Opera Critic » Berliner Staatsoper

The premiere of this new production was spread out over two days. The story itself, after all, takes place on two days, with Johannisnacht followed by Johannistag. The premiere left fifty or so tickets unsold but the attendance at the second, full-length performance was not noticeably diminished, this despite the fact that things were busy this last week in Berlin. Once again the Meistersinger is one of the greatest draws.


Overall, the production was busy but not euro-trash. The Schwarz-rot-gold of Germany’s republican tradition was a continual presence throughout since an oversized cloth with these colors was attached to the right edge of the stage, serving momentarily in Act I as the curtain to separate off the nave for the Masters’ Meeting and then as a sort of tent in which Eva and Walther could hide themselves in Act II, and then a large cloth in Sachs’s library held by its four corners by the four lovers during the quintet in Act III. It was there all the time but never terribly “in your face.” In the final scene the Masters came on with black red and gold sashes. I would date the time of the setting at 2010 or so, from the crowd of stage punks introduced to sing “Johannistag” at the beginning of Act II and the strange idea of a whiteboard panel displaying corporate brand-name logo’s such as one sees as a backdrop for celebrities appearing on television – the names being the last names of the Mastersingers. While it is true that these Masters might have been rich men during the time of the guilds during and after the Reformation, and the beginning of the bourgeois class, it is hard to think of the baker or the coppersmith being the majority shareholder or even the chairman or president of a corporation. Perhaps it was an attempt to imply that the guild system of Germany foreshadowed the role played by the great corporations of today such as Siemens and Volkswagen, but corporations are infamously in the business of making money, not bread and pots and shoes and clothing. It was particularly difficult to imagine Sachs as a corporate head exactly because he continually complains of being consigned to making shoes throughout the opera and is put down for it repeatedly by the town scrivener, Beckmesser, who hopes to be his rival in art.


Moreover, the Inszenierung portrayed Sachs alone of the Masters poorly dressed, the others decked out in bright and stylish suits and ties. To make Sachs ugly in this way has become commonplace. One thinks of the discombobulated and randy Sachs in the new production in Salzburg, scheduled to appear in Paris and at the Met, and the querulous Sachs of Götz Friedrich – these over against the simple but gentlemanly and always properly dressed Sachs of the Schenk production we will long associate with James Morris, or the decent Sachs of the David McVicar production that is making its way from Glyndebourne to Chicago and to San Francisco this Fall. Socrates also was ugly, but he was unemployed and barefoot, too. The version under review pushes this unattractive temperamental aspect of the character past the point of no return and into range of the widower slob. He cannot even fix his tie for the festival though he stands there in the middle of the scene, the focus of all Nuremberg.


Eva, meanwhile, comes on the scene as a slut, wearing a slinky black sequined shift with a bare back even at church, groping with Walther, in his leather jacket and cowboy boots, within the pews, rather than shyly looking off to him as he lurks along the side, according to the libretto – even though she has only met him one day before! Her overt sexuality might be meant to make a liberated woman of her in contrast with the usual characterization of Eva, but it must be said that her namesake was a liberated woman if ever there was, and a new line of interpretation in introduced from the get-go. The business with the forgotten scarf and pin is entirely manufactured in cahoots with Magdalena. Eva herself goes back to the pew to place them there so as to order Lena to retrieve them while she returns to Walther. We shall see at the beginning of Act II that her idea of marrying Sachs is not only a demure suggestion she comes up with out of desperation to avoid Beckmesser now that Walther has “sung himself out” in the Test Song. Instead we are to imagine they have had a “relationship” for some time. The usual interpretation of a ladder of love, from father (bass) to uncle (baritone) to strapping lad (tenor) is replaced by a love triangle, which one reviewer with telling accuracy has characterized as a contest between Sachs as alterszorn and Walther as jungsporn. The historical Sachs did marry with a much younger woman (Barbara) long after his children and first wife were gone, so that there is some historical basis for this representation, but the Sachs of Wagner gracefully dispels Eva’s suggestion in avuncular tones (Da hätt’ ich ein Kind und auch ein Weib; ‘s wär’ gar ein lieber Zeitvertreib!” – “Fine then: In you I’ll have both child and wife – a fine pastime that would be!”). The staging in the present case blunts the sense of this remark. He wordlessly offers her a smoke instead, which casually lays the suggestion that they have “smoked after” before, and delivers this remark to her only after she has assumed what appears to be the usual position on his lap. The scene in Sachs’s workshop in Act Three will therefore be the event that tears it for Eva. Walther’s entrance will find them succumbing to a passionate kiss and he spends the rest of the time, up to the quintet, scowling at her. But more on the eroticism, later.


We had been introduced to this lustier Eve in the very opening scene at the church, a scene pulled off in a wonderful way worth describing. Like the production of Poppea by Emmanuelle Haïm a few years ago in Lille, the characters are already gathering on the stage and quietly chatting with each other as the audience takes their seats in the theater. It will be the church with its very plain pews, we soon realize, and the parishioners are gathering for the service from the runways flanking the sides of the proscenium here at the Schiller Theater. Lo and behold! With a double-take we recognize one or two of these, in particular Siegfried Jerusalem, whom we later learn is portraying the Meistersinger   Balthasar Zorn. Other good-old faces show up as well, Graham Clark who will be Vogelgesang, Reiner Goldberg as Eisslinger, Franz Mazura (90 years old!) as Schwarz, and Olaf Bär as Foltz. To see Jerusalem was a thrill, one of the greatest Walthers of recent decades, and to watch him in the First and Third Acts watching himself being replaced by Klaus Florian Vogt, who is every bit the hunk that he himself was in his day, raised the very relevant question of the tradition surviving the men who carry it on. Wagner himself had been scrupulous to include only historical figures among his Masters, and so has Moses placed her own production into the context of historical reality. But more on her historical sense later.


