Götterdämmerung — first reaction

Date: July 31, 2013 (first of three Cycles)
Conductor: Kirill Petrenko
Production: Frank Castorf
Location: Festspielhaus, Bayreuth.

As I walked down the Green Hill, I heard from numerous people from the audience that this particular performance will likely go down in history as the one that received the longest boos in Bayreuth ever, bar none. The displeasure, mostly aimed at director Frank Castorf, lasted nearly 15 minutes. A lady sitting one row behind me, a septuagenarian who said this was her 20th Ring production, said she has never booed in her previous nineteen but felt compelled to do so this time around.

Here is a truncated list of things that would irritate most Wagnerians: there was no rope in the Norn scene at all, not even anything remotely analogical or symbolic in nature. When the rope broke per the libretto, there was no visual cue whatsoever. Even the Norns seemed unconcerned by its breakage, a most significant turning point in the Norn scene. Hagen spat water a la voodoo witchcraft, in remotely tangential reference to Alberich’s curse. Notung did not even make a stage entrance at all this evening, nor did Grane. The funeral pyre was wimpy for the gigantic set. And amidst all these, save for a few oil barrels, where was the connection to the quest for oil, which seemed such an alluring concept at the beginning of Das Rheingold but became dead in the water towards the end of Götterdämmerung?

Castorf seems to set each evening of the Ring in different situations, each barely related to the other, so much so that any linkage to a prior evening’s event became inevitably broken. For example, Brünnhilde’s rock was three entirely different conceptions in each of the evenings. So was the Rhine. So was Valhalla. In the Ring, because everything is very intricately related to each other via leitmotifs, Castorf’s concept of severing the relationship between the evenings becomes a dangerous proposition in front of a Wagner-manic audience. His signature theatrical devices, including spitting, videos, film references etc., could be visually stimulating, but also distracting in the context of concurrent singing and orchestration. In my view, the best dramatic design Castorf could muster in four days, soon after Hagen’s battle cry, was to have a supernumerary drop a cart of potatoes down a flight of stairs, in tribute to Eisenstein’s revolution scene in Battleship Potemkin. But everybody in Bayreuth already knew that Hagen was about to incite a revolt of sorts, and the Eisenstein reference, while making ridiculous noise on stage and distracting visuals (imagine dozens of potatoes tumbling down a flight of stairs in the middle of the stage), did very little to improve the drama on stage. Castorf was showing off his intellectual knowledge, but for all the wrong reasons.

Singing-wise, Catherine Foster had an outstanding night. She never yelled and had great breath control throughout the evening. More importantly, I think she really embodied the psyche of Götter Brünnhilde — one of dismay, pensiveness, and ultimately determination. Her voice, with a good mix of human frailty but godly security, reminded me of a late-career Gwyneth Jones, who would take calculated but never uncovered risks. Lance Ryan probably still sounded better than most living Siegfrieds, but compared with what I heard in Shanghai in 2010 and again in Münich in 2012, he sounded more aged and tired, especially towards the end, possibly because he barely had any rest between his Siegfried at the Proms and his Bayreuth Siegfried. The rest of the cast was solid, except Attila Jun’s Hagen, whose voice was slightly too lyrical and small for the role. In the end, I don’t think anyone will remember this bicentennial cycle by its singing, except perhaps Botha as Siegmund and Kampe as Sieglinde. The focus, to be forever etched into Bayreuth’s collective memory, would be why a DDR-born director, often lauded for his forward-thinking and uncompromising theatrical concepts, got fifteen minutes of backside whooping, and would likely stand to receive more had the festival staff not turned on the lights inside the Festspielhaus and hurried everyone off it.

Die Walküre — first reaction

Date: July 27, 2013 (first of three Cycles)
Conductor: Kirill Petrenko
Production: Frank Castorf
Location: Festspielhaus, Bayreuth.

The visuals for Die Walküre were tamer, probably due to the whole story now set in a bleak hinterland in Azerbaijan (according to programme notes). The characters, formerly dressed in colorful all-American gear, are now in drab Caucasus fashion. As fashion changes, the characters also don’t seem to transfer from Das Rheingold to Die Walküre, as if each opera tells an episode of different histories whose characters just happen to play out story lines that are parallel to those of the Ring.

In terms of singing, Johan Botha proved to be the star of the evening. Botha’s voice was golden, searing with brightness and clarity. Anja Kampe’s Sieglinde seemed to have some difficulty at the beginning, including a botched entrance near “Der Manner Sippe…” and a slight tendency to scream when trying to hit top notes from above (when she ascended from her mid tessitura she sounded just fine). Otherwise, Kampe was fiesty and fiery, both vocally and dramatically. When Siegmund was killed by Hunding, Kampe’s Sieglinde exerted a heart-achingly chilly cry, at roof-shattering decibels, that I believe shocked even the most seasoned Wagnerians. Catherine Foster, as Brünnhilde, was a little bit of a letdown. Foster shrieked her way out of some top notes, but more fatally, didn’t sound like she has inhabited the role. Claudia Mahnke, as Fricka, found much better vocal support and projection tonight than last night — her voice portrayed someone with sensitivity and self-esteem, exactly how I would imagine someone in Fricka’s position to be. Maestro Petrenko started rather slowly, sped up towards the end of Act I, and maintained a steady pace till the end.

