Saturday 29 April 2023

McFadden/Melnikov - Cage, Prokofiev, Berio, Berberian, Knussen, Schnittke, Schulhoff, and Crumb, 28 April 2023

Wigmore Hall

Cage: Aria
Prokofiev: Five Melodies, op.35
Berio: Sequenza II
Berberian: Stripsody
Knussen: Whitman Settings, op.25
Schnittke: Improvisation and Fugue
Schulhoff: Sonata Erotica
Crumb: Apparition: Elegiac Songs and Vocalises

Claron McFadden (soprano)
Alexander Melnikov (piano)

The Wigmore Hall has witnessed an extraordinary number of first-class song recitals over the years; a good few will even have taken place over the past year. This outstanding recital from Claron McFadden and Alexander Melnikov could hold its head high in comparison with any of them. Taking us from Cage to Crumb, via a fascinating route as coherent as it was replete with surprises, it was a model of programming as well as performance. If it were a pity that more listeners did not join the audience, those who did received a rare treat. I do not think I had previously heard any of the pieces previously in concert, with the exception of the Berio Sequenza and Prokofiev’s Five Melodies, albeit the latter in their more familiar, later version for violin and piano. We all love Schubert, but on this occasion he could readily wait until another evening. 

Cage’s 1958 Aria made for a splendid overture, one of a number of pieces closely associated with Cathy Berberian, in this case dedicated to her. It presented a riotous yet ordered – if only in the moment – collage of languages, techniques, styles, delivery, and so much more: from operatic coloratura to a sneeze, arias becoming Aria. My companion aptly likened it to a New York streetscape from a little while ago, in which one might see and hear various characters contributing to this greater whole in near simultaneity. Indeterminacy, after all, is not arbitrary.

It was fascinating to hear Prokofiev’s Five Melodies as vocalise (with piano) rather than for violin, to hear the voice – and McFadden’s voice in particular – as an instrument without words, let alone ‘expressing’ them. This may have been a quieter, even more classical radicalism than some of the avant-gardism on offer, but it was certainly not the least, nor the least durable. An almost post-impressionist delivery from both McFadden and Melnikov led us into and through much of the first song, magical melody and harmony (that utterly characteristic ‘side-slipping’ close!) enthralling us here and beyond. The second soared further, higher, also opening up a world of differences in vocal delivery, a striking shift from vowel to consonant a case in point. The third emerged as Prokofiev’s heir to Stravinsky’s Rossignol, already peering into the Cinderella-like future. Melnikov’s piano interjections in the fourth were perfectly judged, both to disrupt and yet also ultimately to confirm its general, yet never generalised, lilt. A beautifully haunting fifth song took us to a thrilling climax before subsiding. We had been on quite a journey, guided with expert judgement. 

Berio’s second Sequenza and Berberian’s own Stripsody made for a fine pair. The liminal zone in which the audience adjusted to the fact that the former had in fact already begun immediately called into question and enhanced much about our experience. A dizzying array of sounds and techniques were constructed as and into performance. If it is difficult not to experience either ‘theatrically’ – and why would one try? – they were certainly musical experiences too, form apparently created before our ears yet no less real for that. Literal breast-beating with which the latter piece began paved the way for material ranging from that world of Tarzan, necessarily a very different experience with a different artist from Berberian to Monteverdi and The Beatles, to squeaking and sirens. A ticket to ride indeed. 

Oliver Knussen’s Whitman Settings song-cycle for Lucy Shelton might have sounded a little conventional in such company, but its renewal of a relatively traditional genre seemed anything but, given such compelling, at times well-nigh overwhelming performances from McFadden and Melnikov. One heard and felt the construction of each song, harmonically in its serial processes as well as overall shape and form. Melnikov’s piano virtuosity took us to a realm some place after Ravel, in ‘The Dalliance of the Eagles’ even post-‘Scarbo’. McFadden’s way with the words had us experience, seemingly at first- rather than second-hand, how they gave birth to Knussen’s score, how the two had become inextricably interlinked. Vividly communicative in words and music, these were exemplary performances. ‘I am the Poem of Earth,’ McFadden sang in the closing ‘Voice of the Rain’, yet she and her partner seemed equally to be the poem of the skies, of the depths, of the elements. 

Melnikov had a solo spot to open the second half. Schnittke’s Improvisation and Fugue, a later yet not late Soviet work (1965), was stark, declamatory, again laying musical processes bare, whilst also permitting them at time to evaporate before our ears. Polystylism might theoretically lie in the future, yet aspects at least of jazz seemed at times but a stone’s throw away. Schulhoff’s Dadaist Sonata erotica made for a contrast in every way, a definitely German eroticism on show as music emerged from sex and, perhaps, vice versa. The joke did not outstay its welcome, at least not here.

Finally, at least so far as programmed works were concerned, we heard Crumb’s Apparition: Elegiac Songs and Vocalises, Melnikov’s prepared piano contributions as striking, not least in the opening and closing approaches to the world of the sitar, as McFadden’s evergreen variety and integration of techniques. From the more conventionally – this is highly relative – avant-gardism, albeit perhaps by now (1979) looking back with fondness, of the first Vocalise ‘Summer Sounds’ and ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’ to the differently haunting ‘Dark Mother’ and the outright high-dramatic warpath of ‘Approach Strong Deliveress!’ there was another world to be discovered here. The ‘Death Carol’, sung into the piano, bathing in the echoes of its predecessor, and ‘Come lovely and soothing death’, inviting, even seductive, like an expansive slow movement in context, led us to a reprise of the first song both surprising and inevitable. One might say much the same of the two encores, Oscar Peterson’s Hymn to Freedom and Debussy’s Beau Soir. It was indeed a fine evening.

Friday 21 April 2023

Schumann Quartet/Vinnitskaya - Schumann and Reimann, 20 April 2023

Wigmore Hall

Schumann: String Quartet in A minor, op.41 no.1
Reimann: Adagio (Zum Gedenken an Robert Schumann)
Schumann: Piano Quintet in E-flat major op.44

Erik Schumann, Ken Schumann (violins)
Veit Benedikt Hertenstein (viola)
Mark Schumann (cello)
Anna Vinnitskaya (piano)

I welcomed in February an excellent concert of Schumann and Brahms from the Schumann Quartet and Pablo Barrágan. This latest instalment of The Schumann Show – there will be a third in July – had still more Schumann: two of the composer’s works, plus another derived from his material and dedicated to him. It made for a fine successor, as did pianist Anna Vinnitskaya, joining the players for the Piano Quintet. 