These and the rest of the chorus sit on rows of benches facing the audience and the orchestra and enjoy the overture. At its end a cross suddenly descends at the back wall of the stage and they stand from their pews and turn around and sing their chorale to Johannes der Taufer to begin the opera. Only later do our friends reappear as Mastersingers one by one, and in fact the man who led the congregation in their chorale turns out to be Sixtus Beckmesser, quite according to his character. In the Meeting Scene they are each given very full and distinct characterization, even at the risk of becoming a little undignified by their idiosyncrasies. The apprentices are equally divided between young women with pageboys and young men with bowl-cuts all dressed in black suits with white shirts, rather than the usual and historically more accurate unisex dress as boys. Indeed the girls are allowed to show a marked weakness for the new hunk in town.


As the Masters enter, one of the apprentices brings out a large white panel with the last names of the Masters represented as corporate logos. Exactly nothing is made of this – whether we are to view the corporation as the modern guild or the guild as the foreshadowing of the corporation – but it this and other economic “references” in the interpretation might be explained by the fact that Moses herself, not quite middle aged, was born in Dresden. It is no accident that the première took place on October 3rd , the twenty fifth anniversary of the Reunification. There is much in the Inszenierung that is meant to mirror present day Germany for an audience of present day Germans, and as we have known for two hundred years now, the mirror flatters and depicts only the surface where a lamp would have been more illuminating and could have added depth. This business of maximizing the Aktuelle reaches its climax in the riot at the end of Act Two where during the extended double fugue, persons of all the kinds you would meet in the morning paper come onto the stage, from uniformed members of rival soccer teams to an orthodox jew walking unmolested through the crowd that parts for him as the waters. The Nightwatchman himself is a casualty of the riot, delivering his final line before passing out and falling to the ground. While the double fugue can very well support this onrush of a chaotic smorgasbord of types, the twenty seconds of music with which the Act quietly ends, with its tender recognition of the frailty of all human rivalry and pride, has no place at all. But more on the music’s relation to the Inszenierung, later.


The First Act succeeded admirably to depict the spectrum of reactions that men who love art might show when they encounter innovation. One of the Masters, who wears dark glasses all the time as if he were a jazzman or a beatnik, moves up next to Walther, grooving on the second stanza of his Trial Song, and passes out dark glasses to other Masters that have also been attracted to his side. Another keeps looking Walther up and down, from his cowboy boots to his leather jacket, his incredulity vying with indignation: he just cannot believe his eyes. Walther diffidently looks down at his boot-tops and tries to polish them against his pant legs. The Masters are young and old, dandy and stodgy, silly and serious, vain and humble – and as we look at them we reflect on the way that all kinds of people are brought together by music.


With the crowd scene of the Act Two we begin to have more of such business than the music can support. In place of the Masters’ apprentices preparing for the festivities of in the streets of Nuremberg we have a scene of spike-haired night people and punks loitering on the roof of a downtown building illuminated by oversized illuminated signs – the corporate logo’s we saw in Act One. What Sachs is doing up there with his cobbler bench is unaccountable; how the upper balcony of Pogner’s home can be replaced by a catwalk behind an illuminated sign is not answered by the fact that it is the POGNER sign. Eva’s scene with her father Pogner is evacuated of all its tender emotion – she simply rolls her eyes at his remorse – and her approach to Sachs as reviewed above is an emotional dead-end. Beckmesser’s plan to serenade Eva is wonderfully embellished and satirized by his changing into a crimson minstrel outfit from the old days, but the inexplicable scenario on the roof never quite melts away and in fact distracts our attention from the music. By the end of the scene we are simply being ravaged by extraneous references to current politics, culture, and society. The sense that Meistersinger is the opera of the German people is here being turned on its head. They are acting this way because this is what is happening in Germany, rather than Germans because of the way they are acting. An entirely ephemeral content will need to be switched out and updated every time this production is performed, something that an American could not be flattered into enjoying.


Has the curtain has ever before been left down during the overture to the Act III so that we do not see Sachs reading his huge Weltkronik to the strains of what will be the Wahn monologue with its piercing interruption by the cellos? Last night it was, and when it rose Sachs was reading at one of three standing desks with lots of books strewn open on the floor as if he were busily comparing opinions rather than meditating deeply on some recitation of all historical events needing to be interpreted by a wise man in reflection. On the back wall is a built-in bookcase fifteen feet tall full of books and served by a ladder. Immediately behind him is a copy of that painting of the twenty two great Meistersingers. It is not his workshop but a sleek and bourgeois home library – or corporate office – which the widower never gets around to cleaning up. The ditty with Eva’s shoe becomes a play of foot-fetishism, whereas in the libretto it is a continuation of the theme that her shoe needs adjustment before she can proceed into marriage, begun in Act II (where he wonders if she has come to have her shoe adjusted and she says she has not even tried it on yet), which is now elaborated (it is too wide and too narrow at the same time, for in her own development she is not quite ready to take the next step, from daughter and niece to wife). In the Schenk production which I think is definitive for this scene she is facing right and Sachs is kneeling, facing left and working on her shoe when to a burst from the strings Walther appears on the stairs on the far right and she sees this vision of her love over Sachs’s head, with Sachs at first not realizing it and then not letting on that he has (so also Wagner’s stage instructions). In the present production Sachs and Eva have suddenly embraced in a shocking and passionate kiss when Walther walks in on them. Yes, she is torn – but only by degrees of one and the same kind of passion. She is confused, but only because she is a confused person – a much diminished interpretation of her character and of the situation. In truth the Eva of Wagner is moving from Father-love to Husband-love, as Brunnhilde must do in the last scene of Siegfried, from love for her “wakener” to love for her life’s partner and helpmate for better or worse. Walther, with the access of inspiration afforded by seeing her there across the room, now finds the third stanza of his Prize Song, in which he discovers the identity of Eva and the Muse of poetry, and of Parnassus and Paradise, and she knows she will have him as husband, so that she says to Sachs, “Was ohne deine Liebe, was wär’ ich ohne dich, ob je auch Kind ich bliebe, erwecktest du nicht mich?” (“Without thy love, without thee, what would I then be? A child I would have remained had you not wakened me!”). As Eva must acquiesce to move beyond the protection of her father and uncle, driven by love into the unknown chartings of the new, so must art be willing to move on beyond its own rules and find new rules that explain what its love of beauty encounters on its forward path! But in this production we are given a Walther scowling at her and confused and jealous over her passionate kissing with Sachs, but then nevertheless finding that final stanza!


