Top positive review
One person found this helpful
A Ring that gets most of the essentials correct
on 26 August 2017
Wagner’s mammoth opera tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen is impossible to stage perfectly. No one production has all the answers to the multiple problems set by the composer and this Guy Cassiers version for La Scala Milan recorded between 2010 and 2013 is as imperfect as any in the catalogue. However, it does successfully carry out the primary golden rule of any worthy Ring production which is to accentuate the mythology so cutting to the very essence of the piece. On this count alone the production is well worth seeing.
Too many productions attempt to set the Ring in a precise time and place in order to impose some kind of directorial thesis on what the work means to us today. Some of these attempts are trite and laughable while others are stimulating and thought-provoking, but when all is said and done the Ring shouldn’t be narrowed down. It is not just a pseudo-GBS parable on 19th century industrialization (Patrice Chéreau, Bayreuth 1976). Neither is it just an exposé of late 20th century consumerism (Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Munich 1987) or a history of 20th century feminism (Casper Ben Holten, Copenhagen 2006). And it certainly isn’t simply a sterile ‘traditional’ museum piece incarceration of some idealized fake mythic past (Otto Schenk, New York Met 1989). Wagner set his work in timeless mythology because he wanted to accentuate themes and central truths about human nature which stay eternally relevant in any time and in any place. Any production attempting to get to the heart of the piece must ensure that the sets, costumes and props chosen underline this core requirement.
Cassiers stays faithful to the spirit of Wagner with his idea of a wall of myth in which human bodies are entwined together in the manner of an enormous fresco as might have been created by Peter Paul Rubens. These bodies sometimes move and are often static as they make for a perpetually changing fantastic tableau that is revealed in various cunning ways gradually as the Ring plays out. It becomes clear that the characters on stage gradually take their place in this tableau as their lives run their course. Things become crystal-clear at the end of Siegfried which concludes with Brünnhilde and Siegfried singing their hearts out in gray clothing atop a gray Valkyrie rock in front of the (for now) gray wall of myth, their place in mythology miraculously petrified before our very eyes.
Götterdämmerung charts how devious mankind perverts this mythology for its own selfish ends. In the Norns scene the rock is stripped of mystery as the rope snaps and the wall of myth becomes a hideous showcase of gruesome hacked-up body parts which represents the treacherous world of the Gibichungs. The process by which characters die and take their place in the tableau is shown with amazing clarity in the filmic images projected onto the wall of myth during Siegfried’s funeral march, and indeed this production is full of ever-changing very colorful lighting and projected filmic images which accompany the stage action from beginning to end.
Sometimes things get too complicated and distracting as what we see works against what we hear. Despite all the high-tech Cassiers still can’t manage a scary dragon in either Das Rheingold or Siegfried. Even the frog is botched, though Grane makes a rare and very beautiful appearance at the end of Götterdämmerung. Das Rheingold is the most problematic of the four stagings with only the appearance of Erda rising high above a moon-lit vista of mountains striking the appropriate note of mythic awe. I can’t agree at all with the Rheingold ending as staged here with music conveying the irony of the Gods marching into Valhalla while we listen to the Rhinemaidens’ lament set to a jet-black stage with the Gods and Valhalla complete hidden with only Loge visable at the stage front playing the now customary (clichéd?) role of stage manager. The irony of the music should be matched with the irony of the stage picture, not just a cop out in the dark which seems to be an economic measure to sidestep the problem of creating a rainbow bridge. From Die Walküre onwards though, Cassiers’ chosen stage imagery on the whole cunningly matches the narrative as it proceeds. Wisely things are always hinted at rather than directly hit over the head and we really do sense the physical geography of Wagner’s creation which so many other productions simply ignore – the bed and banks of the Rhine, the mountain tops, the forests, the Valkyrie rock, the magic fire and all the other natural elements as well. Costumes and props are carefully chosen to avoid any hint of historical time as we are encouraged to interact with the text with the sense of also being a part of this mythology in the making. This is perhaps the key point – that myth isn’t just something created long ago in the dim and distant past. It is something that is forever in the process of being created. Present events cumulatively add up to the myths of the future. This comes over extraordinarily well in Cassiers’ final image as we are placed squarely in the La Scala audience as the lights go up to contemplate the wall of myth stretching across the stage front in the full glare of the light of our own reality.