The first of two works from 1842 was the A minor String Quartet. The first movement introduction invited us in, showing at the same time just how well Schumann knew his Bach, refracted by a Beethovenian lens. More important, its inwardness and pregnancy with possibility were very much to the fore, the surprise of Schumann’s move to the major mode for the Allegro registering subtly as part of his general tonal and developmental scheme; there was no need to hammer it home. Fiery and intimate by turn, and sometimes together, this performance certainly had the movement’s measure. Vigour characterised the second and four movements, though neither, rightly, was without vulnerability. Whirlwinds of different character, the former counterbalanced by a charming, sinuous trio, the latter full of post-Mendelssohnian life, they framed an Adagio rich both in secrets and in their divulgence. There was something almost operatic to it: Onegin on the Rhine, perhaps, though its heart still very much beat after Beethoven (not least his example in the Ninth Symphony). 

Aribert Reimann, a composer sadly overlooked in this country and probably best known here for work as a pianist with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, descends from one of the doctors who treated Schumann at his Endenich asylum. In 2006, 150 years after Schumann’s death, Reimann published the medical records he had inherited and composed an Adagio in memory of Schumann based on two chorale harmonisations Schumann had made at that time: ‘Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist’ and ‘Stärk uns, Mittler, dein sind wir’. The Schumanns played the first, alongside Ken Schumann’s valuable spoken introduction to the piece, followed by a fine performance of Reimann’s typically post-Expressionist response. Prolongation, incision, elaboration, and other procedures enabled him – and us – to encircle those sad yet noble last musical words, as did Reimann’s own musical assailants and/or angels. Why, after all, choose?

Vinnitskaya and the Quartet gave us a warm and equally distinguished performance of the Piano Quintet, balance between instruments always finely judged, to the extent one would never have known it might be a problem. In the second group, viola and cello, shadowed and responded to by two violins, reminded us that Schumann’s own instrument is perhaps not even first among equals here, but simply an honoured equal. It was a dynamic reading that yet always found space for the musical drama to unfold. A tumultuous first-movement development and return took nothing for granted, taking us to quite a different place from where we had begun. Ghostly urgency in the second movement, contrasted with hallucinatory episodic visits to the Schubertian major-mode, duly unsettled. So too did Veit Benedikt Hertenstein’s dark viola solo. Full-blooded, almost Brahmsian eruption made its point with power and elegance.  Vinnitskaya’s dexterity, never in doubt, was certainly on show in the scherzo: another whirlwind to succeed those two in the String Quartet. Trios of very different character were equally relished; this was almost, not quite, an embarrassment of musical riches. An enthralling performance of the finale was given in, again, different yet consequent character. That first-movement combination of urgency and space was present also here. The Furiant from Dvořák’s second Piano Quintet made for a lovely encore—and indeed had me wish to hear the whole thing. Another time, I hope.

Shaham/LPO/Jurowski - Ustvolskaya, Hindemith, and Prokofiev, 19 April 2023

Royal Festival Hall

Ustvolskaya: Symphonic Poem no.1
Hindemith: Violin Concerto
Prokofiev: Symphony no.6 in E-flat minor

Gil Shaham (violin)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski (conductor)


The LPO welcomed back Vladimir Jurowski, former Principal Conductor, now Conductor Emeritus, for a typically enterprising programme of mid-twentieth-century works subtitled ‘War and Peace’, executed superbly and, in a broader sense, performed just as well. First was Galina Ustvolskaya’s 1958 Symphonic Poem no.1, a strange work: in many ways compelling, if at its close perhaps falling a little way short of coherence (at least to my ears). It was a splendid opportunity to hear the piece, though, and difficult to imagine a contemporary performance bettering this. Its dark, bleak opening, low cellos and basses, high woodwind, doubtless reminds many of Shostakovich, though for me it sounded more genuine, less overtly manipulative. The way it built, both as work and performance, likewise had much in common with Ustvolskaya’s teacher, though unlike him, its harmonies became the more surprising the more closely one listened—or tuned in. There were similar enigmas, slightly zany marching and cartoonish rejoicing offering obvious examples, but its lack of screaming was welcome. The greatest enigma of all lay for me in the ‘late-Romantic’ echoes of its closing section. Presumably they had their own rationale, but for now at least they eluded me. It was never less, though, than intriguing. 

Gil Shaham joined the orchestra for Hindemith’s 1939 Violin Concerto: like much of Hindemith’s music – everything other than the Weber Metamorphosis? – heard far less often than it might be. I am not sure, indeed, that I have ever heard it in concert. There is, as might be expected, an easier, less problematic mastery here, reflected in the urgent, directed unease with which the first movement opened, craftsmanship and only that winningly celebrated. It lies within the orbit of Mathis der Maler, no doubt, and is certainly none the worse for that. Shaham’s violin line, here and throughout, offered a fine thread, strong and flexible, to follow the work’s narrative; we were left in no doubt from Shaham and Jurowski as to the consequentiality of melodies and harmonies alike. Cooler, semi-Stravinskian woodwind – though arguably Hindemith got there first in the Twenties – formed the bedrock for a more intense solo lyricism in the slow movement. The orchestral climax offered a veritable post-Mathis whirlwind, its economy worthy of Strauss and even Mahler. Invention and incident were relished in the finale, defiant without a hint of grimacing. Shaham relaxed where required, bending time and line without disruption, his cadenza highlighting yet also typical of his rich, focused playing. The encore was not really for me; I shall leave it at that. The concerto certainly was. 

The second half was given over to an outstanding performance of Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony from the LPO and Jurowski. Precision and, as ever, firm direction were key to realisation of the ambiguities of the opening to the first movement. Prokofiev’s strange doublings, such as cor anglais and bassoon, really told: no massaging here. And if it seemed as if this would be a somewhat foursquare reading – if that makes any sense at all for a movement in compound duple time! – Jurowski’s trademark formalism proved compelling on its own terms. A strong emphasis on the responsorial qualities to Prokofiev’s writing and, again, to the surprising hints of Stravinsky teased out in the woodwind writing, lent an air of neoclassicism not at all at odds with darker impulses. A development climax of great power and unnervingly spectral recapitulation suggested the ‘peace’ of 1946 was at best provisional. 

Jurowski screwed up the tension just right at the opening of the slow movement, the long release equally well judged. Fullness of tone and general excellence of playing helped make this a match for any performance, live or recorded, I have heard, Mravinsky included (albeit very different). It was lugubrious yet still full of spark, debris from The Love for Three Oranges sublimated in the arduous experience of wartime years and uneasy peace. It was highly dramatic too: more reminiscent of wordless opera than ballet, occasional shards of Cinderella moonlight, harp and all, notwithstanding. 

