A Ring with Two Masters
From the March 2019 edition of The Wagner Journal, a review of a self-created, itinerant ‘Ring’ cycle experienced in Germany during the latter part of 2018, catching a couple of ‘Meistersinger’ performances en route.
Das Rheingold. Nico Wouterse (Wotan), Hans Gröning (Alberich), Philipp Werner (Loge), Dennis Marr (Mime), Dorothee Böhnisch (Fricka), Lukas Schmid-Wedekind (Fasolt), Aleksandar Stefanoski (Fafner), Stamatia Gerothanasi (Freia), Lisa Wedekind (Erda/Floßhilde), Paul Jadach (Donner), Theodore Browne (Froh), Elisandra Melián (Woglinde), Anna Gütter (Wellgunde); Badische Philharmonie Pforzheim/Markus Huber; Thomas Münstermann (director), Jörg Brombacher (designer), Alexandra Bentele (costumes), Oliver Feigl (video designer). Theater Pforzheim, 2 October 2018
Die Walküre. Lucia Lucas (Wotan), Julia Borchert (Brünnhilde), Richard Furman (Siegmund), Susanne Serfling (Sieglinde), Roswitha Christina Müller (Fricka), Johannes Stermann (Hunding), Raffaela Linti (Gerhilde), Uta Zierenberg (Ortlinde), Monica Mascus (Waltraute), Henriette Gödde (Schwertleite), Jeanett Neumeister (Helmwige), Isabel Stüber Malagamba (Siegrune), Lucia Cervoni (Grimgerde), Emilie Renard (Roßweiße); Magdeburgische Philharmonie/Kimbo Ishii; Jakob Peters-Messer (director), Guido Petzold (designer), Sven Bindseil (costumes). Theater Magdeburg, 3 November 2018
Siegfried. Zoltán Nyári (Siegfried), Nancy Weißbach (Brünnhilde), Thomas Hall (The Wanderer), Kihun Yoon (Alberich), Timothy Oliver/Dan Karlström (Mime), Marta Swiderska (Erda), Ill-Hoon Choung (Fafner), Sooyeon Lee (Woodbird); Oldenburgisches Staatsorchester/Hendrik Vestmann; Paul Esterhazy (director), Mathis Neidhardt (designer/costumes), Ernst Engel (lighting), Alexander Fleischer (video designer). Staatstheater Oldenburg, 4 November 2018
Götterdämmerung. Daniel Kirch (Siegfried), Stéphanie Müther (Brünnhilde), Pierre-Yves Pruvot (Gunther), Cornelia Ptassek (Gutrune/Third Norn), Marius Boloş (Hagen), Anne Schuldt (Waltraute), Jukka Rasilainen (Alberich), Anja Schlosser (First Norn), Sylvia Rena Ziegler (Second Norn/Wellgunde), Guibee Yang (Woglinde), Sophia Maeno (Floßhilde); Chorus of Theater Chemnitz, Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie/Guillermo García Calvo; Elisabeth Stöppler (director), Annike Haller (designer), Gesine Völlm (costumes), Holger Reinke (lighting). Theater Chemnitz, 1 December 2018
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Oliver Zwarg (Hans Sachs), Marco Jentzsch (Walther von Stolzing), Betsy Horne (Eva), Young Doo Park (Veit Pogner), Erik Biegel (David), Margarete Joswig (Magdalena), Thomas de Vries (Sixtus Beckmesser), Ralf Rachbauer (Kunz Vogelgesang), Florian Kontschak (Konrad Nachtigal), Benjamin Russell (Fritz Kothner), Rouwen Huther (Balthasar Zorn), Reiner Goldberg (Ulrich Eisslinger), Andreas Karasiak (Augustin Moser), Daniel Carison (Hermann Ortel), Philipp Mayer (Hans Schwartz), Wolfgang Vater (Hans Foltz), Tuncay Kurtoglu (Nightwatchman); Chorus and Orchestra of Staatstheater Wiesbaden/Patrick Lange; Bernd Mottl (director), Friedrich Eggert (designer/costumes), Klaus Krauspenhaar (lighting), Myriam Lifka (choreography). Staatstheater Wiesbaden, 29 September 2018
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Thomas Jesatko (Hans Sachs), Tilmann Unger (Walther von Stolzing), Astrid Kessler (Eva), Sung Ha (Veit Pogner), Christopher Diffey (David), Marie-Belle Sandis (Magdalena), Joachim Goltz (Sixtus Beckmesser), Samuel Levine (Kunz Vogelgesang), Rainer Zaun (Konrad Nachtigal), Thomas Berau (Fritz Kothner), Uwe Eikötter (Balthasar Zorn), Koral Güvener (Ulrich Eisslinger), Raphael Wittmer (Augustin Moser), Marcel Brunner (Hermann Ortel), Dominic Barberi (Hans Schwartz), Bartosz Urbanowicz (Hans Foltz/Nightwatchman); Chorus and Orchestra of Nationaltheater Mannheim/Alexander Soddy; Nigel Lowery (director/designer/costumes), Lothar Baumgarte (lighting). Nationaltheater Mannheim, 1 November 2018
A smattering of one-off productions and continuing ‘episodes’ in ongoing Ring cycles lent themselves last autumn to a peripatetic, self-contrived tetralogy, visiting four widely spaced German cities over a two-month period. Two were indeed standalone productions, with no indication that their theatres would be following up with a complete cycle; the other two were the latest stages in continuing projects, the last the conclusion of a four-director cycle – what my own cycle effectively became.
