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.

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Siegfried — first reaction

Date: July 29, 2013 (first of three Cycles)
Conductor: Kirill Petrenko
Production: Frank Castorf
Location: Festspielhaus, Bayreuth.

The location is East Berlin, but it bears few linkages, if any, to Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. One of the more important linkages is Brünnhilde’s rock, which physically links the last three operas together. In Die Walküre two days ago, the rock was represented by a video of Brünnhilde resting in a bedroom and a ring of fire not remotely connected to that video — the separation already a questionable choice all by itself. Tonight, Brünnhilde’s rock was a physical log pile underneath the socialist Mount Rushmore. The lack of linkage all but proves with no uncertainty my earlier assumption that each of these operas tells an episode of different histories whose characters just happen to play out story lines in parallel to those of Wagner’s Ring.

Unless director Frank Castorf did not bother to do his homework by watching recordings of past productions, he seems intent to let go of a few important dramatic devices typical in previous productions, one of which is Notung’s slashing of something big and significant at the end of the forging scene — “so schneidet Siegfrieds Schwert!”. Nothing broke at all tonight — in fact, Siegfried did not even attempt to swing or flaunt his newly forged sword at all. In another off-script curiosity, Fafner was killed not by Notung, but by gun fire, whose obscenely loud noise, enabled by what smelled like real gunpowder, not only drowned out the orchestra but also disturbed a few in the audience so much so that one near Door IV Recht had to be assisted out. Some dramatic devices in Act 3 were so absurd that I wasn’t sure if the director was trying to mock the somewhat incestuous relationship between Brünnhilde and Siegfried; or to mock Wagnerians’ typical expectation that the end of the act was supposed to be innocent and beautiful; or, worse, to mock the composer himself.

Vocally, Burkhard Ulrich sang all the notes and acted his part, but fundamentally I don’t think he has the right tonal quality, i.e. an exaggerated, mischievous voice, for the menacing role of Mime. Catherine Foster sounded quite fresh and exhilarating, but I found her at times struggling, at least facially if not also tonally, while attempting Brünnhilde’s top notes. Lance Ryan, who is notoriously known to cakewalk the role of Siegfried without reservation, was uncharacteristically weak in Act 1, sounding quite constricted in vocal output, especially next to Ulrich’s booming voice. But from Act 2 onward Ryan blossomed, and even out-sang Foster on several occasions, both in volume and in their duet’s various self-imposed fermatas.

After the final curtain was down, sustained loud boos ensued: the crowd seemed eager to pass on their unanimous verdict, unified, in part, by the execution of some outrageously dubious dramatic devices at the end of Act 3. After the performance and on my way down the Green Hill, I learned a new word in German from people around me while looking at their fuming faces and listening to their raised speech tone, without asking anyone what it means or consulting a dictionary. The word? Furchtbar.

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.

Shanghai Ring

Date: September 16 – 19, 2010 (first of two Cycles)
Conductor: Markus Stenz
Production: Robert Carsen
Location: Shanghai Grand Theatre, Shanghai.

Wagner’s Ring Cycle looms over the city of Shanghai for the first time, thanks to the German government who brought Wagner’s music to Shanghai as part of its contribution to the Shanghai Expo 2010. Often labeled the “Green Ring”, this decade-old Robert Carsen production lends itself to a parable of the perils of untamed industrialization. The production, executed by the Cologne Opera, therefore also fits the “Better City, Better Life” motif of the Expo, which highlights the importance of sustainable economic development amidst our continued quest for rapid modernization.

The premise of the “Green Ring” rests upon the idea that the irresponsible mining of this precious natural resource sets in motion an inevitable tragedy as civilization becomes consummated by the excessive abuses of its agents, just as Alberich’s robbery in the Rhine triggers the series of events that lead to the fall of the status quo. In Carsen’s eco-minded vision, the irreversible purgatory wasteland, as revealed in the Norn scene, marks the predestined conclusion to an era where the illusion of free choices turns out to be excesses that destiny will eventually rein in, just as Wotan’s seemingly free choices are, after all, limited by the laws governing his conscience and the Gods. The freedom to industrialize, to contract and to rise at the expense of others has its consequences. And the singular consequence in Carsen’s allegory remains that profligacy, no matter what form, will eventually meet its due. While Carsen does not show any inkling of an alternative, his execution reminds me of George Bernard Shaw’s argument that the Ring is essentially a socialist’s critique of industrial society’s excesses and travails.

