Monthly Archives: February 2012

Rusalka at the Royal Opera House – Intermezzo

February 29, 2012

 

Rusalka at the Royal Opera House

 

Rusalka – Royal Opera House, 27 February 2012 (ROH work premiere)

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Despite the Daily Telegraph’s best efforts to whip up controversy about its supposedly “anti-semitic” and “terrorist” content, the first night of ENO’s The Death of Klinghoffer apparently passed with barely a hint of protest. Audience slowly lulled into torpor would be my guess.

Yet over at the Royal Opera House, Dvorak’s Rusalka, an opera about – let’s face it – a bunch of fairies in a pond, excited a response more suited to a state visit by Robert Mugabe.

 

First off there was a political protest. “Vive le Québec libre !” yelled some twat at the back of the darkened auditorium as Québécois maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin raised his baton for the last act. Let me remind you we were 3,000 miles distant from anyone who might give a toss. Poor YN-S bent double with embarrassment before gathering himself together for the final push.

Then there was the curtain call. There wasn’t “a chorus of boos” at the end, as another Daily Telegraph entrant for the Bad Journalism awards puts it. (Are they all pitching for a job at The Sun on Sunday?) But when the production team took their bows, there were enough boos – all seeming to emanate from top price stalls seats, wouldn’t you know – to match the hearty applause. Perhaps our nation’s critics were the guilty parties. Most of the reviews I’ve seen so far froth with a degree of rage better targeted towards paedos and politicians than an evening’s entertainment.  And there enough factual errors in some of the critiques to suggest large swathes were ‘watched’ through closed eyes.

I know we don’t all like the same things, but what can have made people so angry? OK, so this show does not look like an Arthur Rackham drawing. But then I bet God doesn’t look like Father Christmas either. There are none of the classic button-pushers – nudity, lavatories, guns, Bob Wilson, and so on, so that can’t be it. And in any case, nobody who saw Monday night’s show can claim they didn’t know what they were letting themselves in for. Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito’s production began life at the 2008 Salzburg Festival. This is documented in copious reviews, clips and photos, plenty of which can be found on the ROH website and in the programme.

What’s more, although it’s in modern dress, the production is at heart conventional and straightforward. Like many before them, Wieler and Morabito explore the duality of the human and spirit worlds in terms of parallels and contradictions, viewing the story of the mermaid who loses her tail as a parable of sexual initiation and the loss of innocence.

I wouldn’t say it’s a truly great production – Stefan Herheim tackles the same theme more effectively – but it’s a decent enough one. Wieler and Morabito respect music and text, channeling their interpretation to match both. Only rarely is there a disjunct. The most noticeable fault is a tendency to lay the symbolism on with a trowel (though it clearly still wasn’t enough for some to geddit). But the mere fact that this production invites a variety of interpretations is a pleasing rarity for Covent Garden. Is the obligation to think really that much of an imposition?

Both worlds are located in a single revolving set, a red velvet-draped room on one side, a pine-panelled wall on the other. (Like a few other design touches, this would have had greater cultural resonance in Salzburg than WC2).  A Little Mermaid statue sits on a table with nymph-shaped legs. Angela Gheorghiu’s prompt box becomes a portal to the underwater world.

Rusalka begins the story as a child, rolling around the floor in a sparkly fish tail and playing with her stuffed cat toy. Projections of marine life scud across the wall in a  SpongeBob SquarePants sort of a way.  A huge ghostly jellyfish is the strangely appropriate background for Rusalka’s Song to the Moon.

A shoe cabinet full of glamorous heels evokes Rusalka’s dream, but Jezibaba’s crippled leg suggests a darker reality. To turn Rusalka into a human, Jezibaba’s tomcat claws off her mermaid tail and rapes her as the orchestra pound out savage folk rhythms.  Any shock value is diluted by casting a dancer in a panto costume as the cat – the violent assault becomes disturbingly funny.

