The Royal Opera – Die Walküre

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

Siegmund – Plácido Domingo
Sieglinde – Waltraud Meier
Hunding – Eric Halfvarson
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: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 8 July, 2005
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Wagner’s ‘Ring’ cycle has probably attracted more philosophical comment than any other piece of music. There have been numerous interpretations of its meaning ranging from Marxism versus capitalism to a Jungian battle between the warring elements of Wotan’s conscious and sub-conscious mind. Prior to the Second World War these interpretations were of little concernto opera producers or audiences. If you saw the ‘Ring’ it would probably be full of giants, warrior maidens, dwarves, gods, dragons, swords, spears, various Norse/Germanic accoutrements and loads of rocks and trees. After the Second War WielandWagner’s Bayreuth ‘Rings’ and the rise of producer-dominated opera completely shifted the goalposts. In the modern era producers have struggled to find ways of successfully relating their own ideas of the work to audiences, and have ranged from the sublime – the Bayreuth Centenary Ring – to the ridiculous, forexample the recent English National Opera production.

Part of this struggle revolves around the fact that many modern production teams seem ill-at-ease with the mythology of the ‘Ring’ and assume that the audience will have similar problems. One solution – as in the current Royal Opera production – has been to concentrate on the gods’ human failings. And, yet, as Robert Donnington demonstrated in his brilliant book “The Ring as Symbol” you simply cannot appreciate the ‘Ring’ without understanding and interpreting the symbolism; consequently you cannot – unlike most opera – ignore the text.

Keith Warner and Stefanos Lazaridis have placed the gods in a world that appears to be that of a dilapidated upper-middle-class Edwardian household. Sieglinde and Hunding are in a more working-class setting. Such an updating will always causeproblems. The costumes here do help in that both Wotan’s cape and Siegmund’s coat are fur-trimmed and look suitablyold-fashioned, while Sieglinde, Brünnhilde and her sistersare dressed in plain, timeless, rough-cloth dresses. Thesets in the Acts One and Two combine Edwardianfurniture with a suspended central red triangularprism in the first act and a huge rear window with across-like opening in the second; both acts aredominated by massive steel rings that are anchored tothe ground by the roots of the world ash-tree.

It could be said that the sets are distinctive and symbolically multi-layered, but what the prism symbolises is uncertain. In the third act there are major problems. The ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ consists of the sisters sitting on high-back chairs and miming being on horses. Then they go behind a large white screen and reappear with horse-head skeletons, which remain lined up at the front of the stage for the rest of the act. Upon Wotan’s arrival, the white screen is then used as a revolving screen behind which theValkyries often disappeared as Wotan pushed it round.

This scene is notoriously difficult to bring off and I regret to say that the guy sat in front of me quite rightly laughed at several points! For the rest of the act the white screen remained towards the back of the stage until the coup de théâtre of the final scene. Throughout the act a sweeping steel girder runs down to a broken massive fireplace and then on to the front of the stage. As Wotan put Brünnhilde to sleep, he disappeared with her behind the screen and then reappeared to summon Loge – who travels down the girder as a single flame that Wotan holds in hishand. Having protected Brünnhilde with his spear, the screen rose to reveal the entire top girder ablaze with Brünnhilde laid on a couch and the Valkyries hung on the wall flapping their hands like huge bats: the effect is stunning. I will make no comment on the ceiling fan in Act One and behind the curtain at the start of Act Three; I have no idea what it meant – and that is the problem: the production conveys no coherent interpretation and, therefore, of the symbolism of the ‘Ring’.

Warner’s approach to the characters and their relationships is far from traditional, Siegmund and Sieglinde hardly ever touch, Wotan is cowed by both Fricka and Brünnhilde, and even in thelast act it is clearly Brünnhilde who was in charge. On her first entrance Brünnhilde acted like a stroppy teenager, and her relationship with Wotan – as evinced by a long last-act kiss and their body language – is clearly seen as being Electra-like; indeed the only genuine emotion on show is between these two.

This emphasis on emotional dysfunction and humanisation does cause real problems at the end of the second act. From Wagner’s directions, It is quite clear that Hunding kills Siegmund, notWotan, and Wotan does not kill Hunding with his spear; obviously the producer wasn’t prepared to have Wotan as an all-powerful god and simply wave his hand to kill Hunding. When at the end of the opera Warner has Wotan stand centre-stage with his arms spread aloft, spear in hand, as he utters his stupendous final lines, this display of power seems incongruous – part of a different Ring: making Wotan too human and lessening his power and command will always cause problems.

Musically the results are mixed. Waltraud Meier’s Sieglinde is under-characterised; she takes too many notes from below, her tone often becomes hooty. Only once, when the redemption motif appears as she learns she is pregnant, does she soar ecstatically and suggest a sense of the ‘Italian line’ which Wagner wanted all of his singers to produce. Lisa Gasteen’s Brünnhilde is vocally inadequate; her opening war-cries ugly above the stave, with upward swoops that come close to being a caricature of a Wagnerian soprano. Her middle and lower register are better, if rather ill defined, but she seems incapable of singing below forte and, as with Meier, there is no sense of line.

There has been a great succession of Brünnhildes stretching through Leider to Hunter, but I rather doubt if Gasteen will jointheir ranks. The Hunding of Eric Halfvarson is steady if hardly blackly inflexible, although the role is ungrateful. Much the samecan be said of Rosalind Plowright’s Fricka. The role is all symbolism. Plowright did suggest the dry implacability of the character’s view of the world, although a true mezzo rather than a pushed down rather rough-toned soprano will always sound better. The Valkyries are excellent – both individually and as a tonally integrated group.

Which leaves Plácido Domingo and Bryn Terfel. Given that Siegmund’s top note is an A, the role must be appealing at this stage of Domingo’s extraordinary career. The voice is not what it was, and anything above an F is now rather piercing. The golden lustre has dulled and his German remains obstinately unidiomatic, but the lower register is still rich and powerful and, unlike earlier in his career, he is now willing to sing softly. He also has, like Terfel, true charisma: when he appears it is an occasion. Throughout the first act he never barked and there was much that was light and lyrical. In the second act his use of veiled tone was beautiful, and he meant every word he sung. This is the finest Siegmund since Vickers.

Terfel has the voice for Wotan. Indeed it is magnificent. There were several times when my ears rang at the sheer volume he produced; never once did the tone wobble or fray and even at the end of the ‘Farewell’ he didn’t sound tired. In addition he uses a quite extraordinary range of dynamics and vocal colouring; like Hotter and Schorr he makes this Everest of bass-baritone roles sound like Lieder. In Wotan’s great Act Two monologue he portrayed all of the god’s hopes and fears and dutifully went along with the producer’s desire to see Wotan as weak in his confrontations with Brünnhilde and Fricka. Vocally Terfel is the finest Wotan since Schorr and his interpretation will grow with time and working with more-perceptive producers.

As with any opera the most important member of thecast is the conductor. Pappano shows himself, like, say,Barenboim, Haitink and Levine, to be a good but not great Wagnerian. The opening storm was fast and turbulent, but the bass line was too light, the strings lacked bite and throughout the entire act Pappano’s control of rhythm was foursquare. He alsoallowed the tension to slip throughout the opera whenever the orchestra assumed a more conventional accompanying role; famous passages such as ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ were under-powered. The orchestra played well, but there were lapsesof ensemble and intonation problems.

This Walküre highlights the problems that face today’sWagner audiences: the production is neither inspired norrevelatory, some of the cast are no more than adequateand the conducting and orchestral playing are no more than good – but Domingo and Terfel bring greatness and these two make for a memorable evening.

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