Taken faster than I can otherwise recall, the finale and its speed, allied to unremitting tightness of control imparted new, if quasi-automated life to Prokofiev’s motor rhythms of old, yet also ultimately extended beyond them. Jurowski penetrated to the distinctive heart of Prokofiev’s writing here, engaged in a dance to death, or some other fate, of Soviet marionettes come briefly alive. It was as Mahlerian in spirit as Prokofiev gets. Sharp on detail – how the double basses dug into their strings in counterpoint with splendidly idiomatic brass – it led us to a veil of almost-final darkness, chilling rather than protective, which, when lifted, revealed something terrible indeed.

Thursday 20 April 2023

Innocence, Royal Opera, 17 April 2023 (UK premiere)

Royal Opera House

Images: Tristram Kenton

The Waitress (Tereza) – Jenny Carlstedt
The Mother-in-law (Patricia) – Sandrine Piau
The Father-in-law (Henrik) – Christopher Purves
The Bride (Stela) – Lilian Farahani
The Bridegroom (Tuomas) – Markus Nykänen
The Priest – Timo Riihonen
The Teacher (Cecilia) – Lucy Shelton
Student One (Markéta) – Vilma Jää
Student Two (Lilly) – Beate Mordal
Student Three (Iris) – Julie Hega
Student Four (Anton) – Simon Kluth
Student Five (Jerónimo) – Camilo Delgado Díaz
Student Six (Alexia) – Marina Dumont

Simon Stone (director)
Chloe Lamford (set designs)
Mel Page (costumes)
James Farncombe (lighting)
Arco Renz (choreography)
Aleksi Barrière (dramaturgy, translation)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Genevieve Ellis)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Susanna Mälkki (conductor)

Kaija Saariaho’s latest opera, first seen at the 2021 Festival d’Aix en Provence, has now reached another of its co-commissioners, the Royal Opera House. It would be difficult to overstate the impression it made, not only on me but clearly on the rest of a nearly full house. Moving away—on account, it seems, of Kasper Holten’s initial brief—from various reimaginings of different pasts to the near-present, Innocence, written with librettist Sofia Oksanen and translator (from Finnish into multiple languages) Alekis Barrière, is a concentrated work, ideally judged on an Elektra-like timescale, with neither a spare note nor moment.

 The work ranges between a nearer past and present, as guests and workers at a wedding find themselves confronted still more strongly than they are every day by the trauma of a school shooting that took place ten years previously. The complementary complexity of their memory arcs— musical as much as verbal, linguistic as well as harmonic, all seemingly conceived as one, albeit through collaboration rather than through Wagnerian control—is on the one hand readily apparent, yet on the other, as two scenarios, two times merge, one fancies at least that one can readily take in what is taking place as well as what has, what is sung and spoken as well as what the orchestra says, what unfolds in Simon Stone’s staging (and Chloe Lamford’s Alvar Aalto-inspired sets) as well as in the score. There is no contemporary overload, no video, let alone live film, nothing especially post-dramatic. If this is rather more than a ‘well-made play’, there is something satisfyingly clear and balanced to its route, to its proportions, and indeed to its accessible yet far from simple musical language.

 Collaborations take many forms, some relishing conflict and contradiction; here, we stand dramaturgically closer to recent works by the likes of George Benjamin than, say, Harrison Birtwistle. There is room for both and for more—and there always has been. There seems no reason, however, to doubt that Saariaho’s opera – and that is unquestionably a shorthand for all involved, the composer first among equals – deserves, indeed quietly, subtly demands to be spoken of in the same breath as works such as Lessons in Love and Violence and The Minotaur, to take two exemplary full-scale contemporary operas seen relatively recently here at Covent Garden.

The Father-in-law (Christopher Purves), The Waitress (Jenny Carlstedt)

For more often than not – some might take an essentialist, neo-Aristotelian line, but let us not go there for now – tragedy ultimately takes a straightforward trajectory. Here, two tragedies feed and merge, feeding on one another, indeed finding their being in memory and trauma. Trauma is perhaps the key to the libretto, fragmented and united in translation, the children and parents of an international school each finding their mode of musical and verbal expression, written and performative, through negotiation of complementary ‘nationality’. Some characters speak (for better or worse, amplified); some sing; some do both. One, Markéta, employs Finno-Ugric folksong techniques. Saariaho writes for all in turn, even having made computer analyses of the words she had also heard spoken by natives. ‘It was a crazy, long, complex composition process and one that I will never in my life return to,’ she owns in the programme. 

Some characters flit between languages, just as many Europeans and ‘citizens of the world’ do on a daily basis, translating or not, testing the limits of so much often without realising. (I recalled an extraordinary Don Giovanni at Vienna’s Volksoper, in which Achim Freyer mixed German and Italian, even within numbers, to heightened dramatic, if often inexplicable, effect.) This is not, thank goodness an opera for Mrs May of Maidenhead. And, indeed, to a London audience, thoughts of our own hostage situation with a nationalist far-Right, removing us from our own international school, can never be far away. We, traumatised as we are by the events of not far short of a decade, reliving them as if they were yesterday, whilst confronted by their consequences and, for their perpetrators, apparent lack of them, will make our own connections—even as the rest of our fellow Europeans have moved on, or seem to have done so.

The Mother-in-law (Sandrine Piau), The Waitress, The Bridegroom (Markus Nykänen),
The Bride (Lilian Farahani), The Father-in-law

Yet no one ever really moves on, it seems; and though such reception is doubtless beside the point for many, and will surely seem self-indulgent in the wake of events to the east, it is our lot as heightened familial and interfamilial clashes are to the world created here. Stone’s tendency, in classical works, to ‘reduce’ or at least to ‘translate’ to new contemporary worlds is more or less redundant in this case. He concentrates, with considerable self-effacement, on telling the stories, layered as in words and music, and does so very well. Polyphony – perhaps a nod to Berio and Eco, or at least a similarity or two – is the order of the constructive day. Its web, though, is weaved with that still-strange hyper-immediacy one recognises from the most successful spectralist music (if we should still label it that or indeed anything other than itself). Saariaho’s ear for instrumentation never errs, yet likewise never merely conforms to the expected, however ‘natural’, even necessary, her choices may sound.

The opening, de profundis piano, contrabassoon, and timpani, scrunching seconds necessitating melody, light, and development that yet will always return to the source, contain within itself the seeds of what is to come. Its Fatal quality balances Nature and chance, summoning spectres to a feast as terrible in its way as that of Mahler’s Das klagende Lied. If I heard parallels with, say, the passage of Gérard Grisey’s  Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, I am not sure that tells us more much than that one might sometimes hear Schumann in Brahms. Perhaps the way of handling development in time, the directed proliferation that seems to create a genuinely new musical dramaturgy, might claim roots there, albeit germinating and spreading in the different setting of an actual theatre. I note it just in case. At any rate, to seek ‘influence’ at this stage of Saariaho’s career may be to turn down a blind alley. There is trauma, though, in the musical shadows as much as the verbal, in Arco Renz’s choreography too.