As Rusalka enters the Prince’s palace, the Kitchen Boy disembowels a white doe  – a forewarning of Rusalka’s fate.  The Prince’s entourage in their Jankers and dirndls (Salzburg again) are shown as a hypocritical bunch of bible bashers.

The final act finds the ruined Rusalka back home. But home has been transformed into a tawdry brothel. The Wood Nymphs are barely-clothed prostitutes and Jezibaba is the Madam, sprawled on a shrink-wrapped sofa with a (live) black cat commandeering audience attention for its five minutes of onstage fame.

Rusalka stabs herself and dies, but rises zombie-like to exact the Prince’s final doom. You won’t find this in any standard synopsis. It’s generally assumed (though, importantly, never said) that Rusalka is ‘undead’ throughout. But Wieler and Morabito’s version fits so precisely with both music and text, especially Rusalka’s chilling final words, that it seems more natural than the usual reading.

Musical values were exceptionally high thanks mostly to Nézet-Séguin’s command of score and orchestra.  His attention to detail paid off in a fabulously homogenous string sound and superb balance.  I have doubts about the cogency of his symphonic interpretations (like his meandering Bruckner 9 with the LPO a couple of weeks back) but he seems psychically attuned to the ebb and flow of dramatic narrative. Orchestra and singers occasionally drifted apart but there was never any let-up in the pulse and energy.

Camilla Nylund’s bleached silvery soprano was ideally suited to the title role, though she sometimes struggled against Nézet-Séguin’s no-holds-barred dynamics. Bryan Hymel gave the best performance I’ve ever heard from him, unvaried in colour perhaps, but not lacking in passion and commitment. Alan Held was a suitably dolorous Vodnik, and the trio of Anna Devin, Madeleine Pierard and Justina Gringyte impressed as the scantily-clad Wood Nymphs. Agnes Zwierko’s Jezibaba struck a fine balance between comedy and menace, and it was simply a luxury to have the eminent Wagnerian Petra Lang as the Foreign Princess.

*Warning* if you’re going – the performance is nearly 3 and half hours long, which is about 30 minutes longer than the ROH advance publicity suggested. Nézet-Séguin doesn’t dawdle, so my guess is he may have cancelled some initially-planned cuts.

UPDATE – check out Jessica Duchen’s in-depth interview with co-director Sergio Morabito.

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production photos (above) – Clive Barda for Royal Opera House

curtain call photos (below) – intermezzo.typepad.com

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Rusalka at the Royal Opera House – Intermezzo.

Announcing the 2012-13 Season!

Announcing the 2012-13 Season - New Productions - 'L'Elisir d'Amore' - 'The Tempest' - 'Un Ballo in Maschera' - 'Maria Stuarda' - 'Rigoletto' - 'Parsifal' - 'Giulio Cesare'

.
.
. We are pleased to announce the Met’s exciting 2012–13 season, featuring seven new productions—including two company premieres—16 revivals, three complete Ring cycles, and a special English-language holiday presentation.

Announcing the 2012-13 Season!.

March at La Monnaie

OPERA

Rusalka

Antonín Dvořák

Tickets

Once again, La Monnaie is presenting the magnificent production of Rusalka. Its visual richness, dramaturgic boldness and surprises fascinated audiences during its premiere in 2008. Stefan Herheim asserts his love of theatre and music in each of his stagings. The beautiful undine Rusalka is trapped by her passion for the Prince under the gaze of the spirit of the lake. Her metamorphosis becomes an occasion to explore the complexities of man’s desire for the many faces of each woman. Conductor Ádám Fischer emphasises Dvořák’s tremendous palette of orchestral colours, revealing the dramatic power as well as the emotional nuances of the work, in perfect harmony with the staging.

Are you under age 30? Benefit from a 30% reduction!

