Opera Critic » Miscellaneous

The stage for this production is unaccountably filled with cartoonish parallel “houses” made of foam-board, shaped like the green houses in Monopoly, but slim and ten feet tall. They are all painted baby blue and they might at any moment glide around and form into lines or a wall or a forest. They have doors that the characters can go into and come out of. One of them is taller and has a steeple – and this we see behind the others at as the curtain rises and we can guess it represents the church from which the chorus is coming. A girl runs by and a boy soon after her – then another man going in and out among them looking for somebody – then another girl who is either looking for or trying to escape this second man – The hymn is over and we gather this is Eva and Walther.

This inexpensive but unappealing set will preoccupy us through the entire opera. One of the “houses” will serve as the Merker’s booth in Act I, one of them (perhaps the same one, likewise equipped with a door) will serve as Sachs’s shop in the second, but only when he needs to open the door from his shop so as to cast its light across the path by which Walther and Eva would try to escape. The action, regardless of these bulky props, takes place in the space between, in front of, and behind them. Let’s not forget to mention there is also a desk-chair that serves as the singer’s chair in the first and last acts: but this is generally unused. Sachs delivers his two great monologues sitting on the ground leaning up against a house; and it is in between the houses that Sachs’s series of encounters with each of the main characters take place in the Act III, though they, as opposed to the rest of the action of the opera, is intimately staged indoors. The best use of them comes in the second act, always a problem to stage since so many characters are singing one after the other to one and then another, one overheard by another. In the present case the ins and outs among the houses allow for the various characters to encounter hide from one and encounter the other around the corner just at the right moment. For this part of the action the forest of houses is a success, though ugly; but for the rest of the opera the idea is an ugly failure. Some relief was given us in Act III, when the houses had all glided into the wings and the five stood together with their faces close like a family picture for the quintet.

These distracting large light-blue objects whittled the characters down: they are notionally outdoors on a black ground flailing around, driven about by their interests and impulses. So much convenes with comedy, and the portrayal of Hans Sachs corroborates that this sort of comédie humaine might be the register Andreas Homoki was seeking – though it should be remembered that he adopted a similar register in his Lohengrin, which he set in a beer hall with Elisabeth clearing the tables during what was supposed to be the bridal tête-à-tête. As for Sachs, he finds himself sitting on the ground for his monologues; when Walter sings his Trial Song in Act One, Sachs eagerly stands in front of him conducting him, unable to help himself; in the final Act during his Prize Song Sachs sits akimbo at the front of the stage facing the audience, as if to indicate to us that Walther’s performance is his own creation. We have seen Sachs cast as a meta-character bursting beyond his role in Stefan Herrheim’s Salzburg production, which places the whole opera within his desk, and we will see it again. But what makes Sachs larger than life is exactly his refusal to be so. The telling moment comes in the last scene when all Nuremberg salutes him: he is shocked and humbled, according to Wagner. In the present case he tries to escape the scene and is blocked by the Nurembergers, from the left then from the right and finally from the rear, and then falls prostrate to the floor. In fact, Sachs is something of a clown throughout, with a quizzical and wry look on his face. He is regrettably obtuse when Eva confronts him in Act Two, and when Walther shows up in the shop while he is fixing Eva’s shoe they have a tug of war over her that verges on slapstick. Overall he has no center of gravity though he is the kingpin of the plot, and the result is that the whole opera comes off as a lower kind of comedy than it should be. As such, however, mention should be made of the comical over-acting with which the dramaturge Werner Hintze has filled this rather boring scenario. In particular, in his very fine long aria in Act I, David was made to enact all modes and moods of the ideal Master Song, not only with voice but face and body as well.

Beckmesser is here refined in a comic but not ridiculous way, devoid of the nervous tells and ticks he is often given. He wears tails (muted purple in general but festive rust for Johannistag): the depiction is reminiscent of Hermann Prey’s. Eva is sprightly, happy and young, but quite conflicted over Sachs – she runs from his arms to those of Walther in Act III. Magdalena is allowed to be an eager woman instead of a dull handmaiden verging on mothering David. None of the voices were bad; there was a noticeably strong timber in Tómasson’s middle range; David’s aria was a high point of the performance.