The Teacher (Lucy Shelton), Students

And there are shockingly good performances too, whether from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, which might have convinced one it played such music all the time; from Susanna Mälkki, who surely had more than a hand in making one think so; or from an excellent cast recreating the work before our eyes and ears. Sandrine Piau and Christopher Purves, parents to the shooter and the bridegroom, turned their mutually uncomprehending argument over whether the new addition to their family, Stela (Lilian Farahani), should learn of ‘the tragedy’ into something musically and dramatically generative. Farahani and her intended, Markus Nykänen’s Tuomas, engaged our sympathies and our frustrations, often at once, as they struggled through an impossible, fatal (re)discovery. Jenny Carlstedt’s Tereza, mother of one of the slaughtered children and now a waitress at the wedding, transformed her inability to forget, let alone to forgive, into the centrepiece of the work. But all contributed sincerely and, in their different ways, exceptionally, be it Julie Hega as the French friend of the boy pushed beyond endurance, Vilma Jää’s haunting Markéta, or Lucy Shelton’s helpless, terrified, yet ultimately strong Teacher, responsible yet not. Such, we learned, was true of all concerned, the bullied, harried boy-shooter included. Without tricks of false empathy or other sleights of hand, the complex polyphony of the piece offered above all a powerful reminder that scapegoating, that easy solutions, are often the truest source of our problems.

Thursday 13 April 2023

Berlin Festtage (5) - Götterdämmerung, 10 April 2023

Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Siegfried – Andreas Schager
Alberich – Jochen Schmeckenbecher
Hagen – Mika Kares
Brünnhilde – Anja Kampe
Gunther – Lauri Vasar
Gutrune – Mandy Fredrich
Waltraute – Violeta Urmana
Three Norns – Noa Beinart, Kristina Stanek, Anna Samuil
Woglinde – Evelin Novak
Wellgunde – Natalia Skrycka
Flosshilde – Anna Lapkovskaja
Erda (silent) – Anna Kissjudit

Dmitri Tcherniakov (director, designs)
Elena Zaytseva (costumes)
Gleb Filshtinsky (lighting)
Alexey Polubpoyarinov (video)
Tatiana Werestchagina, Christoph Lang (dramaturgy)

Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus director: Martin Wright)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Thomas Guggeis (conductor)

Images: Monika Rittershaus
Brünnhilde (Anja Kampe)

‘Alles was ist, endet.’ Erda’s words from Das Rheingold apply both to the rule of the gods and to Wagner’s depiction of that rule, its decline, and its fall. The Ring does strange things to one’s sense of time, time in any case a strange thing to experience. By the time one reaches Götterdämmerung, let alone its end, one both feels one has been through a good deal, to put it mildly, and yet also that it has only just begun. Partly, of course, that is or can be the work’s message too. Wagner counselled Liszt to mark well his poem, containing the beginning and end of a world, not, as sometimes has been said, the world. Those ‘watchers’, men and women (on which Wagner is very clear) ‘moved to the very depth of their being’, who, at least according to his stage directions, should observe Brünnhilde’s final acts and who implicitly remain with us to create a new world, would otherwise have no role. Nor, on one level, would performing and staging the work. Here we were again, though: the end of another Ring, one which had challenged and taught us much, moving us too, even if not always living up dramaturgically to the moments of its highest promise. 

For, if much of Siegfried, especially its first two acts, had left me enthused and eager to find out what might happen next, Götterdämmerung sometimes suggested Dmitri Tcherniakov had lost his way, failing to follow up – or at least electing not to do so – on themes and threads which instead were left hanging. Wagner’s more uncomprehending critics might claim he did so too; we have no need to discuss them further here. The research centre in which the work – all of it, probably – takes place opened up questions of agency and control in which Tcherniakov seemed, at least in part, to have lost interest. If the Norns, whom we had seen throughout, filing away information, seemingly keeping matters in order, are now locked out of proceedings, what does that mean? I could speculate, perhaps fruitfully, yet the production largely seems to abdicate any responsibility it might have to tell, to explain, to suggest.

Hagen (Mika Kares), Staatsopernchor Berlin

The Tarnhelm’s failure again to work, Siegfried looking and dressing like Siegfried, not Gunther, on Brünnhilde’s mountain, could have many potential explanations and implications, yet where were they here? If the world has been disenchanted – fair enough, returning to Adorno and Horkheimer, or indeed many others – where, and I am sorry to bang on about this, does that leave the objects of Wagner’s work (musical as well as verbal and scenic)? It is not always clear to me that that problem has been adequately considered, though I think it could be in a revised production building on what has gone before. Where steps had been taken in Siegfried to suggest Wagner lay beyond any of the characters in setting up the experimental basis for the production, here if anything we went backwards—and it did not, Dallas- or Die tote Stadt-style, seem all to have been a dream.

Hagen, Gunther (Lauri Vasar), Gutrune (Mandy Fredrich), chorus

There are lovely and other telling touches. The return of Erda and ultimately the Wanderer (his cloth cap still somewhere between Chéreau’s Brechtian ‘watchers’ and Wagner’s own carefully curated portraiture) to pay tribute to the dead Siegfried is genuinely moving. Has this particular experiment concluded? In that respect we can, I think justly, draw our own conclusions, however inadequate. Siegfried’s earlier Don Draper-like sprawling on the sofa and a plethora of cigarettes tell their own story of toxic – literally so – masculinity. So too does the basketball court on which Siegfried meets his death. That Gutrune may be drugged too is interesting: perhaps an addict rather than a formal object of experimentation, but is that not in any case part of a broader societal experiment of death and disaster? (Her other treatment is decidedly unsympathetic to the point of misogyny: a pity.) 

And what to make of the ending? I am tempted to say very little. To the text of Wagner’s rejected ‘Schopenhauer ending’ – he rejected it for sure dramatic reason – Brünnhilde approaches Erda, ultimately rejecting a paper bird such as Siegfried had rejected from the Woodbird. She pulls down the curtain, after it has become stuck. Making her own way with a clichéd bag in hand? Doubtless, yet could we, should we not expect more? It did not strike me as a deliberate drama of the underwhelming, a world failing to end, as in Frank Castorf’s Bayreuth Ring, rather a need to do something, almost anything. But perhaps, even probably, I am failing to understand. Tcherniakov’s Parsifal and, more controversially, his Tristan were tauter, more thought through. Is the lack the message? We begin to pursue ourselves, or our thoughts, in circles.