6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 13, 14, 15 & 16 March 2012 – La Monnaie

ON THE THEME OF RUSALKA

Meet the Artist

Stefan Herheim

Tickets

Stefan Herheim is one of the most innovative opera stage directors of our time. During this discussion, led by Peter de Caluwe, he will speak of his artistic career, his aesthetic universe and his approach to Rusalka.

Discussion in English.

3 March 2012 at 3.30pm – La Monnaie, Grand Foyer

Museum Night Fever

LA MONNAIE OPENS ITS DOORS!

Museum Night Fever is back on Saturday 3 March, featuring museums as you’ve never seen them before! No fewer than 24 Brussels museums will be staying open until the early hours for an offbeat programme of events. Once again, La Monnaie will participate in Museum Night Fever. Come and discover the universe of Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka, thanks to a surprising multidisciplinary itinerary on the theme of metamorphosis. The Alechinsky hall will become a lounge bar with DJ sets for the occasion.

3 March 2012 from 7pm till 1am – La Monnaie Workshops

Happy Sunday!

On the theme of Rusalka

This Happy Sunday! gives your children (aged 6-12) the chance to discover the story of the water sprite Rusalka. During a fascinating and poetic workshop, they will learn about Antonín Dvořák’s opera and characters.

11 March 2012 at 1.30pm – La Monnaie Workshops

A Night at the Opera

with School is Cool

SOLD OUT

Dive into the phantasmagorical universe of Rusalka – full of men and nymphs as well as other strange creatures – in the company of the energetic group from Antwerp, School is Cool! An exciting evening for young people under age 30, an encounter in two parts and a performance for only €20.

15 March 2012 at 6pm – La Monnaie

BOOKING OPEN

THANKS TO MY EYES

OSCAR BIANCHI

BOOKING OPENS ON 25 FEBRUARY

Tickets for Thanks to my Eyes, conducted by Franck Ollu and staged by Joël Pommerat.

Last tickets!

3, 5, 6, 10 & 11 April 2012 – Théâtre National

Orlando

George Frideric Handel

OPERA IN CONCERT

Theodora

George Frideric Handel

The story evokes the cruelty of the Roman oppressor at the beginning of Christianity: the princess Theodora, performed by soprano Sandrine Piau, and the Roman soldier Didymus refuse to renounce their Christian faith and are thus sentenced to death by the Roman Emperor Valens. This theme inspired Handel to write one of his most beautiful scores: a work to rediscover, conducted by Hervé Niquet.

12 March 2012 at 8pm – Bozar

RECITAL

Sandrine Piau & Les Paladins

Un horizon serein

The key figure in this programme is Jean-Philippe Rameau, who was the greatest French opera composer in the first half of the 18th century, and one of the most productive. With no historical bias, Sandrine Piau and Les Paladins have come up with a magnificent programme covering a century of French opera, presenting moving and even funny scenes.

17 March 2012 at 8pm – Bozar

DANCE

Apocrifu

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

Last Tickets

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui‘s splendid Apocrifu is back. The Belgian artist made an impact with this choreography for three dancers, a puppet and the Corsican vocal ensemble A Filetta. Since then, Apocrifu has been presented with huge international success. As a replacement for Three Duets, this is a performance to be seen again.

21 and 22 March 2012 at 8pm – La Monnaie

CONCERT

Jeux et contes cruels

Claude Debussy & Tristan Murail

Tickets

Of the four works for orchestra which he had planned to write for ballet, Claude Debussy finished only one: Jeux, a ballet which playfully describes erotic attraction between young people. An echo of the typically French refinement of Debussy’s universe of sound is heard a century later in the spectral music of Tristan Murail. In his Contes cruels for two electric guitars and small orchestra, he evokes with a touch of humour the 19th century literary world of Villiers de l’Isle-Adam. This is a chance to discover the surprising work of conductor Susanna Mälkki.

24 March 2012 at 8pm – Bozar

CONCERTINI

La Monnaie presents its Concertini lunchtime concerts every Friday at 12.30pm.