With such an entire betrayal of the depths of the story and its deep and true and universal emotions, we are left only the music. When we were able to hear it without distraction, as apart from the business of Act II, it was a performance nearly flawless. I would prefer a voice rounder and set lower than Koch’s sometimes too strident manner, but he was strong and in tune through to the end. Vogt’s Walther is solid and yet vulnerable, Kleiter’s Eva clear and bright, and Werba’s Beckmesser – available to be seen and heard on the Herheim DVD – achieved the clarity of enunciation along with an undertone of sweetness that betrays as it redeems the surface of the character: he does not want to be the way he is. Barenboim’s rendition kept presenting surprises – flow when others have marched, sudden changes in dynamics or tempo that deliberately but perhaps gratuitously arrested the attention without directing it toward some particular interpretation. Again the new provided an occasion to shed light on the old.


Of course we know by now that the famous defense of German Art expressed in the last aria of Sachs would be given an elaborate emphasis by this “politically conscious” version of the piece. We are to imagine ourselves not on a grassy knoll beside the Pegnitz but looking across the Pegnitz to the facade of nothing other than the Berlin Palace as a backdrop, with the groups of guildsmen emerging up from boats on the river onto the stage from a dock between the backdrop and the front of the stage. Once the singers’ platform is erected by the Masters’ apprentices, the Sachs-slob unaccountably moves into the center of it as if he knew the Nurembergers were going to surprise him with a song in his praise. The net effect of all that has come before, a great disappointment over all, is that the character Sachs deserves no such praise, and that there is no dramatic motivation for him to show such surprise. And in the very end there is no replacing of the wreath of the Master from Walther to Sachs by Eva, since Eva does not in this production view Sachs as her Erwacher, and the perennial Master of Song and Wisdom and Sanity and Growing Up. Walther does give in to his persuasion to accept the medal at the end and the two of them turn to the Berlin Palace in the background to see it lift away revealing a field of green and a blue heaven above, the truest picture of Germany liberated at last from any political overlay.


– Ken Quandt


It seems that the science of semiotics needs to be invoked to begin talking about the new Ring designed by Guy Cassiers, playing this year at Staatsoper Berlin and at La Scala, on the 200th birthday of Richard Wagner, under the baton of Daniel Barenboim. In the aftermath of the first installment, the Rhinegold of April 4, it appeared that the ears will be quite satisfied by the orchestra and its conductor but the visual presentation on the stage was going to be a different matter.


Anticipatory Reflections

My Wagner friend often tells me that regardless of the mise en scène she can always “close her eyes.” One never hears such a thing said of Verdi — it would be impossible. This is because of the unique gorgeousness or truth of the Wagner music — something hard to explain — but the immediate implication for the prospective director of a Wagner opera is that although he might take measures to supplement or enhance the enjoyment of the piece, his work paradoxically but strictly speaking might be superfluous. The peculiar state of affairs can therefore arise that a more willful or egoistic director might in the manner of Klingsor return the favor by turning his back on the music and staging a visual event to rival it, quite independent of and external to the music and its mission and referring to itself only. In recent years the extreme example or illustration of this directorial decision that I know of is the Los Angeles Ring of Achim Freyer, with its pictorial smorgasbord of novel and invented visual objects, not so good-looking in themselves nor at all good at settling down into a gestalt alongside each other, but serving instead as superfluous signs of a system of anger or fear or love — the sorts of things Wagner’s musical leitmotifs already “refer” to — signs for which Freyer provides their own parallel history to and evolution through the course of the four operas. It was as if the opera were hooked up to a hospital monitor that showed its vital signs. The new Paris Ring is likewise rich in superfluous visual paraphernalia but these are of a different character insofar as they retell the history of the Twentieth Century (for what it is worth) and so they at least behave like signs since they refer to something outside the operas which the audience already knows, though the relevance to Wagner’s plot remains an open question.


The artistic overreaching that characterizes all of Wagner’s work will always leave us overwhelmed and uncertain, and will always therefore provide an umbrella to protect the ingenuities by which lesser minds and lesser talents seek to supplement his allusive libretto with a more concrete interpretation. The audience however is the ultimate arbiter, and for their sake I present a commonsense axiom. Any production that leaves its own meaning unclear rather than Wagner’s meaning must be counted a failure. The questions Wagner leaves open are the questions that will always remain open since they are the ultimate questions. In comparison with these, the referential puzzles we often find ourselves left to decipher by more recent Regie-productions take on the aspect of impertinent mimicry. We know they are impertinent because for all the brave insouciance such directors parade in ignoring and abusing Wagner’s own very explicit stage directions, they never have the cheek to alter the libretto or the music. (Are we meant to be thrilled by the announcement that Mademoiselle Wagner has included a clause in the new director’s contract at Bayreuth that he will not cut or alter the score?). By keeping their hands off these they are acknowledging once and for all that they do not wish to be taken seriously, that they are hoping the audience will conspire in their cynicism to work around the edges and rearrange the deck chairs, or in a truer metaphor to slum with superiors or to act the way persons do that choose to waste their inheritance rather than protect it and pass it on.


