Wagner, Richard


ParsifalRichard Wagner - Parsifal

The Metropolitan Opera, 2013 | Daniele Gatti, François Girard, Jonas Kaufmann, Katarina Dalayman, René Pape, Peter Mattei, Evgeny Nikitin, Rúni Brattaberg, Kiera Duffy, Lei Xu, Irene Roberts, Haeran Hong, Katherine Whyte, Heather Johnson, Ryan Speedo Green, Lauren McNeese, Jennifer Forni, Mark Schowalter, Andrew Stenson, Mario Chang, Maria Zifchak | The Met: Live in HD, 2 March 2013

If it did nothing else The Met’s new production of Wagner’s Parsifal at least emphatically confirmed a few points. Firstly, Parsifal is one of the most unique, beautiful and truly spiritual works ever written for the stage. No great revelation there, but it’s good to come out of a performance of this remarkable work feeling that it has been proven. Secondly, Jonas Kaufmann, singing the title role, is one of the best tenors in the world today - if not actually the very best. Again, although he has only sung this particular role once before, this won’t come as a surprise to anyone. A third point that many people also already know, is that Parsifal is an incredibly difficult work to stage. Unfortunately, François Girard’s production for the Met’s production confirmed that point, and just as emphatically as the other two points were made.

Part of the reason why Parsifal is such a difficult work to stage of course is because it is not an opera in the strictest sense, and not even a Wagnerian music-drama. Wagner coined a new category for the work for its presentation at Bayreuth, calling it a Bühnenweihfestspiel (”A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage”), which seems like a minor distinction (or a rather pompously Wagnerian one, take your pick), but in reality, with its religious subject matter, Parsifal is indeed closer to an oratorio than an opera. In terms of dramatic action, there’s not much that happens over the course of the three acts that take up over four and a half hours running time. While there may be little in the way of incident, much of the dramatic action conveyed through narration in long recitatives expressing noble sentiments and grand choruses of heavenly praise, Parsifal is nonetheless a remarkably dense work, filled with Christian imagery, Buddhist philosophy and ancient mythology. The meaning, the mystery and the ambiguity of the work, as well as its sheer beauty, is given its fullest expression however in Wagner’s music, the majestic summit of his career, some forty years in the making, completed in 1882 just six months before his death.

In the Met’s production however, Daniele Gatti’s conducting of the score tended towards a languorous levelling of pace and dynamic towards an enveloping somnolence. The only dimension that the viewer was likely to enter in this transcendentally spiritual work was that of unconsciousness. It wasn’t dull, it wasn’t boring, it was performed and sung magnificently and often with great sensitivity by a wonderful cast - but Parsifal is a work with countless levels of meaning and interpretation and there was no particular vision in either Gatti’s solemn even-handed conducting of the work or in Girard’s stage production. Set in a dark vaguely futuristic/timeless post-apocalyptic landscape, the knights dressed in modern black trousers and white shirts instead of armour, there was certainly a concerted effort to remove or at least downplay the traditional imagery and specific Christian elements in the work (in complete contrast to the recent Philipp Stölzl production that I saw at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin) in favour of a more universal spirituality.

This certainly worked for the First Act, reflecting the onerous task of the knights in their defence of the Grail, creating a sense of dark despair that weighs on Gurnemanz over the loss of the Spear, and emphasising the near overwhelming sense of pain that is felt by Amfortas in his eternal suffering from a grave wound that never heals. The black, cracked and scorched earth is further divided by a stream that has women on one side and knights on the other. Even Kundry cannot cross this river, which runs red with blood and widens at the end of the act, creating a powerful impression that feels in tune with the tone of the work and the wound of Amfortas, but the symbolism doesn’t particular add anything to what is expressed in Wagner’s score and libretto, nor does it encourage the viewer to consider the themes of the work anew. Returning to the same set in Act III - as dark, barren and desolate as it was in Act I - doesn’t give any sense of the redemptive force of Parsifal’s purity of purpose and sense of healing compassion.

Act II however is at least highly striking and original in its dark imagery of Klingsor and his vampy, ghostly Flower Maidens with spears wading in blood. Avoiding traditional interpretations of this scene, it at least contrasts with the seductiveness of Wagner’s score or could be said to draw out its sinister undercurrents, but it’s hard to imagine Parsifal being seduced by either the maidens or Kundry here. As the most ambiguous figure within the work, there is certainly a case for emphasising Kundry’s different roles as a woman in the work - and the symbolism certainly suggested as much - but it’s difficult to establish a sense of the character being anything more than all things to all men. She’s a mother with deep reserves of love and compassion, a lover, a whore and a temptress a distraction from the man with purity of purpose. She doesn’t need to be quite so open, but like all the other concepts in this production, it seemed unable to settle for any one interpretation or even unifying concept, leaving all possibilities there to be read as desired.

If there was a lack of vision in the production’s visual and conceptual interpretation of the work, it often looked marvellous and at least provided a suitable platform for the singers to bring a much needed sense of humanity and meaning to the words. The Met’s casting was the principal attraction here. Jonas Kaufmann was a memorable Parsifal, his performance here likely to be the standard that any modern production of Parsifal in the world today is likely to be judged against. His voice, his delivery and his interpretation made this an almost soulful performance. We had to really wait until the third act to get the full impact - his Act II duets alongside Katarina Dalayman’s Kundry were less effective than those in Act III with René Pape’s Gurnemanz - but this was glorious, dreamy singing and deeply persuasive of the real character and meaning of the work that was lacking elsewhere in the production itself.

It helped that Pape was able to reach deeply into his character also with a beautiful soft Wagnerian line free of bluster. He was strong in his long first Act narration, but unassisted by anything to work with in the production design and concept, it wasn’t until the transcendental third Act that he was able to lift this to another level, presumably buoyed by Kaufmann’s sensitive performance. Katarina Dalayman’s Kundry was wonderfully sung, but I failed to gain any sense of who or what her character was supposed to be from this production or from her interaction with Kaufmann’s Parsifal. Philipp Stölzl’s recent Deutsche Oper production of Parsifal had its flaws certainly, but it at least put Kundry at the centre of the work and Evelyn Herlitzius explored the vocal and emotional range of the character more effectively. Dalayman’s performance was by no means weak however, and there were no weaknesses to be found elsewhere in Peter Mattei’s painfully agonised and deeply moving Amfortas, while Evgeny Nikitin brought a sense of real danger and purpose to his Klingsor that avoided all the evil-villain clichés - notwithstanding his being bathed in and wading in blood throughout the second Act.

You could go down as far as Rúni Brattaberg’s Titurel the individual Flower Maidens here and you’d still not find a single weak link in the singing performances. Gatti’s conducting, which I found more persuasive divorced from the images when I listened back to the performance on the radio broadcast, the beautiful playing of the work by the Met orchestra and the strong consistent singing of a fine cast, all did at least work hand-in-hand with Girard’s direction and Michael Levine’s set designs. Even if it lacked a visionary edge to match Wagner’s majestic final testament, this was a mesmeric Parsifal that did justice to one of the greatest works in all of opera.

DutchmanRichard Wagner - The Flying Dutchman

NI Opera, 2013 | Nicholas Chalmers, Oliver Mears, Bruno Caproni, Giselle Allen, Stephen Richardson, Paul McNamara, Adrian Dwyer, Doreen Curran | Grand Opera House, Belfast, 15th & 17th February 2013

The outcome was never really in doubt. NI Opera’s award-winning track record has been impressive since their inception two years ago, the scale and calibre of the works presented increasingly ambitious, from Menotti’s The Medium and Puccini’s site-specific Tosca in Derry through to newly commissioned work for NI Opera Shorts and a production of Noye’s Fludde that travelled to Beijing. Putting on a Wagner opera however is a challenge on another scale entirely. Even if Der Fliegende Holländer is one of the composer’s shorter works, it is scarcely any less demanding in the very specific orchestral and singing requirements that are quite different from the popular aria-driven Italian opera.

