The Kirov Ring at the Met

Wagner
Der Ring des Nibelungen

Das Rheingold [Preliminary Evening]
Wotan – Evgeny Nikitin
Donner – Eduard Tsanga
Froh – Yevgeny Akimov
Loge – Vasily Gorshkov
Fricka – Svetlana Volkova
Freia – Tatiana Borodina
Erda – Zlata Bulycheva
Alberich – Sergei Leiferkus
Mime – Andrey Popov
Fasolt – Vadim Kravets
Fafner – Gennady Bezzubenkov
Woglinde – Margarita Alaverdian
Wellgunde – Irina Vasilieva
Flosshilde – Nadezhda Serdyuk

Die Walküre [First Day]
Siegmund – Avgust Amonov
Sieglinde – Mlada Khdoley
Hunding – Gennady Bezzubenkov
Wotan – Mikhail Kit
Fricka – Svetlana Volkova
Brünnhilde – Olga Savova
Gerhilde – Zhanna Dombrovskaya
Ortlinde – Irina Vasilieva
Waltraute – Natalia Evstafieva
Schwertleite – Lyudmila Kanunnikova
Helmwige – Tatiana Kravtsova
Siegrune – Lyuobov Sokolova
Gringerde – Elena Sommer
Rossweisse – Elena Vitman

Siegfried [Second Day]
Siegfried – Leonid Zakhozhaev
Mime – Vasily Gorshkov
The Wanderer – Evgeny Nikitin
Alberich – Victor Chernomortsev
Fafner – Gennady Bezzubenkov
Erda – Zlata Bulycheva
Wood-Bird – Anastasia Kalagina
Brünnhilde – Olga Sergeeva

Götterdämmerung [Third Day]
Siegfried – Victor Lutsuk
Gunther – Evgeny Nikitin
Gutrune – Valeria Stenkia
Hagen – Mikhail Petrenko
Alberich – Edem Umerov
Brünnhilde – Larisa Gogolevskaya
Waltraute – Olga Savova
Woglinde – Margarita Alaverdian
Wellgunde – Irina Vasilieva
Flosshilde – Elena Sommer
First Norn – Elena Vitman
Second Norn – Lia Shevtsova
Third Norn – Tatiana Kravtsova

Chorus & Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre
Valery Gergiev

Valery Gergiev & George Tsypin – Production Concept
Valery Gergiev – Production supervisor
George Tsypin – Set designer
Tatiana Noginova – Costume designer
Gelb Filshtinsky – Lighting designer
Greg Emetaz – Video projection

The operas were performed on consecutive evenings – between 16-19 July 2007

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Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 19 July, 2007
Venue: The Metropolitan Opera, New York City

Mention of New York’s Metropolitan Opera and Wagner’s ‘Ring’ Cycle in the same sentence probably leads one to think of the combination of James Levine, the ‘Met’ forces and a very ‘traditional’ production by Otto Schenck, which has been staged most successfully by varied casts since its first presentation in 1989, and has been preserved on both CD and DVD.

The Kirov Opera of the Mariinsky Theatre offers, as a co-presentation with the Metropolitan Opera and the 2007 Lincoln Center Festival, a very different view of Wagner’s Tetralogy under the direction of Valery Gergiev who is also credited as being ‘production supervisor’ as well as having a co-credit for the ‘concept’. Quite what these designations mean precisely was not made clear in the programmes, but what is apparent from articles and interviews is that Gergiev had – Karajan-like – a guiding, if not leading, hand in the dramatic and scenic realisation of this Kirov ‘Ring’ cycle, the first to be fully staged in Russia for almost a century.

It is a production intended for touring and has already been seen in Cardiff, Baden-Baden and California – amongst other places. In New York, the ‘Ring’ was performed complete twice in nine days – Friday and Saturday July 13/14 saw the first two instalments, and the cycle was to be completed a week later. I saw the presentation of the four works on consecutive evenings.

What might be described mildly as a ‘punishing’ schedule probably accounted for the fact that we had three of both Brünnhilde and Alberich as well as two Siegfrieds and an ‘alternating’ Wotan. Not, of course, ideal from the point of presenting developing character portraits, but surely inevitable in the circumstances.

The ‘touring’ nature of the production arguably played a large part in dictating the character of the scenic design in which the stage is dominated by four large suspended body-like shapes – supine initially – whose placing is varied between, and during, scenes. Sometimes they were torsos, at others their heads looked down as silent ‘observers’. Heads and ‘hearts’ glowed occasionally. Sometimes there were ‘creatures’ – largely reptilian – attached to them. Peppered about the stage were many smaller objects, rather difficult to describe. They looked like some kind of one-eyed creature (‘eyes’ glowed in different colours from time to time). It took me until “Götterdämmerung” to realise that they reminded me of limb-less gingerbread men or a certain type of Russian doll. One suggestion was that they resembled foetuses.

