Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Götterdämmerung, Royal Opera, 9 October 2012

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

First Norn – Maria Radner
Second Norn – Karen Cargill
Third Norn – Elisabeth Meister
Brünnnhilde – Susan Bullock
Siegfried – Stefan Vinke
Gunther – Peter Coleman-Wright
Gutrune – Rachel Willis-Sørensen
Hagen – Sir John Tomlinson
Waltraute – Mihoko Fujimura
Alberich – Wolfgang Koch
Wellgunde – Kai Rüütel
Woglinde – Nadine Livingston
Flosshilde – Harriet Williams

Keith Warner (director)
Walter Sutcliffe (associate director)
Amy Lane (first assistant director)
Stefanos Lazaridis, Matthew Deely (set designs)
Marie-Jeanne Lecca (costumes)
Wolfgang Göbbel (lighting)
Mic Pool, Dick Straker (video designs)
Claire Gaskin, Michael Barry (movement)                        

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor)

I am not at all sure what is meant by the claim on the Royal Opera House’s website that ‘Keith Warner presents a bravura production of the fourth opera in the Ring cycle’. Anyway, ‘bravura’ or otherwise, here came Götterdämmerung, or should it have been Wagner-Dämmerung? If this is the level of Wagner performance to which we can look forward in 2013, his bicentenary, then it would be better to shut up shop now. Siegfried had had a good few virtues, as well as failings; I had blithely assumed that Götterdämmerung would have been vaguely comparable. Pride, as Wotan discovers, comes before a fall.

Little had changed in terms of Keith Warner’s production, problematical in a number of ways in 2007, though the production was far from the weakest link in the performance as a whole. Warner’s staging lays claim to a number of positive features. The role allotted to the gods, whose twilight we are supposed to be enacting, is a particular strength. They appear, as they ought yet seldom do, during the second act, as statues, vain objects of sacrifice. This was recognisable as  the decaying Gibichung society Patrice Chéreau so rightly characterised as ageing, pointing to the increasing desperation of its rituals — rituals which would seek some sort of moral code in a post-religious society that knows no morality, indeed finds it impossible, as Chéreau put it, to ‘know’. (See  Pierre, Boulez and P. Chéreau, ‘Commentaires sur “Mythologie et Idéologie”,’ in Programmhefte der Bayreuther Festspiele, 1977, VI, p. 81.) Wotan, I think, reappears from afar to view Siegfried’s death ; Loge summons and is consumed by fire at the end ; the statues are burned. There is also a nice – well, provocative – suggestion of incest between Gunther and Gutrune.

Alas, a great deal of incoherence remains. Why Grane is represented by a mere skull I cannot imagine. The ultimate indignity is suffered when Brünnhilde’s trusty steed is passed around as if the characters are worried that, when the music stops – one is tempted to add: ‘if only...’ – one of them will suffer a forfeit. It would be perfectly possible to have an off-stage horse, but a dead one seems pointless. Why does Waltraute appear in ‘civilian’ guise, dressed as Brünnhilde is now ? Is not the whole point of the scene the contrast between inhuman Valkyrie and Brünnhilde as human being ?

Perhaps the most glaring sequence of confusion is seen in the final scene to the first act. What I wrote in 2007 still holds word for word, so I shall save time by repeating myself: ‘Hagen’s continued presence on stage, following the move from the Hall of the Gibichungs to Brünnhilde’s rock, did not augur well. We all know that in a sense he is “still there”: his dramatic shadow hangs over the rest of the act, and the music could hardly make this clearer. Actually to have him on stage added little, except confusion as to where the action was taking place. But this was as nothing to the final scene (in which, needless to say, he remained on stage). Anyone who did not know what was supposed to be going on would have been utterly confused, since we had Siegfried as himself, wearing the Tarnhelm, and Siegfried transformed by the Tarnhelm into Gunther, on stage at the same time. All of the singing came from – audibly and visually – from the former Siegfried. This was logically incoherent, and the whole mess could easily have been avoided by following Wagner’s directions.’ The end is marred not only by having Hagen, Brünnhilde, and the vassals run around like children in the playground. Quite why the Rhinemaidens strip part way through, as opposed to being nude throughout, is anyone’s guess. Conflagration, such as it is, cannot come soon enough. What we are to make of the girl standing in a ring – a belated advertisement for the Olympic Games? – I do not know. The ‘watchers’ are an athletic bunch, though they are not called upon to put that athleticism to use; a rather more mixed sample of humanity might have been more to Wagner’s point. (Chéreau’s conclusion remains an object lesson here.)