Admittedly however, while the First Act of the English language version of The Flying Dutchman was capably performed here at the Grand Opera House in Belfast - the first ever fully-staged performance of the work in Northern Ireland - it did feel a little flat. Something was missing. Still, no cause for immediate concern. The First Act of The Flying Dutchman is quite difficult, the stormy overture a prelude to a gloom-laden hour of long passages of deep, grave male singing - mostly basses and baritones - as the dark figure of the Dutchman recounts the horror of his curse, doomed to sail the seas for eternity, finding land again after seven years in the vain hope that the love of a good and faithful woman will set him free. There’s not a whole lot of light and shade here, much less dramatic action and, even with the familiarity now of Wagner’s brilliant leitmotifs and their hints of what is to come, it’s always been a fairly demanding opening sequence.

Like much of Wagner though you just have to bear with it, as the forthcoming rewards more often than not merit the long drawn-out pacing and slow development of situations. (And yes, I realise that this review seems to be adopting the same principle - long-windedly positing doom and gloom with the promise of redemption to come). That’s because Wagner has a secret weapon in reserve for the Second Act, which is the arrival of Senta. It’s a device that Wagner would unleash in a more fluid manner in the revised version of the opera - played straight through with linking sections and no breaks between acts - but if you listen carefully she’s there in a leitmotif during the Vorspiel to Act One. Recognising this, NI Opera’s production did indeed effectively and with musical validity try to lift the First Act by bringing forward Senta’s first appearance to the dreamily melancholic Senta leitmotif in the overture, the young woman walking across a stormy shoreline as the snow starts to fall. And it even sounded to me like conductor Nicholas Chalmers wrung an extra ounce of romantic sensitivity out of the Ulster Orchestra during this sequence. Despite the dramatic shortcomings then and musical unevenness of the weighty first Act (Daland and the Dutchman’s duet sounding like something that has wandered in from an Italian opera) with a staging was unable to give it any kind of boost, this nonetheless boded promisingly for what was to come.

We had to wait until after the interval then for the deployment of Wagner’s incendiary device, but NI Opera clearly also had one or two secret weapons of their own in their armoury to ensure that this Dutchman took flight. One was the remarkable performance of Giselle Allen as Senta, the other was the energetic drive and virtuosity of the Ulster Orchestra. OK, nothing there that will really come as any great surprise to those of us familiar with the qualities Northern Ireland’s finest, but the way they were brought into play was impressive nonetheless. You could virtually hear a sigh of relief from the audience as the curtain lifted on what looked like a church assembly hall in the 1970s - a bright, colourful scene-shift from the gloom of Act One - where the ladies sat spinning at their Singer sewing machines, the beauty of the assembled female voices soaring with optimism and hope that the sea would deliver the safe return of their men.

Doreen Curran’s glowering Mary wonderfully kept the proceedings from getting too cheery, but it was of course the ringing tones of Giselle Allen’s Senta whose romantic spinning of the tale of the cursed captain and his crew dominated and directed the whole tone of the Second Act. Responding to the urgings of her fellow seamstresses, this Senta did indeed seem to be possessed by a demon, sitting down and seeming to slip into a trance as she recounted the myth of the Flying Dutchman. Much as Chalmers managed to place some emphasis on the Vorspiel’s dreamy Senta leitmotif, stage director Oliver Mears similarly allowed Senta’s romanticism to invade the whole work whenever she was present, allowing the necessary spell to be woven that would make the Dutchman’s arrival - and the long silent gaze that lies between them - all the more dramatic. Retaking the same positions into this locked gaze after their duet, it was as if the romanticism of the encounter takes place in more in Senta’s head than in reality.

Dramatically then, as well as in the all-important delivery of the exceptional singing demands that are necessary to make this work convincingly, NI Opera’s The Flying Dutchman succeeded at least in finding the right tone. It even allowed for one or two moments of humour to sit well alongside all the weighty recounting of ancient legends, such as Senta’s father Daland approving of the couple making each other’s acquaintance while they are in the middle of a hot-and-heavy, passionate, sweeping-everything-off-the-table kind of entanglement on the nearest available substitute for a bed. Quite why the setting of the seventies was chosen however wasn’t entirely clear. There didn’t appear to be any real attempt to connect the legend of the Dutchman to the Troubles, even if there is a certain amount of recognition of Belfast’s history as a port and ship-building city. There’s no obligation of course for NI Opera to make every local production site-specific, and attempting to do so with Wagner could lead to some ill-advised and ill-fitting parallels that would never work convincingly (Senta a militant activist waiting for the delivery of an arms shipment? The homeless “Dutchman” seeking to rid himself of the curse of his nation’s occupation?), so perhaps allowing the work to speak for itself in the 70s is enough. It certainly worked on those terms alone.

Well, not quite alone. Both the male and the female choruses were in wonderful voice and with the driving accompaniment of the orchestra, their powerful contribution to the impact of the overall work was well directed and delivered. Crucially however there were also solid performances from the main roles in Bruno Caproni’s brooding Dutchman and Giselle Allen’s obsessive Senta. The Belfast soprano sustained a magnificent tension right the second act and the close of the third, a veritable Senta-bomb that exploded on the stage of the Grand Opera House in a blood-drenched death scene climax of nerve-shattering high notes. If my own reaction is anything to go by, the audience were surely gasping for breath by that point. If you can’t achieve that kind of impact doing Wagner though, there’s really no point even attempting it, but when you have Giselle Allen and the Ulster Orchestra at your disposal and operating on the kind of form shown here, there was never likely to be any serious concern about the outcome.

ParsifalRichard Wagner - Parsifal

Deutsche Oper, Berlin 2012 | Donald Runnicles, Philipp Stölzl, Mara Kurotschka, Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester, Albert Pesendorfer, Matti Salminen, Klaus Florian Vogt, Thomas Jesatko, Evelyn Herlitzius, Burkhard Ulrich, Andrew Harris, Kim-Lilian Strebel, Annie Rosen, Paul Kaufmann, Matthew Pena, Hulkar Sabirova, Martina Welschenbach, Rachel Hauge, Hila Fahima, Annie Rosen, Dana Beth Miller | 25 October 2012

Director Philipp Stölzl’s approach to the Deutsche Oper’s new 2012/13 production of Parsifal in Berlin is immediately and firmly established by the extraordinary setting for the work’s Overture. On a rocky recreation of Golgotha, Christ hangs from a cross in a meticulously detailed tableau vivant representation of the Crucifixion. Surrounded by onlookers freeze-framed in various states of anguish and despair, with Roman soldiers guarding the area, one significantly (as far as this opera is concerned) with a lance, the figures move in slow motion as Christ dies on the cross during the length of the overture, his side is pierced by the soldier’s spear and the blood that runs from it is caught in the chalice and respectfully coveted by his followers. It’s a powerful way to start a performance of this work, and when you have as beautiful a piece of music as the Overture to Parsifal, why waste it on something less than monumental? Solemn, respectful and dignified, the scene is however also completely relevant to the opera’s Passion play exploration of suffering and redemption through death and rebirth and appropriate in how those concepts are tied up by Wagner into the symbolic images of the Lance and the Holy Grail.