Die Walküre

Date: July 10 – 15, 2012 (second of two Cycles)
Conductor: Kent Nagano
Production: Andreas Kriegenburg
Location: Bavarian State Opera, Munich.

If Andreas Kriegenburg laid the foundation for his Ring concept in Das Rheingold, this Walküre did not so much dismantle it as it did perverse its original cohesion. If in Rheingold human bodies were props for innate objects or metaphorical depictions of abstractions, human bodies were depicted here simply as human bodies.

In Act 1, the Wälsung twins shuttled around nurses, who were busy embalming the cadavers of fallen heroes into mummies, as if trying to depict a war-ravaged, ungovernable world. The difference in the treatment of human bodies may seem trivial, but the poetic treatment of human bodies as physical or allegorical depictions of something else, in Rheingold, seemed lost. Further, the treatment of human bodies here also seemed forced and unnecessary, as if Kriegenburg mandated himself to use his actors even though the flow of the story did not necessarily require their presence.

In Act 2, a wooden back board would move forwards and backwards, thereby creating an illusion that the proscenium was a view finder that was being zoomed in and out. Whether it was Fricka giving her moral lesson, or Wotan given an impassioned defense, by moving the back board towards the stage apron, this nifty little stagecraft allowed the audience to focus even more on the main narrator. Unfortunately, this trick was simply unused in the rest of the Cycle.

If there was one singular moment in Die Walküre, if not in the entire Ring, when the audience truly anticipated something, it would be the start of Act 3, The Ride of the Valkyries. Here, Ritt was preceded by a four-minute, orchestra-less dance choreography by choreographer Zenta Haerter. Eight pairs of female dancers depicted the eight horses on which the Valkyrie sisters would ride. Dressed in petite metallic-silver uniform jumpers and dark army boots, nobody would accuse costume designer Andrea Schraad of not trying to make this scene interesting. Haerter’s choreography, if anything, boiled with energy. When the dancers slung their hair with a vigorous angular momentum, the imagery of eight wild horses flinging their tails in impatience came to the fore. The problem was with timing and length: with the audience eagerly anticipating Wagner’s Ritt music after the break, a music-less dance that lasted more than four minutes was simply too long. Boos erupted before the dance number finished. Even Nagano released a slight grin, as if he anticipated the booing all along. Sympathetic cheers sounded more like a disapproval of the boos than a genuine expression of excitement. The boos were obviously not for the dancers, but sadly the dancers seemed consumed by the audience’s disappointment. No amount of applauses at their curtain call would reverse that.

Iréne Theorin was a powerful Brünnhilde reeling with suppressed emotions, but her movements on stage often seemed weird or misplaced. (Katarina Dalayman was originally cast for the evening but she was replaced by Theorin close to the date.) Thomas J. Mayer, as Wotan, was a fine singer but struggled to project the lower registers. Sophie Koch’s Fricka convincingly switched between a fearless arbiter of morals and Wotan’s dutiful wife. Koch’s voice was at least a level too small for the role, but she more than compensated with meticulous phrasing and a sensual timbre. Ain Anger’s Hunding stirred calamity through his dramatically intense acting and raging voice. Anja Kampe delivered all her notes as Sieglinde but lacked an aura of warmth and melancholy that usually loomed over this half of the twin. The other half was sung by Klaus Florian Vogt, whose trumpet-like voice was atypical amidst the sea of recorded Siegmunds. Nevertheless, he brought a lot of freshness to the role with his light and ringing tessitura.

The eight Valkyrie sisters, as a whole, were vocally the weak link tonight. Danielle Halbwachs’s Gerhilde misfired her top notes badly, and struggled to find any support at the top. Golda Schultz’s Ortlinde was passable but lacked fire. Okka von der Damerau, as Grimgerde, did not project as much confidence as she did as Flosshilde in Rheingold. The Siegrune and Schwertleite of Roswitha C. Müller and Anaïk Morel, respectively, were the only two outstanding performers of the lot. I place their collective mishaps on the booing audience: while the director disrupted the audience’s typical expectation at the beginning of Act 3, the loud boos could very well have disrupted that of incoming stage performers.

Die Walküre

Date: June 21 – 26, 2011 (second of three Cycles)
Conductor: Donald Runnicles
Production: Francesca Zambello
Location: War Memorial, San Francisco.

Day One of the Ring saga began with a Blair Witch-like scene whereby Jan Hartley’s projection onto a stage-front scrim suggested a romp through uncharted woods. The scrim then rose to reveal Hunding’s abode which, with manicured shingles and perfectly aligned window screens, looked slightly more pristine than one would imagine to be a real estate of Hunding’s soon-to-be-revealed, thug-like character. Anja Kampe’s Sieglinde was imprisoned in such thug life, slightly bewildered but more agitated by a Siegmund stumbling onto her porch and into her life, as if foretelling the imminent collapse of the status quo. Inside Hunding’s lodge were aged hunting gear, winnings from hunting trips, sporting trophies and decorative china wares that gave clues as to Zambello’s targeted place and time for this Act: a mountain lodge, perhaps in the Mountain West, in the Depression Era.

