12 Jan 2007
WAGNER: The Ring Cycle
It is a mystery as complex as the Kirov’s Ring Cycle staging and equally inexplicable.
In May of 2013, the Spire Series at the First Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Maryland, observed the fiftieth anniversary of the death of President John F. Kennedy by presenting a work dealing with the 1963 assassination.
Dulce Rosa, a brand new opera, had its world premiere Friday night, May 17, 2013 at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, California. It was produced by Los Angeles Opera, but staged in the smaller theater.
Richard Jones’ 2009 production of Verdi’s Falstaff translates the action from the first Elizabethan age to the start of the second.
Baritone Gareth John is rapidly accumulating a war-chest of honours. Winner of the 2013 Kathleen Ferrier Award, he recently won the Royal Academy of Music Patrons’ Award and was presented the Silver Medal by the Worshipful Company of Musicians.
This second revival of Jonathan Miller’s La bohème was the first time I had caught the production.
It’s Verdi’s bicentenary year and Rolando Villazón has two new CDs to plug — titled somewhat confusingly, ‘Villazón: Verdi’ and ‘Villazón’s Verdi’, the latter a ‘personal selection’ of favourite numbers performed by stars of the past and present.
Nicola Luisotti and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra climbed out of the War Memorial pit, braved the wind whipped bay and held spellbound an audience at Cal Performances’ Zellerbach Auditorium at UC Berkeley.
Utterly mad but absolutely right — Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos started the Glyndebourne 2013 season with an explosion. Strauss could hardly have made his intentions more clear. Ariadne auf Naxos is not “about” Greek myth so much as a satire on art and the way art is made.
“Man is an abyss. It makes one dizzy to look into it.” So utters Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, repeating what was also a recurring motif in the playwright’s own letters.
National Opera Company of the Rhine has marked this year’s Benjamin Britten celebration with a remarkably compelling, often gripping new production of the seldom-seen Owen Wingrave.
Once upon a time, Frankfurt Opera had the baddest ass reputation in Germany as “the” cutting edge producer of must-see opera.
Productions of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto can serve as a vehicle for individual singers to make a strong impression and become afterward associated with specific roles in the opera.
Just in case we were not aware that the evening’s programme was ‘themed’, the Britten Sinfonia designed a visual accompaniment to their musical exploration of night, sleep and dreams.
Poor Aida! She never seems to have anything go her way.
Is it possible to upstage Jonas Kaufmann? Kaufmann was brilliant in this Verdi Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House, London, but the rest of the cast was so good that he was but first among equals. Don Carlo is a vehicle for stars, but this time the stars were everyone on stage and in the pit. Even the solo arias, glorious as they are, grow organically out of perfect ensemble. This was a performance that brought out the true beauty of Verdi's music.
The big names were absent: Duparc, D’Indy, Debussy, Ravel and while Fauré, Chausson, Roussel and several members of Les Six put in an appearance, in less than familiar guises, this survey of French song of the early 20th century and interwar years deliberately took us on a journey through infrequently travelled terrain.
Composed between 1718 and 1720, Handel’s Esther is sometimes described as the ‘first English Oratorio’, but is in fact a hybrid form, mixing elements of oratorio, masque, pastoral and opera.
Hector Berlioz's légende dramatique, La Damnation de Faust, exists somewhere between cantata and opera. Berlioz's flexible attitude to dramatic form made the piece unworkable on the stages of early 19th century Paris and his music is so vivid that you wonder whether the piece needs staging at all.
St. John’s Smith Square was the site of Elizabeth Connell’s final London concert, intended as a farewell to London on her moving to Australia. It was rendered ultimately final by her unexpected death.
With the building of the Suez Canal, Egypt became more interesting to Western Europeans. Khedive Ismail Pasha wanted a hymn by Verdi for the opening of a new opera house in Cairo, but the composer said he did not write occasional pieces.
It is a mystery as complex as the Kirov’s Ring Cycle staging and equally inexplicable.
How can so much be put into possibly the greatest of artistic undertakings, Wagner’s masterpiece of a prologue and three operas stretching over 19 hours, and yet seem incomplete?
Conductor and artistic director Valery Gergiev and his designer George Tsypin are credited with having created this epic production with no mention of a director. And there lies one of this extravaganza’s key weaknesses.
If more time and effort had been put into giving the cast stronger direction rather than worrying about the impenetrable concept this would have been a more rounded experience.
The orchestra under the baton of one of music’s current demi-gods certainly lived up to the huge expectation, albeit after a lackluster start with the first of the four parts of the Ring, Das Rheingold. Ultimately, there were indeed moments (well long periods as this is Wagner) of exquisite beauty, including an awe-inspiring ‘Siegfried’s Death and Funeral March’.
Vocally we had some world class performances but equally some frankly disappointing voices that sounded either tired or just badly cast.
Being performed over four consecutive days requires different singers to take on the same roles, so, for example, we had three Wotans. I liked Yevgeny Akimov but none bowled me over.
Similarly we had two Siegfrieds and these could not have been more different, down to Leonid Zakhozhaev having a flowing brown mane and the second Viktor Lutsyuk sporting a shock of white hair.
Zakhozhaev coped with the demands of Siegfried and at least looked the part. Poor old Lutsyuk looked like one of those gonks children stick on the end of a pencil. I could have forgiven the dopey grin if the voice had been as memorable.
There was no such problem with Olga Sergeyeva’s striking Brünnhilde who was a dominating presence, emotionally intense and vocally heroic. Her show stopping scenes were indeed show stopping and she seemed totally unfazed by some of the comings and goings around her.
Just as enjoyable were some of the relatively smaller roles such as Vassily Gorshkov’s Loge, Svetlana Volkova’s Fricka and a splendid Hagen from Mikhail Petrenko. Larissa Diadkova sang Waltraute’s great aria in Götterdämmerung as if she had been waiting all her life for the opportunity.
It is one of the wonders of the Ring Cycle that virtually whatever a producer or designer throws at it Wagner’s music manages to rises above it. This was such a case. While Tsypin’s sets are monumental, with vast figures, rising and descending rocks and multi-coloured internal lighting that is presumably deeply significant but quite what they had to do with what the singers were doing was unclear.
This is very much a Russian ring but with references to gods from a myriad of ancient world religions. Some are more recognizable to us in the West than others, especially Egyptian deities including Wotan as Anubis, the god of death and embalming, which made perfect sense.
I thought I would start to understand other elements of the staging as the Ring proceeded. Instead, by the end of the second evening, Die Walküre, I had decided not to hurt my brain any more and enjoy the music.
Yes, we had some powerful dramatic performances but we also had times when singers seemed to be wandering around the stage. The Valkyries, for example, sounded superb could have been in a concert performance, being reduced to a dreadful little choreography that involved changing places and rotating several times. Likewise, the giants Fafner and Fasolt had to overcome being wheeled on, their pin heads protruding from cumbersome pretend “rocky” bodies.
But the physical side of the show did have its plus points. The figures dressed in black with long fluorescent hair worked very well as the Rhine and, combined with Gleb Filshtinsky’s lighting, such theatrical cleverness created much atmosphere.
Production aside, the flashes of musical genius from stage and pit, however, made the whole experience an exhilarating experience, justifying this massive undertaking.
This was a remarkable event to be staged in Cardiff, establishing Wales Millennium Centre as one of the top houses for large scale opera, and feeding a hunger for the best the world can bring.