26 Jun 2009

Gőtterdämmerung in Venice and Kőln — Sex and Politics Behind the Berlin Wall

With Götterdämmerung, a co-production with the Köln Opera House created by Robert Carsen (stage direction), Patrick Kinmonth (sets and costumes) and Jeffrey Tate (conductor), La Fenice approaches completion of the Ring cycle.

La Fenice’s Ring, however, will not be completed until next season because of complicated programming and budgeting considerations. Consequently, the prologue, Das Rheingold, will be seen in the lagoon after the downfall of the Gods and of the Gibichungs’ Kingdom. Moreover, although the Carsen-Kinmonth-Tate team remained unchanged, many cast changes were made at La Fenice along with a revamping of the sets to fit its smaller stage.

Chronologically, the Köln-La Fenice Ring is one of the first to be staged in the 21st century. Its concepts are similar to those of the “politically oriented” Rings that prevailed from the mid-70s to the mid-80s, especially in Europe. This first of these “politically oriented” Rings was the (nearly aborted) La Scala production created by Luca Ronconi (stage direction) and the Pierluigi Pizzi (sets and costumes) in 1974. The musical director, Wolfang Sawallisch, objected to proceeding beyond Die Walküre. The entire project was revived in Florence (with Zubin Mehta in the pit) in 1979-82. The most widely known of the “politically oriented” Rings was the Bayreuth “Centenary” production in 1976 entrusted to Patrice Chéreau and Pierre Boulez. After four years in the “Holy Hill”, it became a successful television serial that was also shown in regular movie houses. Now whilst only photographs remain of the Florence production, the Chéreau-Boulez Ring is available on DVD. It is fair to say that the saga lends itself to a political allegory of industrial and political power, of lust for money and for women, of Nazism’s rise and fall, a direction taken by Luchino Visconti in his 1971 blockbuster film.

In light of this context, there is something old fashioned in the La Fenice-Köln production. Nevertheless, the Ghibichung Kingdom is not Hitler’s Reich, but rather East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Red flags are flying about the Royal Palace. The “nomenklatura” are dressed in elegant attire of the '50s, accompanied by soldiers of the National Peoples’ Army. Siegfried, Brünnhilde and the Norns, on the other hand, are shabbily dressed. The Norns live in an attic filled with broken furniture from the 1930s and the 1940s (an allusion to the defunct bourgeoisie?).

Albeit attractive, the Rhinemaidens appear poverty-striken, swimming in a polluted Rhine. As in many of Carsen’s production, politics is mixed with a fair amount of sex. At daybreak, Brünnhilde begins her passionate love duet by performing oral sex upon Siegfried. Hagen makes love to Gutrune on Gunther’s royal desk (in the presence of her brother and King). In the wife-swapping scene at the end of the first act, Siegfried (disguised as Gunther) attempts to rape Brünnhilde before remembering his pact with the King. The second-act wedding party initially appears as an orgy with rivers of wine and spirits and ladies taking off their clothes.


In a similar vein, the Rheinmaidens grope Siegfried all about his trousers. All of this heightens the coup-de-théâtre in the final scene. Brünnhilde is alone on stage during the holocaust, the fire of the Royal Palace, the downfall of the Gods and the flood of the river (cleansing corrupted Gods and corrupted men-in-power). During the concluding passages, a huge waterfall covers the stage. In short, although the concept goes back to the 70s, there are numerous innovations in this Ring and this Götterdämmerung in particular.


Although British, Jeffrey Tate possesses an Italian or Austrian conducting style. He caresses the orchestra with gently slowing tempi. This clashes, however, with the dramatic action-oriented stage direction. La Fenice’s orchestra fares well; but it is not that of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (which performed Götterdämmerung a few weeks ago) or of the Berliner Philarmoniker (which will perform Götterdämmerung in Aix en Provence in early July). Jayne Casselman was simply excellent, both vocally and dramatically, as a vibrant Brünnhilde to be remembered for some time. Her Siegfried, Stefan Vinke, performed well in the taxing third act; but in the previous two acts he displayed vocal problems (especially with the Cs) and a host of technical difficulties. He paled against Lance Taylor who performed the role in the recent Florence production. A sexy Nicola Beller Carbone was a vocally imposing Gutrune. And, the youthful Gabriel Suovane and Gidon Saks were two well-rounded bass baritones, whom, I trust, we will hear often in the future.

Giuseppe Pennisi