Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Götterdämmerung, De Nederlandse Opera, 30 November 2013

Het Muziektheater, Amsterdam

Siegfried – Stephen Gould
Gunther – Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester
Alberich – Werner van Mechelen
Hagen – Kurt Rydl
Brünnhilde – Catherine Foster
Gutrune, Third Norn – Astrid Weber
Waltraute – Michaela Schuster
First Norn – Nicole Piccolimini
Second Norn, Wellgunde – Barbara Senator
Woglinde – Machteld Baumans
Flosshilde – Bettina Ranch

Pierre Audi (director)
George Tsypin (set designs)
Eiko Ishioka, Robby Duiveman (costumes)
Wolfgang Göbbel (lighting)
Cor van den Brink (choreography)
Maarten van der Put (video)
Klaus Bertisch (dramaturgy)

Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra
Netherlands Opera Chorus (chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich)
Hartmut Haenchen (conductor)

I shall try to make this relatively short, partly on account of time pressures, but also because I still have to watch the DVD set of this Amsterdam Ring from Hartmut Haenchen and Pierre Audi, and shall therefore be able to say more once I have seen the whole ‘cycle’. (I know the word is misleading in many ways, but it is now so ingrained that its use is sometimes well-nigh inevitable.) That said, a live experience can be very different from a filmed one; indeed, for me at least, the former is nearly always preferable. There is in any case a different cast for this run. Moreover, fellow speakers at the Internationaal Wagner Congres, which took me to Amsterdam in the first place, advised that Audi’s production, in particular George Tsypin’s brilliant set designs, did not really transfer very well to video. I shall see…

In many respects, it is Tsypin’s ring-like space – presumably developed in concert with Audi – that dominates proceedings: not in any sense limiting, but as a good production will do, enabling. (Stephen Langridge’s Parsifal, to which I shall come shortly, did quite the opposite: a rude, yet alas not-at-all surprising awakening, upon my return to London.) The ring is, cleverly, not circular but never meets, permitting a lengthy walkway up to the theatrical heights. Not only does that facilitate comings and goings, observations and retreats; it reminds us that Wagner’s Hegelian view of history – Schopenhauer notwithstanding – does not deal in the purely ‘cyclical’. In Götterdämmerung perhaps of all works, that is crucial. The audience is drawn in; indeed people watch – like the Immolation Scene ‘watchers’ themselves – from the extremities of the set. Equally innovative and provocative is the placing of the orchestra within the ‘ring’. It is, of course, quite a different conception from that of Wagner’s invisible orchestra at Bayreuth, which, bizarrely, no one seeks to follow.  Yet, in a sense, it has equally distinguished roots in Wagnerian æsthetics. Wagner’s conception of the orchestra as his Greek chorus does not rely upon an invisibility that was never the case in Athens; indeed, the complexity of the chorus’s engagement with drama is part of the point. We are reminded, moreover, of Patrice Chéreau’s stated Bayreuth wish, explicitly echoing Wagner, that ‘that the orchestra pit be, like Delphi’s smoking pit, a crevice uttering oracles — the Funeral March and the concluding redemption motif. The redemption motif is a message delivered to the entire world, but like all pythonesses, the orchestra is unclear, and there are several ways in which one might interpret its message. … Should one not hear it with mistrust and anxiety?’

Audi does not propose an overarching Konzept, at least not insofar as I could discern from this viewing of a single drama. Yet in no sense does his production seem vacuous. This is not Lepage (surely the very nadir: no criticism could be too harsh), Schenk, Braunschweig, or Cassiers. There is, may Wotan be thanked, no aping of a bad nineteenth-century naturalism, as Thomas Mann would have put it and whose utterly failure Wagner himself appreciated. Yet there is a sense both of myth – at some times vaguely eastern, the veils for Gutrune and Brünnhilde reminding one of Wagner’s (proto-)Schopenhauerian flirtations – and of its interaction with history: the very stuff of the Ring. Boundaries are fluid yet the presentation is far from formless. Thus the Gibichungs can sport stylised nineteenth-century fashion at one point, for instance Gutrune’s wedding dress, and Gunther’s hunting green with top hat, both admirably fitted to the attractive figures of Astrid Weber and Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester. At the same time there is a sense of the mists of myth and pre-history descending, the imaginative presentation of Brünnhilde’s final sinking into red oblivion a case in point: superficially similar, in its use of choreography and sheets, to that in the Berlin production of Guy Cassiers, yet so much more theatrical – and meaningful. Elegance is never exchanged for Loge’s anarchistic fire. And there is real fire too – somewhat mystifyingly at the end of the second act, but more meaningfully at the end of the third.  The Tarnhelm is used intelligently at the close of the first act, so that we see both mysterious visitors and their role in Brünnhilde’s fate. Too often - for instance, in Keith Warner's London staging - directors mess this up completely; not here.

Hartmut Haenchen’s direction had its moments. It was certainly preferable to the truly abysmal efforts of Antonio Pappano last year at Covent Garden. (I am beginning to think that legislation might be necessary to wrest Wagner from Pappano’s near-monopoly. A good musical director would recognise his strengths and more importantly his weaknesses, and distribute repertoire accordingly.) There was little of that stopping and starting, that driving hard and that grinding to a halt; yet, by the same token, there was some scrappy orchestral playing – the brass nearly inaudible at the end of the first act, when their steel should viscerally reflect the brutality of Brünnhilde’s rape – and Wagner’s melos was sometimes obscured.

Stephen Gould’s Siegfried was serviceable: more than one can often say, but it was neither an especially meaningful nor mellifluous performance. Catherine Foster displayed considerable dramatic commitment and, when her tone was properly focused, a fine command of Wagnerian line; intonation, however, was sometimes a problem.  Kurt Rydl, a wonderful Hagen in his time, showed that, whilst he can still act the part with the best of them, he should alas probably have retired a while ago, his voice often threadbare and lacking focus.  Weber, though her voice could sometimes prove attractive, had a tendency towards blowsiness. Marco-Buhrmester, though, was deeply impressive, his vocal delivery of text and music alike as elegant as his stage presence. Michaela Schuster’s Waltraute was the other star performance; as with Marco-Buhrmester, every word was made to tell, yet without exaggeration. Hers was a performance that drew one in as the production suggested. I only noticed afterwards that Eberhard Friedrich had trained the chorus; that made perfect sense, since its excellence put me in mind of Bayreuth at its best. More anon when I have watched the DVDs…

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