More understandably, Thomas Guggeis’s musical interpretation seemed to have tired somewhat. It was still an excellent show, a fine achievement for one at this stage of his career, which would put many others to shame; yet, a few orchestral fluffs (near-inevitable) aside, there were a few more cases where, not unlike the staging, the conductor did not always seem sure where next to turn. There was tremendous playing from the Staatskapelle Berlin led, at its best, by a keen sense of where the score was heading, but there were hesitations too. That, I have little doubt, will change with greater experience. 

Andreas Schager’s Siegfried created the drama before him: tireless, cocksure, yet with a crucial degree of stunted development (Tcherniakov’s toy horse Grane another nice touch). He and Anja Kampe as Brünnhilde once again held the stage at least as well as anyone this century. Mika Kares added Hagen to Fasolt and Hunding, excelling once again in words, music, and gesture. Lauri Vasar (Gunther) and Mandy Fredrich (Gutrune) were not given the most promising hands in Tcherniakov’s conception, teetering on the edge of the merely silly, yet worked to gain our sympathy—and ultimately succeeded, a true sign of excellent artistry. The Norns and Rhinemaidens made fine contributions, though Violeta Urmana’s Waltraute did not make so consistently strong an impression as one might have expected.

Hagen, Alberich (Jochen Schmeckenbecher)

It was, moreover, a joy to welcome back, however briefly, Jochen Schmeckenbecher’s thoughtful, detailed portrayal of Alberich. As so often, one’s thoughts returned to him, dead, alive, or somewhere in between. ‘Schläfst du, Hagen, mein Sohn?’ That near-liturgical question, so alluring to Boulez at work with Chéreau on the Centenary Ring, retains its irrational enticement. In lieu of a more conventional conclusion, that might do.

Sunday 9 April 2023

Berlin Festtage (4) - Siegfried, 8 April 2023

Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Siegfried – Andreas Schager
Mime – Stephan Rügamer
The Wanderer – Michael Volle
Alberich – Jochen Schmeckenbecher
Fafner – Peter Rose
Erda – Anna Kissjudit
Brünnhilde – Anja Kampe
Woodbird – Victoria Randem

Dmitri Tcherniakov (director, designs)
Elena Zaytseva (costumes)
Gleb Filshtinsky (lighting)
Alexey Polubpoyarinov (video)

Tatiana Werestchagina, Christoph Lang (dramaturgy)  

Staatskapelle Berlin
Thomas Guggeis (conductor)

Images: Monika Rittershaus
Mime (Stephan Rügamer), Siegfried (Andreas Schager)

Experiments resume, continue—and, in several respects, come into sharper focus. Film footage of a miserable, traumatised child whose play has gone wrong accompanies the first Prelude to Siegfried. Siegfried, his emotional growth stunted at least in part deliberately by Mime, presents himself. He is still a child, really, as the toys in the corner of Mime’s house suggest. He does not know his parents, fear, and quite a few other things; the research centre, which is at least in part to say Wagner, will later put him through a series of experiments in order to teach him fear: a dubious project, one might say, as celebrated scientists – Darwin, Humboldt, Mendel, et al. – look down or gaze impassively. Nothing or everything to do with them? The choice may be yours. 

A Woodbird in lab coat, paper-bird experimental aid to hand, forms part of Siegfried’s education and further exploitation. Wotan sporadically watches; such, after all, is the Wanderer’s way, though he has been doing this, courtesy of one-way mirrors, since the first scene of Die Walküre. Brünnhilde and Siegfried disconcertingly laugh at their task, yet when we consider how emotionally – and physically – abused both of them have been, is their infantilism remotely surprising? Whatever future awaits them in Götterdämmerung, it is unlikely to be bright. Norns, typically unflustered, continue to do their business, whatever it may be. Maybe we shall find out next time.

Siegfried, Brünnhilde (Anja Kampe)

At least until the third act, Dmitri Tcherniakov and/or his cast’s commitment to detailed characterisation continues to impress. The third act, not entirely unlike the final scene of Die Walküre, flickers more intermittently with scenic inspiration; exploration-cum-confrontations such as those of Brünnhilde with Wotan and Siegfried respectively, seem not entirely to be Tcherniakov’s thing. By the same token, the reunion of Wotan and Alberich, like cantankerous foes in an old people’s home, is richly observed and increasingly sharply differentiated. There is more than a hint of Beckett, though that may come – it hardly matters – directly from Michael Volle and Jochen Schmeckenbecher, the former expanding on his unforgettable Bayreuth interactions with Johannes Martin Kränzle as Hans Sachs and Beckmesser. Both artists here stand at the very top of their game, words, music, and gesture combining to offer a masterclass in what Wagner demands theoretically in Opera and Drama and practically as both a man of the theatre and a supreme musical dramatist. 

Alberich (Jochen Schmeckenbecher), The Wanderer (Michael Volle)

Andreas Schager’s Siegfried, by now quite a well-known quantity, remains an astonishing, tireless tour de force. It is easy to forget how, not so many years ago, we despaired of ever hearing someone capable of singing roles such as Siegfried and Tristan. A series of catastrophes at Covent Garden, for instance, all but derailed performances; Bayreuth seemed little better. Not only can Schager sing the role, he can act too—and did, entering with enthusiasm into Tcherniakov’s world, just as he had as Parsifal in the director’s production for this same house. Boundless energy is, of course, just the thing for the young Siegfried in particular; that and more are what he received. Anja Kampe’s Brünnhilde picked up where she left off last time and duly impressed. Coming cold to that final scene is a difficult thing to ask, yet one would never have known. I hope Tcherniakov will give them both more to attend to dramatically next time. 

Siegfried, The Woodbird (Victoria Randem)

The rest of the cast was excellent too. Stephan Rügamer’s Mime led us skilfully through the misery of what it is to be Mime, yet also the malice and misery that cannot only be attributed to external misfortune. Peter Rose made a stronger impression as Fafner than he perhaps had in Das Rheingold. Anna Kissjudit’s Erda, though not given much to do in terms of theatre – perhaps I am still hankering after Frank Castorf’s unforgettable portrayal of her (Al)exanderplatz farewell – was beautifully sung once more. Victoria Randem gave a lively, ideally projected performance of the Woodbird, highly convincing in the unusual requests made of her by this particular production. 