There is another reason these directors concentrate on the staging besides their fear of trying to improve the libretto — this thing Joyce called the “ineluctable modality of the visual.” Taking another cue from Klingsor, the Regiesseur can divert and then refocus his audience’s attention by exploiting the sensory stimulation of the eyes. The stage after all appears to the eye as a framed visual field, and we learned last year in the case of Lepage that no expense will ever again be forgone to fill the stage with a hundred tons of machinery — an ultimate semiotic paradox, since what we are left looking at during the entire production is a machine that does nothing but produce optical illusions. It is no accident that this mighty nightmare was conceived in connection with Wagner’s Ring.


It is fair to say that arbitrary visuals have become the central issue in the recent performance history of Wagner, above the poetry and the “tone” which are left in the hands of the individual artists. Indeed this is perhaps the main implication of the current language of “Regie” — that the director is more important than the performers, even though all the while he keeps his mitts off the libretto and the music. It is inevitable today that any mise en scène of Wagner’s works, and especially of the Ring, will be conceive itself as taking its place within this context, as Cassiers does in his interview about his production reprinted in the program here for the Die Walküre, where he begins by comparing his interpretation with the 1976 presentation of Chereau at Bayreuth, which itself commemorated the centennial of the Ring. I had high hopes that the current version, which was commissioned to commemorate the second centennial of Wagner’s birth, might make an “historical” contribution to this history, maybe even to raise the problem of the visuals and their limitations to the level of consciousness.


Rhinegold, April 4

With this orientation and hope in the background I went to the Rhinegold of the second cycle at the Staatsoper Berlin on Thursday 4 April. The initial impression was very bad. It seemed we had come all this way to be subjected to another Regie extravaganza. René Pape’s much anticipated Wotan was not a revelation. At the end the applause was the most muted I’ve ever heard after the Rheingold in any Ring Cycle. The faces in line at the garderobe had been served a dubious meal and seemed to be anticipating stomach problems. Clearly the director was trying to introduce us to his own dark semiotic world rather than render the piece with all its distinctively ethical focus on the contagious power of envy and borrowed desire, as Loge’s speech in the Second Scene demonstrates and all the subsequent action proves. Instead we were introduced to the predominant feature of this production, a huge backdrop produced somehow by lights and capable of any color or pattern. The backdrop is so dominant and preoccupied with itself that the director had to leave the stage bare; and perhaps this is why several dancers were brought on to portray the chains in which Alberich was bound or a chair for Loge to sit on while tricking him. These dancers were the first semiotic dead-end of the cycle.


Die Walküre, April 5

Happily, after the Walküre much if not all was forgiven. The faces were happier, grumbling about one detail and effusing about another in the usual way. Best of all I heard people trying to say something about Wagner they had never quite been able to say, brow furrowed, before the dream should slip away during dinner afterwards. Near the Schiller Theater, which is the current venue for the Staatsoper, we have what we have always had after performances at the Deutsche Oper, the Ristorante Don Giovanni on Bismarckstrasse that observantly stays open after all operas in the neighborhood so that we can sort all this out, or more likely let it gently slip down into the subconscious for future sorting out over nicely presented and delicious Italian Cuisine.


This was a simpler and more straightforward production, conceived with less fussy details though at the same time presented with an abstract spareness we have become accustomed to elsewhere, a fashion that puts greater onus onto the actor-singers. As actors they were underdirected but as singers they were a success. Waltraud Meier sang Sieglinde and Peter Seiffert sang Siegmund. The setting was more naturalistic than the night before. For Act One the corner of Hunding’s abode was the center rear so there was a triangular orientation that nicely convened with the triangle or triangles being carried out in the action between Hunding, Sieglinde and Siegmund. The blocking (or Personenregie) was however wooden. Ms. Meier made up for some of that by her own professional demeanor and noble arms.


The general and continuously employed stage feature dominating this production of the Ring is a video projection hard to believe for its flexibility and fine detail and its metamorphoses. It might be broken up at times, as for instance into vertical bands like a barcode, so as not to need to be realistic; sometimes the field is given over to a homogeneous field of water or trees; sometimes a geometrical pastiche of pictures or symbols; and sometimes it appears as side panels so as to form a sort of triptych with the stage action. In the Rhinegold the background could of course be shimmering water and at the beginning of Die Walküre it was of course the forest, around Hunding’s abode, capable of producing the fine detail of coruscating leaves. The shimmering was just right. Too little and the thing becomes static; too much and it draws attention to itself. We were led to formulate a poetics of the imagery as we went along. Soon I got the sense that the presence of a god or his influence in the action strengthened the shimmering or pushed the imagery beyond the representational, as if one of the things the backdrop was meant to communicate was the influence of the gods on human affairs, unknown to the humans involved. This helped us to guess, but only in retrospect, that the divine action of the Rhinegold was perhaps supposed to be unclear.


The last scene of the Third Act was very disappointing to me. Theorin screamed her Brunnhilde and her articulation was poor, and while Pape’s tone was gentle and pure (he kept sounding like José Van Dam) the emotions the director gave him were all wrong. He was hurt rather than torn. The Personenregie was again wooden: back and forth they walked, as Sieglinde and Siegmund had in the First Act, and they almost forwent embracing altogether, but gave in and hugged at the last minute. Wotan then became sentimentally preoccupied with covering her up while she went to sleep, even turning his back to the audience, but he forgot to hammer the ground with his spear when he called for Loge (the percussionist in the pit below didn’t). Pape’s depiction made him a disappointed human rather than a god hastening the onset of his own doom. It was as if he regretted the fact that Brunnhilde was a kühnes herrliches Kind rather than being so inspired by her as to relent and surround the mountain with fire to protect her.