 

For the revival of Rusalka, works by Antonín Dvořák will be performed by several La Monnaie chamber music ensembles and by the piano quartet Archino.

 

César Franck

Piano Trios

Tatiana Samouil (vl), Justus Grimm (vc), David Lively (pf)

2 March 2012 – La Monnaie, Grand Foyer


Antonín Dvořák

Serenade in D minor for Wind, Cello and Double Bass, op.44 (1878)

Bagatelles, op.47 (1878)

La Monnaie Wind Ensemble

Zygmunt Kowalski (vl), Femke Sonnen (vl), Corinna Lardin (vc), e.o.

9 March 2012 – La Monnaie, Grand Foyer

Antonín Dvořák

String Quartet N°10 in E flat major (‘Slavonic’), op.51 (1878-1879)

Cypresses, B.152 (1887) (selection)

La Monnaie Malibran String Quartet

16 March 2012 – La Monnaie, Grand Foyer

Antonín Dvořák

Piano Quintet in A major, op.81 (1887)

La Monnaie Piano Quintet

23 March 2012 – La Monnaie, Grand Foyer

Antonín Dvořák

Piano Quartet in E flat major, op.87 (1889)

Archino

30 March 2012 – La Monnaie, Grand Foyer

March at La Monnaie.

German Operas Bank on Visual Effects – NYTimes.com

Opera Review

German Operas Bank on Visual Effects

Monika Rittershaus

Lance Ryan and Susan Bullock in Frankfurt Opera’s new staging of ‘‘Götterdämmerung.’’  A disc with concentric circles gives the production a three-dimensional form.

German Operas Bank on Visual Effects – NYTimes.com.

Joyce Didonato – Grammy 2012 – Non piu mesta – YouTube

Joyce Didonato – Grammy 2012 – Non piu mesta – YouTube.

Bayreuth 2013: Richard-Wagner-Jubiläum Bayreuth 2013 – Hier steckt Wagner drin!

Bayreuth rüstet sich für Wagner-Jahr 2013

Festspielhaus Bayreuth © picture-alliance/dpa

2013 ist Wagner-Jahr – dann steht der 200. Geburtstag und der 130. Todestag des Komponisten Richard Wagner an. Bayreuth als Stadt der Wagner-Festspiele hat am Mittwoch, 15. Februar, eine Internetseite www.wagnerstadt.de freigeschaltet, die über die Jubiläumsfeierlichkeiten im kommenden Jahr informiert. Mit Konzerten, Vorträgen, Buchvorstellungen, Leseabenden und einem Kongress wird das Wagner-Jubiläum in Bayreuth gefeiert. Die Genregrenzen dürften beim geplanten Projekt “Wagner meets Rock und Pop” fallen. 1872 waren Wagner und seine Familie nach Bayreuth gezogen. Sein Sitz, das Haus Wahnfried, ist heute ein Museum. Kleiner Wermutstropfen: Die dort derzeit laufenden Sanierungsarbeiten können nicht bis 2013 abgeschlossen werden, wie die Stadt vor einigen Wochen einräumen musste.

 

Bayreuth 2013: Richard-Wagner-Jubiläum Bayreuth 2013 – Hier steckt Wagner drin!.

Kaufmanns erster Liederabend im Musikverein – Kultur – KURIER.at

Kritik: Mit seiner Stimme lässt sich nicht nur der Godene Saal restlos ausfüllen, auch Steine könnten so zum Erweichen gebracht werden.

Jonas Kaufmann fühlt sich bei opernhaften Liedern sehr wohl .

Seine Stimme hat neben einem beeindruckenden Umfang vor allem große Macht. Nicht nur der Goldene Saal lässt sich damit restlos ausfüllen, auch Steine könnten so zum Erweichen gebracht werden. Jonas Kaufmann gab am Montag seinen ersten Liederabend im Musikverein.