Perhaps the greatest star of all remains the astonishing Staatskapelle Berlin. The orchestra never put a foot wrong, responding with just as much skill and enthusiasm for Thomas Guggeis as they would have done for Daniel Barenboim. (I know I should stop mentioning him, but…) It leads and comments on the action as few can, and frankly cannot be bettered by any orchestra in this repertoire today. Guggeis’s work is similarly astonishing, when one considers it. For one so young, with so little rehearsal time, to take over a Ring and get through it in one piece would be no mean achievement. Yet he has done far more than that, bringing much that is different from either Barenboim or Christian Thielemann (earlier this season) without ever imposing himself upon the score or the action. The musical action flows as if it were the most natural thing in the world; maybe it is, but it does not just ‘happen’. And there are intriguing signs of how Guggeis’s interpretation may develop: a steely, wind-led harshness that at times recalls the Wagner (and Beethoven) of Karajan, especially apt in this ‘scherzo’ of the Ring, will balance heady, Romantic, yet always firmly directed outpourings of great emotional intelligence. Wagner, one might say, continues to provoke and experiment upon us all.

Saturday 8 April 2023

Berlin Festtage (3) - Staatskapelle Berlin/Rhorer - Beethoven, 7 April 2023


Missa solemnis in D major, op.123

Camilla Nylund (soprano)
Anna Kissjudit (mezzo-soprano)
Saimir Pirgu (tenor)
René Pape (bass)

Staatsopern Chor Berlin (chorus director: Martin Wright)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Jérémie Rhorer (conductor)

Image: © Peter Adamik

Thirty years since the release of his recording of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim was due to return to the work, conducting it for the first time with the Staatskapelle Berlin. Alas, that was not to be, yet the first performances the orchestras has given since 1962, at the Staatsoper under Franz Konwitschny – the only others since the Second World War in 1952 and 1947, at the Admiralspalast – went ahead. French ‘early music’ conductor Jérémie Rhorer seemed a strange replacement for Barenboim, but there was probably not a multitude of candidates available. Few conductors approach it regularly; many never do. Wilhelm Furtwängler famously declined to conduct it in later years, considering himself unable to do justice to what he continued to believe to be Beethoven’s greatest work. (Many of us, with a gun to our heads, would agree.) It was also a very strange choice for Good Friday, though perhaps that was not foremost in the minds of those assembling the programme. Rhorer’s approach and, more seriously, his command of these distinguished forces proved of variable success. There were nonetheless (aural) glimpses, sometimes more than that, of what this extraordinary work might in the right hands still be. 

The Kyrie, like much of the work, was taken swiftly. It sounded almost cheerful, at times as if a setting of a different text by a lesser pupil of Haydn. At least the ‘Christe’ section suggested a little more strain, more effort, more difficulty, the four soloists richly expressive on their own, somewhat operatic, terms—which did not seem always to be the same as Rhorer’s. Balances were at times awry. The lead in to the second ‘Kyrie’, though, went both smoothly and inevitably. Rhorer was certainly not without appreciation of the work’s dynamism, even if that sometimes meant scaling it down to something more digestible, rather than scaling it up to antinomies reconciled, if at all, only at the level of the Divinity. And therein, perhaps, lay the greatest problem. What did this mean? What was Beethoven attempting to achieve? Did he do so? Much was too prettified, all too readily reconciled. 

There was, to be fair, creditable, even ecstatic hyperbole to the opening of the Gloria, from both chorus and orchestra. However, Rhorer’s concern for fluency, not in itself of course a bad thing, again continued to smooth over rather than to expose the implacable. Motivic integrity was (often) present, yet a sense of struggle was only intermittent. The timpani roll (Dominic Oelze) announcing the ‘Quoniam’ was really quite something, as indeed was Oelze’s playing throughout that section. And the sheer strangeness of some of Beethoven’s harmonies, allied to their scoring, told here too. Alas, the race to the finish was only successful in parts. There was again some sense of the cumulative, but majesty was more or less entirely lacking, and balances in the setting of ‘Amen’ were all over the place. 

The Credo was likewise more successful when Rhorer gave it space to announce its strangeness. Transparency allowed hearing of often neglected details: a crucial double bass line, for instance, as well as more general counterpoint. Much seemed rushed, though: a great pity when Saimir Pighu announced ‘Et homo factus est’. Again, what did this mean? Should it not be (almost) everything? It certainly did not sound like it. The ascent of Christ into Heaven (‘et ascendit in caelum’) thrilled, though it was peculiar, even unnerving, to hear it on Good Friday. Moreover, necessary strain on the chorus’s soprano voices could be heard towards the close. Beethoven’s writing is cruel, and should sound so. That it did not add up to much more than the sum of its variable parts was, I am afraid to say, Rhorer’s fault, and his alone. 

The Staatskapelle players offered playing of beautiful gravity to the opening of the Sanctus, ‘as if’ chamber music—and all the better for such intimacy. When solo voices joined, the impression was enhanced rather than effaced. Contrast with all the company of Heaven on ‘Pleni sunt coeli’ was one of the most successful, indeed moving, moments in the entire performance. Vibrato-less archaism, somewhere between an old viol consort reimagined and orchestration of an organist’s liturgical ‘preluding’, prefaced the ‘Benedictus’, which at times approached the Beethovenian sublime – Wolfgang Brandl’s solo violin could not be faulted – and was at least not harried; yet much was too readily tamed, even domesticated. 

A different, yet allied, sort of gravity possessed the first section of the Agnus Dei. Its sadness, first reinforced by René Pape’s bass solo, then by other soloists, Martin Wright’s outstanding chorus shadowing them, permitted a fine unfolding. Ultimately, though, it remained a bit too ‘normal’, as battlefield sounds came and went, pictorial, perhaps even ‘interesting’, yet little more. It was well shaped, yet all the time I longed for some sense that everything, even something, was at stake. One does not hear the Missa solemnis often; nor, probably, should one. For me, just one live performance, from Colin Davis at the Proms in 2011, has aspired to and, for the most part, realised the work’s greatness: of ambition, of humility, of awe, of humanity, and of much else. Whether I shall hear another such performance remains to be seen.

Friday 7 April 2023

Berlin Festtage (2) - Die Walküre, 5 April 2023

Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Siegmund – Robert Watson
Sieglinde – Vida Miknevičiūté
Hunding – Mika Kares
Wotan – Michael Volle
Brünnhilde – Anja Kampe
Fricka – Claudia Mahnke
Gerhilde – Clara Nadeshdin
Helmwige – Christiane Kohl
Waltraute – Michael Doron
Schwetleite – Alexandra Ionis
Ortlinde – Anett Frisch
Siegrune – Natalia Skrycka
Grimgerde – Anna Lapkovskaja
Rossweisse – Kristina Stanek

Dmitri Tcherniakov (director, designs)
Elena Zaytseva (costumes)
Gleb Filshtinsky (lighting)
Alexey Polubpoyarinov (video)
Tatiana Werestchagina, Christoph Lang (dramaturgy)  

Staatskapelle Berlin
Thomas Guggeis (conductor)

Images: Monika Rittershaus
Brünnhilde (Anja Kampe)

A prisoner has escaped in transit. Unpredictable and aggressive, as the video report informs us during the Act I Prelude, he is sought by police to return him to his institution. Someone knows what he is doing, though, and has maybe even had a hand in his escape: Wotan watching Hunding’s hut/apartment through a one-way window. If the glint and polish of the Research Institute’s wood panelling have previously suggested something with roots in the German Democratic Republic, yet a little too nouveau simply to be that, here we come a little closer to source (though it may still, of course, be a similarity rather than a straightforward portrayal). 

