Thursday, 29 March 2018

The New Karlsruhe Ring

My reviews of the four productions as they were introduced in 2016-17, taken from recent editions of The Wagner Journal (slightly edited).

Das Rheingold. Renatus Meszar (Wotan), Jaco Venter (Alberich), Klaus Schneider (Loge), Torsten Hofmann (Mime), Katharine Tier (Fricka), Yang Xu (Fasolt), Avtandil Kaspeli (Fafner), Agnieszka Tomaszewska (Freia), Ariana Lucas (Erda), Armin Kolarczyk (Donner), Cameron Becker (Froh), Uliana Alexyuk (Woglinde), Kristina Stanek (Wellgunde), Dilara Baştar (Floßhilde); Badische Staatskapelle/Justin Brown; David Hermann (director), Jo Schramm (designer/lighting), Bettina Walter (costumes), Stefan Woinke (lighting). Badisches Staatstheater, Karlsruhe, 6 November 2016

Die Walküre. Renatus Meszar (Wotan), Heidi Melton (Brünnhilde), Peter Wedd (Siegmund), Katherine Broderick (Sieglinde), Ewa Wolak (Fricka), Avtandil Kaspeli (Hunding), Christina Niessen (Gerhilde), Ina Schlingensiepen (Ortlinde), Katharine Tier (Waltraute), Ariana Lucas (Schwertleite), Barbara Dobrzanska (Helmwige), Dilara Baştar (Siegrune), Kristina Stanek (Grimgerde), Tiny Peters (Roßweiße); Badische Staatskapelle/Justin Brown; Yuval Sharon (director), Sebastian Hannak (designer), Sarah Rolke (costumes), Stefan Woinke (lighting), Jason H. Thompson (video designer). Badisches Staatstheater, Karlsruhe, 11 December 2016

Siegfried. Erik Fenton (Siegfried), Heidi Melton (Brünnhilde), Renatus Meszar (The Wanderer), Jaco Venter (Alberich), Matthias Wohlbrecht (Mime), Katharine Tier (Erda), Avtandil Kaspeli (Fafner), Uliana Alexyuk (Woodbird); Badische Staatskapelle/Justin Brown; Thorleifur Örn Arnarsson (director), Vytautas Narbutas (designer), Sunneva Ása Weisshappel (costumes/video designer), Björn Bergsteinn Gudmundsson (lighting). Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe, 2 July 2017

Götterdämmerung. Daniel Frank (Siegfried), Heidi Melton (Brünnhilde), Armin Kolarczyk (Gunther), Christina Niessen (Gutrune), Konstantin Gorny (Hagen), Sarah Castle (Waltraute/First Norn/Floßhilde), Jaco Venter (Alberich), Dilara Baştar (Second Norn/Wellgunde), An de Ridder (Third Norn), Agnieszka Tomaszewska (Woglinde); Badischer Staatsopernchor and Extrachor, Badische Staatskapelle/Justin Brown; Tobias Kratzer (director), Rainer Sellmaier (designer/costumes), Stefan Woinke (lighting). Badisches Staatstheater, Karlsruhe, 22 October 2017

One of the intentions of farming out the four parts of the Ring to different directors must be to create productions that can be revived individually, rather than the com­pany feeling obliged to bring out the whole cycle in order to keep the works in its rep­ertoire. It’s an experiment first tried, if memory serves, by Oper Stuttgart in the early 2000s and subsequently taken up by the Aalto Theatre in Essen. Now the Badisches Staatstheater in Karlsruhe has taken up the challenge, inviting four young directors to share the cycle, and enabling it to mount the four works from scratch in as little as sixteen months from start to finish. I hope to catch up with the rest as they appear, but I managed to see the first two instalments a month apart in the late autumn.

David Hermann’s Das Rheingold, though, almost makes the three subsequent works dramatically superfluous. He has cleverly intertwined the story of the ‘Vorabend’ with those of the other three, so we go from the theft of the gold to Götterdämmerung in the space of the music’s two-and-a-half hours. A cast of five silent actors shares the roles of the non-Rheingold protagonists and at pertinent points acts out crucial scenes in counterpoint to the events of the main drama. Beginning in the first interlude, we see the meeting of Siegmund and Sieglinde and later their flight from Hunding as Freia expresses her fear of the giants (in a fascinating turnaround of character, Freia is here depicted as falling headlong for Fasolt when she sees him and her calls for help are made ironically); Brünnhilde is put to sleep on her rock as Loge emerges on the scene. Scene 3 is paralleled by the story of Siegfried, with our hero-to-be goading Mime in place of the Tarnhelmed Alberich and forging his sword to the Nibelungs’ hammering rhythms before killing the Wurm whose form Alberich assumes to impress Loge and Wotan. During the last interlude, Siegfried confronts the ‘real’ Wotan, finds Brünnhilde and sets off on his Rhine Journey.