Das Rheingold. Photograph: Valentin BaranovskyIn any event, these too were ‘placed’ in different configurations, though what their intended function was it is hard to know. They were certainly useful for characters to hide behind, and in “Das Rheingold” the Nibelungs chipped away at them when digging for Alberich’s gold. It turned out that these – and other optical symbols – were inspired by Ossetian folk-myths and Scythian artefacts. Gergiev’s parents were Ossetian, so he has clearly drawn inspiration from his knowledge of the folk-heritage he would surely have been made aware of as a child. But one should not have to rely on a press release to find information regarding a stage-setting. One was – until giving it up as a pointless exercise – constantly wondering what these statuesque creations were doing there and whether there was any intended symbolism in their positioning. Possibly there was, but it eluded me, I’m afraid.

As if this visual mix were not enough, there were moments which looked decidedly Egyptian in character, such as at the end of “Das Rheingold”, when Wotan and Fricka looked for all the world like a Pharaoh with his consort. Another regular and distinctive feature of the production was that several characters had ‘acolytes’ or ‘minions’ accompanying them on and off the set. Loge and Erda appeared with followers; the former’s ‘fire-children’ being seen quite frequently in the absence of any real pyrotechnics (which the Metropolitan Opera could easily have provided) and were at their most ineffectual during the forging of the sword at the end of Act One of “Siegfried”. A group of children waving their hands about and shaking their heads did little to contribute to a convincing realisation of this crucial scene.

But for all the imagination with which the statues – large and small – were deployed, and some of the ‘pictures’ on-stage were quite striking, aided by some atmospheric lighting, they severely restricted the production’s possibility of depicting the various locales in which the saga of the ‘Ring’ takes place. That, for me, was the biggest drawback of this production’s ‘concept’.

Thus, at the start of “Das Rheingold”, any watery connection was – as later – hinted at by blueish light A strong team of Rhinemaidens teased and flirted with Alberich convincingly enough, and a change of cast meant we had the benefit of the hugely experienced Sergei Leiferkus in the latter role. He captured the dwarf’s (the Met’s surtitles preferred ‘gnome’) frustration and subsequent ambition to a tee. As all good Alberichs can, he made us feel sorry for his plight when captured by Wotan and Loge, and his cursing of the ring was properly troubling. A pity he was not in the two other operas in which Alberich appears.

At the end of scene one, there was no hint of a transformation from river to mountain-top. For some inexplicable reason, Loge and followers appeared, and Wotan was wide-awake as his wife urged him to “wake-up”. Evgeny Nikitin made for an authoritative leader of the gods, not immediately neurotic and peculiar, as some productions have him, which was greatly to the benefit of the part. He was dignified, though his perplexity as the problems of his own causing begin to overwhelm him was evident of an intelligent approach to this problematic role.

I enjoyed Svetlana Volkova’s depiction of Fricka very much. Here was no mere nagging wife, but a woman who is fed-up with her husband’s wayward behaviour and who tries to curb his impulses – most of these being libidinous ones, in Wotan’s case.

Other gods were cast from strength – though Eduard Tsanga as Donner singing about his hammer without actually having one was rather ridiculous. Neither, inexplicably, was there the crucial anvil-stroke depicting Donner’s hammer-blow that sets off the thunder to clear the air. Tatiana Borodina made much of the somewhat ungrateful part of Freia, who has to spend a lot of time depicting anxiety as well as calling for help. Her gestures, however, were not terribly well controlled – a deficit which also affected others in the casts of all the operas.

The presentation of the giants as being trapped inside huge rock-like bodies was undeniably arresting, though their somewhat robotic movements were not entirely convincing. Vadim Kravets and Gennady Bezzubenkov played off one another nicely, and the latter’s killing of his brother (with bits of Fasolt’s rock ‘body’ falling off) was chilling, aided by some superb orchestral underpinning and admirable pacing by Gergiev.

Vasily Gorshkov was an entirely convincing Loge; one of his real strengths here – as with his “Siegfried” Mime – was that he actually sang the part with a full, rich tone rather than attempting ‘characterisation’ by cackling and sprechstimme. The Erda of Zlata Bulycheva sported curious headgear, which was not clearly seen here, but was revealed in “Siegfried” as being akin to a twin-blade helicopter propeller blade. But she sang richly and with oracular portent.