Siegfried April 7

The Siegfried followed two nights later. At the beginning an announcement from the curtain told us that Siegfried (Lance Ryan) had not shown up and nobody know where he was, but that Andreas Schager, who was to sing Siegfried in the Götterdämmerung three nights later, happened to be in the building and agreed to sing the role with a score at a podium at the side of the stage. The Assistant Director Derek Gimpel pantomimed Siegfried on the stage. The costume fitting him just fine. Of course a great pressure was put onto Peter Bronder’s Mime to call in one direction and hear Siegfried from another. Despite his overall success, five days later in the elevator at our apartment building Bronder could still break into a nervous smile recounting the bullets he had dodged.


With this third opera we saw a new use of the magical stage effects that establish a fairy tale atmosphere. Things start out with the gorgeous naturalism of leafy trees surrounding Mime’s camp wonderously produced by the video backdrop. When the Wanderer arrives and the long and baffling question and answer session slowly plays itself out, in which human ignorance of the divine plane of things is thematized more explicitly than anywhere else in the opera, the stage gradually expands upward like a cobra and becomes tensely vertiginous. Then, when Siegfried takes forging the sword into his own hands the whole background becomes a fire and the trees become tangled heaps of discarded sword shafts. There is something of an apocalypse of Siegfried at this moment. The overall effect was thrilling and the curtain met with thunderous applause.


But now another problem came into focus, suggested by the ventriloquism of Siegfried’s role in tonight’s First Act. It is the problem that dogs this production all along. With all the sensational lighting, the stage magic, and the saturated peculiarities in costume and make-up, the expressivity of the characters and the plot for which they are the vehicle is blunted or lost. What really brought this home was the reappearance of dancers during the Forest Scene in Act Two, something we had not seen since the Rhinegold. This time they danced around Siegfried with knives and seemed to embody externally the growth of his inner resolve as he dealt with Mime. This was better than making them furniture only, as they became in the Rhinegold, but it brought to the fore that the visual supplementation of what was going on within Siegfried’s soul by these persons looming around him was merely a claim by the director, a “statement” that his direction should have already proved so as to make the dancers redundant.


Most of us know the plot of the Ring pretty well, but even so all of us learn something new about it each time. This production, I now came to realize, has been taking no care at all to retell the story so much as to elaborate it with external inferences and commentary. For Wagner, however, forming the story was the fundamental creative act that governed all the other aspects of the composition. The stories are not only allusive and deep with psychological meaning but also can be as complicated as clockwork. Mencken famously said of the Meistersinger that more thought went into its design than into the entire corpus of Shakespeare! In the Ring Cycle the maximal complexity is reached upon the entry of Brunnhilde in Act Two Scene Four of Götterdämmerung since all the characters know and believe different things. The overall impression I had by the end of the Siegfried was that something was missing in the presentation, and now I realized that this something is the story. I realized I was having to expend a lot of energy supplying it, while the director was complicating my job by adding dots for me to connect in order to keep the flow of the action alive.


Failing to tell the story can be another liability when a becomes distracted into exploiting the “ineluctable modality of the visual,” since the visuals by their very nature distract from the characters and their actions and can even obstruct the story from showing through their actions and their words. If the story is worth telling, the ineluctable modality needs to be managed with care, attenuated, coped with, controlled — not exploited for the sake of creating a description by which the new production might be distinguished from others. We had the problem with Bob Wilson and his faceless persona masks, stiff and iconic costumes, and stylized stage movements; we had it with Achim Freyer’s sets that looked like a pin-ball game and ridiculously oversaturated costumery that turned the characters into grab toys from a box of Crackerjacks. How much can the characters be seen to undergo a change when it is the colossal stage is changing in a way that appears to defy the laws of gravity? How will we know the full meaning of the characters’ words when their faces are frozen in makeup or invisible?


As to the final scene of the night between Siegfried and Brunnhilde, corresponding to that between Wotan and Brunnhilde the night before, the blocking is now much busier but not better directed. Brunnhilde and Siegfried keep exchanging places on the elevated bed-platform as if they were playing king of the mountain. It is something of a joke, a sort of musical chairs. that was only emphasized by Lance Ryan’s boyish depiction of Siegfried (he had arrived in time for the Second Act). In Wagner’s poem their talk and their feelings do go back and forth, and do go hot and cold, but there is a development in what is happening and the intensification of an ascending spiral. The huge transitions such as Siegfried’s “Sangst du mir nicht dein Wissen sei” and Brunnhilde’s “Ewige war Ich” mark escalations in the tension and depth of their encounter but the staging had them running around in circles.


Götterdämmerung April 10

The other three operas of the cycle had already been rolled out during previous years, both here and in Milan. The Götterdämmerung is new with this run, and so is the program published with it, which includes a presentation of the Official Interpretation of the production by its “Dramaturge,” Michael Steinberg (an academic from Brown Univeersity, not the late and wise program annotator).

To the extent that acting and character become more important as the story becomes more human, I hoped the visible business would be attenuated for the more humanly complicated Götterdämmerung, on Wednesday 10 April. My hopes were thwarted by unexpected imperfections in the musical execution, not to mention a huge escalation of visual distractions imposed on the piece by the director. The orchestra now and then lost track of the beat and even played half bars apart from itself. In the opening scene between Brunnhilde and Siegfried they played much too slow, visibly forcing the singers to find ways to slow themselves down. Such a thing might due to the fact that all four operas are rehearsed in advance of the performance of the cycle, as I later heard, so that it was well over a week ago that they had practiced what they were performing; and my wise seatmate from Covent Garden thought it might have been fatigue from Barenboim’s very heavy schedule. As to the singers, Andreas Schager’s formal debut as Siegfried was a surprising disappointment after his stand-in work in Act One of the Siegfried three nights before. There he had the score and did not need to act, but here he did not and did. He stared at the prompter throughout his intimate opening scene with Brunnhilde and afterward he continually positioned himself for a sightline-lifeline. His phrases characteristically blasted out the opening note and then gave way to a line that lacked tone and musical curve. Perhaps he was saving himself for the difficult exposed passages in the final act. He did improve over the course of the evening and did pull the last act off without a hitch. Mikhail Petrenko was singing Hagen from the back of his throat this night, but Hagen must sound evil to the core. Theorin was improved from before — better enunciation and rising to full command of the stage for the immolation. Most impressive to me was her use of piano at the beginning of that final scene. For all the shortcomings, however, Waltraud Meier’s burnished and professional presentation of the Second Norn and especially of Waltraute with her curving supplication of Brunnhilde were a welcome compensation.