Götterdämmerung then shadows Scene 4: Siegfried’s drinking of the memory potion from a goblet while the Nibelung hoard is revealed as a large golden chalice; Alberich cursing the ring as he visibly passes the mantle of its recovery to Hagen; Brünnhilde swearing vengeance as the gold is piled up to hide Freia; Siegfried being killed at the moment of Erda’s entry; and the hero’s funeral pyre setting off the volcano, whose solidified lava frames the set, as its gases asphyxiate the gods in an early Dämmerung. Erda, who seems to be Father Rhine as well as Mother Earth and who had dropped the gold into the river at the start of the evening, returns the ring to its home as the visual drama comes full circle (Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung, of course, both end in the same key of D flat major).

As interpreter, Hermann is not suggesting that Wagner himself had these parallels in mind, yet there’s a serendipitous aptness about so many of them – especially the links between the Nibelheim scene and Siegfried – that they couldn’t help raising a smile for their ingenuity. Rather than compete with Wagner’s musical intentions, this dramatic counterpoint emphasises the music’s fluidity, its ability to suggest different things at the same time and to look forwards as well as backwards. The labelling of cer­tain leitmotifs with specific attributes has never been made to seem more unyieldingly rigid. And if the implication is that the miming dominates the staging to the detriment of Das Rheingold itself, that is not the case at all – the Rheingold story is told coherently in a modern-dress setting with a pertinent critique of commerce and the rape of a natural world that, thanks to volcanism, has the last word. We are just shown the implications of Alberich and Wotan’s actions in overt form.

Renatus Meszar’s Wotan has become a bit more diffuse since his performances of the role in Weimar a decade ago (going by DVD evidence) and he needed a bit more solidity of tone than he provided here. But the largely ensemble cast around him worked hard to compensate, especially the Alberich of Jaco Venter, Klaus Schneider’s mellifluous Loge, Katharine Tier’s vocally solid Fricka and Ariana Lucas’s rich-toned Erda. Justin Brown paced the two and a half hours well and the Badische Staatskapelle revealed a potently Wagnerian Klang.

* * * * *

The director of Die Walküre, Los Angeles-based Yuval Sharon, gives his explanation of his thinking in the programme in the form of an ‘open letter’ to Hermann, whose Rheingold he only managed to see some three weeks into his own rehearsals. The four directors had had an opportunity to share their ideas at a meeting in Iceland in the summer of 2015, but it wasn’t until this viewing of the ‘Vorabend’ that Sharon realised how much the two works complement each other in that one looks forward (empha­sised by Hermann’s previews of the rest of the story), while the other looks backwards. The whole of Die Walküre is about coming to terms with past events and experiences: the twins overcoming their traumatic upbringing and separation; Wotan’s irrevocable past decisions that make him realise ‘Das Ende’ is the only solution; and the repercus­sions of Brünnhilde’s recent actions in defiance of her father. Sharon explores this idea visually in a number of ways, principally by having much of the early action presented in front of a moving wall of doors, behind which memories come and go, whether representations of the young Siegmund and Sieglinde, visions of Wotan depositing the sword, or actual soloists from the orchestra with their musical reminiscences (video of the solo cellist during the twins’ first hint of recognition; appearance of the players of clarinet, cor anglais and oboe while Sieglinde prepares Hunding’s draught and as the yearning becomes more obvious at the end of Scene 2). The implication of the setting is that the twins are trapped in the present by a past from which they cannot hide, and projections and shadowed silhouettes are effectively used to suggest the threats outside the walls.

Wotan is also trapped in a nightmare, one of his own making, symbolised by the first two scenes of Act II taking place on an intermittently moving staircase – however much the god tries to climb out of his dilemma he always finds himself in the same place. His long narrative monologue is dramatised with video and live-action repre­sentation of the characters and events described, perhaps most potently with the sug­gestion that Siegmund is merely a human puppet being manipulated by the god. But the row of doors returns for the Todesverkündigung and the rest of the act: the characters are trapped by their fate.