Any performance of Wagner’s remarkable final work should indeed be something of a spiritual experience over the course of its four and a half hour length, but there was a sense that Philipp Stölzl’s production here (co-directed by Mara Kurotschka) was perhaps a little too solemn and reverential - or perhaps somewhat too grandiose - to really touch on the transcendental elements of the work. If there’s a touch of kitsch to the production - something characteristic of this director - it’s appropriate to one where the iconography and glorification of Christ’s passion adheres to a certain Catholic tradition. You don’t need to look too far beyond the condition of Amfortas - the Knight of the Holy Grail in agony from a perpetual wound caused by the lance, his suffering deepened by each display of the Holy Grail that gives sustenance and renewed vigour to its followers - to recognise that it’s the question of suffering that is central to the work in how it can be a redemptive force. There was certainly plenty of pain on display in the Deutsche Oper’s new production - the opera house celebrating its 100th anniversary - but little sense of it leading to any kind of transcendental enlightenment.

Despite the prettification of the visuals, every ounce of the earth-shattering, curtain-tearing pain depicted in Christ’s Crucifixion and the despair in the faces of his followers (most notably in one Mary Magdalene/Kundry figure at the margins) is there in the opening scene and retained to be built upon by the events recounted by Gurnemanz and enacted in Parsifal’s journey to recover the Holy Spear from the hands of Klingsor. Stölzl recognises that all that suffering shown in the opening scene is going to be caught up in the musical themes established by Wagner in the Overture, and it consequently becomes impossible to disassociate the suffering of Christ himself every time those leitmotifs swirl and swell throughout the remainder of the work. And just in case the musical expression isn’t powerful enough (and under the baton of Donald Runnicles it often was, even if lacked any real character or vision), the director also uses every visual element to emphasise and add to the near overwhelming display of agony and despair.

That can be as simple as the Monsalvat set design sharing many of the rocky structures and contours of the opening Golgotha scene, but the subsequent scenes also reflect the opening, being mostly static in arrangement, each scene like a 3-dimensional engraving of one of the Stations of the Cross, a single image frieze set in slow motion movement. The set designs by Conrad Moritz Reinhardt and Stölzl moreover allow every element of the work to be examined in detail and every character to be explored for their own personal suffering that contributes to the collective pain. Even every element of the backstory narrated at length by Gurnemanz is depicted visually in mini scenes, as beautifully arranged and brutal as a Caravaggio painting, that are played out in the background on the tops of rocky outcrops. This production of Parsifal is as visually striking as previous Stölzl productions I’ve seen (Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini and most notably his production of Wagner’s Rienzi, also for the Deutsche Oper), beautifully arranged, lit and coloured, more than a little kitch but - within its own designs - it’s also much more respectfully faithful here to the tone of the work in question.

It’s actually perhaps a little too literal and respectful for a work that should also have a life in a spiritual dimension. (That might sound like a pretentious statement for any other work, but not for this one). There’s no doubt that this production - musically as well as visually and conceptually - is completely faithful to the spirit of the work, but it never seems to get beyond it to illuminate or elevate the underlying meaning. That’s evidently a tall order for a work that is wrapped up in Wagner’s complex and contradictory ideas and philosophies, but while Stölzl’s production is not without its own personal touches in its examination of these concepts, they don’t really amount to much and don’t resolve into any kind of satisfactory conclusion. The confusion is best exemplified within the role of Amfortas - the Christ figure of the work - who is not healed by the lance at the end here, but allowed to escape from his pain through death at its touch. This perhaps relates to the very specific Good Friday notions of death and rebirth in a work that the composer described as a Bühnenweihfestspiel - “A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage” - but quite where the necessary rebirth/transcendence is supposed to come from is less than clear. There is a suggestion however that the key to this interpretation could lie within the figure of Kundry.

More so than Parsifal or Amfortas, or even Gurnemanz, the focus in this production is very much on that contradictory element of Kundry, whose role is one of the ambiguities that the work principally revolves around - the saint and the sinner, the serpent and the agent of salvation. In this production she’s there at the crucifixion in the guise of Mary Magdalene, and is therefore the single element of continuity (other than the Grail and the Lance) that runs through the whole work, appearing in Gurnemanz’s backstory, being instrumental in bringing about Parsifal’s self-enlightenment, and in the end recognising her role to serve the new protector of the Grail. Here however, in the very final scene of the production, she seems to become terrified of the prospect of the worship and power that this inspires in Parsifal and the Grail’s followers, and where such Christian fervour might lead - a reference perhaps to future religious conflicts or perhaps, since it now seems almost obligatory to acknowledge in a Wagner opera, a premonitory vision of the rise of Nazism. As depicted by Evelyn Herlitzius in the role, Kundry remains a (female) figure of considerable interest and ambiguity, but quite how it all ties together must - perhaps necessarily considering the nature of the work - remain a mystery.

If the work never comes together musically or conceptually in a way that entirely lives up to the proposal put forward in the audacious opening scene, it’s through no fault of the singing performances. Now 67, Matti Salminen was simply superb, fulfilling everything that is required of a Gurnemanz, his deep, beautifully weighted sonorous tones providing the solid basis and solemn gravity that anchors the work in the real world while simultaneously hinting at timeless mysteries. One would think that Klaus Florian Vogt’s light lyrical tenor voice would not be as well suited to the Heldentenor role of Parsifal as it is to his angelic Lohengrin (even though the two characters are mythologically related), but yet again he brings another vocal dimension to a familiar role, demonstrating a capability of pulling those deeper resonant chest sounds out where necessary - such as in his cry of ‘Amfortas!’ at the recognition scene of the meaning of pain, suffering and love - and filling them with an expressive lightness and sensitivity. Dramatically however and in expression of his character, he was given little to work with by the director. Evelyn Herlitzius on the other hand had a rather more substantial personality as this production’s Kundry and rose to the challenge exceptionally well, emoting and projecting the sentiments of the work through some fine singing. Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester (Amfortas), Albert Pesendorfer (Titurel) and Thomas Jesatko (Klingsor) were more than adequate if they didn’t make quite as much of an impression as the principal roles, but there was also some lovely singing from the three Flowermaidens.

MeistersingerRichard Wagner - Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg

Glyndebourne, 2011 | Vladimir Jurowski, David McVicar, Gerald Finley, Marco Jentzsch, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Alastair Miles, Anna Gabler, Topi Lehtipuu, Michaela Selinger, Colin Judson, Andrew Slater, Henry Waddington, Robert Poulton | Opus Arte

It’s tempting to make a snap judgement about a production of a Wagner opera right from the first note, and it’s surprising how just accurate that judgement can often turn out to be. I’d suggest that you can get a feel for the tone of the whole 2011 Glyndebourne production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg just from Vladimir Jurowski’s conducting of the London Philharmonic Orchestra through the opera’s beautiful overture. Being Wagner, everything is there upfront in the Vorspiel to Act I, and in such a work with its richness of meaning and infinite ways of interpretation, you could aim for an approach that is respectful and serious, emphatic and declamatory, sensitive and romantic, even playful and irreverent and you would still be touching on vital ingredients that are all part of the make-up of Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg. You might well pick up elements of those qualities in this Glyndebourne production - and by rights they should all be in there - but from the very first note my overriding impression was that there was a particularly English touch to the delivery that emphasises the qualities in this remarkable work that one doesn’t find so readily in the composer’s other grand music dramas - a lightness, a warmth, a sense of humour and an air of melancholy, the tug of deep human emotions bound up in something great and beautiful.

Fortunately, the whole production is working from the same hymn sheet - quite literally, as the curtain rises in Act I on the domed arches of the interior of St Catherine’s Church in Nuremburg, the figures in the pews suffused in the bright midsummer morning light, and the youthful, lyrical voices of this production’s Walther, David, Eva and Lena confirm the initial impression. Die Meistersinger however is a work of magnificent balance and it needs to be. The lightness of the ecstatic emotions of youthful love and idealism expressed in the opening scenes must be tested against the realities of the world when Walther realises that his only hope of marrying this beautiful girl Eva is to win her by proving himself as a Meistersinger. It’s a mark of the depth of his love, a proof of his own individual worth and talent, and a sign of respect for the tradition, the hard work and the craft of the townspeople of Nuremburg. It’s not enough here then for Wagner to focus on the all-consuming passion of love (we have Tristan und Isolde for that), but here he explores how that kind of idealistic purity - expressed in the singing in the music - can find its own voice while respecting tradition and achieving the acceptance of the wider public.

