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Catherine Naglestad as Brünnhilde [Photo © Wilfried Hösl courtesy of Bayerische Staatsoper]
26 Feb 2013

Munich’s Rambunctious Ring

Bavarian State Opera’s recent staging of Der Ring des Nibelungen was often a restless, even reckless affair, but there is no denying its substantial musical assets.

Munich’s Rambunctious Ring

A review by James Sohre

Above: Catherine Naglestad as Brünnhilde [Photo © Wilfried Hösl courtesy of Bayerische Staatsoper]

 

If the Applause-o-Meter is any indication the superlative resident orchestra was easily anointed as the supreme achievement of this Ring, being roundly cheered at each appropriate opportunity and deafeningly appreciated at cycle’s end. The impressive results owed in no small part to Kent Nagano’s masterful way with a baton.

The diminutive Maestro seems to be all buttoned-down gestures and detached, controlled demeanor. However, his highly focused presence unleashed a cornucopia of thrilling instrumental effects including highly personalized solo work, impassioned ensemble passages, and an overall arc that was a cathartic traversal of Wagner’s epic masterpiece.

The big moments were all ravishingly expansive, the jaunty bits were accurately propulsive, and the balance between pit and stage was carefully managed to provide a firm cushion of support without smothering the soloists. Best of the best: the last twenty minutes of Walküre’s Act I were absolutely on fire and simply heart-racing; the ‘Forest Murmurs segment (Siegfried) was other-worldly luminous; and ‘Siegfried’s Death’ (Götterdämmerung) went from its riveting first pounding statements to meld into a profound, languorous anguish. Whether presiding over explosive outbursts, subtle introspection, unfolding narration, or sensitively partnering his roster of impressive singers, Mr. Nagano emphatically proved himself to be “Lord of the Ring.”

The enterprising company chose to cast the piece with different soloists for each installment (with a couple of overlaps) allowing the first three operas to be performed on successive evenings with a one day break before the fourth (probably to give the hard-working orchestra a chance to get refreshed). This enabled Munich to regale us with a succession of many of today’s leading Wagnerian interpreters.

It would have been worth the trip if only to experience Nina Stemme’s towering Brünnhilde (Götterdämmerung). Ms. Stemme is possessed of a sizeable, round tone that is all warm and womanly, yet has plenty of point and power to hurl out thrilling passages above the staff when the score whips up to a furious frenzy. Her traversal of the ‘Immolation’ was every bit the musical jewel in the crown that is required, by turns powerful, tender, heroic, and resigned. Nina is at the very height of her powers, which is to say she is arguably the current leading proponent of this Fach in the world.

The commanding bass-baritone of Tomasz Konieezny also proved an invaluable addition to the production, contributing a solid, memorable Walküre Wotan, as well as an uncommonly well-vocalized Alberich (Siegfried and Götterdämmerung). Mr. Konieezny’s firm, beefy tone had manly (godly?) buzz, searing power, and excellent variety of dramatic delivery. Another powerful low voice belonged to the sturdy Hans-Peter König who contributed a brutishly acted, suavely sung Hunding, as well as a snidely malevolent, self-possessed Hagen.

On the distaff side, glamorous Elisabeth Kulman proved a wife to be reckoned with during her two outings as an urgent Fricka. Her evenly-produced, shining mezzo gave great pleasure, and although it lacked a bit of weight often associated with this goddess, she communicated the dramatic intent effectively. Evelyn Herlitzius had an especially good night as the “Walküre” Brünnhilde, her slight and attractive physique ideal for the ‘favorite daughter,’ and her wiry soprano quite well controlled on this occasion. Although there was still an errant, splayed high note here and there, Ms. Herlitzius sang with considerable control overall, and she invested her middle range passages with great heart and meaning. The Todesverkündigung was quite beautifully judged indeed. Catherine Nagelstad also gave much pleasure as the Siegfried Brünnhilde, her substantial, slightly grainy soprano capable of full-throated delights as well as phrasings that were highly sensitive to the text (although there were stretches when she seemed to have only a negligible acquaintance with consonants).

Simon O’Neill was a sturdy, stalwart Siegmund singing with fluid, burnished tone. As his sister-bride, Petra Lang embodied all her familiar strengths (fulsome, warm tone in all registers) and shortcomings (sometime sluggish phrases above the staff and occasionally veering north of the pitch). Together, the pair brought thrilling immediacy, spontaneity, and yes, erotic passion to their Act One duet.