The visual inspiration for Brünnhilde’s rock in Act III comes from Caspar David Friedrich’s painting of a shipwreck in the Arctic, Eismeer (Sea of Ice), with its more pertinent alternative title in this context, Die verlorene Hoffnung (The Wreck of Hope). In one of the production’s more self-indulgent but arresting visual images, a Hollywood­esque, widescreen film shows the Valkyries dressed in orange jumpsuits paragliding through a blizzard on to the icy mountain top. Without the Friedrich title connection, the scene would seem rather disconnected with the visual style of the rest of the even­ing, but the setting, beautifully lit by Stefan Woinke, lends a chill through the drama of this last act, culminating with Brünnhilde being frozen within a big block of ice as the lower reaches of the mountain glow with Loge’s protective fire. It’s as if the loca­tion of the directorial meeting in the Land of Fire and Ice has had a role to play here. If overall, Sharon’s concept doesn’t have quite the originality and sense of unity of Her­mann’s Rheingold, and some of the parallel, illustrative imagery seems a bit obvious, it has some interesting overriding ideas and expresses them, especially through the underlying psychology of the characters and their actions, with clarity, ingenuity and total command of his multimedia resources – a modern-day Gesamtkunstwerk in action.

Part of the success of the production is its intimate relationship between stage and music – and not just the aforementioned appearance of musicians on the set. Justin Brown’s often urgent tempi and the Badische Staatskapelle’s energised playing ide­ally complemented what went on above them – of a number of Wagner performances I have heard in this house, this must count as the most orchestrally enthralling to date. Even Renatus Meszar’s Wotan seemed to have recovered its vocal eloquence, especially in his Act II narration and in the poignancy of his Farewell. And making her stage Brünnhilde debut in the theatre that nurtured her, Heidi Melton gave her strongest Wagnerian performance to date, generous of tone and word-conscious, par­ticularly in the Annunciation of Death Scene, where her rich lower register came into its own, suggesting the role of Kundry might also be within her reach. Peter Wedd’s Siegmund was forceful, if a little unsubtle, and the Sieglinde of Katherine Broderick – a new recruit to the Karlsruhe ensemble – was lustrous and often penetratingly bright of tone. Ewa Wolak’s Fricka was searingly communicative and Avtandil Kaspeli was a sturdy Hunding.

* * * * *

Karlsruhe’s multi-director cycle moves on to Siegfried with a staging by an Icelandic team led by maverick director Thorleifur Örn Arnarsson. As might be expected with someone of his upbringing, he is steeped in the Edda, the ultimate source of Wagner’s tetralogy. But apart from the appearance of the Nibelungen – looking like escapees from the Lord of the Rings films (Gollum, especially) – the mythical side is not overtly explored. Instead, Arnarsson sees Siegfried as the clash of generations, of a power struggle between the young and the old, as our hero severs ties with his upbringing and rejects the authority of the gods to pursue his own destiny. The way Arnarsson portrays this is intriguing both at a dramatic and a meta-theatrical level. Siegfried’s life is being monitored, Truman Show-style, by Wotan via a bank of CCTV screens, and as required the god dons a costume – a rather feeble Wanderer disguise of false beard and wizard’s hat – to take part in the stage events. At the end of Act II, the Woodbird as part of her guidance hands Siegfried a Wagner score, which makes him realise he is merely an operatic character, and from then on he does his best to flout the stage directions until seduced back into the dramatic sphere by Brünnhilde. Thus the battle between young and old is mirrored in the conflict between traditional and post-dramatic theatre, between Wotan the old actor and the disrespect of the younger generation as represented by Siegfried.

Vytautas Narbutas’s set is a shambolic museum – a repository of Siegfried’s childhood and forebears. A smattering of swords and spears – often seemingly picked up at random – provide the props as needed, but as Siegfried rejects his role, so he neglects Nothung (not seen again after being plunged into Fafner) and there’s no sight of the hoard, let alone Tarnhelm and ring. In Act III, Scene 2, he simply snaps Wotan’s hastily sought spear over his knee and poses with his trophy as the Woodbird takes a photo of him on her smartphone. He then sings the whole scene of the discovery of Brünnhilde while seated on a dining chair staring out at the audience – going through the vocal motions, as it were, but not engaging with his role until Brünnhilde’s seduction engulfs him.

