The Royal Opera – Die Walküre [Terfel & Gasteen]

Die Walküre [First Day of Der Ring des Nibelungen; music drama in three acts]

Siegmund – Jorma Silvasti
Sieglinde – Katarina Dalayman
Hunding – Stephen Milling
Wotan – Bryn Terfel
Fricka – Rosalind Plowright
Brünnhilde – Lisa Gasteen

Gerhilde – Geraldine McGreevy
Ortlinde – Elaine McKrill
Waltraute – Claire Powell
Schwertleite – Rebecca de Pont Davies
Helmwige – Iréne Theorin
Siegrune – Sarah Castle
Grimgerde – Clare Shearer
Rossweisse – Elizabeth Sikora

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano

Director – Keith Warner
Designer – Stefanos Lazaridis
Costumes – Marie-Jeanne Lecca
Lighting – Wolfgang Göbbel

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 5 March, 2005
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

En route to this performance by train, I overheard two ladies, of advancing years, telling fellow travellers that they were looking forward to seeing “Die Walküre”, but that they expected it to be a “modern thing”, expressing a preference for “traditional settings” with “helmets and spears”.

I fear the ladies may have been disappointed in this regard since although spears were deployed, there was only a partial helmet – worn by Brünnhilde when announcing the fate in store for Siegmund – and there were certainly no traditional settings.

Last December I welcomed “Das Rheingold”, the first instalment of the Royal Opera’s new Ring cycle, commending various aspects of the staging and praising the director for some intelligent and perceptive touches.

Regrettably, my anticipation of a thoughtful and satisfying continuation of the cycle was not met in this “Die Walküre”.

In “Das Rheingold” there were certain visual symbols – at least that is what I took them to be – which did not make an awful lot of sense, but which did not prove, ultimately, too distracting.

However, the stage of this “Die Walküre” abounded with various sights, which drew the eye and attention away from the music and drama.

The most conspicuous of these was a fan with rotating blades which pervaded most of the first act and which returned at the end of the third over the sleeping Brünnhilde.

On its first appearance it was seen to be hanging from the ceiling of a separate box-like space, lit red, where Sieglinde was discovered. The significance of this ‘container’ – not to mention the fan – was not readily apparent. The fan also made a cameo appearance, much enlarged, at the start of the Prelude to Act Three – ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ – this time seen though the curtain and looking like a giant propeller.

Right at the start of Act One, it was actually rather difficult todiscern precisely what was supposed to be happening, as the curtain rose only a little way, and there seemed to be a figure – Wotan? – doing something with a spear! As only the person’s legs were visible, and by the time the curtain rose fully, he was walking away, this no doubt significant piece of stage business did not register properly.

With Sieglinde in her box-space, the remainder of the stage was the same setting as most of “Das Rheingold” had taken place in. That is to say the interior of a once well-appointed room, with marble floors, a table and fireplace, all having seen better days and pointing diagonally upwards. At the rear of this is a window – this time with some broken panes – through which can be discerned a constantly moving sky-scape. This was the room in which the gods were awaiting their ascent into Valhalla, which they did via ladders.

Musically speaking, Wagner’s music-drama got off to a fine start with an extremely well-played and incisively conducted account of the tempestuous prelude culminating in ferocious and thundering timpani. Wagner’s musical storm is quite graphic enough in its own right, so one wondered why strobe-lighting was deemed necessary here and at the start of the other acts.

Later on, one could admire some sensitive playing – the solo cello was outstanding – and generally the orchestral response was first-rate. But Antonio Pappano’s conducting was extremely variable. There were some ‘moments’ – literally – which took flight but, all too often, the music remained stubbornly earthbound – including the increasingly ecstatic conclusion to the first act – and passages with dangerously low tension, such as Wotan’s lengthy Act Two monologue which is difficult enough to bring off at the best of times.

There were times when the score seemed curiously ‘sectional’ – not at all the organic unity of Wagner’s imagining – and a sense of culmination at various points was quite absent.

In the persons of Jorma Silvasti and Katarina Dalayman, the Wälsung twins (Wotan’s children born of a mortal woman) had sympathetic exponents. If the eroticism of the first act failed to ignite, this was not really their fault. Their initial encounter, however, was well staged, the exchanged glances and hesitancy being particularly convincing.

Whoever plays Hunding has to impress through baleful delivery of a few pithy phrases. Stephen Milling had the physical presence – he towered over Sieglinde, who seemed genuinely terrified of him – but the voice was not dark enough to suggest a menacing, dour character. As the ardour between brother and sister grew, they retired to Sieglinde’s ‘box’ and at the point where the door is supposed to fly open to reveal a moonlit spring night, we were rewarded with the sight of a few petals descending from the ceiling – an inadequate replacement for Wagner’s dramatic stage direction and intended image.

Act Two – inexplicably – found us in the same location. Supposedly set on a “wild, craggy summit” we see Wotan encountering his favourite daughter and, a little later, his enraged wife.