And what of our Siegfrieds? Well, although we were fortunate to have two of the world’s most traveled proponents in the cast, they rather demonstrated that ‘ya sings that role and ya takes yer chances.’ Lance Ryan was up first in the third opera’s title role and he was certainly met the challenge. . .with qualification. I recall hearing Mr. Ryan when he was ‘fest’ in Karlsruhe, singing with a gleaming, spinning, pinging Italianate tone as a winning Otello. Having contented himself to develop into a sought-after Wagnerian, he has achieved that status by being utterly reliable if uneven in his approach. Sustained high notes are now either open and straight-toned or crooned; the lower middle gets a bit woofy at times; and registers are not always knit together. But Lance knows how to husband his resources, and negotiates meaningful phrases that are suitably self-contained with excellent diction and fine musicianship. Too, he cuts a handsome figure and is a natural actor with an easy stage presence.

The Götterdämmerung Siegfried was the no less estimable Stephen Gould who has a natural weight to his voice which first seemed more suited to the genre than Mr. Ryan’s lighter, brighter approach. After a wonderfully judged opening duet, Mr. Gould did nearly come to grief with a few bullied high notes but he had the moxie to get through them and bounced right back to more comfortable, conversational delivery. His final reverie was undeniably dreamy and affecting, even if the voice had tired by then. Mssrs. Gould and Ryan are throwing themselves into their Siegfrieds with considerable commitment if sometimes with insufficient caution, and while they succeeded on their terms and are justifiably applauded for their efforts, I wish them well in maintaining vocal health in these punishing parts.

Egils Silins deployed his beefy, imperious tone to good purpose as the Rheingold Wotan although a bit more gravitas would have been welcome. As Siegfried”s Wanderer, veteran Thomas J. Mayer sported such a voluminous, orotund bass it was a pity that he often dialed up the volume to the point that, especially in the upper stretches, he forced the tone to decibels that blurred the core of the pitch. Michaela Schuster enjoyed a true star turn as Waltraute (Götterdämmerung) and her laser-accurate soprano impressed as much for its heft as for its sensitivity. Rarely has this scene been as meticulously judged from both a musical and theatrical standpoint. A tremendous portrayal indeed.

Too, chic Anna Gabler was nigh unto perfection as an unusually aggressive Gutrune, her smooth, sizable voice making a fine impression in all registers and volumes. Ms. Gabler also captured our attention as the Third Norn, exceptionally well-matched with Jennifer Johnston (an assured Second Norn) and the plummy-voiced Okka von der Damerau, who doubled as the Third Norn and Flosshilde. On both Rhine Maiden outings Ms. Damerau was joined by the incisive Angela Brower (Wellgunde), with Woglinde successfully shared by the zinging soprano of petite Eri Nakamura (Rheingold) and the spicy lyric delivery from Hanna-Elsabeth Müller (Götterdämmerung).

The seasoned, reliable tenor Stefan Margita nearly walked off with Das Rheingold for his witty, diverse, decadent, firmly sung Loge. Levente Molnár took full advantage of his featured moments as Donner; Sergey Skorokhodov was a substantial if slightly anonymous Froh; and Ulrich Reß did all that was required (if no more) as a bumbling Baby Huey of a Mime. Mr. Reß’s dwarf made more of his stage time in Siegfried although the role seemed neither internalized nor malevolent. Johannes Martin Kränzle had some fine moments as Alberich, more notable in anguish than in anger, although his stirring curse positively crackled. Catherine Wyn-Rogers’s luxuriant contralto reminded us why she is one or operadom’s acclaimed Erdas; and Aga Mikolaj brought a distinctive presence and grainy soprano to a starchier-than-most Freia. Thorsten Grümbel (Fasolt) and Steven Humes (Fafner) were first-rate giants, the latter contributing a haunting significance during his duties as the doomed dragon.

Other standouts included a vibrant (if a mite fluttery) Siegfried Erda from Qiulin Zhang; a refulgent and accurate Forest Bird by Anna Virovlanksy; and a firm, flawlessly sung Gunther from the well-schooled baritone, Iain Paterson. The eight Valkyries were uncommonly well-matched and they gave a highly-charged rendition of the world-famous Ride.