Arnarsson’s rehearsal process appears to be very much one of collaboration and improvisation – he shuts his cast in a room full of props and lets them discover their characters at the start of the process and things don’t necessarily fully gel until the dress rehearsal. Some of that exploratory nature survives in the finished result, such as Siegfried’s frequent changing of costume and comic-book hero adherence as he attempts to discover his true being – he spends his post-Truman Act III in a T-shirt emblazoned with an irreverent ZEEG FREED.

Justin Brown and his Badische Staatskapelle go from strength to strength in this, their fifth Wagnerian collaboration in little more than two years – the sound coming from the pit was gloriously ripe and well-upholstered and Brown’s tempi always sat well with the notes. American tenor Erik Fenton, making his role debut in this production as Siegfried, may struggle in a larger space than the Badisches Staatstheater, but here remained in clarion control right to the end, with no signs of tiring and bringing plenty of dynamic and expressive subtlety – if with a slightly pallid and unchanging tone colour. Matthias Wohlbrecht’s Mime wasn’t immune from stock whining, but was vividly drawn. Heidi Melton’s soaring Brünnhilde (an apology was made for indisposition due to flu but there was no sign of it in her voice), Renatus Meszar’s determined Wanderer, Jaco Venter’s menacing Alberich and Avtandil Kaspeli’s weighty Fafner added to the positive impression all four had given in earlier instalments, and Uliana Alexyuk made light of her aerial suspension as a vocally lithe Woodbird. Mention should also be made of horn player Dominik Zinsstag’s on-stage appearance as Siegfried’s obliging hired musician, brought in when the hero’s attempts on his out-of-tune upright piano (rather than the usual ‘reed’/oboe) fail to have the desired effect.

* * * * *

I should begin this review by warning that it contains spoilers, for anyone who might be venturing to Karlsruhe for its complete cycles this spring and who doesn’t want to know how it all ends … Though in one sense, the Badisches Staatstheater’s multi-director Ring ends rather as it began in Das Rheingold, with a production of Götterdämmerung that is similarly and refreshingly irreverent, and engages with the score and text in innovative ways. Although the intention of the project has in part presumably been to present standalone versions of each component of the cycle that work singly as well as a whole, Tobias Kratzer’s ideas evidently and deliberately feed off the work of his predecessors. The theatre curtain opens to a drop emblazoned with the words, in English, ‘The End’, and seated contemplating it, with their backs to us, are three figures slumped in directors’ chairs bearing the titles of the three earlier instalments of the cycle. As these ‘Norns’ begin to sing it becomes clear they are the personifications of the three previous directors themselves – David Hermann, Yuval Sharon and Thorleifur Örn Arnarsson – who proceed to tell their individual parts of the back-narrative until they realise that they don’t know how to save the story from the inevitable cataclysm, with ‘Hermann’ constantly rummaging for alternative answers in the printed score. Directors’ chairs and music in hand, the three figures haunt the rest of the evening, observing with horrified expressions the play of events while trying to avert the disaster they foresee by intervening to wrest the ring from whoever has it. This works neatly with two of the three goading the First Norn (‘Hermann’) into reluctantly dressing up as the Valkyrie Waltraute (a common theatrical doubling in practice), and attempting to persuade Brünnhilde to give up the ring after their attempts at snatching it from her sleeping form have failed. And, of course, thanks to the wigs and make-up, the three directors also become the Rhinemaidens despite changes in personnel along the way, donning mermaid outfits in an obviously doomed-to-fail bid to influence Siegfried’s actions. The repertoire of trouser roles has never been expanded so widely in one go. (In Act II, Scene 4, the threesome also substitutes for the women’s chorus, its three brief utterances amounting to all of fifteen notes.) 

The three directors and their various impersonations aside, Kratzer takes a fairly straightforward approach to the rest of the characterisation and narrative. Scene 2 of the Prologue begins with Siegfried rather sheepishly trying to sneak away from Brünnhilde’s clutches after a perhaps too overwhelming wedding night (the set is an IKEA-style hotel bridal suite), but in forgetting to pack his Tarnhelm he cannot help but wake her in retrieving it, and she sends him off with Grane, whose unseen fearsomeness is conveyed by yanking reins held through the open doorway. For the Gibichungs, the scene changes to a cavernous room of looming dark mirrored walls (‘reflecting their egos’, comments designer Rainer Sellmaier in the programme). These are shifted somewhat in Act II, where the curtain opens to reveal a real Grane (cue intrusive audience chatter and even a couple of flash photographs), eventually led away for slaughter as part of the wedding sacrifice – perhaps symbolising the betrayal of Brünnhilde, who gifted the horse to Siegfried. (Easily missed, but in Scene 2 of Act III it becomes apparent where the meat that is being barbecued for the resting vassals came from, much to Gunther’s disgust.)

