An Opera in Three Acts
Music and Libretto by Richard Wagner
Gran Teatro del Liceu, Barcelona
Performances of 19 and 21 March 2015
Siegfried Stefan Vinke
Mime Gerhard Siegel
Wanderer Albert Dohmen (19 Mar.) / Greer Grimsley (21 Mar.)
Alberich Jochen Schmeckenbecher (19 Mar.) / Oleg Bryjak (21 Mar.)
Fafner Andreas Hörl
Erda Ewa Podles (19 Mar.) / Maria Radner (21 Mar.)
Brünnhilde Iréne Theorin (19 Mar.) / Catherine Foster (21 Mar.)
Woodbird Cristina Toledo
Conductor Josep Pons
Mise en scène Robert Carsen
Orchestra Simfònica del Gran Teatro del Liceu
Hailing from Nibelheim, below the world of mortals, Alberich, a dwarf, encounters the seductive rivermaidens guarding the gold at the bottom of the Rhine. He wants to seduce them but he is ugly and randy and they enjoy teasing him to distraction. The special power of the gold is that it could be formed into a Ring that will give its possessor power over all the world, but only if he forswears love – a thing this frisky little dwarf would never do, or so the teasing maidens naively convince themselves. But they have misjudged him: their teasing pushes him over the line and he steals the gold and forswears love just to spite them. The event is archetypal and symbolic rather than real. Refusal of the gift is nothing new. The gold represents the absolute value and substantiality of nature and the Ring that can be made from it represents the alchemical dream that some by opus magnum a man could harnass that substrantiality for himself, but of course this can only be achieved at the expense of a Faustian bargain, in this case the forswearing of love. Meanwhile, up on a mountaintop, Wotan the Father of the Gods has made a contract with the Giants to build him Valhalla, a fortress so strong he will be assured of holding his rule forever. He never had made a plan how to pay them, however, as we learn from his wife, Fricka, and now the fortress is complete and the Giants are coming to collect. Fricka wants the fortress since she imagines Wotan will wander less but is a little too ready to complain in case he does not change his ways.
In Nibelheim we find the forces of the id (speaking loosely) – raw nature, beauty, teasing, sex, and hatred – in their usual deathly play of delicious sadism. Above, we find the very recognizable constellation of alter-ego components – the desire for eternal honor and fame even at the expense of simple underhandedness with the wife keeping the hearth warm and worn out wishing her husband would stay at home. I use the Freudian terminology, though it is anachronous and applies only loosely, but there are other ways to describe the goings-on, as for instance through the personnel of myth or the Jungian archetypes. Any of these can be used better or worse to portray the meaning Wagner intended, because all of them are themselves striving to grasp and articulate the perennial problems of god, man, nature, and society – and there is no doubt that Wagner’s own imagination is working on this level.
Despite these facts most of the Rings since the time of Wagner’s grandsons Wieland and Wolfgang have been dressed up in an overall socio-political theme, either a recrudescence of the Nazi War (Paris 2012) or the lingering problems in the European Union in its wake (La Scala / Berlin 2013), or the Destruction of Nature by Capitalist Greed (San Francisco 2000, San Francisco / WNO 2012). The Seattle version remains a stalwart exception with its emphasis on love and man’s place in nature (Jenkins, on the last night of last year’s run, promised the audience it will appear again), and so is the Götz Friedrich at the Deutsche Oper (which will play one more time, in 2016). The new Metropolitan version. like Freyer’s in Los Angeles a few years ago, is a different kind of exception. These might be about singers in a machine and operas only by optical illusion.
The Carsen Ring (which premiered in Cologne in 2007, played in Shanghai in 2011, will be repeated in Cologne in 2015, and will arrive here in two years from now after the usual run-up of one installment per year) chose the theme of eco-disaster, which leads to a more digestible outcome since we are all in that one together. I am glad to report that the overlay does not really matter in this production. Yes, Mime and Siegfried live in a dingy little mobile home with a clothesline tied to a telephone pole while at the same time the world still has blacksmiths and he has set up an anvil outside the trailer next to some junk. Yes, Siegfried has been issued military fatigues of the Vietnam Era but still wants to swing a sword. The Wanderer is well-dressed in a black overcoat and a suit and has a sleek cane, all of which hardly suits his self-description as a wegmüde Gast when he arrives at Mime’s little camp. In Act Two the archetypal deep-dark-forest (In Wald und Nacht) has become a minimalist stand of trees violently lopped off below their first branches that looks more like a suburban park, and there is no archetypal linden for Siegfried to refresh himself under (linde Kuelung … unter der Linde). The dragon has become the sort of clamshell bucket that is used for dredging, as if machines had a fearsome minds of their own (maybe it bit off the trees). Overall, however, such inconcinnities between what we see and what the characters say kept sliding by like flotsam and jetsom in the eloquent and unambiguous river of music that Wagner has composed for us.