That encompasses a lot of intangibles - expressed powerfully nonetheless in Wagner’s near-miraculous score - relating to the feelings and the experience of the older generation, as personal, unfathomable and unreachable in the past (in the case of Hans Sachs) or as ridiculous (as in the case of Beckmesser) as they might sometimes appear to the youthful apprentices. Wagner accords equal importance to the lives of these characters, respecting their traditions and the craft, finding beauty and truth in it, something that the younger generation can learn from, expand upon and develop into something new, original and personal, yet at the same time something still inherently German. Evidently, the opera - apart from everything else - is also a case of special pleading for Wagner’s own reform of the music-drama and art as the highest expression and extension of true German tradition and values, and he could hardly make a finer case for it than Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg, the work demonstrating the poetic beauty and complexity of the composer’s writing at its highest maturity, not weighed down by the heavy declamation and language of ancient myths, nor overburdened with leitmotifs and symbolism as in some of his other works, but the one Wagner opera most open to the wonder of the human soul, as expressed in the human voice and in musical accompaniment, in art or simply in the craft of honest labour.

This is a light, delicate and sensitive treatment of a beautifully balanced, thoughtful and considered work then, a far cry from the most recent Bayreuth production. I don’t always like the odd touches that David McVicar adds to his productions and I often find him weak on a cohesive concept, but I can rarely fault him on his ability to hit on the perfect mood and find the most effective way of expressing it through the performers and in their relationship with all the other aspects of the production and musical performance. His work for this Glyndebourne production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg is just about flawless. It’s perhaps a little unadventurous - setting the work within the years of Wagner’s “apprenticeship” around 1820 rather than the original 16th century setting - but his handling of the diverse moods and rhythms of the work is masterful throughout. Having established that mood in the church scene of Act I and achieved the balance though the sacred test of Walther’s Meistersinger ambitions, McVicar likewise strikes the perfect balance between the tricky mood swings of Act II, between the romantic idealism of Eva, the melancholy of Sachs, the despair and hope of Walther through to the comedy of Beckmesser’s serenade and the uproar of the finale. It’s a complete night of midsummer madness, and absolutely riveting. The incredible journey of Act III’s even wider range of emotions that has Hans Sachs at its heart, takes in all the melancholy of the Vorspeil, the slapstick of Beckmesser’s interfering, the community aspect of the festival and the ‘Prize Song’ without ever missing a beat or hitting an incongruous note that isn’t suggested by the score.

Everything about the production respects this, having a cohesiveness in the period design, in the enclosed sacred locations - the church as much as the craftsman’s workshop or the community square - in the lighting, in the little touches of humour and irreverence. There’s also a recognition that everything important that needs to be expressed is there in the music itself, within the very structure of Wagner’s composition which is the very definition of his views on the strength and power of the music-drama, the two aspects conjoined and inseparable, each supporting the other to create a rhythm and balance between the surface drama and the inner nature, with all the contradictions and complexity that this implies. It’s enough to give the work room to breathe and allow the performers of the music and the singing to consider the detail, interpret it and express it through their individual strengths of personality. There’s never a moment where you are waiting to get to the next more interesting scene, every moment has its own magic and Jurowski and McVicar give the singers all the opportunity they need to luxuriate in the beauty and the rich wonder of Wagner’s incredible score, revealing it in all its majestic glory.

Gerald Finley’s performance of Hans Sachs is the best example of this. Rarely have I ever seen Finley look so at home in a role, his lovely baritone sounding warm, rounded and unforced, not over-expressive, but arising naturally out of consideration for his character, rolling around the beauty and the very sound of the words, taking the time to consider their meaning and luxuriate in their phrasing. But it’s far from the only impressive singing performance, the clear lyrical lightness of Marco Jentzsch’s Walther and Topi Lehpituu’s David both perfect foils for Anna Gabler’s emotional Eva and Michaela Selinger’s Lena. If their singing could be considered to lack traditional Wagnerian force, the work gains from their youthful sincerity of feeling. On the other side of the coin, but perfectly complementary, Alastair Miles displays a studious good natured gravity and solemnity as Pogner with a tone that is as beautiful as it is expressive. You could listen to this for hours. Beckmesser’s comic value is easy to overplay and demonise and the role consequently has a tendency to be underrated in comparison to the earnestness of the other characters, but he’s no less a vital component to the overall structure and tone and Johannes Martin Kränzle brings colour and personality to the role, with lots of comic grimacing, slapstick and double-takes, all of which fit in perfectly with the tone presented here.

This is as memorable as Meistersinger as any you’ll find, one that capitalises on the intimacy of the Glyndebourne theatre and finds an appropriate tone in the performance, the staging and the singing to delve more deeply into the particular human qualities that are unique to this Wagner music-drama, expressing everything that is great about this work on levels I’ve never considered before. The Glyndebourne effect and the challenges of staging Wagner there is explored in the concise extra features, in interviews with Jurowski, McVicar and Finley, with particular consideration on the approach taken for this work. The Glyndebourne relationship with Wagner is also covered in the accompanying booklet, which also contains a full synopsis. The quality of the Opus Arte Blu-ray production is exemplary in every respect, from the screen direction by François Roussillon, to the well-lit High Definition image and the lovely detail revealed in the HD audio mixes. The 2-disc BD set is of course compatible for all regions, but includes only English, French and German subtitles.

LohengrinRichard Wagner - Lohengrin

Bayreuth Festival 2011| Andris Nelsons, Hans Neuenfels, Reinhard von der Thannen, Georg Zeppenfeld, Klaus Florian Vogt, Annette Dasch, Jukka Rasilainen, Petra Lang, Samuel Youn, Stefan Heibach, Willem van der Heyden, Rainer Zaun, Christian Tschelebiew | Opus Arte

It’s refreshing to see Wagner approached with a critical eye, one that doesn’t just accept his work with a deferential, respectful attitude, played straight and full of grandiose pomposity, but rather strives to find the deeper qualities in his work and consider how - or even whether - they still have meaning and relevance to the world of opera and to the world in general. It’s also refreshing - surprising for some, shocking for others - that it’s at Bayreuth, the home of Wagner and under the directorship of the composer’s great-daughter Katarina Wagner, that some of the most radical and irreverent productions are being undertaken. Hans Neuenfels’ 2010 production of Lohengrin, recorded here at the Festival in 2011, is consequently another radical reworking of Wagner’s own mythology that has generated some amount of controversy and bewilderment, and it’s not hard to see why.

Lohengrin has always been one of the most difficult Wagner operas to approach, partly because of where it stands in the development of the composer finding his own voice and partly because of the history that has become attached to it through its association with Nazism. Even though the work is often grouped as one of the three earlier operas (along with Der Fliegende Höllander and Tannhäuser) that saw Wagner still finding his way towards the reformation of opera into a music-drama artform that would exalt and give expression to essential German characteristics as expressed in ancient myths and legends, it is nonetheless the most clear and consistently ‘Wagnerian’ of those earlier works. If there is any fault with the work, it’s not so much musical as the fact that it tends to put across those ideals of German purity across in a way that allowed them to be treated simplistically and seized upon in later years as an expression of Aryan supremacy. With its bold choruses of Germanic voices chanting ‘Sieg Heil’, the subsequent history of the work beyond the composer’s lifetime can’t be ignored, and it means that a director needs to be very careful about how such scenes are staged.

