainment value but other productions remain closer to the spirit and intent of the composer. According to taste and inclination, viewers may regard it as corruption of the highest operatic art. But it deserves to be viewed.

- Stephen Habington

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Thursday, October 9, 2008

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

Siegfried Jerusalem (Tristan), Waltraud Meier (Isolde), Mathias Hölle (King Marke), Uta Priew (Brangäne), Poul Elming (Melot)
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and Chorus / Daniel Barenboim
Stage Director: Heiner Müller; Video Director: Horant H. Hohlfeld

DG 00440 073 3349 (2 DVD: 235 min)
***** $$$$

Late last year, DG released the 1983 Bayreuth performance of Tristan und Isolde, an exquisite Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production conducted by Daniel Barenboim with René Kollo and Johanna Meier in the title roles. A 2007 Glyndebourne staging directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff with Jiřỉ Bělohlávek in the pit with the LPO soon narrowly surpassed this. Now, Barenboim can reclaim the benchmark for the opera on DVD in this 1995 Bayreuth collaboration with stage director Heiner Müller. Müller was the conductor’s personal choice after Patrice Chéreau pulled out of the new production planned for 1993. In the revision of his autobiography, A Life in Music (London 2002), Barenboim recalls, “He thought I was crazy since he had no experience of staging opera, little knowledge of music in general and of Wagner in particular… he was much more of a visual person than I had expected, and together with Erich Wonder, he developed a presentation of the work which heightened the claustrophobic nature of the drama to a remarkable level. Muller’s realization gave the impression that there was no way out… no way to escape the chromaticism of the score, itself a musical maze of half resolutions ad infinitum.”
What Müller and Wonder did was to erect a giant, open-ended shoe box of a set in the middle third of the stage. With adjustments of slope, a few props and colour variations, this structure serves throughout the performance. The second act is set in King Marke’s armoury with the characters knee-deep in a geometric maze of breastplates. Their movement and interaction is purposely contrived. Like the stage action, the costumes (by fashion designer Yamamoto of Paris) convey a fascinating oriental mystique.
None of this would be of any significance without musical excellence. Siegfried Jerusalem and Waltraud Meier were new to the roles when this production was first staged in 1991. Their portrayals of the doomed couple might well be considered definitive. The Act II marathon duo is truly miraculous to behold. Barenboim displays great sensitivity in the accompaniment and the principals never need to strain their voices to be heard above the orchestra. Compared to the splendid 1983 performance, the orchestra sounds even better. This is not entirely due to the conductor’s greater experience and sagacity. The collapse of the GDR a few years earlier allowed many gifted musicians (along with stage director Müller) to travel from East Germany to join the festival orchestra.

We can now claim to be afflicted with an embarrassment of choices for Tristan und Isolde. The 1983 Ponnelle version is still competitive although the picture aspect ratio is 4:3. Making a selection of a single version for a personal collection really boils down to Barenboim II vs Glyndebourne. Hardcore Wagnerians will need all three of these superb performances. And for more of Barenboim at the top of his form in Bayreuth, don’t miss the EuroArts DVD issue of the 1999 performance of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

- Stephen Habington

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Report from Seattle's Wagner Competition

Imagine that you are a tenor, an aspiring Wagnerian heldentenor. You have entered Seattle Opera’s International Wagner Voice’s Competition and got yourself through to the finals, held on August 16th in McCaw Hall. What else can you possibly sing as your competition aria but Walther’s “Prize Song” from Die Meistersinger? But wait a minute, who is sitting up at the judge’s table in the first tier of the auditorium? Ben Heppner, probably one of the greatest Walthers on the planet. And who is that next to him? Stephen Wadsworth, director of the current Ring Cycle. Oh yes and there’s the managing director of the Berlin Philharmonic, the general director of Bremen Opera and Peter Kazarias, a former Loge. Not to mention a great-granddaughter of Richard Wagner himself, Eva Pasquier-Wagner.

Sweden’s Michael Weinius faced this daunting prospect but was brave enough to stick to his choice of the Prize Song for his first offering. This writer had some reservations about his performance - he seemed to lack conviction and power - but these were swept away when he sang a heartfelt and herioc “Amfortas, die Wunde” from Parsifal in the second half.

The judges agreed, apparently, awarding Weinius one of the two $15,000 prizes. The other prize went to South African soprano, Elza van den Heever. Until now, Van den Heever had not envisaged a Wagner career; she recently sang Donna Anna in San Francisco’s Don Giovanni. But she impressed the judges with her clear, bright, highly musical renditions of “Dich Teure Halle” from Tannhauser, and “Einsam in truben Tagen,” from Lohengrin.

Before the judge’s decision was announced, both the audience and the orchestra were given a chance to vote too. Seattle’s uber-enthusiast General Director, Speight Jenkins, has created such a comfortable and happy atmosphere in the company, off duty singers often attend other performances. When our audience filed out to the urns in the foyer, I found myself lining up to vote behind the current Seattle Aida, Lisa Daltirus and their Ring’s reigning Wotan, Greer Grimsley. The audience also voted for Elza van den Heever.

The orchestra, whose experience is perhaps the ‘purest’ given that they can’t see any of the contestants, voted for German mezzo-soprano, Nadine Weissmann. Weissmann’s Erda and Waltraute monologue had the requisite exciting rich, dark tones but, at this point in her career, she seemed to lose a little power in longer phrases, failing slightly to deliver on the initial promise.

Seattle’s competition is unique in its focus on Wagner and, in the wise choice to set an age range of 25-39 - given that dramatic singers take longer to mature. By encouraging the careers of young Wagner singers, Seattle Opera, often called “the American Bayreuth” because of its devotion to the German genius, is ensuring its own future.

- Janette Griffiths (Visit Janette's blog)

Photo: Rozarii Lynch

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Today's Birthday in Music: May 22 (Wagner)

1813 - Richard Wagner, Leipzig, Germany; composer and conductor

Wiki entry
Wagner and his operas

"Ride of the Valkyries" from Die Walküre (Wilhelm Furtwangler & Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra)

Excerpt from the Siegfried Idyll (University of Indiana Symphony Orchestra, cond. Christopher Noel, 2007)

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