The itinerant Ring didn’t get off to the most auspicious of starts, though. Theater Pforzheim has impressed in the past for its adventurousness in early 20th-century repertoire, particularly Hindemith and Weill, and even gave a passable Lohengrin in 2015. But ‘big’ Wagner seems to be a step too far for this small theatre with, by German standards, limited resources. Alfons Abbass’s reduced-orchestra versions of the constituent parts of the Ring, now duly incorporated into Schott’s authoritative Wagner edition, largely cut down on the number of wind and brass instruments (and reduce the harps to two), leaving the preferred number of strings at maximum strength. All Pforzheim was able to muster for Das Rheingold was a glorified chamber orchestra with a single harp, and with the players raised two or three metres high on a platform at the very back of the stage what impact there might have been from the sound seemed to disappear up into the fly tower. Coupled with some often scrappy playing under the direction of Markus Huber – below par in a country where nearly everywhere seems to field a decent orchestra – the result was a rather dispiriting experience.
It might have been more bearable if the staging had made up for things. But Thomas Münstermann, Pforzheim’s Intendant, decided to set the whole drama in a circus ring, for no discernible reason, with all the characters, family and foe, part of the same company: Wotan and Fricka as ring-masters, Rhinemaidens as acrobats, Freia on the high wire, giants as strongmen, Donner as human cannonball, and so on. This all made sense on its own terms, but had no obvious relationship to any of the themes and ideas that Wagner’s Vorabend throws up. There was justification of sorts in the final scene: Freia leads Wotan and Fricka across a rainbow bridge in the form of a high wire, the father of the gods using his spear as balancing aid, until Loge points out that it’s all an illusion, all just a circus trick, made to look more precarious than it is.
Yet there was some decent singing on offer, especially from Nico Wouterse’s solid Wotan, Dorothee Böhnisch’s expressive Fricka, Lukas Schmid-Wedekind’s eloquent Fasolt, Lisa Wedekind’s rich-voiced Floßhilde/Erda and Theodore Browne’s lyrical, knife-throwing Froh. I warmed less to the rather over-emphatic lion-tamer Alberich of Hans Gröning and the somewhat stretched sound of Philipp Werner’s magician Loge.
Encountering Die Walküre at Theater Magdeburg a month later was like entering a different world. The city, if not the present theatre, is of course where Wagner’s career more or less started, and where he married Minna, but I am not aware of Magdeburg today making anything in particular of this association. As far as I could tell, Jakob Peters-Messer’s Walküre is, like the Pforzheim Rheingold, a one-off, not intended to form part of an eventual cycle, but in this case I certainly wouldn’t complain if it did. His set-up is clear from the start. Video footage during the stormy prelude, projected on to set designer Guido Petzoid’s flexible ruined interiors, depicts a riot at full pelt – apparently from the 2017 G20 turmoil in Hamburg – from which Siegmund, one of the activists, seeks shelter in, as fate would have it, the home of one of the riot police (Hunding). At the start of Act II, Wotan, too, is on the side of the anarchist rioters, until the business-suited Fricka gets her way and he reluctantly dons the clothes of the establishment. The Valkyries dressed in crime-scene suits collect up the riot victims and when they disrobe reveal themselves to be on the same ‘side’ as the old, anarchist Wotan, who has now power-dressed to deal with the miscreant Brünnhilde. It is less perfunctory than this brief summary might suggest and the setting’s clarity and the narrative force bring insight into the characters and their relationships that a blander, ‘mythical’ milieu can often mask.