Musically, Markus Stenz managed a tight reading of Wagner’s score. Unlike Karajan’s Ring or Knappertsbusch’s Ring or Boulez’s Ring, this Ring did not follow 20th century’s personality-filled declension of Wagner’s work. Nor did Stenz seem to be the kind of conductor who tries to insert his own nuances and mannerisms into the music. Rather, he proved to be a faithful pace-keeper, exercising plenty of control and keeping Wagner’s wheel rolling without calling unnecessary attention to himself. The orchestra was well balanced and didn’t sound strained, despite having to perform, with no obvious change in its main lineup, over four straight evenings. Not forgotten but most certainly forgiven, the only major blemish in those four evenings was a glaring mistake with Siegfried’s leitmotif, as the hero entered the Gibichung palace, which sounded horrifically misplaced, both contextually and texturally, and suggested nothing to anticipate Siegfried’s entrance.

Greer Grimsley presented a Wotan who was tortured as fate unfolded around him. In Das Rheingold, the American bass-baritone unleashed a roaring lord of the Gods, with a fantastic and secure top. His lower registers proved more problematic as he was unable to project elegant lines without sounding feeble and un-godly. He recovered mostly in the second and third evenings and, in particular, delivered one of the most memorable and fatherly mountaintop executions heard in years. As Loge, Carten Suess was badly cast as he possessed a pretty, almost boyish lirico spinto sound that lacked the heroic juice expected of the powerful demigod of fire. Martin Koch’s Mime was badly cast for exactly the opposite reason: Koch’s voice was too heroic and had too much of a projection, sounded like Hagen, and left one wondering what went so wrong in the casting department. Catherine Foster’s Brunnhilde was fabulous, even though the top C in her battle cry scene was rendered with too much of a staccato, a manner that seemed a bit artificial and almost too disconnected.

Lance Ryan, the reigning Siegfried at Tankred Dorst’s production at Bayreuth, sang a fabulously courageous Siegmund. He began the spring duet with aplomb and composure, and contributed much sappiness before Astrid Weber’s Sieglinde joined the melodic party. After taking a day off, Ryan returned as Siegfried in Götterdämmerung. He did not disappoint by navigating the technically impossible third act with plenty of gusto and with apparently zero effort. To top the night off, he lengthened the top note in “Hoihe”, with Stenz happily indulging his tenor for the extension. The showmanship could be repelling to some, but it’s difficult to argue against listening to a supremely confident Siegfried who can carry his voice into the far corners of the house.

If Grimsley’s voice was moribund but serviceable, Stig Andersen’s certainly was not. To be sure, Andersen’s voice was a refined one, and plenty of evidence could be found showing a methodical meticulousness in his phrasing and breath control. Unfortunately, that refinement seemed pointless as Andersen’s voice, perhaps due to age, was drowned out by the weight of the pit sound. In Siegfried, he labored through in the eponymous role with some visible strain. When Andersen seemed comfortable enough, he lacked any blood-boiling thrill. In the last scene, his voice was, understandably so, severely frayed after four hours of competitive singing, but was so drowned out by Foster’s fresh Brunnhilde that the soprano sounded as if she consciously tried to gear down for a less disturbing dynamic imbalance. Scatters of boos were directed at Andersen at the curtain calls, though they were largely overwhelmed by a warm response that seemed as much to laud Andersen’s performance as to devastate the unnecessary negativity, as if to prove the point that no Siegfried who could labor through four-plus hours of heldenlabor should be maliciously trashed.

By my book, there is no such thing as a bad Ring, and this one is no exception. A truly excellent Ring, at least to me, encompasses great musical execution, spectacular pyrotechnics (of which there was plenty), and a stage that, as James Levine has said many a time, lets Wagner’s story tell itself. Carsen’s green allegory could sometimes be distracting, but it neither impedes the music nor the singers who attempt it. By those counts, this Ring is a most excellent one.

Ring in Shanghai.

Wagner's Ring in Shanghai.