Bei den vielen Passagen, die die Kopfstimme verlangten, hörte man selbst ihm die Anstrengung an. Einzigartig ist die Meisterschaft des Tenors, wo der breite Opernpinsel zum Einsatz kommt. So waren denn auch die Lieder von Richard Strauss mit ihrer fordernden Stimmgewalt das überzeugendste Viertel des Programms, das mit Franz Liszt begonnen hatte. In den Liedern von Henri Duparc konnte sich die Stimme des stets wortdeutlichen Jonas Kaufmann auffallend schön entfalten.

Die besondere Stimmung, die Jonas Kaufmann und Pianist Helmut Deutsch erzeugten, kam vor allem in Gustav Mahlers „Rückert-Liedern“ zum Ausdruck. Höhepunkt des Abends: „Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen“

Kaufmanns erster Liederabend im Musikverein – Kultur – KURIER.at.

Classical music: Robert Schumann is the best composer to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Can you name another? « The Well-Tempered Ear

Today is Valentine’s Day, when we celebrate romantic love. Maybe you can even send this special posting as an email to your Valentine.

In any case, if you are looking for pieces of classical music to play or listen to that are appropriate to celebrate Valentine’s Day, you have a lot of choices.

The Ear can think of specific pieces by Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Brahms, Verdi, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Dvorak, Faure and Poulenc, to name just a few of my favorites.

Many of them composed “romances” or pieces that could easily pass as a romance, some embodying requited love and some embodying unrequited love.

But I still think that the one composer who should be most identified with Valentine’s Day is Robert Schumann (1810-1856 and below in a photo from around 1850).

His deep and endless longing for Clara Wieck (with him, below), the young concert pianist who eventually became his wife — and after his death his champion — against the vociferous objections of her father, is palpable so much of his music in just about every form or genre including solo piano music, songs, chamber music and symphonic works.

In fact, I think one can argue that Schumann’s uncanny ability to capture love and passion in memorable and great sound makes him THE central Romantic composer of them all. Love and longing infuse his works.

Classical music: Robert Schumann is the best composer to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Can you name another? « The Well-Tempered Ear.

Superconductor: Opera Review: The Machine of the Nibelungs

Superconductor: Opera Review: The Machine of the Nibelungs.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Opera Review: The Machine of the Nibelungs

We break down (poor choice of words) the Lepage Ring.
The new Ring cost millions. Hope rich Uncle Pennybags™ likes opera.
Card from Monopoly™ © 1936 Parker Brothers Games.

So now that Götterdämmerung has been broadcast in the movie theaters, it’s time to take a look at all four parts of the Metropolitan Opera’s multimillion dollar production of Wagner’s Ring.

Canadian director Robert Lepage came to Wagner’s operas with what seemed to be a deliberately naïve view: to use high technology and digital projections to recreate a fairly literal version of the Germanic myths that inspired the composer. The costumes were directly drawn from old productions of the Ring, right down to the little metal helmets worn by the Valkyries and Wotan’s undersized partisan-shaped spear.

To be sure, this cycle developed over the year and a half it took to premiere, with Siegfried and Götterdämmerung showing advances in technology that solved some of the serious problems existent in the earlier opera. But the biggest problem with this cycle is Mr. Lepage’s decision to minimize the acting surface of the Met stage, giving his singers almost nowhere to go except the narrow grey board-walk of planks that stood on the lip of the stage underneath the Machine, or a trench underneath that hid the singers’ legs from the view of the audience and made it harder for them to sing.

The downward spiral: Stunt doubles make the Journey to Nibelheim in Scene III of Das Rheingold.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2010 The Metropolitan Opera.

Let’s talk about singers. Bryn Terfel showed familiarity and steady improvement as Wotan, as the cycle went on and the role got lower. Although he sounded harsh in the most lyric pages of Das Rheingold, he managed a hissing, low sound when Wotan was up to no good. The Welshman was especially fine in Siegfried as the Wanderer. However, the best bass-baritone onstage was Eric Owens as Alberich, a compelling dramatic presence and a rich, dark sound that had you firmly on Team Nibelung from the get-go.