In Zambello’s vision, Sieglinde was an abused wife, trapped in a loveless marriage and suffering from Stockholm syndrome as she willingly submitted to Hunding at his presence. A slightly more realistic reading would entail her knowing that any seeming rebellion, in the face of Hunding’s thuggish recklessness, might jeopardize her life and, when his twin brother arrived in this one fine evening, Siegmund’s. Kampe’s vocal chops were refined and conscientious. She navigated the more lyrical passages in Acts I and III with clarity and ease. Daniel Sumegi’s Hunding seemed to be the kind of person who physically and mentally overwhelmed his wife in regularity, and in so doing probably took plenty of pleasure too. While Sumegi’s voice was stentorian, the carefulness of his delivery revealed the character of a physically big yet mentally calculating man.

Brandon Jovanovich’s Siegmund was a revelation: his voice was bright and persuasive, with an electrifying top and a juicy mid-range timbre. His “Wälse!” cries not only seemed to last forever, but easily penetrated past the rousing orchestra. In Winterstürme, Jovanovich built a strong case of why he would soon become the next superstar, whether helden or lirico spinto: crisp delivery of individual notes was nonetheless smothered into fine melodic arches of lyrical beauty. The roundedness of his voice was akin to grated cheese oozing on top of a baking pizza, or butter slowing melting away on top of warm bread. But I digress. The slight blemish in Jovanovich’s fine squillo appeared to be an occasional overshooting of top notes. As an actor, Jovanovich was intense: the serious eye contact made to Sieglinde was fiery and genuine, while his body language in Winterstürme imparted a lover boiling with desire. In his dying moments, Jovanovich gazed tenderly and innocently at his father, dispensing a poignant moment of human kindness. After raving about his Jose earlier this year, I feel that, with some additional refinement of vocal delivery, especially a more regulated access to his squillo, Jovanovich has potential to carry the baton left by the likes of Lauritz Melchior and James King.

Mark Delavan had a better outing as Wotan compared with his lackluster performance in Das Rheingold. His voice was audibly stronger and sturdier, especially in the mid-range, but markedly tapered off at the higher registers and towards the end of the evening. The unleashing of reserve firepower in Leb’ wohl was therefore and nonetheless a pleasant and welcoming surprise.

When Nina Stemme appeared on stage with her Valkyrie cries, she sounded a little forced: the four sets of Hoyotohos were rendered as “Hoyotooo-ah” with an extremely short fourth syllable and a raucous glide between the third and the fourth. Her Brünnhilde’s comedic interaction with Wotan garnered some of the best laughs of the evening. Later in the Act and in Act III, her warmed-up voice displayed a full range of dynamics and coloration. By the end of the evening it seemed clear why Stemme has a natural gift to excel in the role: she owns a confident top that easily rings over the orchestra. She also seems so comfortable with and confident of her vocal delivery that she could actually spend time acting the role as well.

Elizabeth Bishop’s Fricka transformed from a subservient mother deferring to her husband in Das Rheingold to a serious woman confident of her moral superiority and suasion over her husband’s questionable antics. Her singing, surprisingly first rate, especially at Ich vernahm Hundings Not, gathered a rabidly enthusiastic reception at her curtain call.

The Valkyrie sisters were fine, though Melissa Citro, as Ortlinde, continued to sound shrill, just like her Freia in Das Rheingold.

There seemed to be better balance in the orchestra, perhaps due to more focused conducting in the Cycle’s first night of serious music (but more possibly, due to the fact that as the night wore on, I was finally accustomed to my seat’s and the War Memorial’s quirky acoustics). But whatever cured balance was then ruined by Runnicles’ wild tempi: his conducting felt like a drive down San Francisco’s own Market Street: occasionally smooth under synchronized traffic lights, but at times jerky and achingly slow due to horrible traffic. At Ein Schwertder Vater, Runnicles’ pacing was a snail’s drag compared with Böhm’s much faster and upbeat pace, and sounded more pedestrian and flat compared with Solti’s more cerebral reading. There were small mistakes from the brass section, most notably during Brünnhilde’s first entrance in Act II and then at Walkürenritt, but they were not so glaring as to spoil the evening of the average listener.

Michael Yeargan’s set continued to convey that American look, with Hunding’s Depression Era mountain lodge, and a highway underpass in Act II (as an afterthought, if the entire Die Walküre was meant to be set in the Depression Era, the idea of having convenient highway overpasses, before the dawn of the Interstate era, seemed slightly premature). Brünnhilde’s rock was depicted as a round, dial-like rock surrounded by an awkwardly shaped fortress. Zambello’s historical reference appeared to be the Presidio, which would fit nicely into her notion of a world where men and women were sacrificed as megalomaniacs fought to consolidate power.