Opera Critic

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

Amid wild gossip — much of it unwarrantedly negative — over the recent appointment of Jaap van Zweden to take over the podium of the New York Philharmonic after maestro Alan Gilbert departs next year, the ensemble showed no signs of despair in this brilliant rendition of Brahms’s Requiem. Formally titled A German Requiem, it adapts essential psalms and critical evangelical verses in an unusually light toned version of the Roman Catholic mass for the dead. Brahms wrote the work at an oddly early time in his career – completing it eight years before his First Symphony. It premiered when he just thirty-five, hardly an age to contemplate mortality (Mozart, of course, died at exactly that age while writing his — though this was a pure coincidence). But circumstances forced the urgency of the piece, as Brahms was devastated by the recent death of his mother and seems to have continued his mourning for his mentor Robert Schumann, who had died a number of years earlier. Brahms was notoriously secretive about his exact motives and artistic choices, but it reasonable to guess that he could take a more heavenly view of death in celebrating the lives of loved ones. The German Requiem rarely descends into the somber minors of other composers’ works in the genre and luxuriates in the simplicity of the selected Biblical verses highlighted in beaming major keys.

A steady performance of the German Requiem rises and falls on the choral contribution, and the Philharmonic’s brilliant playing found fine accompaniment in the New York Choral Artists under their director Joseph Flummerfelt. Rarely a note seemed missed by this superb ensemble. The brief but moving solo parts, for soprano and baritone, were entrusted to two of the finest Lieder singers performing today. Camilla Tilling’s shimmering tones enlivened her parts with a silvery distinction. It was Matthias Goerne’s stupendous approach to the baritone’s lines, however, that delivered on Wagner’s maxim that the height of German art rests in strength, simplicity, and soulfulness. Recalling the very best singing of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, he rendered his verses in a calm, velvety tone that gave the piece as much meaning as I have ever found in it.

The whole performance came together majestically under the accomplished baton of the stately German conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi, who will turn eighty-seven this year. We can hope for many, many returns.

-Paul du Quenoy

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

Few orchestral events in New York should generate greater excitement than the prospect of an all (or in this case mostly) Brahms program at the venerable New York Philharmonic. Avery Fisher’s honorary name on its concert hall may have yielded to Hollywood mogul David Geffen’s, but the spirit of the orchestra remains undiminished and its expertise in the late German Romantic repertoire remains hard to surpass among American ensembles.

Maestro Alan Gilbert will permanently yield the podium when his contact comes to an end in 2017, but for this set of performances he entrusted the program to a rumored possible replacement, the Russian-born American conductor Semyon Bychkov. Bychkov has developed a reliably steady career over the past three decades, even if his interpretations tend toward the mannered. This was immediately apparent in the program’s forgettable introductory piece, the Philharmonic’s premiere of the contemporary German composer Detlev Glanert’s brief Brahms-Fantasie, an homage which sounded more like an apology to the nineteenth-century master. A student of the late great modern German composer Hans Werner Henze, Glanert has yet to find a truly original voice to elevate his work beyond the movie music genre pieces that so thoroughly dominate recent classical music.

In the real meat of the program, however, the listener found more satisfaction. Of the two Brahms pieces, the Double Concerto and the First Symphony, it was the concerto that drew the more attention and stimulated a greater degree of audience interest. Bychkov here did an excellent job of harmonizing the orchestra with the piece’s unusual requirement of two soloists, for violin and cello. And what soloists they were! Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili, Musical America’s instrumentalist of the year for 2014, played with a sublime sweetness for which she has justifiably drawn global adoration. The technical execution is flawless, the technique nothing less than seductive. At moments it was possible to allow Batiashvili’s playing to waft in coaxing relief through one’s psyche while subsuming the orchestra’s sound. Paired with the eager French cellist Gautier Capuçon, the difficulty of harmonizing the two soloists demanded by this unusually difficult piece melted away. Capuçon exceeded Batiashvili in expressive power, though without vulgarity, and certainly not in any way that marred what both looked and sounded like a joyous collaboration.

Bychkov had no such balancing act to coordinate in the second part of the program, devoted entirely to the First Symphony. Here he could allow his whim to break free of the collaborative constraints and reach some truly intense heights. The introductory sostenuto movement resounded so powerfully that the floorboards at Row W palpably vibrated underfoot. The ensemble is off to a great start for 2015-2016.

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