Alberich’s transformation into a giant snake was shown in the form of something that looked as if it were a leftover from a Chinese New Year street-party, and a child on all-fours shuffled along as the toad. There was a bit of a rainbow at the top of the stage for the Preliminary Evening’s close, but I couldn’t work out where Valhalla was – or indeed, if it was depicted at all. Gergiev conducted with total dedication and a passion that has not always been in evidence in all of his work. Reservations about one or two passages aside – and about “Siegfried” as a whole – interpretative integrity and inspired orchestral playing were consistently satisfying.

Die Walküre. Photograph: Valentin BaranovskyConductor and players certainly whipped up a storm at the start of “Die Walküre”, where Hunding’s hut appeared to be a tripod-like affair. The constraints of this staging made it impossible to differentiate between indoor and outdoor settings. Mlada Khdoley was announced as being unwell and craved our indulgence, but she was a vocally fine Sieglinde, though her movement did not always avoid being ‘operatic’ in the wrong way. She was especially convincing in the second and third acts. In the opening scene, her attraction for – and recognition of – Siegmund seemed to happen somewhat too quickly, rather than allowing their illicit love to blossom gradually. Avgust Amonov’s fairly baritonal tenor took a while to warm up, and the final moments of passion conveyed a degree of agitation as opposed to exultation. Here Gergiev’s tempo was a notch or two on the rapid side. Bezzubenkov’s Hunding, sporting a long riding crop, delivered his baleful lines menacingly enough, even if a deeper bass timbre would have been preferable.

Wotan was here depicted by Mikhail Kit who was at his most effective in the more ruminative passages. His Act two monologue when he ‘tells all’ to Brünnhilde, was unusually gripping – the intense accompaniment was a great help – though his outbursts of anger in this scene and in the following act ultimately lacked the last ounce of ferocity.

Olga Savova was firm and powerful as the bounding Brünnhilde of her first appearances. The voice was secure if, finally, a little unyielding – something which was noticeable in all three singers’ portrayals of this role. Her increasing sense of incredulity at Siegmund’s negative reactions to the notion of going to Valhalla without his sister/bride was well conveyed, and her interaction with her sister Valkyries and her final duologue with her father conveyed the necessary variegated emotions.

The Valkyries were a formidable team indeed – with some potential Brünnhildes amongst them. They were obliged to carry and manipulate horse skulls. Co-incidentally – or otherwise – these and Erda’s helicopter propeller make appearances in Keith Warner’s current Royal Opera/Covent Garden ‘Ring’ production.

Siegfried. Photograph: Valentin BaranovskyThe claustrophobic sense of confinement within Mime’s cave at the start of “Siegfried” was not depicted, but the opening act found Vasily Gorshkov in fine form, relishing his interchanges with Leonid Zakhozhaev, and aptly youthful in depiction and demeanour as the hero. His bright timbre was a pleasure to hear, though he did tire somewhat towards the end, and whilst he might have missed some of the nostalgic yearning during the forest scene, his gentle singing was touching and expressive.

Gorshkov’s interaction with the Wanderer was also appropriate, and Evgeny Nikitin once again impressed with his dignity of bearing and firm delivery. As already indicated, the forging scene was not convincingly rendered visually or dramatically. Whilst the orchestra depicts the hissing of water, the blow of the bellows and associated activities in a way that no staging could match, I do believe that the music demands an appropriate visual counterpart. The fire-children did not exactly make for a furnace, and Wagner’s concluding stage direction for Mime’s anvil to be smashed by Siegfried’s newly-forged sword was completely avoided. Merely brandishing it in the air is no replacement for the composer’s intentions.

A scene from Siegfried. Photograph: Valentin BaranovskyFurther disappointment in the staging was to come in the second act. The four ‘statues’ seemed to be suggesting a dragon Fafner of monstrous size – but then the singer peeped out of the ‘chest’ of one of them and the effect was derisory. A proper fight between Fafner and Siegfried was not enacted and goodness alone knows what a nodding fish was doing on the ‘head’ of one of the statues. Wagner’s requirement for a boy’s voice for the Wood-Bird was not provided. Indeed, the voice only is specified, not an actual depiction. A lady dressed in a Victorian lace-frock moving her arms up and down was not the ideal way to deal with the composer’s demands, though Anastasia Kalagina sang agreeably and sweetly enough, even if her running about the stage could hardly be described as ‘avian’ in character.

Zlata Bulycheva made a welcome re-appearance as Erda, powerfully summoned by Nikitin, urged onward by great orchestral surges. The Wanderer’s encounter with his grandson, ending with Siegfried shattering the former’s spear – the symbol of his authority – was quite gripping, with Nikitin suggesting sudden fear that the ‘end’, which he has essentially brought about and, increasingly, longed for, might not be so far away after all.