We have a new twist at the end. When Walther wins the song the deeply divided Eva gives Sachs a kiss full on the mouth: though she had acquitted herself convincingly in the quintet, it turns out she has not quite learned her lesson. Walther recoils in anger and humiliation, and his rejection of the master’s crown is made to be a sequela of this anger. Sachs, who had entirely disappeared, now returns to scold him, but his character has been so sporadic and reactive that his lecture comes across as tiresome and unconvincing dogmatism, made only worse by the entire failure of his voice for several of the words in the last phrases.

Almost all I have said in this report has been negative, except for this last: I loved the performance. Nothing was ruined and almost all the golden threads of this rich and tightly woven masterpiece shone through despite, and partly because of, the distractions of the execution.

— Ken Quandt

The action of the opera is slight: the characters are declaiming their feelings throughout. Hence Nietzsche called it Wagner’s Opus Metaphysicum. The only choice that is made throughout the piece is King Marke’s choice to forgive Tristan at the end, but the choice is less effectual than Marke had hoped since by the time he reaches him Tristan is already dead. Ineffectual also is Brangaene’s very willful choice to substitute the love elixir for the death elixir: their love Tristan and Isolde already have, and since their love cannot take place in this world the only place it can take place is another world, but the only other world a human can go to is the world of death, if that is a world. Of such a world we have a conception at least, because every day gives way to a night and to darkness, a fact that will provide the master metaphor of Tristan’s declamations in second act.

When we enter the hall the work of the scenographer, Christophe Hetzer, has already begun. The curtain is up and a large black square about half as big as the whole stage is suspended there in front of a back-wall in muted silver-grey. It is the goings-on in the area occupied by that square that we have come to see, but now that area is only black. The square is too big to be taken in stride. Is its blackness blocking something or is the something there but unilluminated? With the Prelude the square disappears into the flies, but once Act One begins the looming blackness returns in the form of a set of large black walls twenty five feet high that slowly move and rotate on the stage, sometimes to divide a foreground from a background from which personages can surprisingly emerge, sometimes to separate and frame an area between the characters, but most often to give a black background before which the characters declaim. The movement of these large objects is very gradual; so gradual as to recall the sorts of things Bob Wilson did with Wagner a few years ago in his Ring at Chatelet, his Parsifal in Los Angeles, and his Lohengrin in New York: if you watch them the objects seem not to move; if you don’t watch them you suddenly notice they have disappeared or reconfigured themselves.

Wilson-like also was the lighting of the stage, under the command of Jean Kalman. There are no side walls, just a glowing rear wall that shifts from silver to blue and sometimes to a light green, with the large black moving walls in the middle: the backlighting frames the black walls and the black walls frame the players. The impression is that they are outdoors always (which in fact they are, in all three acts of this opera). Moreover they are always forward on the stage and the backlighting always threatens to cast them in silhouette. What lighting they are given so that we can see their faces and gestures is given very sparingly, largely by means of spotlights from the sides so that they cast shadows on other stage objects and even on each other. Their own costumes are nondescript and what differences there are between them is hardly visible because of the shadowy lighting. Overall the costumes are light blue grey, as is the rear wall most of the time.