As to the interference of the director, he has decided to tell us “who the Gibichungs are” — what sort of culture or Weltanschauung they live in. This is a question without a Wagnerian answer. To the extent we meet the Gibichung populace at all it is the chorus of Hagen’s vassals later filled in with townswomen, and as we learn from the vassals’ remarks after the murder of Siegfried — “Hagen, was tust du?,” followed immediately by “Hagen, was tatest du?” — we learn they are just a feckless mass. As for Wagner, the moment he places us in the Gibichung Hall he directs our attention away from all historical, political, and social questions by presenting us a trio of characters that cannot but remind us of those we met in the First Act of Die Walküre — a pair of twins and an odd man out. We already had the opportunity to sense the huge ring by which the middle operas end where they begin, the Siegfried ending with an heroic surrender to love, just as Die Walküre had begun with a scandalous one. By the time of the Siegfried much has been gained, however. This time the love is more than a quasi-illusion owing to the puppetry of Wotan, its narcissistic character emblematized by the incest of Sieglinde and Siegmund, as Fricka proudly and correctly objects. No, this time a goddess has chosen to relinquish her immortality and die for love (“ewig’ war ich,” she says), and a manly hero has disarmed and unthewed himself to learn fear and explore the dark and warm secrets of intimacy. (We can leave the almost completely accidental fact that Brunnhilde is his aunt to the Anna Russell’s of this world).


Despite this progress in love from the closed embryo of Siegmund and Sieglinde to the open encounter of Brunnhilde and Siegfried in the light of day that will never look back, so beautifully recalled in the orchestral interlude between the first and second scenes of the Prelude to Götterdämmerung, the story is not over. We have another opera, the most operatic of all, that follows this prelude, and the first characters we meet are again brother-sister twins who this time are looking for spouses in order to maintain their prideful claim as rulers. Hagen corresponds somehow with Hunding (not Siegfried, pace Mr. Steinberg’s essay), the odd man out who will ruin everything. In a slightly different world Gutrune and Gunther could have overcome their political problem by marrying each other (as Siegmund and Sieglinde did, though in their case it was for the sake of love in defiance of power politics). These allusive pairings of Wagner’s take all focus away from the Gibichung populace, of which Mr.Steinberg’s interpretation makes so much, and turn the focus inward, onto the fateful choices of the individual characters and how vulnerable they are willing to let love make them. Siegmund and Sieglinde’s love nearly cancels the rights and claims of Hunding (Siegmund converted Brunnhilde in the Todesverkundung scene, requiring Wotan to intervene at the last minute) but there is no way that love will enable Gunther and Gutrune to resist the evil of their half-brother, Hagen. Instead he will use them to get at Brunnhilde and Siegfried, and then use these only to get at the Ring — as we see in his sudden reappearance at the very end of the final scene of Act Three.


Exactly because the political and social ethos of the Gibichungs does not matter to his story, Wagner leaves it undefined. But exactly because he leaves it open he has provided a lacuna where an impertinent director can insert himself, at the expense of diverting our attention away from the feckless insubstantiality of Gunther and Gutrune which Wagner means for us to compare with the epochal moment in the History of Love that Brunnhilde and Siegfried have just now achieved. These are Wagner’s true themes in the Ring, even if it detracts from their impression on us to try to systematize them. What makes the pomp of the Gibichungs empty is the same as what makes the pride of Hunding empty: it is the absence of love, as Wagner indicates by the very similar leitmotives he gives them — this broad and empty leaping movement audible the very moment they come on stage, though the Gibichungs’ is scored in a polished way while Hunding’s is rude and rustic. It is this music, not Steinberg’s dunkel Kadenze at the end of Siegfried’s Journey nor the music depicting Hagen’s Dream at the beginning of Act Two, that characterizes the self-understanding of the Gibichungs price and princess.


Cassiers however has a full theory of the Gibichungs as a bankrupt regime to be compared with the current situation of the Eurozone with its all embracing rules that continually fail to organize the diverse and far-flung region — so much we learn from his interview in the program — though it is only through quite accidental means that he conveys even the impression of this far-flung allegorical interpretation. In particular, this smallish stage will need to accommodate a large chorus in the Götterdämmerung, and part of the solution is a strange piece of furniture that keeps threatening to enter from the side as a signal we are in the Gibichung Hall — a sort of brightly lit grandstand eight or ten rows high made of modular transparent boxes stuffed with what can only be gaggles of body parts. Bosch’s Hell-panel in the “Garden of Earthly Delights” comes to mind as an analogy, though if we take the trouble of reading the program where once again we learn that a word is worth one-thousandth of a picture, Cassiers tell us he has in mind the lesser known but “controversial” bas-relief of his fellow Belgian Jef Lambeaux, Die menschlichen Leidenschaften, depicted on the slipcover of the Götterdämmerung program. We can say that it takes great skill to convey such a preposterous image so ineluctably — “What were those body parts doing there?” you could hear almost everyone saying during the intermissions — but the ineluctable and recognizable is not thereby illuminating or meaningful. The semiotic problem returns. When the sign depicts something that makes no sense, or presents a Sinn without a Bedeutung if you will, it becomes an opaque and superfluous increment of visual saturation, the visual analogue to the old notion of the Klangteppich. The immediate effect or hazard of such an addition is to bore the audience with more than it can engage with and digest, analogous to the effect of the orchestra playing too loud.