Lohengrin

Hans Neuenfels’ idea then isn’t in itself necessarily a bad one. He correctly sees that there is much more to Lohengrin than solemn declarations of Germanic might and purity, but that there is an essential element of humanity and romanticism in the work. And not only does it subject those noble characteristics to examination, but there is a wider consideration and a deep understanding in Lohengrin of the flaws and weaknesses in the German character also, as well as a sense of humour that is often ignored in Wagner. In some respects then for Neuenfels, Lohengrin represents a kind of social experiment for Wagner, where he pits conflicting German characteristics against each other - often in very broad terms of good and evil - and explores the impact they have on society, here in its setting of Brabant. Little did Wagner realise how those German characteristics would later find expression in Nazism, or how much the work itself would play a part in the formation of those ideals, but perhaps Lohengrin’s social experiment does indeed prophetically shed a light on just how German society can give rise to those kind of sentiments.

The difficulty with Neuenfels’ direction of Lohengrin for Bayreuth however is in how he and production designer Reinhard von der Thannen take the idea of the opera as a social experiment through a reductio ad absurdum where Brabant literally becomes a laboratory and its citizens run around for the most part dressed in black, white and pink mouse costumes. It all looks very silly indeed and definitely not how you expect to see Wagner traditionally produced. But then again it’s clearly the intention of the director to totally break down those preconceptions and the historical baggage that comes with the opera, and at the very least you can safely say that there has never been a Lohengrin like this one. The staging is colourful and well-choreographed, while the modernist, clean-line, brightly lit stage that is now a distinctive feature of Bayreuth in recent years is far from the dark theatricality that you normally associate with opera productions. Using animated sequences moreover, the production takes a Rashomon-like perspective on the nature of Truth (Wahrheit) in relation to the alleged drowning of Gottfried, the heir to the throne of Brabant, by his sister Elsa, and highlights the changing reaction of the people (the rats), to the unfolding of these events. Along with the people’s reaction to the call to arms by King Heinrich “The Fowler” to fight against Hungary that comes at the same time, this is definitely an interesting angle to explore.

Lohengrin

As a theme then, the production certainly has validity and relevance to Wagner’s work, remaining relatively faithful to its narrative progression despite the often absurd imagery that is used, and it is at least fascinating to watch and highly original. Rather than bringing out any underlying complexity in the work however, it seems to either just exaggerate the broad black-and-white characterisation in the most simplistic terms with blatant symbolism (swans on one side, rats on the other) and obvious colour-coding, or else smother it in obscure references and imagery when the fit isn’t quite perfect. It hardly deals with the more problematic questions raised by the work and its historical legacy, and despite the attempt to draw out the type of humour from the work that you might find more readily in Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg, it doesn’t seem to work particularly well with the musical language employed by Wagner either. It’s more of a “commentary” on Lohengrin than a vision that makes a true meaningful connection with the work. Whether this failing to fully connect with the heart of the piece is a problem for the performers or not is hard to say, but although it’s wonderfully played by the orchestra, Andris Nelsons at least seems to struggle to find a tone to match the uneven and bizarre antics on the stage.

The singing too - something unfortunately not always given due consideration at Bayreuth - is again not really strong enough here to make the idea work, although some singers manage better than others. Klaus Florian Vogt is simply made to play Lohengrin, singing it here - as he does in the Kent Nagano/Nikolaus Lehnhoff production already available on Blu-ray - with a beautiful lyrical purity of tone that seems wonderfully fitted to his character. His voice could hardly be more of a contrast to that of Jonas Kaufmann who sang the role in this production last year. Georg Zeppenfeld is also very impressive as King Henry, singing wonderfully with authority but also with an edge of character instability that works well with the concept here. Petra Lang alone gives the kind of powerful, commanding Wagnerian performance you would expect. She is absolutely stunning on those high passages - although not always as strong across the range - and she consequently cuts an appropriately fearsome figure as Ortrud. She seems to adapt better to the ‘baddie’ role than Jukka Rasilainen, who looks and sounds hopelessly out of place here as Telramund. Annette Dasch too clearly finds the singing and the interpretation something of a struggle - but Elsa is by no means an easy role and there are enough good points to admire in her performance here. The chorus work - notwithstanding its members having to wear rat costumes - is simply outstanding.

Lohengrin

On Blu-ray in High Definition, the brightly lit and colourful stage looks most impressive, the cameras finding plenty of low and high angles to capture the whole scope of the stage direction without getting too carried away. The audio tracks, in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 are exceptionally good, with the orchestra and singing well recorded and mixed. Instead of the usual bland Bayreuth Making Of feature, the extras principally consist of four five minute interviews with Katarina Wagner, Hans Neuenfels, Klaus Florian Vogt and Annette Dasch, but also include a Cast Gallery and the three animated Wahrheit sequences. The booklet contains an essay with further information and interpretation of the ideas in the production, and a full synopsis.

GotterdammerungRichard Wagner - Götterdämmerung

Metropolitan Opera, New York 2012 | Fabio Luisi, Robert Lepage, Deborah Voigt, Wendy Bryn Harmer, Waltraud Meier, Jay Hunter Morris, Iain Paterson, Eric Owens, Hans-Peter König, Erin Morley, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Tamara Mumford, Maria Radner, Elizabeth Bishop, Heidi Melton | The Met: Live in HD, Feb 11th 2012

The evolution of the Metropolitan Opera’s Ring cycle has been gradual but noticeable through each of the four parts spread across its 2010/11 and 2011/12 seasons. Initially in the prologue, Das Rheingold, the spectacle of Robert Lepage’s Machine was clearly an impressive and revolutionary piece of stage technology, but its concept and purpose were not entirely proven. At the very least however, the opening section of the Met’s Ring cycle delighted with a stunning display of powerful singing. Neither the staging nor the singing were entirely consistent across Die Walküre nor Siegfried, but as James Levine’s illness forced him to gave way to Fabio Luisi on the conductor’s podium, a more equitable balance seemed to develop between the production and the performance that played to the strengths of Wagner’s masterwork, even if that meant a little less power in the vocal delivery. If Siegfried held out the promise that Lepage’s vision could end up being a memorable Ring production, that promise was satisfyingly achieved in its epic final evening. With Götterdämmerung, the Met’s Ring has come full circle.

Following on from Siegfried, Fabio Luisi again conducted a Wagner of Romantic sweep over the traditional heavy Germanic declamation, perhaps in favour of two leads who don’t have the full force that is usually demanded for the roles of Siegfried and Brünnhilde – Jay Hunter Morris and Deborah Voigt. The toning down of the dramatics and tone also worked fittingly with a subtlety in the stage design that belies the sheer weight and imposing presence of the Machine. Like Wagner’s score for Götterdämmerung, the underlying power of the tools at one’s disposal can be a temptation for overstatement, but it can be even more effective if that huge mass of force is suggested and used only sparingly. Clearly both Luisi and Lepage understand that. This is a Ring for the 2010s then, faithful to Wagner’s vision of the power of mythology and of the music drama as the highest expression of human artistic endeavour, taking it to a new level through the modern technology that is at the disposal of an imaginative director.

Gotterdammerung
Lepage’s vision for the production didn’t appear to yield any grand conceptual theme other than how best to make Wagner’s daunting and problematic series of operas work in a modern context without all its accumulated history and tradition. Particularly in the earlier parts, the morphing planks and projections worked mainly on a literal basis to create the imposing presence of Valhalla, an impenetrable forest or a mountain cave housing a dragon, but as the cycle progressed, the emphasis shifted more towards the abstract conceptual. The polymorphous nature of the technology was still well-employed to give solidity to the physicality of the story – the riverside playground of the Rhinemaidens for example actually looking more realistic here than how it was projected during Das Rheingold – but the colours, lighting and abstract patterns elsewhere in Götterdämmerung seemed to be more attuned to mood.