If not having room in the pit for the full Wagnerian orchestral complement, Theater Magdeburg at least moved one step on from Pforzheim in using the Lessing edition, which allows for triple woodwind and six of Wagner’s eight horns. And the Magdeburg Philharmonic made an impressive sound, even if Kimbo Ishii’s conducting didn’t quite reach the out-of-this-world transcendence of the final Magic Fire Music. ‘Heldenbaritonistin’ Lucia Lucas, who earlier in the season became the first transgender woman to sing on a major stage in her native US, was a vivid and magisterial Wotan, especially effective in the character’s explosive encounters with Undine Dreißig’s fiery Fricka and, later, Julia Borchert’s accomplished if slightly vocally under-characterised Brünnhilde. Richard Furman’s Siegmund and Susanne Serfling’s Sieglinde were both sympathetically sung and portrayed, Johannes Stermann’s Hunding had an imposing figure to match his fearsome bass, and there was some highly distinguished singing from the ensemble of Valkyrie sisters.
Staatstheater Oldenburg has been adding its Ring instalments at a leisurely annual pace and this autumn reached Siegfried (complete cycles are anticipated in 2020). This tiny house, built for the northwest German city’s former ducal court, seats barely 500, yet is not short of ambition, and with its generous pit leaving room for only twelve rows of seating in the Parkett, it provides an intimate, immersive context for experiencing Wagner. Although not specified in the programme, it looked once again like the Lessing edition was being used, and the orchestral playing under Hendrik Vestmann filled the space with an often burnished, well-blended sound.
Paul Esterhazy, with designs by Mathis Neidhardt, has created a unified interior world for his whole cycle (I also saw, but didn’t review, the Walküre in 2017), a kind of wooden alpine lodge or American pioneer dwelling, with an ever-changing array of rooms and corridors whisked into view and away again on the theatre’s revolve. Costumes evoke the second half of the 19th century, and everything animate is brought to a human level: Grane is an old man sleeping below his mistress by the fireplace; Wotan’s two ravens are laddish, feather-capped layabouts who the poorly disguised god is constantly shooing away so as not to give his game away; the Woodbird is a woman carrying a bird cage; only the bear is in full costume. Even Fafner is still in human form, nimbly towering on stilts, his hoarded ring still on the finger of Alberich’s wrenched-off arm. Mime, using knee-boots, has a body double of smaller stature for his more mobile actions that I confess I didn’t register until the curtain calls (he also, for this performance, had a vocal double – see below). Aesthetically, it’s all very much of a piece, conveying a domesticity that could also be stifling claustrophobia, with different groups of characters occupying seemingly the same spaces. It’s all slickly done, and if the incessant revolving of the set threatens motion sickness, the stagecraft is undeniable. But does it penetrate deep into the Ring’s various subtexts? That might have to wait for a full cycle to appreciate, but there are telling details that hint at wider exploration.
Despite the size of the theatre and the bijoux dimensions of the stage area, there was nothing cramped or musically lacking in this performance of Siegfried. Singers didn’t need to yell to get their point across, which meant that the tireless Zoltán Nyári never sounded strained or over-parted in the title role. Mime, as mentioned, was divided among three performers, the highly rated Dan Karlström having flown in from Leipzig to sing the vocally indisposed Timothy Oliver’s lines from a corner of the stage. Thomas Hall’s Wanderer was solid but less distinctive as a vocal characterisation, while Nancy Weißbach’s Brünnhilde brought the evening to a plush-voiced conclusion.