Looking back I think what struck me most about this production was that despite the music I was always on the verge of boredom, and I think this carpet of visuals, this continuous, huge, and gorgeous visual backdrop that unaccountably morphs from one image to another, is what caused me to feel this way. At times it enhanced the story, as at the end of the Act One of Siegfried the whole stage was full of the flames of his smithy pit; or at the beginning of the Walküre Hunding’s abode was surrounded by coruscating leaves often it was just there; but from time to time, and especially in the Rhinegold and the last act of Götterdämmerung it was given over to images that required us momentarily to disengage from the very dense progress of the action and the music even to make out let alone incorporate them. It will be by some as yet unconvened term for this backdrop that this production will get its name, as the LePage has from its machine. I dreaded what he might pack into the several last moments of the opera, that purely orchestral passage dense with a pageant of the story’s leitmotives, which Wagner recalls all the great moments of the action. Brunnhilde has mounted the steps of the lightboxes full of body parts; all else is fire; and when she disappears beyond we see the Rhine’s waters, but then the director succeeds to end with all the chorus looking back at the mural of struggling humanity sedimented into the riverbed of the Rhine.


Wagner included the stage direction that all the persons left alive on the stage should be looking to the immolation of Valhalla behind and in the distance, with their backs to the audience, as the curtain falls; but in case this had not been enough to make us identify with them, our director adds the overly concrete and pedantic touch of placing another copy of the mural they watched at the rear onto the front of the curtain that falls, leaving the audience alone to wonder at the future fate of mankind. Cassiers has told us in his interview that he decided for a pessimistic ending instead of the optimistic ending of Chereau’s Bayreuth centennial, and even Wagner wavered about what final words of prophecy he should give to Brunnhilde, but as Dahlhaus long ago showed it is the final line of the music — an entirely exposed reiteration of Brunnhilde’s annunciation to Sieglinde in Act Three of Die Walküre that she is pregnant with Siegfried, that tells us that the only future we can have will be supplied by the fruits and offspring of Love. This musical gesture to an open and vital future in the score becomes truncated and closed off by Cassiers’s dark and intransigent visual image of endless human strife and chaos.


The applause at the curtain was weak, scattered, and somehow reluctant. Overall there was no sale and nothing commemorative about the concept or the execution of this production. Another cycle starts here on Sunday, April 14, and then it moves back to Milan.


Ken Quandt

A good author gives us both sides of ourselves; a great author puts them in tension with each other, as Mozart and Schikaneder did in the Magic Flute by giving us Tamino and Papageno, and Pamina and Papagena, just as they already live in tension within ourselves. If the academic and intellectual puzzles over which part the author or the artist meant (as did the great Egyptologist Jan Assman in his recent book, Die Zauberflöte), he provides a small number of us who read him with the opportunity to extenuate the problem. On the one hand he consoles us by telling us the tension we already felt in ourselves is true and legitimate, but on the other he lies by making this a literary conundrum reveal some great author’s intentions when in fact it is nothing more than a conundrum that Tom, Dick, Harry, and I, face in our lives every day and even every moment.  To put it in suitably gross terms, at home we are Papageno but at work we are Tamino.

Tonight in Berlin, the 199th performance took place of the version of the Magic Flute that premiered here in 1994. The names have been changed to protect the innocent, mostly, and so has the venue.  The usual house Unter den Linden is closed for repairs that will take three years, and the Staatsoper has moved to the Schiller Theater on Bismarckstrasse, just a few blocks from the Deutsche Oper. While they are there it will repay the visitor to go to the second floor lounge during intermission and study the concave inside of the etched glass window work, cubist in style, whose outside is the primary architectural feature of the house, easily viewed on the web. Adam and Eve are featured in the middle of 34 vertical panes.

The house has a very unusual feature that has been lavishly exploited by the current production of the Magic Flute, and probably by other productions that have been brought here.  The stage can extend around the orchestra’s sides to a concourse along its front, separating the orchestra from the first row.  The singers can walk a complete circuit around the orchestra and, when they do they give the audience an opportunity to be disarmingly close to them while they are singing at full volume. I will need to ask my psychotherapist why tears came to my eyes when Papageno and Papagena sang their duet so close to me, sitting in the third row center, and why during her bravura aria in Act Two the Queen of the Night stopped at the same place and seemed to be singing with flawless virtuosity to me alone.

This old and traditional production does not need a new description.  The sets are reproductions of the old Schinkel decorations from 1816, and nobody cares if the soloists’ shadows are cast on the backdrop as they used to be in the time of limelight. But again the special flooring and doorways of the Schiller Theater have been provided for refreshing special effects that break down the barrier between the audience and the stage. In his first appearance Sarastro is located in the audience, singing from the boxes on the left; Papageno once emerges from the orchestra; and there are side doors on the concourse around the orchestra that provide for exits and entrances outside the actual plot while it is being played out a little further back on stage.

I learned tonight what Tamino needs to be because Martin Hormich failed to achieve it. He must be inherently attractive so as to make the Queen’s ladies fight over him, capable of guessing the truth better than Papageno, capable of a conversion when he finds he was right, and manly enough now to live up to his new high calling; but Hormich unfortunately, tonight at least, seemed to have only one voice and one emotional message: sing hard. I think everybody in the house was relieved for the few moments while Tamino was passing the test of silence! Pamina (Adriana Queiroz) on the other hand, was supple, emotionally satisfying, and very much in tune.

Papageno was one of the favorites, as Loge tends to be in Rheingold, because of his refreshing frankness.  But Hanno Muller-Brachmann who sang the role has a very great voice and moves very well. For me a highlight was the choreography (by Roland Gawlik) of the Three Ladies at the very beginning, each vying to tend to Tamino while sending the others to report back to the Queen.  Theirs will never be more than a minor role but it will seldom be played more enjoyably, and competently, than here.  Another highlight was Sarastro sung by Alexander Vinogradov: his arias are the best and truest of the opera, and Vinogradov sang them that way, with all the low notes despite a sinus congestion that appeared only in his nasal syllables. The conducting of youthful Alexander Soddy and the performance of the orchestra started with some sag in the high violins but soon got completely onto the mark and up to Mozart’s thrilling pace.

