Sunday 21 April 2013

Siegfried, Staatsoper Berlin, 18 April 2013

Schiller Theater, Berlin

Siegfried – Lance Ryan
Mime – Peter Bronder
The Wanderer – Terje Stensvold
Alberich – Johannes Martin Kränzle
Fafner – Mikhail Petrenko
Erda – Anna Larsson
Brünnhilde – Iréne Theorin
The Woodbird – Rinnat Moriah

Guy Cassiers (director, set design)
Enrico Bagnoli (set design, lighting)
Tim van Steenbergen (costumes)
Arjen Klerkx, Kurt D’Haeseleer (video)
Michael P Steinberg, Detlef Giese (dramaturgy)
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (choreography)

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

Image: (c) Monika Rittershaus

And so, the Berlin State Opera’s Ring nears completion. Nothing has changed with respect to the bafflingly vacuous production served up by Guy Cassiers and his colleagues from the Antwerp Toneelhuis. It is not that ideas are banal or underdeveloped; rather, there seem to be no ideas at all, a truly extraordinary state of affairs when it comes to Wagner, of all dramatists. The production apparently aspires to the condition of something one might see or have seen at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, whether Otto Schenk or the still worse Robert Lepage, albeit with refined visual taste. Quite why anyone would think tasteful Wagner desirable is quite beyond me. There are pretty stage effects, sometimes from video, sometimes not, but effects without cause they remain. Oddly, given the plentiful use of video, the dragon is conjured up by the Eastman Company – yes, I am afraid the dancers are back – and some sheets. It starts off rather well, viewed with disinterested æsthetic contemplation, only to degenerate into a vision more akin to a group laundry activity. There is doubtless some enjoyment to be derived from the lithe dancers, choreographed well enough in the abstract, but what any of it might have to say about the Ring is not even obscure. If Cassiers presents, as is claimed, a Ring for the twenty-first century, may God have mercy upon our culture-industry-enfeebled souls. Politics, religion, any variety of thought, even any variety of drama, have been banished to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; it is enough to have one wish to embark upon a spot of time travel.

Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin came to the rescue. I have not heard a better conducted, better played Siegfried, even from the Royal Opera and Bernard Haitink. The Berlin Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle may have offered breathtaking orchestral virtuosity in Aix-en-Provence, but there was something of virtuosity for its own sake in that case, partly, I think, because Rattle’s reading failed to dig anything like so deep. This was Barenboim at his more than estimable best. The great paragraphs of Wagner’s imagination unfolded with unforced, unexaggerated inevitability, not monumental in, say, the Knappertsbusch mode, but teeming with dramatic life born of the musico-dramatic material. Scenes, dialogues, phrases were sharply, colourfully characterised, playful yet steely Beethoven to the fore in the final scene of the first act, a grinding sense of peripeteia possessing us at the opening of the third. There was none of the reluctance one encounters from lesser conductors to let the orchestra speak as Greek chorus, no alleged ‘consideration’ for vocal fallibility. This was above all orchestral drama, as fully achieved in a Furtwänglerian sense as I have heard from Barenboim in Wagner. 

Lance Ryan had his moments as Siegfried, especially during the second act. Up until the scene with Brünnhilde, I should have said that at least he did not tire – quite an achievement in itself – but alas, a pattern of too much shouting and not enough singing took its toll. Iréne Theorin’s Brünnhilde, by contrast, was highly variegated in tone, at times almost too much, having one strain to hear the words. A rather wooden Wanderer from Terje Stensvold was shown up by Johannes Martin Kränzle’s vivid, detailed Alberich. Peter Bronder was very much the singing actor as Mime, stronger in tone than one often hears, but sometimes edging too much, against Wagner’s urgings, toward caricature. Mikhail Petrenko’s voice seemed to have lost some of its darkness, but there could be few real complaints about his Fafner. Anna Larsson’s otherworldly depth of tone reminded us why she is very much the Erda de nos jours. Rinnat Moriah navigated the Woodbird’s lines with admirable ease. It remained, however, Barenboim’s and the Staatskapelle’s show.