It may seem like making excuses for slightly underpowered performances, but it was actually refreshing to find a Siegfried and a Brünnhilde playing not as mythical god-like figures, but as the human characters they essentially and necessarily are. No excuses however need to be made, even for the fact that both Jay Hunter Morris and Deborah Voigt were taking on enormous challenges way beyond anything they have ever done in their careers; on their own terms their performances were exceptionally good and fitting for the production. The chemistry that seemed to be there between them at the end of Siegfried didn’t extend however through to the first act of Götterdämmerung, both seeming a little overwhelmed, the lack of lower depth in both their voices even more noticeable when combined. Voigt however raised her game when paired with the formidable and experienced Wagernian mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier as Brünnhilde’s sister Valkyrie, Waltraude. Their sequence together was simply magnificent. For his part Morris won through from sheer determination and stamina in a severely testing role that demands a concentrated effort for six hours, but he also had a down-to-earth personality and charm that made the final scenes of the opera intimate and touching as well as being epically apocalyptic.

Gotterdammerung

If there were any misgivings about the appropriate Wagnerian tenor of the main roles not quite matching the earlier powerhouse performances of the likes of Bryn Terfel, Stephanie Blythe, Eric Owens and Jonas Kaufmann, there was again magnificent support here not only from Waltraud Meier, but Wendy Bryn Harmer proved to be a fine Gutrune, Hans-Peter König a formidable Hagen – blankly sinister in acting, but deeply menacing in tone of voice – and there was another impressive turn from Eric Owens who made the brief reappearance of Alberich more than memorable, particularly as his character is a vital link (and leitmotif) that sustains the overarching development and tone of the entire work. Only Iain Paterson failed to make his presence felt either as Gunther, but his weak-willed character was at least dramatically appropriate and fitting, and certainly not a weak element.

I can’t say what the experience would have been like in the theatre, but there was no evidence during the HD-Live broadcast of any noise from the stage equipment, or indeed any of the problematic breakdowns that have been the cause of complaints in some quarters. Everything on the stage flowed smoothly and impressively. On the big screen, Götterdämmerung was as grandly spectacular and as intimately moving as it ought to be, perfectly attuned to the score and the performances. The camerawork – directed a strong visual flair as usual by Gary Halvorson – was also well-judged to pick out the strengths in the performances and the production design, working with it, flowing with the mood of the piece. Although there are a few Ring productions still to come this year and next (the Munich one in particular should be interesting), when eventually viewed together as a full Ring cycle (it will be interesting to see if the first two are revised slightly to suit Luisi’s approach to the work) I think the full impact and consistency of this Met Ring will be better appreciated and it may even be regarded as one of the best of recent times.

Richard Wagner - Siegfried

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Fabio Luisi, Robert Lepage, Deborah Voigt, Patricia Bardon, Jay Hunter Morris, Gerhard Siegel, Bryn Terfel, Eric Owens | The Met: Live in HD - November 5, 2011

I’m sure there are few productions of Wagner’s epic Der Ring des Nibelungen tetrology – the most ambitious and gargantuan production for any opera company to undertake – that are not beset with numerous difficulties and set-backs (even Bayreuth seem to be finding it difficult to engage a director willing to take on such a challenge at the moment), but the Metropolitan Opera in New York certainly haven’t made it easy for themselves with their 2010-12 production. The new technology designed and constructed to meet Robert Lepage’s concept was certainly an ambitious and innovative solution to maintaining the necessary consistency, commonality and fluidity that runs through each of the four Ring operas, but it has had more than its share of teething problems across Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. The news that the maestro James Levine’s health problems had forced him to stand down from Met conducting duties this season was also quite a blow to the production. All of this however seems relatively minor in comparison to the challenge of finding a Siegfried to replace the one who has just succumbed to illness only weeks before the opening of the critical third instalment.

Siegfried

Enter tenor Jay Hunter Morris from Paris, Texas to replace the indisposed Gary Lehman, seemingly unfazed by the challenge of stepping into one of the most difficult roles in the entire opera repertoire on one of the biggest stages in the world of opera. A man either with no concept of the notion of fear or one who acts out of blithe innocence for a heroic endeavour, and as such, there can be no more perfect a match for the role of Siegfried. Jay Hunter Morris fits the bill on this count and in the other areas that matter. He’s not the most lyrical or dramatic heldentenor you will ever hear in the role, but there are few enough Wagnerian tenors in the world that fit that description that are capable of stepping into the role of Siegfried at a few weeks’ notice and Morris sings the role exceptionally well, carrying it off with courage, enthusiasm, stamina and personality, looking every inch a classic Siegfried. He’s certainly capable of slaying this particular dragon and that he does it so confidently is quite an achievement.

An achievement also, I’m happy to say now that we’re fully into the third part, is the gradual evolution of Lepage’s vision of the Ring cycle. Relying entirely on a huge heavy and complex piece of machinery, with no backdrops other than the computer generated images and lighting projected onto it, and little even in the way of props, the Machine was a risky gamble, and yes, it’s had its technical problems along the way. How well it works on a conceptual level is also debatable, but in terms of how it allows consistency, balance and fluidity, tackling complex scene changes, without unnecessary distraction or taking the focus away from the singers, is perfectly judged and balanced. Although undoubtedly difficult and complex to achieve, here in Siegfried it gives the impression of simplicity, managing to morph quickly and impressively from one scene and mood to the next without being overly showy. Less is definitely more when it comes to dealing with Wagner’s blend of myths and concepts – Lepage understands this, Jay Hunter Morris understand this, and so too does Fabio Luisi, taking over capably from Levine and dealing admirably with the challenges that this difficult stage in Wagner’s masterwork presents.

Siegfried

There is however no element and no minor role that doesn’t present challenges for the individual singers and the performers in Siegfried, or for the director and conductor who has to keep a consistency between them and with the other parts of the tetraology. The dwarf Mime can be played and sung with too much comic exaggeration, but Gerhard Siegel has the experience to enter more fully and thoughtfully into the role, and fits in well with the tone already established in the production. There’s a darker impulse and desire lying beneath that chimes with the nature of his brother Alberich, re-evoked here again after Das Rheingold in the gorgeously rich deep tones of Eric Owens. Much of this is just colour to the overall purpose of Siegfried, but it’s vital that it fits in with the richness of the colour that Wagner interweaves into the musical tapestry for the interaction and motivations of main characters. There are perhaps too many echoes and motifs to juggle satisfactorily in this particular opera and not enough depth of plotting to gve it sufficient character of its own – although it’s a work of absolute genius on the part of Wagner to develop and extend this method – and consequently it’s not always done as well as it is managed here.

What helps ground the opera however are the importance of the roles and the performances of the central characters of Wotan, the Wanderer and Brünnhilde. Having grown steadily into the role after a solid but unimpressive Das Rheingold followed by a significantly more commanding Die Walküre, Bryn Terfel’s first Seigfried Wotan is simply wonderful here. His character’s motivations and personal conflicts of interest are difficult to make work dramatically, but if you just take Wotan at his word in song – and this production allows him the space to explore the character deeply that way – then he is an utterly convincing, flawed, tragic character. It’s a great performance. Scarcely less of a challenge dramatically and vocally, Deborah Voigt might not entirely satisfy critics of her Brünnhilde in Die Walküre – weak only in only some areas, I thought – but she rose to the challenge here in Siegfried, her casting fortuitously seeming to work well not only with Terfel’s Wotan in the previous Ring instalment, but complementing well with the humanity in Jay Hunter Morris’ performance.

