Saturday, 28 July 2018

Munich Opera Festival (1) - Götterdammerung, 27 July 2018

Nationaltheater, Munich

Gutrune (Anna Gabler, Brünnhilde (Nina Stemme)
Images: © Wilfried Hösl

Siegfried – Stefan Vinke
Gunther – Markus Eiche
Hagen – Hans-Peter König
Alberich – John Lundgren
Brünnhilde – Nina Stemme
Gutrune, Third Norn – Anna Gabler
Waltraute, First Norn – Okka von der Damerau
Woglinde – Hanna-Elisabeth Müller
Wellgunde – Rachael Wilson
Flosshilde, Second Norn – Jennifer Johnston

Andreas Kriegenburg (director)
Georgine Balk (revival director)
Harald B. Thor (set designs)
Andrea Schraad (costumes)
Stefan Bolliger (lighting)
Zenta Haerter (choreography)
Marton Tiedtke, Olaf A. Schmitt (dramaturgy)

Bavarian State Opera Chorus and Extra Chorus (chorus master: Sören Eckhoff)
Bavarian State Orchestra
Kirill Petrenko (conductor)

What I am about to write must be taken with the proviso that I have not seen, this year or any other, the rest of Andreas Kriegenburg’s Munich Ring. Friends tell me that would have made little difference, yet I cannot know for certain. It is also an odd thing, perhaps, to start as well as to end with Götterdämmerung, although that oddness may well be overstated. Wagner’s initial intention was, after all, to write a single drama on the death of Siegfried; after a certain point in the formulation of the Ring project, much of what had been written as Siegfrieds Tod remained as Götterdämmerung. Might one even be able to recapture something of that initial intent, relying on the narrations here as they might originally have been conceived? Perhaps – and it is surely no more absurd intrinsically to watch – and to listen to – one of the Ring dramas than it is to one part of the Oresteia. On the other hand, a Götterdämmerung conceived as a one-off – whether in simple terms or as part of a series such as that presented some time ago by Stuttgart, each by a different director, glorying in rather than apologising for disjuncture and incoherence – will perhaps be a different thing from this. Anyway, we have what we have, and I can only speak of what I have seen and heard.

In that respect, I am afraid, this Götterdämmerung proved sorely disappointing – especially, although not only, as staging. Indeed, the apparent vacuity of the staging combined with what seemed a distinctly repertoire approach – yes, I know there will always be constraints upon what a theatre can manage – combined to leave me resolutely unmoved throughout. This did not seem in any sense to be some sort of post-Brechtian strategy, a parallel to where parts at least of Frank Castorf’s now legendary Bayreuth Ring started out – if not, necessarily, always to where they ended up. I distinctly had the impression that what acting we saw had come from a largely excellent cast. Is that at least an implicit criticism of the revival direction? Not necessarily. I know nothing of how what few rehearsals I suspect there were had been organised. I could not help but think, though, that once again Wagner’s wholesale rejection – theoretical and, crucially, practical too – of the ideology and practices of ‘normal’ theatres had once again been vindicated. This, after all, is the final day of a Bühnenfestspiel. At one point, he even wrote of post-revolutionary performances in a temporary theatre on the banks of the Rhine, after which it and the score would be burnt. Did he mean that? At the time, he probably did, just as we mean all sorts of things at the time we might not actually do in practice. Nevertheless, his rejection of everyday practice points us to an important truth concerning his works. As Pierre Boulez, whilst at work on the Ring at Bayreuth, put it: ‘Opera houses are often rather like cafés where, if you sit near enough to the counter, you can hear waiters calling out their orders: “One Carmen! And one Walküre! And one Rigoletto!”’ What was needed, Boulez noted approvingly, ‘was an entirely new musical and theatrical structure, and it was this that he [Wagner] gradually created’. Bayreuth, quite rightly, remains the model; Bayreuth, quite wrongly, remains ignored by the rest of the world.

Such unhelpfulness out of the way, what did we have? Details of Kriegenburg’s staging seem to borrow heavily – let us say, pay homage to – from other productions. The multi-level, modern-office-look set is not entirely unlike that for Jürgen Flimm’s (justly forgotten) Bayreuth staging. Brünnhilde arrives at the Gibichung Court with a paper bag over her head, although it is sooner shed than in Richard Jones’s old Covent Garden Ring. I shall not list them all, but they come across here, without much in the way of conceptual apparatus, more as clichés than anything else. Are they ironised, then? Not so far as I could tell.  I liked Siegfried’s making his way through a baffling – to him – crowd of consumers, as he entered into the ‘real world’, images from advertising and all. Alas, the idea did not really seem to lead anywhere.