Take the U-Bahn further east from Unter den Linden, to Lichtenberg’s Magdalenenstrasse, and you will alight on a platform whose walls display twenty murals by Wolfgang Frankenstein and Hartmut Hornung, depicting the history of the German workers’ movement from 1848 to the founding of the GDR. Exit the station, and you will soon find your way to Normannenstraße 22, whose ‘Haus 1’ contains the offices of Erich Mielke, head of the Stasi. The wood panelling uncannily resembles the distinctive design of those offices, whose conference room contains the only artwork – as opposed to a documentary depiction – I can think of celebrating the construction of the Berlin Wall, another piece by Frankenstein, an emigrant from the West. This may or may not have been Tcherniakov’s intention in his own designs. I still suspect, partly on the basis of other productions, that the look of both sets and costumes may represent to him something more post-Soviet and avowedly psychiatric-therapeutic, not of course that the continuation of such activities post-1989 has been unknown, whether in Russia, whose NKVD was the avowed inspiration for the Stasi, or elsewhere. Yet it surely has resonances here in Berlin, in a production concerned with scientific or pseudo-scientific experimental psychology, observation, and discipline. 

The way the gods pass in and out of an apparently human dwelling, or site for observation, has obvious parallels, whilst remaining true to exploration of what form the gods might take in the world of heroes and humans. Hunding, a police officer, doubtless thinks himself well provided for—and in many ways is. It comes, however, at a price, as does everything, and Wotan-Mielke’s price will ultimately be death. (Mielke admitted that extra-judicial execution was an ultimate tool at his disposal.) Police Valkyries, learning their trade from their father, certainly entertain doubts, Brünnhilde’s of course the longest-lasting, yet all but her fall in ultimately. What else could they do? Siegmund faces a similar fate, more brutal, at the hand of other Wotan underlings; he puts up a fight, yet diagnosed psychologically disturbed, the end is always in sight. All the while on another floor of the research centre, though only occasionally visible to us, the Norns continue their work of classification, of filing, of recording.

Wotan (Michael Volle) and Brünnhilde

There are oddities, or at least details for which I cannot account. There remains a problem with objects that do not appear even in substitute form: not necessarily their lack of appearance, though that may present a problem in itself, but at least a lack of clarity as to why they are absent. I can speculate as to why Wotan brings a hooded Sieglinde back with him, so that she witnesses what becomes of Brünnhilde. There is no escape, after all, and this may be part of her treatment; she is clearly, unsurprisingly, traumatised by it all. I am nevertheless not sure, ultimately, what it added. More puzzling was Wotan’s clearly seeing Brünnhilde, and she him, on storming in to the panelled Valkyrie lecture theatre, only for him to ask ‘Wo ist Brünnhild?’ It did not seem to be ironic and, if it were, the end of that irony remained obscure. 

Scenically, much of that act was somewhat on the uneventful side, although to be fair, it often is. There is, though, a discernible transformation to be tracked in Brünnhilde, culminating intriguingly in what seems to be a reversion to childhood as she uses her crayons to create her own fire on the chairs. And I could forgive a great deal for the awe-inspiring denouement, in which Wotan’s world recedes into the background, a chasm opening up between them, stage machinery revealed and distance attained. What that will signify for the drama to come remains to be seen, but it is full of promise as well as having provided a moment of aesthetic wonder in itself.

Siegmund (Robert Watson), Hunding (Mika Kares), Sieglinde (Vida Miknevičiūté)

Thomas Guggeis’s work with the Staatskapelle Berlin (and singers) continues to be excellent. The orchestra was largely kept on a tight leash, making the most of highly emotional outpourings (not entirely unlike Boulez in this opera). Yet listen more closely and it bubbled away throughout, as much a witch’s cauldron as Wagner’s Greek chorus. I was struck more than once by the dark malignity of much of the sound, both drawing out the best from this particular orchestra and commenting on and contributing to Wagner and Tcherniakov alike. This may not be Daniel Barenboim’s Ring; it remains his orchestra.


Michael Volle’s command of his role as Wotan proved exceptional throughout. In marriage of close attention to text (which, one still finds oneself continually having to point out, includes words and music) to utterly convincing external manifestation of character, he must have few if any equals today. His is certainly a modern Wotan, not only in keenness of response to strong direction, but also in strong rooting in Lied performance. The saga-like epiphanies of a Hans Hotter or even a John Tomlinson may not be for our age, which is not to say that equivalent interpretative depth is lacking; it certainly is not. But we think of Wotan differently, as we shall think of him differently in another decade or two. For now, Volle reigns pretty much supreme, a privilege to see and hear.


The Valkyries

A further revelation was Vida Miknevičiūté’s Sieglinde, an outstanding singing actress, in which the accent on singing and acting was equally powerful, both enhancing the other. Her farewell in the third act was so earth-shattering that it threatened to overshadow, yet did not, what was to come, whilst her stupefied vulnerability at the end of the previous act engendered feelings both of sympathy and of critical, almost Brechtian, distance. Robert Watson’s Siegmund was largely well sung and similarly sympathetic; one rooted for his attempt to escape, even as one knew it bound to fail. Mika Kares, Fasolt in Das Rheingold, offered us a similarly considered portrayal of Sergeant Hunding. Claudia Mahnke was able to bring her Fricka more strongly into the foreground than had been permitted (perhaps by the production) in the previous instalment. She led us through the twists and turns of her dialectical argument, devastatingly victorious over Wotan—without suggesting the strange understanding voiced by some recently that somehow Fricka is in the right. Hers is the language of an old world—and here there is no doubt that that old world needs transforming, which does not of course guarantee that transformation taking place.

Anja Kampe’s Brünnhilde will surely be key to the success or otherwise of that attempt. On this basis, we can conclude that she will give it her best shot, however high the stakes, and that her performance will enable considerable feeling of affinity. Her Valkyrie sisters offered a fine ensemble of soloists too. What next? More will be revealed; yet tragedy seems to be colouring and forming the musical as well as the scenic air.