I’m not sure that the Metropolitan Ring will be ever considered a classic or a revolutionary new look at Wagner’s masterwork, but through good choices in the casting – along with more than a little bit of luck – and through a thoughtful, considered and balanced approach to the score and the production design, those performers are given full range of interpretation and expression, which if it is not revelatory, is at least consistent and of the highest quality. The standard has been set at a high level and the scene is now set for the Twilight of the Gods. Bring on Götterdämmerung.

Richard Wagner - Tannhäuser

Opéra National de Paris, 2011 | Sir Mark Elder, Robert Carsen, Christof Fischesser, Christopher Ventris, Stéphane Degout, Stanislas De Barbeyrac, Tomasz Konieczny, Eric Huchet, Wojtek Smilek, Nina Stemme, Sophie Koch | Opéra Bastille, Paris - 17th October 2011

As one might expect from Robert Carsen – or indeed any modern director really who is confronted with the challenge of updating Richard Wagner’s grand subjects into a meaningful setting – the stage director has little time for the trappings of Tannhäuser’s ancient Teutonic mythology. He determines – quite correctly – that Tannhäuser is all about the struggle of the artist to find new challenges and inspiration and not rest on the laurels of acclaim and easy public acceptance (a subject no doubt close to the heart of the composer himself). Accordingly, there are no dramatic classical vistas of Venusberg with nymphs, fauns and satyrs all skipping around in his production for the Paris Opera, but rather, right from the outset of the wonderful overture to this opera, Carsen strips back everything to the essence of an artist driven but tormented in his attempts to paint the naked Venus, his inspiration, his obsession, his aphrodisiac – the urges all intertwined into everything that makes him an artist.

Tannhauser

The stage, still during the overture, consequently becomes filled with this obsession, the artist appearing in multiple forms, producing fevered canvasses – the paintings, the artists, the stage itself, all smeared and dripping with red paint, their own lifeblood. It’s a dark obsession, and the dark stage, stripped down, filled with frenzied activity, perfectly choreographed and atmospherically lit, captures everything that is there in the overture and expanded upon in the first Act. With great simplicity of design and movement, the nature of Tannhäuser’s predicament is fully achieved by making him a painter, his necessity to look elsewhere and start anew reflected in the blank canvasses that form a backdrop to the contest at Wartburg in Act II.

If there are any doubts about the approach to take with regard to the opera’s themes, one need only listen to the music itself. Tannhäuser was composed in 1849, when Wagner was still searching for a new form of expression for German art, leading towards the music-drama, yet had not yet totally escaped the conventions of the traditional form of Grand Opera. The need to confront the conflict between physical and spiritual urges, the imperfections that arise out of this, and the necessity for those imperfections in order to create a dialogue or dialectic, are there within Tannhäuser itself. Heinrich seeks to and needs to push the boundaries of convention and challenge the public and risk offending their delicate sensibilities, ultimately to serve God or a higher purpose. It’s what Wagner does also, and it’s what Carson, in a way, does in turn when he extends the scope of the stage in Act II by having characters walk down the aisles, as if the Paris audience were stepping onto the stage. That’s an old trick of course, but it’s meaningful here, since it directly addresses the question of public perception of art, and even the notorious response to the opera when it was first performed in Paris.

Tannhauser

Such an approach doesn’t always fully cover the complexities of Wagner’s vision and imagination – Tannhäuser to my mind is almost as esoteric, indefinable and personal to Wagner as Parsifal – and I’m not sure how any stage production could be, but the direct focus on the theme of art at least allows attention to be focussed on the characters, and here at the Bastille, the performances were extraordinarily good. Christopher Ventris handled the most demanding role of Tannhäuser terrifically. He has a beautifully toned voice and sung the role well, embodying the enthusiasm and the conflict of the struggling artist with every gesture and vocal expression. Nina Stemme’s Elisabeth also lived up to the high expectations that were placed on her, but the most pleasant surprises were Sophie Koch’s commanding and clarion-voiced Venus, and Stéphane Degout’s well-rounded baritone was consistently impressive as the conflicted Wolfram. The quality of the lower end of the vocal register is just as important to sustaining the whole scope of the opera’s musical and artistic themes, and we certainly got that here.

On that front also, the Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris was in magnificent voice (and isn’t Tannhäuser a glorious opera for Wagnerian choruses?) both off-stage and on-stage as sirens and pilgrims. With Sir Mark Elder conducting the orchestra wonderfully through the score, this was – as you would hope for considering the themes of the opera itself – an evening of supreme artistic effort.

TristanRichard Wagner - Tristan und Isolde

Opéra de Lyon | Kirill Petrenko, Àlex Ollé, La Fura dels Baus, Clifton Forbis, Ann Petersen, Christof Fischesser, Jochen Schmeckenbecher, Nabil Suliman, Stella Grigorian, Viktor Antipenko, Laurent Labardesque | Lyon, France - June 22, 2011

As someone who is not entirely convinced by the opera productions of the experimental Catalan theatrical group La Fura dels Baus – which in my experience tend to strive towards spectacle and concept (usually a rather ridiculous one) over fittingness, let alone fidelity, to an opera – I was a little concerned that Àlex Ollé’s talk of taking a symbolic view of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde for this new production at the Opéra de Lyon since “a descriptive or figurative staging would make no sense”.  It’s true that the themes of the opera are internalised and conceptual in nature, but the idea of two of opera’s most famous lovers hanging suspended from wires -as is often the case in La Fura dels Baus productions - floating above the mundane reality below, was a worrying prospect. Surprisingly then, particularly since the rather minimalist stage directions for Tristan und Isolde allows for some extreme interpretations, it turned out this particular production is surprisingly restrained and almost traditional, saving its spectacle effectively for those moments where the romantic nature of the opera really merits those special effects.

Tristan und Isolde is indeed rather straightforward and single minded in the purity of its romantic notion of love, but that doesn’t mean that the opera is in any way rational or easily defined. It’s littered with a richness of symbolism, conceptual imagery and contradictory elements relating to day and night, light and dark, to questions of time and distance, to life and death, all of which simultaneously define the nature of love while at the same time acknowledging its contradictions, its indefinability and its irrationality. Any attempt to take in all these allusions would result in a cluttered concept (it’s to Wagner’s credit and genius that this isn’t the case with the opera itself, propelled as it is by its own inner musical force and coherence), and, in my experience, it wouldn’t be beyond La Fura to attempt to do just that, and add a few of their own half-baked concepts as well. Instead, and to my pleasant surprise, Àlex Ollé focusses, as you must, on one aspect of the opera and builts the concept around that. In this case, it is the romantic tug and persuasion of the moon, whose gravitational force affects not only the tides, but is believed by many to affect human moods, behaviours and irrationality in people, as well as hold an irresistible romantic presence.

Tristan

Act 1 then makes use of a basic platform to represent the deck of the ship which is transporting Isolde from Ireland to Cornwall where she will be married to King Marke, with computer generated projections of the rolling sea on a screen behind. The platform revolves 360°, very slowly in one turn over the course of the First Act, while the moon appears as a blurred but bright sphere that solidifies in clarity as the nature of the relationship between Isolde and Tristan itself becomes clear. Superbly realised by the mood, the staging and the lighting, the emotional turmoil that each of them go through up to the moment of this realisation is reflected also in the motion of the waves, stormy at first, crashing against each other, until the moment of utter calm and abandonment arrives when they give themselves up to an expected death that does not come, but instead frees them of their inhibitions.