The similarity to Wilson’s sets into relief a great dissimilarity from him: in his case these optical effects are his own signature gimmicks but here the concentration of blackness and darkness is the express thesis of the interpretation. Dull blue-grey framing black is the world the blue-grey characters live in – or more accurately are dying in. By the third act Tristan, supine before a black wall, is virtually invisible until he picks himself up and lurches about the stage, but when he returns to that position it is to a darkness invisible and eternal that he returns. Another similarity to Wilson, which we can attribute in this case to the dramaturge, Willem Bruls, is that the characters almost never touch each other. In Wilson’s Parsifal for instance Kundry kissed Parsifal from about fifteen feet away. Here too the characters look at each other only rarely and only once do Tristan and Isolde almost-kiss or maybe-kiss, and it is only after they have been discovered by Mark at the end of Act Two. But again the similarity with Wilson evokes the dissimilarity, for it is a thesis of this interpretation that the characters’ love is a metaphysical kind of thing, if we may use Nietzsche’s term: for this, their spatio-temporal proximity is an expression all-too-gross. And so we may go further and imagine that the gradual movement of the walls is also thematic for the gradual and ineluctable merging of their lives into death.

If there is no action, and the lighting and scenery and costumes conspire to make the characters barely distinguishable from each other, one might have been bored out of his mind unless there were something powerful in the libretto and the way it was sung. Wagner himself was aware that this was where the terrifying power of the opera lay, writing in a letter to Mathilde Wesendonck that the only thing that could likely keep it from being banned would be mediocre performance! The performance on May 18 of Torsten Kerl and Rachel Nicholls (replacing Emily McGee who withdrew) should certainly have led to banishment of the work in former times: easily the most inspiring execution of this opera I have heard. Kerl held up through the final act with almost incredible strength, his voice never losing its sharp, sometimes too sharp, edge; what was most impressive about Nicholls was her control of emotional modulations and the delicacy with which her notes arrived, especially in the Liebestod. Polegato’s Kourvenal threatened to steal the show early in Act Three with his voice and acting – a happy and hopeful voice that believes in the world we live in and thinks Tristan might come out OK, a light that soon enough will be extinguished. Humes’s Mark was strong and dignified but lacked the strain of doleful plangency that this father-figure and king must be made to display despite himself. Gatti’s conducting was limpid but sure with unusual ritardando for emphasis, and his modulation of piano and forte was effective: he is one of those conductors that seems to be teaching us the music.

Complaints: 1) Too much racket from the air-conditioner at the Theatre des Champs-Elysées, especially after the second intermission and the very quiet prelude to Act Three when it could have been turned off for a while – even worse the next night during the astoundingly quiet passages in Jonas Kaufmann’s performance of the Wesendonck Lieder. 2) It is an accident of the score that Brangaene’s and Isolde’s voices are very close and I always have trouble with this, but the trouble is exacerbated almost to the point of absurdity when their costumes are indistinguishable and the light is low. 3) Merold in this production is unaccountably portrayed as a crotchety and crippled old man with an elbow cane, playing spoiler – impossible in the hypothesis, since Merold is a contemporary of Tristan and younger than Mark. Merold is not jealous of Tristan’s love for Isolde (as the libretto is translated by the program of this performance) nor jealous of Isolde’s love for Tristan (as Peter Sellars had it in his Tristan Project, making him homosexual) but envious of Mark’s favoritism of him, for Tristan is an interloper in Cornwall by Mark’s adoption of him. Merold’s only way to Mark is through Tristan, as Brangaene tells Isolde in Act Two. Thus Tristan’s difficulty with Merold is not the product of his love for Isolde but another of the circumstances that makes pursuing that love impossible, and now in the third act, on his home turf, he tells us how his orphaned past led to his search for a father in Mark, which traces the origins of his love with Isolde and the trouble with that love all the way back to the moment he was conceived.

What I learned from this production was the importance of the libretto. The synopsis in the program sets out to give the action, but as I have said there is none. Indeed, to liken the opera to an oratorio has become a commonplace. It is the declamations that are the action, both in the sense of Tristan’s attempt in Act Two to teach Isolde the meaning of their love, and also in the separate but equal autobiographical declamations first by Isolde in Act One (Er sah mir in die Augen) and second by Tristan in Act Three (when the piper’s song reminds him of his parentage). These expose the separate psychological roots of their love for each other, and justify the dramaturgy of non-embrace. They are not, and will not be, spelled out in the synopsis of the opera, so that unless you already know them and to some extent have contemplated the way the characters articulate them – which in the case of Tristan is extremely poetical and as metaphorical as something from Ossian – the characters’ words will seem in performance nothing but more and more lovesick raving. What is tragic about their love is the credible and verisimilar story by which their personal circumstances – what occurred in the world of light – make their love impossible at the same time that it is the only hope in their lives. That death for them is the only viable alternative is not paradoxical or star-crossed but humanly tragic.