I’m not at all sure that Brünnhilde’s entrance should be a moment for laughter, but Lisa Gasteen’s descent from a ladder and unbuckling herself from a safety-harness caused just that. She has a strong voice and undoubtedly has the security and stamina to sustain the role. But a want of variety of timbre meant that there was too little contrast in this Brünnhilde’s encounters with different characters and in her reactions to different situations. She actually became a little wearying to listen to, and one wanted a less unyielding approach.

Bryn Terfel continues his convincing assumption of Wotan. Again, the lower reaches of the part are less powerful than the remainder, but his relish of words – and conveying of their meaning – was wholly admirable. His is a defiant god, perhaps – like many human beings – refusing to face up to the consequences of his actions.

Rosalind Plowright once again made Fricka a most interestingpersonality. Indeed, the scene in which she confronts Wotan was perhaps the highlight of the evening. She convinced with the force of her arguments against allowing the Wälsung’s incestuous union to flourish, and did not merely rant and nag – as so many Fricka’s do. One actually felt distinctly sorry for her putting up with the wayward and whimsical Wotan.

The staging of the final moments of this act did not convince. To have Wotan actually run-through Hunding with his spear is an unsubtle substitute for Wagner’s direction that Hunding is felled by a “contemptuous wave of the hand” from Wotan. And the music tells us that it is Wotan’s fury at Brünnhilde’s disobedience that is raging just before the curtain closes. Here, Fricka was seen staring from the back of the stage like a vengeful ogress.

In the preceding scene, when Brünnhilde meets Siegmund and informs him of his impending departure for Valhalla, another rotating object was glimpsed in the sky at the back of the stage. This was a large rectangle – presumably some kind of monolith – which grew in size as the scene continued.

This was seen in actuality at the start of Act Three and served as both an entrance-point and as a wall against which all the Valkyries were discovered.

This was as superb a team as one could hope to find, led by a powerful Geraldine McGreevy who sounded very much like a potential Brünnhilde.

By this point I was giving up trying to work out what the ‘significance’ was of some of the things we were seeing. I couldn’t work out what Siegmund’s body was doing on-stage or how it had got there, since Brünnhilde and Sieglinde make a hasty getaway at the end of the previous act to avoid encountering the wrathful Wotan. Presumably they nipped back for the corpse!

What I took to be horse-skulls were waved about by the Valkyries,eventually being placed at the front of the stage facing and grinning outward.

In this scene the music suddenly came to life most thrillingly, though the accents in the famous ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ motif were misplaced – as they so often are. The collective cries of the Valkyries were exhilarating, and they were most convincing – in spite of some of the things they had been directed to do.

The final meeting of father and daughter was not the heartbreaking occasion it can be and I felt a bit sorry for Bryn Terfel having to constantly push the wall about for no discernible purpose.

His farewell to Brünnhilde was sung powerfully and elegiacally, though it was preceded by a full-on snog between the two which left Lisa Gasteen wiping her lips. I don’t think this was what Wagner intended.

Having said their good-byes in front of the white wall, Wotan summons the fire-god Loge and a single flame descended the chute that was also a virtually omnipresent feature of the décor. Terfel, having picked this up, was obliged to blow it out due, one supposes, to his hand and costume being in danger of igniting. Subsequent flames appeared and this was an evocative sight. However, the wall was removed to reveal a supine Brünnhilde on a couch – which had also been seen earlier – and we mustassume that the fan, which made its final appearance, had beenthoughtfully provided by her father to keep the flames at bay.

Pinned to the wall like trapped butterflies were the other Valkyries.This was an arresting image, though quite what it has to do with the end of Wagner’s “Die Walküre” is a mystery.

As this is all supposed to happen on an open mountain top, andBrünnhilde was resting comfortably indoors, one can only surmise that director Keith Warner has taken Thomas Mann’s description of this scene as “the couch ringed by flame” all too literally.

I was sorry that the expectations I had following “Das Rheingold” were not rewarded, but then I suppose one shouldn’t be surprised given that Wagner seems to be ‘fair game’ – more so than other composers – for directorial and scenic irrelevancies.

In his absorbing autobiography, the composer’s grandson, Wolfgang Wagner, asserts that “ideally, the stage designer should create images true to a particular work” and goes on to cite his grandfather’s dictum that scenery must be a “silently-enabling background to the action”.

I regret that Keith Warner and his team do not appear to have heeded Richard Wagner’s monition, since for much of the time in this production, direction and design provided distraction rather than illumination.

  • Remaining performances: 9, 15, 19 & 22 March at 5.00; 12 & 28 March at 4.00
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Die Walküre to be broadcast on BBC2 on 28 March at 5.00
  • Das Rheingold to be broadcast on BBC2 on 26 March at 9.00
  • Das Rheingold
  • Royal Opera

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