With all this musical excellence it would be nice to report that Andreas Kriegenburg’s stage direction was every bit its equal. I can’t. But if it did not accommodate all of the libretto’s knotty demands, the overall impression was of-a-piece, and showcased a surplus of imagination and invention.

Mr. Kriegenburg envisions his story-telling as a communal ritual. When we enter the auditorium, the cast, almost all of them barefoot and in casual white tops and slacks/skirts (costumes, Andrea Schraad) are socializing and picnicking on the raked stage floor bounded by a white box of a set (design, Harald B. Thor). Stage hands serve snacks and drinks. Principal singers intermingle. The maestro sneaks in the pit unheralded. The house lights dim. As the first droning bass note is intoned, the assembled supers strip down to brief flesh-colored underwear.

A stage hand brings white plastic buckets of paint, the extras smear themselves with blue, then crouch, co-mingled in line on the apron, filling the width of the stage. Eventually they begin writhing in ‘waves’ to suggest the Rhine, quite a memorable effect. The white box is a sponge for Stefan Bolliger’s clever lighting affects. The Rhine Maidens and Alberich arise from within the 'waves' and for one brief shining moment there is Camelot. Thereafter, opportunities seem to get missed with regularity.

Alberich’s chase could have been a mosh pit of motion, but remains static. The gold is represented as a lame-clad Goldfinger dancer borne awkwardly on stage by four crouching men. And dramatic plausibility gets blown out of the “water” when Alberich carries her away with no attempt (or any reaction) by the Maidens to stop him. None whatsoever.

The extras next stride upstage, turn their backs to us and form Valhalla in two rows, even suggesting massive pillars. Not bad, but then a goofy chalk scrawl of a castle skyline appears on the upstage wall. Ms. Schraad’s generic costumes now got all ‘modern dress-up’ and while they were handsome enough, the obvious wigs looked like they came from the Valhalla Fasching Shop discount bin.

The highly theatrical, almost Brechtian elements featured stage hands bringing set pieces on and off, and showcased obviously phony special effects. Some delighted us like when Alberich transforms into a snake made of fireworks carried aloft across the stage. Others mis-fired badly, like the child dressed as an unfortunate toad. Or like having Mime squealing in pain from beatings and pinchings when there was no one within ten feet of him.

A tremendous plus is that many scenes featured a wonderful interaction between characters, yet other conversational communications were inexplicably aimed to the upper Rang. Scenically, too, the minimalist furniture often did all that was required to suggest a locale, and then along came overly elaborate contrivances, which dominated the visuals. Witness a steeply raked Nibelheim with its endless parade of convict-like workers who get singled out by sadistic, whip-toting guards to be thrown noisily into fiery incinerator holes in the floor.

I quite liked the huge pair of dice that bore the giants who had to keep scaling the pieces to stay atop as supers “rolled” them. Conversely, the Goldener Saal that rises from the floor is a cubic room lined with gold bricks that is not a viable “pile” to mask Freia’s physique. I am not sure what was meant by the company’s whooshing gold rectangles up and down like a bad sports stadium pep rally while Donner was hammering away.

At times the team just ignored visualizing the story. The trip to and from the underworld was accomplished by projecting Wagner’s stage directions on the set so we could ‘read’ what was happening! There was no rainbow bridge, just Wotan brandishing his spear upstage as all grabbed hold of it like commuters sharing a subway strap. By the time the Rhine-people re-created the river across the front of the stage, no blue colors, everyone in their opening white costume, the writhing looked more like a knotted muscle.

For its setting Die Walküre featured a modern kitchen al fresco with rotting corpses hanging in massive gnarled trees, a Martha Stewart Halloween party gone very very wrong. To continue the concept of group ritual, there was a bevy of teenage girls with flashlights in each hand. (Shimmering flashlights = spring.) (I think.) In addition to the sword being clearly visible in the tree from the start, lest we missed it each (and I mean “each”) time the motif played the girls shone their lights on it.

In fact, these hand held lights that were used sparingly in Rheingold now become routine. As Siegfried and Sieglinde sit in chairs at opposite ends of the dining table, the teens spot them as though they are being grilled in police investigation. When not otherwise blinding us or the other performers, the girls sponge bathe corpses on upstage lab carts. Nonetheless, the principals have many moments of meaningful interaction, the big duet is wonderfully blocked, and there is a palpable tension throughout (although did the brutish Hunding have to wipe his dirty hands clean on his wife’s skirt before eating?).