Olga Sergeeva’s somewhat imperious depiction of Brünnhilde did not serve the character well at this point in the drama. The necessary vulnerability was absent, though she undeniably had terrific volume at her disposal. Zakhozhaev, understandably, seemed overawed at this, his first encounter with a woman. Ultimately, though, this duet lacked the sheer vocal refulgence this music demands from both singers, strongly though the orchestra supported them. In this concluding scene, Gergiev paced the ‘Siegfried-Idyll’ music beautifully.

In the first two acts, I found some of the speeds verged on being rushed – especially towards the end of the first act where Gergiev was in danger of being so fast that the astonishing concluding pages would not register as being played ‘as fast as possible’. Oddly, Gergiev slowed down the last few bars in a most damaging and perplexing way. I cannot forbear to mention at this point my astonishment at seeing members of the audience either get up and walk out, and/or applaud before the music stopped. This was the case at the end of every act on each evening, and the effect was quite ruinous.

Götterdämmerung. Photograph: Valentin BaranovskyPerhaps Gergiev was keen to emphasise the ‘scherzo’-like qualities that have been noted in the score, but I found this the least convincing segment of this ‘Ring’. The Three Norns who start the final drama were – like the Rhinemaidens and Valkyries – remarkably satisfying collectively and individually. Whilst a ‘rope’ of sorts was moved by attendants, the Norns themselves mimed the weaving of it around a rock – the moment of its ‘snapping’ did not quite have the sense of ‘release’ it should.

A finely played ‘dawn’ interlude (though the horns were sometimes submerged in the brass ensemble) introduced another Siegfried and yet another Brünnhilde. Victor Lutsuk and Larisa Gogolevskaya did not impress initially. Indeed, their opening duet was alarmingly lacking in dramatic tension and sounded tentative. Gogolevskaya failed to convey Brünnhilde’s post-coital rapture and Lutsuk was somewhat dour as opposed to eager. Happily, both improved considerably, but this passionate scene lacked the necessary ecstatic outpouring the singers need to deliver.

The hardworking Evgeny Nikitin was thoroughly convincing as Gunther, making him a much more dynamic and credible leader of the Gibichungs, described in the programme as a “warlike river tribe”. Too often Gunther is presented as a weakling fool – not so here. As Gutrune, Valeria Stenkia was similarly compelling and, thankfully, there was none of the suggestions of incest between brother and sister that bedevils many a production.

Hagen – as presented by Mikhail Petrenko – was here a rather more youthful figure than is customarily the case. This was an interesting slant on a character who is often played by a much older singer with a darker voice than Petrenko’s who, in this regard, was not ideal. This is the first time I have seen Hagen wearing frock-like apparel. The scene with Olga Savova as Waltraute found Larisa Gogolevskaya responding readily to the former’s committed portrayal, and the final scene of the first act, when Siegfried appears in disguise and, having been drugged, fails to recognise Brünnhilde, was downright disturbing. The moment when Siegfried wrenches the ring from her was properly distressing.

The Hagen/Alberich encounter (is it real, or a dream?) did not quite have the frisson it can, but the subsequent summoning of the Vassals had all the ‘tingle-factor’ one could wish for. Even if the chorus was not as numerous as might be desirable, the men sang out thrillingly. Brünnhilde’s curses rang out terrifyingly, and one was caught up in this poor woman’s plight – Gogolevskaya growing visibly more confident and convincing.

With the return of the Rhinemaidens at the start of Act Three, the musical reminiscences are now tinged with experience and Margarita Alaverdian, Irina Vasilieva and Elena Sommer relished their flirtation with Lutsuk’s Siegfried, who projected a tremendously confident top C in reply to the off-stage hunting party. The death of Siegfried led to a wonderful realisation of the ‘Funeral Music’ – both proud and moving.

The directorial obstacle course at the end of “Götterdämmerung” was, perhaps predictably, largely avoided, with projections serving as water and fire, and Gogolevskaya walking rather daintily off the edge of a platform, rather than plunging dramatically into the flames. The final tableau of the Rhinemaidens at peace again was effective in its own way, even if that is not what the final pages of “Götterdämmerung” are about – musically or dramatically.

So, from the production point of view, it would be an understatement to say that I found this Ring underwhelming. Casting was largely appropriate, but the trip to New York to experience Gergiev’s handling of Wagner’s masterpiece was undeniably worthwhile. Now, if he can be engaged the next time the Met presents the Schenck production…



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