At the very end, for the Liebestod, the black wall behind became translucent and behind it, framed by its outline, Isolde sang in silhouette. The body of Tristan had disappeared; she was deep in the stage with the illuminated silver wall to her back, dead to our world and already being transported to the next. This one moment redeemed all the darkness before. More exactly, it embodied what the darkness had meant.

The production is a joint effort with Nederlandse Opera and with the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, whose 2016-2017 it will open. France Musique has announced it will broadcast it on 25 June 2016. Excerpts of what I have tried to describe are available to be seen on YouTube.

— Ken Quandt

This Inszenierung debuted here four years ago but this was the first time it was presented over four consecutive days – a novelty for those who have seen the Ring too many times which in fact drew me to it but which also enabled the audience, jaded or not, to see too many singers. Too many not because some did poorly – indeed with all the cast changes a high level of quality was maintained, which was something of a tour de force in itself – but because something was lost in the continuity of the story by the need continually to reboot with new faces and voices and shapes, a thing all the more noticeable when there were no intervening days for yesterday’s impressions to fade, and all the more regrettable since the closeness of the performances would ideally enhance one’s appreciation if the cast had not changed, which is something one can experience at home with a set of DVD’s of a single production, as for instance the Schenk, the Kupfer, or the Chereau, which technology enables us to view just as continually as we are able, by somehow allowing the singers to keep going without fatigue.

But we have gotten ahead of ourselves. The switching-out was only the tip of the iceberg. The salient feature of this production is a deeper unevenness of conception and execution that the switching-out only exacerbated. There was no curtain, even between the scenes of Rheingold and between the Prelude and Act One of Gotterdammerung – something that is also becoming more common – but here it was done with uneven artistry. Dancers were used – another thing more common in recent years – but were used unevenly. Most important in the end, there was a jarring shift from beauty to ugliness that made the ugly more ugly than it would have been if there had been nothing particularly beautiful. Each of these unevennesses bears some description if nothing else to illustrate the vicissitudes to which a performance of the tetralogy is liable.

First, then, the SINGER-CHANGES with a few comments:
Wotan: Tuomas Pursio in Rheingold (show-stealing performance); Markus Marquart in Walküre (finest meditative monologue I have witnessed); Evgeny Nikitin as Wanderer in Siegfried (a burnished and resonant voice hugely sympathetic in the late scene with Erda). Here the changes were all improvements over having one singer even if the face was different since the quality of the voices corresponded with the development of Wotan and the plot.
Brunnhilde: Eva Johansson in Walküre; Elisabet Strid in Siegfried; Christiane Liber (who had sung Sieglinde) in Götterdämmerung. Too many Brunnhildes since Brunnhilde is the one character whose development carries the meaning of the tetralogy more than any other, and we want to watch her AS she changes, in contrast to Wotan where it suffices to see that he HAS changed.
Siegfried: Stefan Vincke in Siegfried, a playful and strong Siegfried if under-rehearsed; Thomas Mohr in Gotterdammerung.
Fricka: Karin Lovelius in Rheingold, particularly dignified; Kathrin Goering in Walküre, beautiful but less dignified (though her dignity is more important here than in Rheingold).
As for Alberich, Jürgin Linn hung around for the whole thing – and his continuity set into relief the changes of the others – another of the contradictions in execution and conception. Conversely, Tuomas Pursio reappears as Gunther in Götterdämmerung raising the forlorn hope of having heard him as Wotan throughout. Thankfully Nicole Piccolomini appeared as Erda both times.