Theater Chemnitz has divided its current cycle of the Ring among four female directors (an idea Katherina Wagner briefly considered for Bayreuth), and Elisabeth Stöppler’s Götterdämmerung completed my own tetralogy. Not having seen any earlier parts of this cycle (complete performances are scheduled for this Easter and Whitsun), I’m not aware of how much collusion there has been among the directors in providing an overriding view of the work. Stöppler tackles both eco-catastrophe and sexual politics. The world is in perpetual winter, with the Norns as polar explorers, roped together as they trudge along an ice-floe – when the rope breaks, it’s as if mankind is left without its safety harness of protection by higher authority. In this wintry context, Grane is a sledge, which the still boy-like Siegfried treats as any child would, as he leaves the female world of nature to be dragged into the diametrically opposed interior, male space of the Gibichungs, one where Brünnhilde, too, is eventually drawn into adopting the masculine traits of her father in order to take her revenge. With Hagen troubled by his own father-induced demons, Siegfried turned to drug dependency by the memory potion and the ineffectual Gunther caught between them, it’s not going to end well for the men. In the end, though, it’s the mother who comes to the rescue: in the midst of a snowstorm, and instead of self-immolation, Brünnhilde is reunited for the first time with Erda, and with the surviving female characters, the Rhinemaidens and Norns, bravely looks to the future as Gutrune appears to want to join the sisterly gathering. Whatever one might take from Stöppler’s conception, there’s no denying the skill of her detailed Personenregie – the actions and reactions among the avenging trio of Act II, for instance, or the emotionally wrenching treatment of Siegfried’s passage into death as he takes in the gravity of his fate while Brünnhilde cleanses him. It’s rare, at this stage in the Ring, to feel so much empathy for the characters as vulnerable human beings.
Fortunately, in Daniel Kirch and Stéphanie Müther, Chemnitz has found two of the most promising and accomplished newcomers to the roles of Siegfried and Brünnhilde (the former making his role debut at this performance) that have come along in some time, each unflagging of voice, expressive and a fine actor. If the rest of the cast wasn’t quite on the same level, it was still impressive for a regional theatre. Pierre-Yves Pruvot’s Gunther was a little unfocused, resorting too often to a kind of Sprechstimme and Marius Boloş’s Hagen, though again convincingly acted, lacked the dark vocal colouring for the role. Cornelia Ptassek’s Gutrune was well drawn, despite slightly swallowed enunciation, and Jukka Rasilainen made for a good, manipulative Alberich. Guillermo García Calvo, who first conducted the cycle in Orviedo in 2013, had the full measure of the score and drew exciting and sonorous playing from the Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie, here at last using the complete wind complement, if a little light on string numbers as a result.
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As accompaniment to my peripatetic Ring, I also caught this season’s two new German productions of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The spa town of Wiesbaden unsurprisingly has one of Germany’s more elderly populations, so it was pertinent of director Bernd Mottl (a great-great nephew of Wagner’s assistant Felix Mottl) to stage the work at its Staatstheater as a battle of the generations. The setting is a Seniorenhaus, in this case a retirement home for former tradesmen that incorporates a Gaststätte named Alt-Nürnberg (the interior for Act I) with its associated Festsaal (as opposed to Festwiese) for community events. Here a group of old white men holds out, dressing up in medieval costumes to preserve their outdated traditions and in effect attempting to thwart the aspirations and ambitions of the young – in another context it could have been an allegory of Brexit. Helped by their carers (the apprentices), all but a couple of the masters hobble around with Zimmer frames and sticks. Sachs is grey-haired and retired, too, but still doing a little cobbling to help his friends and neighbours out and living on his own in his sheltered-accommodation flat with his memories of his late wife (Friedrich Eggert’s designs are wonderfully detailed, encapsulating postwar German interiors down to the last power socket). It’s one of those rare productions that successfully attaches its own narrative to a pre-existing one and follows it through so that everything tells in the new context. It’s also one of the wittiest and moving re-interpretations of recent times, partly because the detail is so precise and thus the characterisation is realistic.
In this contemporary setting, Walther is a ‘Weltenbummler’, a globetrotting, leather-clad biker, who has alighted on Eva on his travels and is determined not to move on without her. Despite his support of Walther, Sachs is portrayed as a man living in the past as much as his fellow masters. During our hero’s performance in the final scene, the people are so entranced that they begin filming him on their smartphones, and when Sachs delivers his ‘call to arms’ at Walther’s rejection of membership of their Gesellschaft, everyone simply ignores him, being far more engrossed in showing each other their phone footage of the event. Eva grabs Walther’s motorcycle helmet, the two of them run away and the front drop falls to leave the masters, including Sachs, on the forestage, abandoned and rejected by the younger generation still celebrating on the other side of the curtain.