Deborah Voigt has made a valiant effort at Brunnhilde. There’s no question that she understands the character, the role and its pitfalls. She had a strong Walküre, a rough night in Siegfried and seemed to find focus in Götterdämmerung in the opera’s second half. Jay Hunter Morris (a last-minute replacement) remains a Siegfried-lite, capable of embodying the role of Wagner’s muscle-headed hero and singing with (mostly) pleasing tone. But his voice is small, and the singer skated over the most difficult moments in the score.

Deborah Voigt rides the Machine in Act III of Die Walküre.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2011 The Metropolitan Opera.

Far better: Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund. This tenor’s Wagner debut at the Met was a big deal, and deservedly so. Physically, he matches the part, but even better is that ringing, silvery sound when he launched into “Winterstürme.” It’s too bad that the ham-handed direction confined him to a trench onstage for most of the first act. Hopefully that decision will be corrected by the April premiere of Die Walküre in the complete cycle, where the part will be sung by Stuart Skelton. Eva-Maria Westbroek was a strong, lyric Sieglinde.

There are some other fine singers in the smaller roles. Wendy Bryn Harmer displayed flying Wagnerian colors as Gutrune (Götterdämmerung). Gerhard Siegel’s Mime. Hans-Peter König’s Fafner, Hunding and best of all, Hagen made a case for treating Wagner’s villains as a mini-cycle–a feat also managed by basses Matti Salminen and Erik Halfvarson in the past. The mezzos of the operas: Stephanie Blythe as Fricka and Waltraud Meier as Waltraute were also compelling, making one wish both characters had more to do.

Jay Hunter Morris battles a balloon in Act II of Siegfried.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2012 The Metropolitan O

This cycle will probably be known as the “Machine Ring for the next century. The device in question (which has led to journalists breaking out their thesaurii for the words “gizmo”, “contraption” and “cantankerous clattering collection of cogs and camshafts” (thank you, Dr. Smith) is the central visual focus of the show and its biggest liability. Twenty-four molded planks in battle-ship gray spun and reconfigured into mountains, rivers and walls of blazing fire is an elegant solution, but one prone to stage noises, malfunctions, and worst of all, potential industrial accidents.

The Machine has been the subject of much comment (and much satire) on this blog in the last year. The best thing that can be said for it is that when it does work (usually as a ginormous movie screen for those digital, screen-saver like projections) it looks pretty cool. (The worst thing is that those plank-ends do look like cannons, aimed squarely at the bloggers sitting in the Family Circle.) I will admit that there is a small thrill in seeing those planks MOVE like a living thing to Wagner’s music, coming alive and seeming to dance (albeit clumsily) to the score like a huge Frankenstein puppet.

Act II of Götterdämmerung with Deborah Voigt downstage.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.

Puppetry too is a fascination of Mr. Lepage’s. So why was the puppet dragon in Das Rheingold actually scarier (and more effective) than the cheap-looking inflatable Fafner in Act II of Siegfried?  It looked like a leftover stage prop from a Dio concert, or possibly Spinal Tap.

Full reviews of each opera are available on Superconductor.
Das Rheingold: “Machine Messiah”: Oct 5, 2010.
Die Walküre: “Machines (Back to Humans)”: April 23, 2011.
Siegfried: “A Man, A Machine and a Big Snake”: Oct. 28, 2011.
Götterdämmerung: “The Last Plank”Jan. 28, 2012.