The CURTAINLESS SCENE CHANGES had at first an unwanted utilitarian sense but at the end a highly powerful visual embodiment of Wagner’s auditory method of through-composition. For the first scene of Rheingold there is a round elevated platform in the center of the stage from beneath which Alberich emerges. When he climbs onto the platform we discover it is full of water: he splashes around and actually gets wet; at the end of the scene during Wagner’s transitional music the troupe of dancers with their graceful but affected movements are gathered upon the platform wiping it dry before other dancers bring on a little furniture for the next scene: clearly the water has been drained out but the floor of the platform needs to be wiped dry lest the next set of characters slip. At the other end of the spectrum, between the Prologue and the first two scenes of Götterdämmerung, Act One, the scene changes are done without dancers but with gradual shifts in the lighting – things come into view that were invisible before, we feel we are moving from outdoors to indoors, the tall posts on the stage are transformed from trees in the vicinity of Brunnhilde’s Rock to pillars within the Gibichung palace. The shifts are gradual and most wonderfully, they made Wagner’s transitional music become visible, from the dark and desperate mood of the Norns to the hopeful exultation of Brunnhilde and Siegfried and then to the morbid grandeur of the palace – and so it went throughout the Gotterdammerung: this is the best artistic potential for the curtainless technique, namely to make the scene change before our eyes in tandem with the music, so we have been brought from a treatment dead or bald to Gesamtkunst.

The DANCERS did mop the stage in their first appearance; elsewhere they had other functions. Since such dancers as these, more and more common these days, are silent and superadded to any stage directions it seems unlikely there will ever be a settled poetics for their use. They will likely go on providing the Regisseur with a wild card for displaying extra ideas or enhancing the mood without any incumbency for their verisimiltude. Characteristically, our Regisseuse, uses them except when they are using her: sometimes the dancers are brought on to very good purpose but at other times it is as if they are there and she must find something to do with them. They were certainly serviceable as moppers; in the fourth scene of Rheingold they provided a sort of visual fragrance, sitting like putti in the sidewalls to observe the fateful doings of the gods and make them seem more perennial in importance. Two of them were wonderful as Fricka’s graceful and doting oxen in Walküre, Act Two (though for their sake her cart would better have been drawn by deer); there was a mass of them popping up among the plants in the sylvan Siegfried, where each of them is unaccountably forging a sword more credibly than Siegfried is allowed to. Of course one of the most graceful of them (Sandra Lommerzheim) was put to very good use as the woodbird; and another (Ziv Frenkel), dressed in a homey set of rags, continued through all the three last operas as the loyal Grane, Brunnhilde’s intuition – earning in the end a huge curtain call from the audience who felt they had come to know him though he had no lines. It was always with eurhythmy that they moved, but the eurhythmy occasionally became intelligent also, in a way analogous to the use of lighting for scene changes in tandem with Wagner’s through-composition, when they were made to give a choreographic expression of the leitmotifs or of the dramatic moments in the action. From mops to Gesamtkunst.

Inconsistency was the rule of the production – sometimes an aspect having been less well managed made a more successful use of it more salient, but overall I accumulated an impression of unreliability, lack of perspicuity, absence of an overall conception. The most taxing of these inconsistencies however, was the management of beauty overall. A measure of beauty there was, at any time, but in the depiction for instance of Fafner in Siegfried, Act Two, there was gratuitous ugliness. Here he was, an oversized man in a blond wig sitting debauched on a crimson couch with a gaggle of dancers bobbing and weaving like a monster’s tentacles. The problem was not so much that according to Wagner’s conception Fafner should be asleep and self-absorbed rather than partying, but that the scene was brightly lit, garish and ugly, and that it lasted a long time. More and more these days it deserves to be said that ugliness has a corrosive effect on the soul of the onlooker, so that it must be managed with economy. Too often it is served up to the audience merely for some strong effect, but the real effect on the audience is more often just disappointment and disorientation – so much was especially true of Brunnhilde’s stupidly ugly plain-clothes costume in the Götterdämmerung.