It is a wonderful innovation of this production that at the end all the Papagenos and Papagenas that these two had just vowed to create in their own images, actually show up. At the end, the stage is filled with all twenty of them along with everyone else in the cast; and even the Queen of the Night helps Sarastro remove his mantle and place it onto the shoulders of the newly betrothed royal pair, Tamino and Pamina.

The Realm of Night and the Realm of Day are again reconciled, and the Pagageni will continue to have their lives and live them without knowing any better. It is a reconciliation achieved by heroism in the case of Tamino, and divine mercy in the case of Papageno, the two paths that all of us find ourselves moving along, all the time of this life. – Ken Quandt

Tristan is probably a little nobler than most of us but certainly the
most unlucky of all. This must be the idea behind staging the entire
opera on a fallen or sleeping or even dead angel, which Harry Kupfer
first introduced here in 2000. This season?s revival plays only three
times. I made the trek in honor of my close and recently departed
friend, Phil Raines, a noted Wagner scholar who died this July 4.

The stage is almost filled by a large, bronze sculpture, on and around
which the action takes place. It is a huge prone angel with a round
child's head, one wing ramping down to the floor of the stage and the
other arching upward as a wing might. In Act I its wings serve the
spatial needs of the ship perfectly. But paradoxically, the whole
stage is too empty to present a continuous identity of place requisite
to this end. In the present production the place Tristan died was the
same place he taught Isolde the metaphysics of love in Act II. Isolde
died exactly where she and Tristan sat at the end of Act II before
Marke?s entrance, which was the same place where Brangaene switched
the potions in Act I.

Tristan wears a full length coat and Isolde a red robe with black
brocade around a black dress. Brangaene is in blue. Katarina
Dalayman brings a Mona Lisa look to the role of Isolde and Clifton
Forbis is almost a Heldentenor.

Tristan is a man ennobled by his suffering, ultimately the suffering
of orphanhood. Once this is grasped Act III, which I have always
dreaded, it takes on the dimensionality of Sophocles' Oedipus of
Colonus and we suddenly find ourselves on a very high plane indeed.
Isolde stands over Tristan looking at the audience motionless, a
silent martyr to his nobility; in Act II she is perched upward on the
ramp of the angel's wings and watches the humiliation of Tristan,
kneeling on the ground with his head in his hands, as King Marke's
monologue pours out his disappointment over him. Her poses include an
element of Stabat Mater that reaches its culmination in the Liebestod,
where the angel on which the action takes place rotates and Isolde is
left on the stage alone, to lie down on its other side while the
lights dim to nothing.

The late Wagner scholar Phil Raines, who died this July 4, had been
asking what Tristan meant when, replying to Marke's monologue, he says
he could not answer his question and that Marke could never understand
the answer anyway. This production demonstrates that Tristan's
childhood was mangled by the death of his father the moment he
inseminated his mother, and of his mother the moment she bore him, a
degree of dismemberment others cannot understand even if they try.
This is the source of his boundless yearning, a yearning not for
Isolde?s love but a yearning much older, from a time in the gray
morning light when he first heard his father was dead. Through his
rambling autobiography, we learn from Tristan that ?The Look? that
moved Isolde so much when he "came to" in her healing cave and she
spared him was not the beginning of a life redeemed by love but only
the beginning of an eternal yearning. He had almost succeeded in
sublimating his yearning by winning her for Marke, but now, with ?The
Look,? he saw the loving face he had been denied seeing at birth, the
face whose life became dedicated to him by dint of his vulnerability.
Once he drank the potion, he became powerless to deny he had had this
experience, and he was doomed.

The solution for Tristan is to return to his mother's womb, as he says
right after Marke's monologue. But he needs Isolde at his side, to
look down at him again and at his wound, so that he can go back the
way he came, by reversing the process she began when she brought him
back to health and he looked into her eyes.

Daniel Barenboim is a great Wagner conductor. Many of the familiar
orchestral passages were deconstructed and given a new shape, and the
tonal dimensionality of the music was almost always fully represented.
The orchestra, however, was much too loud for the singers (from my
seat right under the chandelier) and tended to impose its own musical
line regardless of what they could contribute. The greatest loss was
the wandering extravagances of Isolde and Tristan's Act II scenes.
Almost no magical moment was given space to appear, though there are
several there. Even in the dramatic Liebestod the singer and the
orchestra were poorly matched. But the music here is so great and
builds so much to the same conclusion that even without coordination,
even with early entries by the horns, and even with a sluggish and
broad representation of the beat, everything was still brought in and
moved forward. Dalayman was able to trump the orchestra with sheer
power whenever she needed to, but should not have had to.

The sloping wings of the angel were hard for the singers to walk on.
Nobody slipped, but a distracting amount of care has to be taken to
balance oneself. Even in the Liebestod Isolde had to position herself
just right onto a low platform in the sculpture to make sure she could
sink without falling off.

I felt the voices of Dalayman?s Isolde and Michelle DeYoung?s
Brangaene were oddly too similar, perhaps a result of DeYoung?s
gradual movement into soprano parts (she sang a piece of Sieglinde?s
music at the Metropolitan Opera?s National Council Auditions last
February). Gerd Grochowski's Kurwenal was particularly convincing in
Act III and was justifiably applauded. Christof Fischesser's Marke
included a very moving and credible loss of temper at the end of his
monologue, when he drags Tristan part way across the stage by the arm.
Forbis reminded us that only a true Heldentenor can sing his heart
out in the way Tristan requires. It will be interesting to see what
Barenboim brings to his Met debut performances with Dalayman and Ben
Heppner later this fall.
– Ken Quandt