A Ring of Change?

Columns | Oliver Macdonald | June 2009

Das Rheingold, part of the Ring of the Nibelungen (Photo: Axel Zeininger)

The new production of Richard Wagner’s tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelungs) was completed by the performance of Rheingold on May 2. By any standards it was the crowning glory to the huge undertaking that any new production of the Ring has to be, if only by virtue of its scale. Then came two performances of the complete Ring cycle.

This new Ring is a great success as a legacy from a departing house director, and perhaps even more so, as an introductory offering for the incoming new Musical Director Franz Welser-Most who has emerged as the hero of the piece. He has produced a reading of the Ring that emphasizes the beautiful lyricism of music and voice that has often been hidden behind crash, bang, wollop accompaniment to voices that were straining to the limits of screeching noise, as Siegfrieds and Brunnhildes competed with each other at full throttle. An ambassador from a large neighbouring country once told me that he liked to punish a Russian colleague by making him sit through the Ring.

What a contrast we have now! On one occasion, Maestro Welser-Most reminded us that Wagner had wanted bel canto singers. One sensed that producer Sven-Eric Bechtold and the conductor were side by side constructing a harmonious balance of music and action to reflect what Wagner saw, heard and wanted to express. This whole Ring is full of moments where actions express nothing but the music, there is no sense of underlying socio-political agenda, as with many modern productions

The same with staging and costume. With few exceptions they support rather than interfere; they do not attempt to dominate. This opera is about music, a great orchestra and great singers. Some complained that Wotan was weak in Rheingold and Die Walkure. But surely Wotan is intentionally weak, a man on the way out. The sparks of power are only remnants.

So in Rheingold, the action men are Alberich and Loge. Strong, confident voices; rapid, purposeful movements – perfect harmony between pit and stage. Wotan thinks he has won but the real winner is Alberich and his curse. In Die Walkure the great God, Wotan, fails not only with his wife but also with his favourite, Brunnhilde. Juha Uusitalo as Wotan effectively betrays his increasing insecurity.  Audience reaction confirmed this at the end when Alberich (Tomasz Konieczny) and Loge (Adrian Erod) were hailed loud and long, Wotan less so.

The staging of Die Walküre, however, takes a bit of getting used to. Hunding’s tree-house seemed to be growing in the middle of a great room. The third act opening was wonderful, though. A bare stage with nine horses, presumably in the paddock outside Valhalla, before the Walkure appear, not as nine models off a ramp, but as an extremely dangerous gang of blood-stained harpies, who looked perfectly at ease in combat, with cowering figures fleeing before them. However the horses remained in situ until Loge’s fire engulfed the mountain top in magnificent flames that moved in time with the music. Then it looked as if the poor steeds were being immolated too, and that was upsetting.

There is a similar distraction in Siegfried, when the back wall of Mime’s great workshop, complete with ventilator fans remains as a backdrop to Brunnhilde’s mountain top. In Götterdämmerung, Siegfried and Brunnhilde’s love nest looks like a white plastic tarpaulin laid in the middle of a carpark with chevron stripes marking the parking bays. Later when the Rhinemaidens reappear, dancing in the river wearing swim hats, the thought of a synchronised swimming team is hard to avoid.

However, it must be said that interpretation of abstract sets is fleeting and they quickly give way to focussing on the characters on stage. Musically, one of the highlights is Siegfried’s funeral march. It is quite long, so a funeral procession has to move back and forth across the stage until it is over, unless… Yes, that’s it! Play it to a black stage, let all the drama lie in the music, let the orchestra perform a virtuoso piece, like Leonore III as an intermezzo in Fidelio… And it was wonderful. Conductor and orchestra seized their moment to enthralling effect.

At 20:30 on May10, after some 16 hours, it was all over, a triumph of casting and musical balance. Juha Uusitalo as Wotan, Eric Halverson (a specialist in evil roles,)  and the great pairing of Stephen Gould (Siegfried) and Eva Johansson (Brunnhilde) are the icing on this operatic cake.

And if they are, Franz Welser-Most is the master baker, with as many curtain calls from the conductor as from the singers? What other house  can produce a Ring of this quality from its own orchestra, ensemble and chorus? Hats off to Ioan Hollender.

The last Ring of the Season plays between Jun. 6 and 11. It can also be seen in live transmission from the stage on the big screen on Herbert Von Karajan Platz to one side of the opera house. I, for one, will be with the cognoscenti in the Stehplätze.

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