Opera Critic » Blog Archive » The Ring of the Nibelung, Oper Leipzig, May 5-8, 2016

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

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This entry was posted by Paul du Quenoy on Monday, May 9th, 2016 at 2:01 pm and is filed under Miscellaneous. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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