Wotan’s Valhalla office begins life normally enough, with a long bucolic picture hanging on the back wall, but then the desk rises on a platform, the backdrop goes to black, and a crowd of people who were milling around seem to fall dead. No wait, a couple of the un-dead crawl back to life as distracting foragers. Fricka and Wotan carry on a parlor conversation, seated atop extras/servants who crouch and bend to form “human chairs” (more people-as-scenery, see “ritual” above). Fricka is not so much a righteous goddess as a petulant founding member of Million Moms Against Sexual Pleasure (MMASP).

Again, much goes right here and there is more dramatic truth than this may imply. Still, like Alberich’s unconvincing theft of the gold which prompts unmotivated horror, at act’s end Brünnhilde and Sieglinde flee Wotan’s wrath by passing so immediately close to him, he coulda/woulda/shoulda just bitch-slapped them to the ground. Waddupwiddat, Mr. Director?

The start of Act Three was a major miscalculation with the teenagers back to perform an unscripted Entre’acte in form of a primitive, Stomp-like dance (choreographer, Zenta Haerter) that went on for many silent minutes. The booing and catcalls began somewhere in minute “two.” By the time Kent finally whipped the orchestra and singers back into a frenzy the mood was altered and it took almost the whole Ride to re-focus a divided, hostile public.

The stage picture was workable enough with dead heroes limp atop poles stuck in the floor (like Helden-kebabs), and the Valkyries holding reins fastened to the posts and slapping the floor with them. This gave way to an absolutely bare stage for Wotan’s ‘Abschied,’ with a disc raising out of the stage for his daughter’s repose, and a ring-of- fire apparatus skittered on by low-crawling ensemble members.

Act One of Siegfried made the previous night’s bonus girlie dance look like a blip on the radar of Major Miscalculations. It simply never stopped ‘moving.’ A mob of writhing bodies was up, down, and all around, first bringing in the hut’s components of eleven flats, a ceiling (flown), a counter base with separate top, a forge, and a downstage anvil that mercifully stayed put. The thing is, as nice as the hut looked when assembled, a) it did not go together easily, b) once it did not quite go together at all, and c) it went in and out with maddening frequency: to reveal Nibelheim (and back together), to reveal Valhalla (and back together), to allow extras to reenact the birth of Siegfried (and back together), to reveal extras in fetal positions holding trees (and back together), and well, you get the idea. Busy busy busy.

The flats also were choreographed to move around, with Siegfried disappearing and then re-appearing “magically.” Except that the schleppers were not always in sync, and more than once we saw Mr. Ryan’s hand or finger beckoning or pointing a flat-mate to where it need to be so he could magically ‘re-appear.’

Among the excesses there was a green ground cloth with goofy daisies pushed up by actors from under it, and a Keebler Elves stump for Mime to sit on; supers unrolled kitchen plastic wrap as a ‘stream’ so Siegfried can see himself in the ‘brook:’ a plastic water bottle is tossed to Mime so he can hydrate (Marco Rubio would be so proud); and all this commotion is performed by an ensemble in white clothes making them as visible and annoying as possible.

The Forging Scene won the Wuppertal-Dance-Theatre-Meets-Hieronymous-Bosch prize with everyone given something ‘wacky’ to do. Oh, those Krazy Kids. A giant bellows stage left dwarfs the actors who operate it. There is an unexplained industrial paper shredder. Fabric “flames” are brandished on sticks. Slinky hot air conduit tubes dance around manically. A table contains all manner of arts and crafts supplies. There is yet another annoying portable spot light. Extras with manually operated hand pumps dispense glitter with each hammer strike. Four actors wear tees that spell H-E-R-O (get it? Get it?), and when the E and the R leave the line-up to move the table, we are momentarily left with an unintentional HO (an apt comment).

All the while this commotion is ensuing Lance is singing very creditably, but he could have had cymbals between his knees and a sparkler in his teeth and we wouldn’t have noticed him. By the time the anvil didn’t split, with eight or so extras simply converging on it and then backing apart, the audience was well primed for the gigantic “Booooooooo” at the curtain.