Wiesbaden often attracts top international singers for its annual May Festival performances of its season’s repertoire, but even this largely housebound cast impressed on opening night: Oliver Zwarg’s firm-voiced Sachs, Marco Jentzsch’s virile Walther, Betsy Horne’s fresh, youthful Eva and Thomas de Vries’s (dramatically) pitiful Beckmesser would grace any house, and chorus and orchestra were on fine form under Patrick Lange.
Nigel Lowery, best remembered in Wagnerian terms for designing Richard Jones’s Covent Garden Ring cycle in the 1990s, has since taken on directing in his own right. And there was plenty of evidence of an indulgence in both scenic and directorial visuals in his new Meistersinger at Mannheim’s Nationaltheater. His concept is of a theatre within the theatre, a stage set within the existing proscenium, and he plays with our perceptions of what is what such that we never quite know if given characters are indeed ‘in character’ or not, or even if they’re characters or stagehands. His designs expose the bare bones of amateur theatricals and action spills out into the auditorium (the first time I’ve actually had a cobbling Sachs and serenading Beckmesser bumping past my knees as they egg each other on in Act II). Lowery states in the programme that as a non-German he doesn’t feel an obligation or need to address Sachs’s final monologue, which he presents against a louring sky accompanied by a rain shower that falls only on Beckmesser, with whom Sachs generously shares his umbrella as an act of reconciliation. Elsewhere, and like his colourful, picturebook designs, the staging is playful, with a number of visual jokes that some of the German critics found too British: for instance, a little model of the starship Enterprise flying across the stage to indicate Walther’s arrival from afar; Walther’s tussle with a serpent while hiding behind the tree with Eva/Eve in Act II; or a running joke with an animatronic cat that gets in the way of Beckmesser’s attempt to steal the prize song in Act III. There are references to fairytales, such as Walther presenting Eva with her ‘glass slipper’ after she has brought her shoes to Sachs for adjustment, some inexplicable backstage business, as when a backdrop of the Moulin Rouge descends and a dancer comes on to rehearse, and a witty episode when Beckmesser requisitions the prompt box for his marking hideaway, sending the poor souffleur to a music stand at the side of the stage.
Elsewhere, it’s the central act that shows Lowery’s direction at its best, with Beckmesser bringing on his own paid Lautenistin to do his accompanying for him, the riot staged as a giant puppet show, with shades of Punch and Judy, and with the Nightwatchman as a ghoul riding a skeletal horse across the night sky complete with a midsummer snowstorm. When Beckmesser has had enough, at the climax of the riot he tears off his wig and costume and storms off, to be seen again in Act III counting the extra money he has had to be paid to resume his role.
But some issues remain in Lowery’s stated aim to explore the work’s engagement with Wahn. His use of Brechtian alienation (complete with a role for a kind of ‘Brecht curtain’) leaves too many of the characters literally characterless. Eva is portrayed like a mechanical doll until she is freed by Walther’s prizewinning at the end, so Astrid Kessler’s peerlessly lyrical singing constantly seems at odds with her expressionless acting. Thomas Jesatko’s similarly musical Sachs has to fight through a ridiculous wig and costume and loses the battle for our engagement. Whether by default or design, it is Joachim Goltz’s short-tempered Beckmesser who becomes the central character, as one of the few to show his properly human side. The rest of the masters, portrayed as doddery as those in Wiesbaden, relied a little too much on exaggeration for effect. Walther (Tilmann Unger, craving indulgence for an infection, but saving his best for the prize song) is dressed like a cross between a Star Trek officer and a traditional Lohengrin, and indeed in Act III enters carrying a grail cup. Lowery makes David a more central character than usual, as a kind of stage manager who metamorphoses into a ‘character’ only at the point at which Sachs makes him a journeyman – a gleefully fresh, buoyant interpretation from Christopher Diffey.
The Nationaltheater’s young Generalmusikdirektor Alexander Soddy, whose detailed, nuanced interpretation was constantly in evidence, drew some often warm-hearted playing from the orchestra, and the massed choruses – hampered like most of the cast by expressionless, clown-like make-up and, in the final scene, dressed as every conceivable theatrical caricature from Brünnhilde to burlesque dancer – made an impressive sound.