For every such breakdown in the rendition Carsen has added some compensation. He is after all a Director, and not a Thinker any more than his audience are Thinkers, and he has displayed his usual directorial competence with wonderful details. In Act One Siegfried toys with his dolly and even hugs it, and when Wotan comes he picks it up and handles it, too; Wotan wanders wistfully over to the anvil, which suggests his still-lingering desire to become too involved in the action (schaffen, not just schauen), which will reappear in Act Three; the color of the light cools to silver when Wotan arrives and warms back up to golden when Siegfried returns; Carsen has Mime share a drink with Siegfried while Siegfried begins his smithing and this pantomime gives him the idea to brew another drink to give him later; Mime is brewing the evil potion over propane across from Siegfried hammering at the anvil fired by ash wood, subtle symmetries emphasizing the crucial differences. In Act II the attention to stage-lighting slips, omitting to give any rendition for Alberich’s remarks about flashing light (Glanz) moving like a galloping horse – the indication of Wotan’s arrival that we know from Walküre. In his encounter with Alberich the Wanderer sets down his cane (think “spear”) onto one of chopped down tree-stubs, and soon after Siegfried sets his sword down onto the same stub at the same angle (the two instruments will meet again in Act Three), and when he pulls it away with a grand gesture we recall Siegmund pulling the same sword out of a tree in Die Walküre. Such details remind us that the events are being watched and even helped along by a forces from beyond, something that Stephen Wadsworth has worked up into an artform in his Seattle production. The schtick with the drinks is again elaborated beyond Wagner’s stage directions when upon arrival in the area of Neidhole Siegfried reaches for his canteen and Mime deftly exchanges it for his own, right out of his hand. We must swiftly realize that the canteen Siegfried came with has the sleeping potion and Mime must not let him drink that one yet since he hasn’t yet slain the dragon. Siegfried throws the canteen at Mime a few minutes later, anyway.
In Act Three Carsen has set the first two Scenes in the Great Hall of Valhalla, already made to look as Waltraute will describe it to Brunnhilde in the Götterdämmerung. The couches are already covered and the wooden furniture is already stacked in the corner and Wotan is already brooding in his chair, contemplating a large painting of himself leaving Brunnhilde’s Rock. This is the only unredeemable mistake in the production, and a big one, too, since Wotan’s despair is not sealed until the very scenes with Erda and with Siegfried that are about to take place! Erda, morever, cannot emerge from her “deep place” under these circumstances (aus neblicher Gruft, aus nächtigem Grunde) but comes out from under a sheet covering one of the couches. As for Scene Two, we have to believe that the Woodbird has led Siegfried through Valhalla on the way to the Rock, and when Wotan tells Siegfried to look off to the fire there (erlugst du das Licht?), which is certainly not visible from the living room at Valhalla, it is toward that painting of Wotan that Siegfried is made to look. We cannot ignore that Siegfried with his natural ingenuousness makes no remark about being in a house for the first time in his life, with its cut stone walls and fireplace. For the sense of the plot it is important that Wotan and Siegfried face off on neutral ground.
The interpretation of Wotan’s encounter with Erda in Scene One is often misconceived. In the three rounds of their conversation Erda from the very first rejects Wotan’s advances. But in this production, as often, she is made to go easy on him, as if for old time’s sake. Podles (19 Mar.) treated him gently for the first round but increasingly pushed him away; whereas Radner (21 Mar.) was nicer and nicer to him until he tells her what he did to her daughter, when she suddenly recoils. It is important, however, to show that Wotan’s old relationship with Erda is as dead as a doornail so as to set up the contrast of the new love that is born in the scene between Siegfried and Brunnhilde.
The interpretations of the final scene presented by Theorin (19 Mar.) and by Foster (21 Mar.) were very different, dramatically and even choreographically. Vinke kept to the differences between the two versions with admirable deftness, as he had to the differences in the staging of Scene Two with Dohmen (19 Mar.) and Grimsley (21 Mar.). Though Theorin’s Brunnhilde was better sung, Foster’s was the more powerful dramatically and brought more tears. It included a very beautiful embodiment of the paradox of her “really” waking up, done with Siegfried sitting behind her and covering her eyes with his hands. In short, Foster preserved Brunnhilde’s heroic stature, which the Gotterdammerung will need, whereas Theorin in the more usual way let her melt for the duration. For those keeping score, Foster’s victorious final high C was longer and more in tune than Theorin’s, on this night at least.
The orchestra was excellent on the 19th but often broke with the singers on the 21st. Pons did a good job of letting the singers re-boot the orchestra. In Act Three Scene One on the 21st Grimsley kept speeding him up and Radner kept slowing his down. Vinke’s Siegfried is playful and winning, and was sung strongly to the end both times. I preferred Dohmen’s stately and solid Wotan to Grimsley’s, which sometimes wobbled too thinly. Siegel’s Mime is dramatically credible, the right balance of pretty evil, pretty funny, pretty incompetent, and entirely intolerable.
It was instructive to see such very different renditions of Act Three just two nights apart, and a pleasant surprise to learn that the Liceu has subtitles on the seat in front (Catalan, Spanish and English). Most of all I was happy that the ideological overlay about ecology was only window dressing, intruding even less than advertisements on TV, and that it did not thwart this story but let it come through, the story of a boy and a goddess enabling each other to become a man and a wife by discovering love.