Act II settled down (how could it not?) but still involved people flown in harnesses and reconnoitering like sky divers to construct human ‘trees.’ Siegfried’s reed cutting was so poorly paced as to kill the momentum, and the ‘gag’ of having the off-stage horn deliberately play out of sync with the on-stage actor was a decided low point in the comedy. And then, lo and behold, the dragon was magnificent! No kidding, the best ever. A huge head, i,.e., a frame peopled by writhing red-clad bodies is flown in from high above with Fafner in the center of the mouth. As the hero kills the dragon, the head sinks momentarily to allow the soloist to roll out and die on the floor. Masterful! No one can blame poor Siegfried over his confusion in trying to follow the Wood Bird to the fiery rock since there are two birds, a live actor and an extra waving a toy on a long stick, and not usually physically in the same place. Program the GPS, dude!

The ascent up the mountain is suggested by the extras spreading out a huge, huge sheet of plastic across the stage that keeps billowing and cresting until it finally reveals the sleeping ex-Valkyrie. A fire projection stands in for the live effect in the previous opera which is all well and good since the disc is about to transform into a big Hollywood style boudoir, with generous red coverlets, over-sized cushions, and a Wagnerian spin on Pillow Talk that really works. The protests and anxiety about ‘performance’ turn into teasing, loss of inhibitions, and ultimate submission with (‘Gott sei dank’) nary a super in sight.

One night off and then Götterdämmerung. We almost seemed to be at a different, more controlled “Ring” for the ensemble was not readily in evidence until midway in Act One and then it was used much more integrally and unobtrusively than before. The production team sees this installment in a major corporation headquarters with the Hall of the Gibichungs a modern luxury apartment, all chrome and glass, with Euro-inspired furniture (to include a sort of rocking horse Euro that is Gutrune’s favorite plaything and not-so-imaginary friend).

Here, the director manages to score some of his best overall moments with the most focused staging, the most meaningful reflection of the text, and the most fluid and controlled crowd movement. At last, there seems to be a fairly consistent marriage of contemporary references and original source material. The only weak moment is left for last when, in an attempt to come full circle, the Rheingold picnickers return in the fading moments to envelop all those still standing on stage in a cuddly group hug. Hello, the world has just ended?

No one Ring production can solve all of the problems inherent in the composer’s over-reaching theatrical aspirations, but Munich has given us such a high-powered musical achievement that we are able to indulge a provocative staging that is sometimes radiant, occasionally maddening, unexpectedly funny, dramatically varied, and like it or not, always engaging.

James Sohre


Cast and Production Information

Das Rheingold

Wotan: Egils Silins; Donner: Levente Molnár; Froh: Sergey Skorokhodov; Loge: Stefan Margita; Alberich: Johannes Martin Kränzle; Mime: Ulrich Reß; Fasolt: Thorsten Grümbel; Fafner: Steven Humes; Fricka: Elisabeth Kulman; Freia: Aga Mikolaj; Erda: Catherine Wyn-Rogers; Woglinde: Eri Nakamura; Wellgunde: Angela Brower; Flosshilde: Okka von der Damerau

Die Walküre

Siegmund: Simon O’Neill; Hunding: Hans-Peter König; Wotan: Tomasz Konieezny; Sieglinde: Petra Lang; Brünnhilde: Evelyn Herlitzius; Fricka: Elisabeth Kulman; Helmwige: Susan Foster; Gerhilde: Karen Foster; Ortlinde: Golda Schultz; Waltraute: Heike Grötzinger: Grimgerde: Okka von der Damerau; Siegrune: Roswitha Christina Müller; Rossweisse: Alexandra Petersamer; Schwertleite: Anja Jung

Siegfried

Siegfried: Lance Ryan; Mime: Ulrich Reß; Wanderer: Thomas J. Mayer; Alberich: Tomasz Konieezny; Fafner: Steven Humes; Erda: Qiulin Zhang; Brünnhilde: Catherine Nagelstad; Forest Bird: Anna Virovlanksy

Götterdämmerung

Siegfried: Stephen Gould; Gunther: Iain Paterson; Hagen: Hans-Peter König; Alberich: Tomasz Konieezny; Brünnhilde: Nina Stemme; Gutrune/Third Norn: Anna Gabler; Waltraute: Michaela Schuster; Woglinde: Hanna-Elisabeth Müller; Wellgunde: Angela Brower; Flosshilde/First Norn: Okka von der Damerau; Second Norn: Jennifer Johnston

Conductor: Kent Nagano; Director: Andreas Kriegenburg; Set Design: Harald B. Thor; Costume Design: Andrea Schraad; Lighting Design: Stefan Bolliger; Choreography: Zenta Haerter

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