A Body of Art: Munich’s Rheingold | Seen and Heard International

A Body of Art: Munich’s Rheingold

February 10, 2012

GermanyGermany R. Wagner, Das Rheingold: Soloists, Bavarian State Orchestra, Kent Nagano (conductor), Bavarian State Orchestra, 9.2.2012 (JFL)

Direction: Andreas Kriegenburg
Sets: Harald B.Thor
Costumes: Andrea Schraad
Lighting: Stefan Bolliger
Choreography: Zenta Haerter
Dramaturgy: Marion Tiedtke, Miron Hakenbeck

Cast
Wotan: Johan Reuter
Donner: Levente Molnár
Froh: Thomas Blondelle
Loge: Stefan Margita
Alberich: Wolfgang Koch
Mime: Ulrich Reß
Fasolt: Thorsten Grümbel
Fafner: Phillip Ens
Fricka: Sophie Koch
Freia: Aga Mikolaj

Pictures courtesy Bavarian State Opera, © Wilfried Hösl

In Wagner a pronouncedly conservative set of expectations meets—and often clashes with—pronounced experimentation on stage.  That tension is very befitting a Wagner opera, given the mix of (mildly) reactionary elements in the composer’s later stages and the radically innovatory, (literally and metaphorically) revolutionary  stance of his work and political youth.

available at AmazonR.Wagner, Rheingold,
Karajan / BPh / Fischer-Dieskau,
Talvela, Ridderbusch et al.
DG

That Andreas Kriegenburg, in charge of the Bavarian State Opera’s 2012 Ring, managed to cleave, rather than exacerbate this potential rift, is a credit to his imaginative, nuanced, and sensitive production. Kriegenburg, a theater director relatively new to opera, has a penchant for visually arresting productions; a spectacular Prozeß (Franz Kafka, Munich Kammerspiele) and one of the best performances in 2008, a spellbinding Wozzeck (Berg, Bavarian State Opera – review here) are only two examples. The Munich Rheingold is not spectacular in the same way; it succeeds in a slower, more subtle way. Instead of being outright awed during the two and a half hours, I found myself quietly admiring Kriegenburg’s solutions and ideas.

Pictures courtesy Bavarian State Opera, © Wilfried Hösl

Bodies are the main ingredient in Kriegenburg’s visual quiver. He uses them to depict the elements, the Rhin, the forces of earth when Erda appears, and the battlements of Valhalla. Compressed (using dummies) into two cruel cubes, Kriegenburg provides Fasolt and Fafner with bodies to stand on; stand-ins for the human cost of ambitious building projects:  Two times 120-some cubic feet of crushed humanity, somewhere between Damian Hurst and Gustav Vigeland.

Even before the opera starts, the large stage is filled with a hundred extras—men and women clad in white, with the  three mint-green Rhinemaidens in their midst. Gurgling sound of water comes from the speakers, the light dims, and the corps of swimmers strips down to flesh colored undies and they begin to paint themselves blue; more Braveheart-style than Smurf-ish. With Kent Nagano’s downbeat to those famous 136 bars of E-flat major, the boating party morphs into a physical representation of the Rhine, one intertwined couple at a time. The Rhinemaidens navigate securely through this body of water, playing with the waves. When Alberich lustily makes his way toward the ladies, the animated stream—in perfect tune with the music—throws him about. When the Rheingold comes into view, it is a petite gold-plated dancer, first ‘carried in’ by the waves and then very literally abducted by the taunted dwarf. A few scenes employing large numbers of extras falls flatter than  presumably intended: The Niebelungs have to cheaply fake the stacking of the pre-stacked gold. And when Donner summons the clouds (Zu mir, du Gedüft! / Ihr Dünste zu mir! / Donner der Herr / ruft euch zu Heer!), the white-clad masses wave flexible silver and gold plated cardboards about, presumably to dispel the heavy fog… except that they don’t affect very much at all and end up looking rather dispensable.