A euro figure (
€) is present; perhaps it has been before. First, somewhat bafflingly, it is there as a rocking horse for Gutrune; again, perhaps there is a backstory to that. Then, it seems to do service – not a bad idea, this – as an unclosed ring-like arena for some of the action, although it is not quite clear to me why it does at some times and not at others. Presumably this is the euro as money rather than as emblematic hate-figure for the ‘euroscepticism’ bedevilling Europe in general and my benighted country in particular. (That said, I once had the misfortune to be seated in front of Michael Gove and ‘advisor’, whose job appeared to be to hold Gove’s jacket, at Bayreuth; so who knows?) There also seems to be a sense of Gutrune as particular victim, an intriguing sense, although again it is only intermittently maintained. Doubtless her behaviour earlier on, drunk, hungover, posing for selfies with the vassals, might be ascribed to her exploitation by the male society; here, however, it comes perilously close to being repeated on stage rather than criticised. That she is left on stage at the end, encircled by a group of actors who occasionally come on to ‘represent’ things – the Rhine during Siegfried’s journey, for instance – is clearly supposed to be significant. I could come up with various suggestions why that might be so; I am not at all convinced, however, that any of them would have anything to do with the somewhat confused and confusing action here.

Siegfried (Stefan Vinke), Hagen (Hans-Peter König), Gutrune

Kirill Petrenko led a far from negligible account of the score, which, a few too many orchestral fluffs aside – it nearly always happens in Götterdämmerung, for perfectly obvious reasons – proved alert to the Wagnerian melos. It certainly marked an advance upon the often hesitant work I heard from him in the Ring at Bayreuth. However, ultimately, it often seemed – to me – observed rather than participatory, especially during the Prologue and First Act. The emotional and intellectual involvement I so admired in, for instance, his performances of Tannhäuser and Die Meistersinger here in Munich was not so evident. Perhaps some at least of that dissatisfaction, however, was a matter of the production failing to involve one emotionally at all. The Munich audience certainly seemed more appreciative than I, so perhaps I was just not in the right frame of mind.

Waltraute (Okka von der Damerau), Brünnhilde

Much the same might be said of the singing. Nina Stemme’s Brünnhilde redeemed itself – as well, perhaps, as the world – in the third act, recovering some of that sovereign command we know, admire, even love, although even here I could not help but reflect how surer her performance at the 2013 Proms under Daniel Barenboim had been. There is nothing wrong with using the prompter; that is what (s)he is there for, as Strauss’s Capriccio M. Taupe might remind us. Stemme’s – and not only Stemme’s – persistent resort thereto, however, especially when words were still sometimes confused, was far from ideal during the first and second acts. Stefan Vinke ploughed through the role of Siegfried, often heroically, sometimes with a little too grit in the voice, yet with nothing too much to worry about. It was not a subtle portrayal, but then, what would a subtle Siegfried be?

Hagen and Gunther (Markus Eiche)

Some might have found Hans-Peter König a little too kindly of voice as Hagen; I rather liked the somewhat avuncular persona, with a hint of concealment. Again, there was no doubting his ability to sing the role. Markus Eiche and Anna Gabler were occasionally a little small of voice and, in Eiche’s case, presence as his half-siblings, but there remained much to admire: Gabler’s whole-hearted embrace of that reimagined role, for one thing. Okka von der Damerau made for a wonderfully committed, concerned Waltraute: as so often, the highlight of the first act. John Lundgren’s darkly insidious Alberich left one wanting more, much more. The Rhinemaidens and Norns were, without exception, excellent. I especially loved the contrasting colours – Jennifer Johnson’s contralto-like mezzo in particular – and blend from the latter in the opening scene. If there are downsides to repertory systems, casting from depth as here can prove a distinct advantage. Choral singing was of the highest standard too.

Brünnhilde, Gunther, and the vassals

If only the production, insofar as I could tell, had had more to say and more to bring these disparate elements together. Without the modern look, it might often as well have been Robert Lepage or Otto Schenk.

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