Wednesday 5 April 2023

Berlin Festtage (1) - Das Rheingold, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 4 April 2023

Wotan – Michael Volle
Donner – Lauri Vasar
Froh – Siyabonga Maqungo
Loge – Rolando Villazón
Fricka – Claudia Mahnke
Freia – Anett Fritsch
Erda – Anna Kissjudit
Alberich – Jochen Schmeckenbecher
Mime – Stephan Rügamer
Fasolt – Mika Kares
Fafner – Peter Rose
Woglinde – Evelin Novak
Wellgunde – Natalia Skrycka
Flosshilde – Anna Lapkovskaja

Dmitri Tcherniakov (director, designs)
Elena Zaytseva (costumes)
Gleb Fitshinsky (lighting)
Alexey Poluboyarinov (video)
Tatina Werestchagina, Christoph Lang (dramaturgy)

Staatskapelle Berlin
Thomas Guggeis (conductor)

Images: Monika Rittershaus

‘Follow the science.’ So we have been exhorted throughout the pandemic (unfinished). Everyone has claimed to be ‘following the science’: singular, yet multiple. We have ‘followed the science’ before and shall doubtless do so again. Ask Hiroshima and Nagasaki—except one cannot. Development of new technologies is, apparently, both the doing of science and not. Few dare question our age’s ruling scientism or, to consider it more broadly, Adorno and Horkheimer’s rule of instrumental reason or dialectic of enlightenment. Nietzsche did; Wagner did. Hegel’s ontology likewise presented the necessity, usually ignored, to consider the natural as well as the human sciences dialectically. Certain Russian thinkers have followed him. With the arts and humanities under assault as perhaps never before, seeking futile accommodations through ‘big data’, the rule of the ‘digital’, and so on, scientism continues its crazed parade to victory, foretold, like so much else, in the Ring. The time is ripe, then, for a Ring from this standpoint. Will Dmitri Tcherniakov, a Russian director with a considerable record in Wagner, be the one to do so? This Rheingold suggests that it might; we shall see. 

Das Rheingold takes place in a world of scientific experimentation (shades, perhaps, of Hans Neuenfels’s Bayreuth Lohengrin) with, crucially, a governing corporate element. The safety curtain presents a plan of the ‘Forschungszentrum E.S.C.H.E.’, whose realm we shall soon survey for ourselves—guided, of course, by what we are permitted to see. Wotan’s original crime, from which we shall hear in the Götterdämmerung Norns’ narration, to hew his spear, inscribing on it runes of domination, from the World-ash Tree thus frames what we shall see and hear. Perhaps ‘Esche’ (ash) also nods to Escher; it is certainly a labyrinth from which no one appears able to escape. Such, at any rate, is the world of cruel experimental psychology in which lab-coated Rhinemaidens and observer-participants – scientific observers are rarely, if ever, only that, whatever their ideological claims – play with, prey upon, abuse Alberich, to see how he will react. Is that not precisely what the amoral children of Nature do to the unfortunate dwarf who seeks them in Wagner’s Rhine? Here, of course, it is clearer still, though Wagner shows those who care to listen, that there never was a golden age. Like other forms of power, indeed arguably underpinning them all, instrumental reason is rotten from the start. The ash tree may stand in the room revealed for the final scene, but we know it is dying already, however healthy it may still look. Trees are for forests, not research institutes. Or as William Blake put it, ‘Art is the Tree of Life … Science is the Tree of Death.’


When, pushed beyond measure – ‘enlightenment’ insists that all be measured – Alberich renounces whatever it is here that he renounces, smashing the machines to both the surprise and the experimental delight of those who have pushed him, he strikes a blow yet also joins ‘their’ ranks. Nibelheim offers an underground avenue for further ‘research’ of Alberich’s own. Though is there something illusory to it? That is where I struggled somewhat with Tcherniakov’s vision. A Ring without objects struggles to be a Ring at all. Or is this a deliberate, negative presentation of the gold: as nothing? It is unclear, as yet, but for me a cause for concern, amidst much of promise. One might well argue, of course, that the changes of shape and form effected by the Tarnhelm are illusions. If so, they are mightily powerful illusions or delusions, which on the face of it should affect others too. Again, we shall see. 

The gods, meanwhile, appear to rule over the institute, though it is not out of the question that someone or something may lie beyond them too. (That is often an issue with gods, with power more generally.) We follow them through scientific-business lectures, boardroom negotiations and decisions, brutal despatch of Alberich and his ‘case’ via his handlers, and the final conjuring tricks that delight all (or most) save, notably, a Wotan changed by Erda’s intervention. The ‘look’ is reminiscent of Tcherniakov’s Tristan: its wood both a nod to the old Eastern bloc and an expensive, post-Soviet step beyond it. Both ‘sides’, after all, had their scientism and their more general apparatuses of power. More united than divided them in retrospect, at least from Stalin onwards—which returns us to the need for a Leninist, Plekhanovite, or some other (Wagner, Nieztsche, Hegel…) reconsideration.


If all was not well (in a good sense) on stage, the Staatskapelle Berlin was in good hands with Thomas Guggeis. Das Rheingold is perhaps the most difficult of the four Ring dramas for a conductor truly to shine in, yet, bar one surprisingly awkward corner, Guggeis offered a fluent, dramatic reading, often brisk, yet occasionally flowering into something ‘beyond’ with metaphysical interpretative possibilities for those so inclined. There is no doubting his, nor the orchestra’s, command of the score. Keenness of ear revealed new balances, even new details, as any fine new performance will. It was perhaps above all a linear reading, with less emphasis on the harmonic than might have been the case with Daniel Barenboim, but that will always be a matter of balance; Guggeis, like Tcherniakov, had a story to tell, and told it well.

So too did Michael Volle as Wotan, whose performance here, both dominant and collegial, was second to none. Volle has clearly considered his role deeply, responding not only to its text but its possibilities. His shift towards a changed, even tortured god during the final scene was noteworthy—and will doubtless be picked up in the next instalment. If I missed some of the blackness of a more conventional Alberich, Jochen Schmeckenbecher presented a lively, sympathetic yet not too sympathetic portrayal, similarly alert to the needs of words and music. Every inch a kinsman yet, equally, every inch a distinct character, Stephan Rügamer proved a fine Mime. Mika Kares’s mournful, lovelorn Fasolt reminded us who the only truly sympathetic character here can be. Anna Kissjudit’s Erda made her intervention count, her deep mezzo, embodiment of primaeval wisdom, as close to a contralto as made no matter. Rolando Villazón’s Loge will doubtless have proved more controversial. Approaching vocal lines as if from a bel canto melodic tradition, without being bound by it, he sometimes sounded strained, yet gave Wagner’s words their due and proved a fine singing actor into the bargain. The ensemble, including a number of non-singing roles, interacted well throughout. Where will following this art and science lead? We shall see—and hear.