The moon becomes a concave sphere in Act 2 that stands for King Marke’s Cornwall, within which Tristan and Isolde’s love is trapped, as if within its own bubble. The contrast of darkness and light – the omnipresent imagery within the libretto for the Second Act – is reflected in the lighting and shifting shadows of trees that weave complex forms, building up to the moment when the burning desire within the protagonists explodes, and is expressed through a magnificent ring of fire effect. The illusory nature of their protective bubble collapses again through some fine projections that show the spherical edifice crumbling around them, as King Marke and his men discover the infidelity of his wife and his most trusted companion. For Act 3, this sphere is reversed, becomes convex, suggesting Tristan’s expulsion from the protective curve of Isolde and King Marke’s land, the desolation of the moon projected upon it evoking Tristan’s mood and state of mind, up until the moment that an extraordinarily effective glow of golden light is beamed through it at the consummation of their life in the death at the ‘Liebestod‘.

The singing was wonderful, particularly from Ann Petersen, who has all the necessary strength in her voice, but also a wonderful creamy tone that is deeply attractive, particularly for this role. (She will be singing Isolde for the Welsh National Opera at Cardiff in 2012, so look out for that). Clifton Forbis also has an attractive tone to his tenor voice, and although not always up to the level of Petersen, has all the necessary conviction where it counts. The two worked well together in this respect, and Forbis certainly made Tristan’s torment in Act 3 real and fully felt. The overall strength of the opera was rounded out by solid performances from Stella Grigorian’s Bragäne, Jochen Schmeckenbecher’s Kurwenal and Christof Fischesser’s King Marke, the orchestra of the Opéra de Lyon conducted well by Kirill Petrenko. Although solid and impressive on all fronts, in the performance and in the appropriate tone found throughout in the staging, ultimately for me however the production didn’t quite have the full emotional force or find that spark of magic that lies at the heart of Tristan und Isolde. A wonderful production nonetheless, visually imaginative and deeply involving in a way that certainly held the audience in its thrall.

WalkureRichard Wagner - Die Walküre

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | James Levine, Robert Lepage, Deborah Voigt, Bryn Terfel, Stephanie Blythe, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Jonas Kaufmann, Hans-Peter König | The Met: Live in HD - May 14, 2011

The second part of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, Die Walküre, closed the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD series for a 2010-11 season that had opened with the first of the Met’s new and ambitious Ring Cycle, Das Rheingold. Robert Lepage’s production of the prelude of the epic opera cycle certainly showed a lot of ambition and ingenuity, with a specially designed and constructed piece of twisting, revolving high-tech machinery that would serve as a backdrop and stage over and above the (reinforced) Met stage, but as to whether this Ring cycle would be one of the greats, well, like any staging of the complete work, judgements really need to be reserved until we get to Die Walküre. On the basis of now having two parts of Wagner’s massive work performed (with the remaining two parts Siegfried and Götterdämmerung to be staged in the Met’s 2011-12 season), it’s still a little too early to say, but the Lepage production is certainly looking like being a highly memorable new staging of the Ring Cycle.

What was at least already evident from Das Rheingold, beyond the obvious and impressive ingenuity of the morphing huge mechanical structure of “planks”, was the quality of the singing that lent the prelude’s entertaining fairytale of gods, giants and dwarfs with their lust for gold and power a deeper and rather more human quality than the opening part of the story is traditionally accorded. Whether that element would be sustained in Die Walküre was however in little doubt, with Bryn Terfel and Stephanie Blythe reprising their roles as Wotan and Fricka and a terrific casting that would see Deborah Voigt in the role of the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, Eva-Maria Westbroek (recently seen at the Royal Opera House as Anna Nicole) playing Sieglinde, Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund and Hans-Peter König as Hunding.

Die Walküre is structured in such a way that all these roles are of vital importance and any one weak link could bring the whole construction down. Act One depends on a strong bond being developed between Siegmund and Sieglinde, two twins, human Wälsung offspring of Wotan, separated at birth who meet and fall in love in an incestuous relationship that is to produce the important figure of Siegfried; Act Two is largely sustained and dramatically driven by the argument between Wotan and Fricka over Wotan’s meddling in human affairs and the threat to the sanctity of marriage that this incestuous relationship represents; Act Three, and really the opera as a whole, relies on the bond that exists between Wotan and Brünnhilde, his favourite daughter and leader of the Valkyrie, a warrior band of sisters whose task it is to lead heroes who have died in battle to Valhalla, who defies the will of her father to tragic consequences.

Walkure

As fine as the singers all are in these roles, Wagner’s Die Walküre presents tremendous vocal challenges that can expose those unused to its demands, so there were nonetheless potential dangers in each of the music-drama’s key relationships. More used to lyrical Italian tenor roles, Jonas Kaufmann however switched to a different register without too much difficulty, while Eva-Maria Westbroek, who I’ve seen do Puccini, Strauss and Turnage, clearly seems to be best suited to being a Wagner soprano, delivered the finest performance I have ever seen from her to date. Stephanie Blythe succeeded in making her Fricke seem more than a bitter shrew in the Second Act, the audience able to sympathise to some extent with her position, short-reaching and motivated by personal jealousy though it is, while Bryn Terfel’s Wotan at the same time did not seem weak in bowing to her demands, but rather fatalistically yielding to the inevitable fate that has been predicted by Erda at the end of Das Rheingold. The conclusion to Act II that brings all the characters together was therefore every bit as effective and doom-laden as it ought to be.

Where Die Walküre stands or falls however is in the father-daughter relationship between Wotan and Brünnhilde, and it was by no means certain that it would work in this production any better than the most recent Bayreuth production (on Blu-ray). Deborah Voigt showed a few wobbles in her earlier Met performances as Minnie in Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West, while Bryn Terfel – as terrific a singer and performer as we all know he is – failed to make a significant impression as Wotan in a Rheingold filled with much stronger Wagnerian voices. The real test of his Wotan however is in Die Walküre. It’s an opera I’ve seen him sing before most powerfully back in 2005 (in concert for the BBC Proms), and if anything his singing here was even better and his interpretation of the role much improved. And that is saying something. Deborah Voigt didn’t have the rich middle register that you’d ideally like to hear in the role of Brünnhilde, but she sang the role superbly and her lighter voice actually worked well in establishing her as an impetuous child torn between pleasing her father and incurring his wrath through an act – intervening in the fate of Siegmund – that she believes is necessary.

Walkure

The relationship between father and daughter is critical in dramatic terms and in human terms for the tragedy that unfolds, and Terfel and Voigt get it right, and not just in the Third Act. Act II establishes the nature of their relationship well, with some playful kidding around and punches to the shoulder that other productions would find difficult to countenance as being the actions of dark, serious immortals. The nature of the relationship changes as the drama progresses, and at every stage the two singers seem to be on the same page, Voigt’s sensitive Brünnhilde supporting the depth of feeling that Terfel draws out of Wotan’s terrible dilemma, truly giving him something to agonise over. It’s absolutely wonderful to see.

Also wonderful is watching the Met’s Ring Machine in operation, transforming fluidly in an instant from the dark and imposing forest of the opera’s stormy Vorspeil to Hunding’s lodge, the synchronised projections creating the necessary textures. It’s not overused either in a way that would dominate over the drama or the singing, blending subtly rather to meets the demands of the narrative and the mood, as it should. I would prefer it however if it was a little more integral to the opera and had some more obvious conceptual meaning. In an interview for ‘Opera News’ Robert Lepage makes interesting observations about Time and about the Ring Cycle being not so much a circle as a series of spiralling events, but it’s difficult to grasp this from watching Das Rheingold and Die Walküre alone. The remaining two instalments will prove whether something is made of that necessary conceptual element that will determine whether this is to be a truly great Ring Cycle or not, but even from a spectacle viewpoint and from the quality of the performances so far – not least with James Levine leading a storming Metropolitan orchestra performance – this is shaping up to be a memorable staging of one of the opera’s greatest achievements.

Next Page »