Nothung is no longer in evidence as a real object, but has become the symbol of masculinity and its mention is usually coupled with Siegfried or whoever grappling his tackle, underlining the ambivalence of the sword’s invocation as protector of Brünnhilde’s virtue during the abduction (as Siegfried’s preparatory masturbation makes clear). And in a related way, Alberich reveals to Hagen in their scene together that he has ‘done a Klingsor’ and emasculated himself, and we sense that that trauma is now being symbolically passed on to the unloved, outcast Hagen along with the urgency of his ring-retrieving task. Kratzer is skilled at drawing out the inner psychology of these characters – Gunther, most notably, with his gradual realisation of how he is being manipulated by his half-brother. And Siegfried is very much still growing up, discovering alcohol for the first time (Gutrune’s potion) and revealing himself as the innocent in the big, bad world.

So how does it all end? The curtains inscribed ‘The End’ return to announce the Immolation Scene, though here there’s no immolation. Brünnhilde starts a small fire, but – to the exasperation of the three directors – consigns the final pages of the score to the flames, while the directors/Rhinemaidens themselves are too scared to accept the gift of the ring and now they really don’t know how to conclude things. But Brünnhilde saves the day: she fetches her own director’s chair, sits with her back to the audience and proceeds to direct the action in reverse – over the final couple of minutes of music the main scenes of the entire opera are rewound until, as the final chords sound, she simply leaves the ring on her chair and rejoins Siegfried in the bridal chamber at the moment just before, Grane’s reins in his hand, he was about to leave on his fateful journey. As Kratzer remarks in the programme, Brünnhilde, realising how Hagen has used her and everyone else, ‘insists on the right to end her own story’ in a final act of rebellion, but it also raises the question of whether the piece can ever end. It’s a clever, resonant solution to the conundrum that Kratzer set himself at the start of the evening, and its audaciousness and execution go a long way to compensate for the lack of the more customary world-ending visualisation of more literal productions.

For its Siegfried, the Badisches Staatstheater has turned to a relative newcomer, Daniel Frank. This Swedish tenor, like Peter Hofmann before him originally a rock singer, has already sung Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and Florestan, but as far as I am aware this was his first traversal of the role of Siegfried. And in every way it was triumphant: musicality, tonal variety and stamina were all there in abundance, as well as an ease both as actor and singer that bode well as long his career isn’t pushed too hard. Opposite him, Heidi Melton’s Brünnhilde has grown in stature through the building up of this Ring – these have been her first stage performances of the complete role and by this last instalment her top had gained greater steadiness to go with the rich, mezzo-ish timbre she produces in her middle and lower ranges. The Russian bass Konstantin Gorny – a house ensemble member for twenty years – was the epitome of a Hagen and Armin Kolarczyk gave one of the most psychologically penetrating portrayals of Gunther I have seen, as he watches his world tumble down before him. Jaco Venter’s Alberich was as formidable as earlier in the cycle and Christina Niessen was a forthright but sympathetic Gutrune. The New Zealand mezzo Sarah Castle was a vivid First Norn, Waltraute and Floßhilde, leading her merry band of directors to ever more desperate forms of action – Dilara Baştar’s Second Norn and Wellgunde, An de Ridder’s Third Norn and Agnieszka Tomaszewska’s Woglinde. Justin Brown, conducting what was to have been his last new production in Karlsruhe after ten years with the company before renewing his contract for another couple of years just a week after this performance, directed a seamless, brooding account of the score and the Badische Staatskapelle played magnificently for him.

With multi-director Rings suddenly all the rage – Chemnitz is also launching one this season and even Bayreuth is taking this route in 2020 – Karlsruhe has shown that it can be truly successful. In choosing young directors with fresh ideas, able to contemplate each work in relative isolation (they all met up in Iceland for an initial exchange of ideas), the results have generally been of a very high quality, while also managing to balance concept with narrative flow. In retrospect I imagine the four stagings will work just as well as a cycle as individually (two full cycles are being staged this spring), though the best remain for me David Hermann’s Rheingold and this Götterdämmerung.

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