The orchestra at the Leipzig Opera is the Gewandhaus Orchestra that plays across the plaza. Ulf Schirmer, the conductor, gave a lively rendition but very often the singers missed his cues – his left hand swings around in a way that undercuts the beat given by his right, and I heard that he hardly looked up at the singers. Occasionally he preferred the phrase to the beat – as most disappointingly in his rendition of the opening of Rheingold, where the great wheel of the arpeggios was made to turn too blithely, too soon. Overall he produced what was needed with vigor, especially in the Siegfried.

For me the most moving moment of the whole was the appearance of Erda in Rheingold, Scene Four. All the other gods except Wotan were up on the platform and Erda (in a phenomenal rendition by Nicole Piccolomini) appears on the surface of the stage, house left, and gradually sings her way all the way across the stage where she can disappear. Of all the renditions I have seen, this one made Wotan’s hugely important and fateful change of mind the most credible.

A radical idea like presenting the Ring in four days will perforce bring all sorts of things to the surface, including the question whether Wagner ever hoped it could be done so fast (unreasonable expectations were no stranger to him), or whether conversely he might have designed things to make the best of the need for days intervening to allow the singers to rest (given his Gesamtkontrolle). In contrast with the sort of integrated conception that is his special genius and desire, the various conditions of this production, from its compression into four days to its use of dancers and manner of scene changing, evinced no controlling artistic conception but came across instead as a struggle to make due with conditions imposed upon it from the outside, with an uneven success mostly forgivable.

— Ken Quandt

In another outstanding Carnegie Hall residency, the Vienna Philharmonic featured the star conductor Valery Gergiev leading arguably the world’s greatest orchestra in a repertoire of Russian classics mixed with other familiar repertoire pieces. Most of the non-Russian music was Wagner’s, in whose repertoire the Russian conductor has steadily built a reputation over the past two decades. The third concert, on Sunday afternoon, featured easily the most graceful Wagner performance of the three offerings, the prelude and Good Friday music from the composer’s mesmerizing final opera, Parsifal. Parsifal is the Wagner opera that started off Gergiev’s exploration of the repertoire when he first conducted at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater in 1997. In contrast to the more languidly performed orchestral excerpts from Götterdämmerung the previous evening and Friday’s bombastic rendering of the overture to The Flying Dutchman, Gergiev moved slowly, pollinating even note with gorgeous orchestral color and moving to profound climaxes that evoked the faith, salvation, and hope motifs in Parsifal’s prelude and the noble intonations of Gurnemanz’s intonations in the opera’s third act.

It was hard to top such a scintillating performance with what followed at Carnegie, as the stream of people who decamped at intermission to attend Anna Netrebko’s 4pm Metropolitan Opera recital made clear. The second part of the program offered those who remained a true rarity – Tchaikovsky’s unnumbered Manfred Symphony, inspired by Lord Byron’s heroic poem. The piece is unusual and has never enjoyed much popularity. Tchaikovsky wanted to burn the score, while Leonard Bernstein more recently denounced it as “trash.” Perhaps its greatest sin is that it does not really sound “Russian,” but rather more closely resembles the heavy Germanic symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler. It also anticipates the tone poem experiments of Richard Strauss’s earlier career. Despite all the bad press, it works rather well in its telling of a young man’s fatal loss of innocence – to delightfully tonal music Manfred broods on the questions of existence brought about by the loss of his beloved Astarte. Finding no consolation in nature or faith, he gravitates toward the occult, only to end his troubles in redemptive death. Many quail at the organ accompaniment in the work’s final movement, but I could not leave the concert with anything less than admiration for the composer or the orchestra playing him. Gergiev did, however, lighten the mood in a most welcome manner by playing two spirited encores: a pastiche from Tchaikovsky ballet Sleeping Beauty and a peppy rendition of Johann Strauss’s “Thunder and Lightning Polka” that evoked old Vienna at New Years’.

-Paul du Quenoy

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