There were some good solo performances. Mihoko Fujimura, arguably the world’s reigning Waltraute, injected as much passion as Antonio Pappano’s lethargic conducting would permit into her scene. Rachel Willis-Sørensen surprised me as an uncommonly womanly Gutrune, an eminently creditable object of Siegfried’s diverted affections. John Tomlinson’s Hagen had strength where it counted, even if he sounded a little genial to begin with. The scene with Wolfgang Koch’s once-again excellent Alberich was a rare highlight.  And Stefan Vinke’s Siegfried, if hardly perfect, and a little flat of tone to begin with, was far better than one generally hears. The young Siegfried seems more suited to his voice, for whatever reason, or perhaps he was simply on better form a couple of nights before. Nevertheless, there was much to admire in a performance of stamina and considerable strength. The Norns and Rhinemaidens impressed, as did Renato Balsadonna’s splendid chorus.

Susan Bullock’s Brünnhilde was by and large a disappointment. Indeed, I am sure that this is the first time I have heard a Brünnhilde who was not considerably superior to her Siegfried. Bullock’s voice, as in Siegfried, sounds strained by the role. The contrast between her struggling and Fujimura’s proud performance was unfortunate, to say the least. Peter Coleman-Wright’s Gunther was worse, however, quite the worst Gunther I have heard. Persistently out of tone, vocally insecure, he sounded at least 103 – and not in a good way.

Pappano’s conducting was the gravest problem, reflected in a frequent tiredness sounding from the orchestra. The opening of the Prologue actually began rather well, at least in retrospect. If Wagner’s metaphysical depths remained unplumbed, then at least there was fluency, which one cannot always say with respect to Pappano’s Wagner. From the departure of the Norns, it was, alas, to be mostly downhill. Listlessness, born of an apparent lack of understanding of harmonic motion, made much of the performance seem interminable. Whether the Waltraute scene was the longest I have ever heard I have no idea, but it certainly sounded like it. The Vassals Scene was conducted with rigidity, as if it were a march from Aida. By the end of the second act, so little seemed to be at stake, so little was the score’s richness penetrated, that we might have been listening to an episode of Crossroads, an impression heightened by the shaky platform – was this deliberate? – on which the characters were walking. Lethargy was accompanied by a sound-world somewhat akin to the opaque meaningless people who do not like Debussy ascribe to Debussy. And so it went on and on and on. By the time the final theme – the glorification of Brünnhilde, redemption through/of love, whatever one wishes to call it – sounded, initial near-occlusion of the strings by a bizarrely prominent kettledrum roll seemed neither here nor there.

There are several Wagner conductors with connections to the Royal Opera who could have made not just a better job of this, but most likely produced great or at least very good performances. It may well now be impossible, but heaven and earth should have been moved to persuade Bernard Haitink to return to conduct, if not the Ring, then at least some Wagner following his 2007 Parsifal. Whatever happened to Christian Thielemann? Whatever it was ought to have been put right. Daniele Gatti and Semyon Bychkov might have been called upon. Simon Rattle and Mark Elder have both impressed in Wagner, if at a slightly less exalted level. At the Berlin State Opera, it is quite understandable that Daniel Barenboim tends to conduct many of the Wagner performances from Das Rheingold onwards; there are few, after all, to match him in this repertoire. It is less understandable that a conductor whose strengths lie elsewhere should monopolise performances of the music dramas in London. Parsifal awaits in 2013.