Pictures courtesy Bavarian State Opera, © Wilfried Hösl

Platinum blondes all, the Gods are dressed in black or muted colors, except for Loge (equally blonde where expected piebaldism to hint at his being half of light like the gods and half of darkness) who stalked the stage in flaming red and comes across like a mix of Julian Assange, Bond Villain and Heinz Zednik’s supreme Loge in the Chéreau production, though never as toadying as the latter was made out to be. Trying to retrieve his cane from Fricka’s grasp, the dagger that slips out of the shaft reveals his discrete sword cane’s secret. Loge, an accelerant by nature, later dangles that dagger alluringly before Fafner who grabs at the opportunity and does away with Fafner to the fierce, fearsome stabs of the orchestra.  Another visual nod to Chéreau are the enormous puppet-hands on the giants’ oversized suits, worn only when they are immobile on their human cubes; with extras in colored sacks posing as legs and shoes.

For the Nebelheim scene the stage rakes steeply from the bottom; met similarly from above, with just enough space between them to see the slaving Niebelungs through a wide, chink of burnt orange. Broken down Niebelungs are tossed over the ledge and disposed in hatches that emit, per victim, a burp of flame and smoke… the collateral of gold-digging. When Alberich is asked to show off the powers of the Tarnhelm, the transformation is ‘hidden’ by the fellow mining-henchman who turn the lights with which they illuminated the darkness to the audience, blinding four thousand eyes long enough for Alberich to scram and a flaming snake on sticks—above the battery of lights, (imperfectly) hiding those who carry it—to wind its way about stage. The toad, in turn, is another lithe little dancer in a green costume, easily carried away by Wotan & Co.

Pictures courtesy Bavarian State Opera, © Wilfried Hösl

Neither outstanding production values nor the sensitive direction would have made this such a promising beginning to the Ring-journey if the musical aspect hadn’t also been marvelous. In an unassuming way, not unlike Kriegenburg, Nagano led an impeccable band (two brass-blunders aside) in a seamless, gorgeous reading and a cast that was extraordinarily even and homogenous. Starting with Johan Reuter’s Wotan, who was the vocal equivalent to Nagano’s orchestral sound: A most lyrical Wotan, not a massive voice but a confident one that sounded like it never needs to be bigger than it was to convey its authority. He was flanked by Sophie Koch’s Fricka, who started with that hint of irritation in her voice, but added enough frailty, warmth, and beauty so as not to fall victim to the harridan cliché. Frog and Donner—Thomas Blondelle and Levante Molnár—impressed with the ever-audible pleasant lightness and clarity that made the Rhinemaiden-trio (Eri Nakamura, Angela Brower, Okka von der Damerau) a subtle delight. Neither mellifluous Fasolt (Thorsten Grümbel) nor hardened Fafner (Phillip Ens) exceeded reasonable expectations, without falling short of them, either. Stefan Margita (a wonderful Laca in Munich’s Jenůfa) was the liltingly-accented Loge, with a concentrated, beautiful, and clear voice, evocative of Klaus Florian Vogt’s, including the slight nasal quality but with a stronger tone.  Wolfgang Koch, recovered after missing the premiere, makes for a regal Alberich and Ulrich Reß’ very agreeable Mime comes without squeaky silliness. Aga Mikolaj’s Freia was the lone lush voice among the Gods, which served to underscore her sensuality.

One musical quibble I was left with was that Fasolt’s ‘Shylock moment’ (“ein Weib zu gewinnen / das wonnig und mild / bei uns Armen wohne…”), the only expression of true, unspoilt, selfless love in the entire Ring, was brushed over a little. Wagner gives some of his most beautiful music—however briefly—to the lovelorn giant and would have deserved highlighting. But then that would not match the perfectly descreet, coolly Italianate conducting of Nagano. (The direction picked up on it, though: Freia shows more than a certain responsiveness to Fasolt’s emotions—much to the dismay of her jealous brethren Donner and Froh—and she’s the only one devastated at his death.) But to end on a quibble would do this production injustice because I left the opera house myself with a very rare sort of cheerful, happy delight of having had an unreservedly wonderful time at the opera house.

Jens F. Laurson

A Body of Art: Munich’s Rheingold | Seen and Heard International.