Imposing a sense of myth by crafting a production around one central visual idea is hardly original. Götz Friedrich’s ‘time tunnel’ (Berlin, 1980) and Harry Kupfer’s ‘world’s highway’ (Bayreuth, 1988) both stated the Ring’s mythic timeless dimension very effectively, but they both imposed a dark monotony on proceedings which audiences found hard to take. Cassiers’ wall of myth is far less immobile and dreary as it is moved up and down, side to side, split into pieces and transformed into multiple guises. There is darkness when required just as there is extraordinary brightness which makes this Ring the most colorful in my experience this side of Keith Warner’s Tokyo production (2001-2004).
Where Cassiers’ production falls seriously short is in the lack of stage direction given to the singers. Too often singers simply stand still and sing their lines in the manner of an oratorio given in front of all the high-tech images with characters barely relating to each other at all. On this point Kupfer’s Bayreuth production wins hands down and remains for me the finest Ring on DVD. Kupfer captures the timeless mythology of the piece albeit starkly with very little on stage by way of props and scenery, and he moves his singers supremely well forcing the weight of the drama and all its themes through the acting and the singing to make for a Ring that above everything else is deeply human. The comparative stasis and dramatic inertia of Cassiers’ production is shown up especially in scenes 2 and 4 of Das Rheingold where characters stand on a crowded stage declaiming their lines directly to the audience as if their colleagues don’t exist, even when the text demands they address each other. On Loge singing “Deiner hand, Donner, entsinkt ja der Hammer! [From your hand, Donner, you’re dropping the hammer!],” he walks past Donner without even looking at him. Donner doesn’t react at all and isn’t even holding a hammer. This makes absolute nonsense of the text. Alas, it is commonplace in Wagner production these days and Cassiers makes a habit of flagrantly disregarding text throughout his Ring, another screaming example being the setting of the ride of the Valkyries. If there’s one thing the scene needs it’s movement or at least the suggestion of movement. Cassiers’ Valkyries are statues in a ride of the Valkyries that doesn’t even attempt to ‘ride.’
The lack of stage direction for the singers brings out the difference between the experienced ones who have learned their trade from people like Kupfer and Chéreau and who instinctively know how to react, and the relatively inexperienced ones who haven’t learned their trade from such masters. In the first camp there are John Tomlinson (Hagen), Waltraud Meier (Sieglinde, the Götterdämmerung Waltraute and 2nd Norn), Nina Stemme (the Walküre and Siegfried Brünnhilde), Anna Larsson (Erda), Simon O’Neill (Siegmund), Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (the Rheingold Mime), Gerd Grochowski (Gunther) and Mikhail Petrenko (Hagen). All of them have a sure instinct for what their roles require and act with a conviction not apparent in the rest of the cast. Wotan suffers most seriously of all with all three singers hardly hinting at the depths of emotion crucial for the role. Vitalij Kowaljow (in Die Walküre) especially is in dire need of being told what to do on stage with important passages like the act 2 monolog and the act 3 farewell to Brünnhilde passing for nothing despite being well sung. Also stiff and noticeably plank-like are Johannes Martin Kränzle (Alberich), Stephan Rügamer (Loge) and especially Lance Ryan (Siegfried). All three should dominate the stage but never do.
Much criticism has been leveled at the dancing Cassiers chooses to inflict on us, and I can’t stand it either. I’m certain Wagner would have cringed, especially during Das Rheingold where we are forced to ponder all the vague gesturing while we should be paying attention to the text and listening closely to the music. It’s all very distracting, but at least the dancing does originate from an interesting idea. The figures seem to come straight out of the wall of myth as representatives of change. Presenting the Tarnhelm as a group of dancers makes this obvious and leads eventually to a wonderful coup d’thêatre at the end of Götterdämmerung act 1 when Siegfried changed to the form of Gunther steals the ring from Brünnhilde’s finger, done here by Siegfried standing aside watching the dancers (the Tarnhelm) smother the victim with a black cloak. There’s something wonderfully sinister here which is most impressive especially as most other productions tend to botch the scene. In Das Rheingold though sadly the dancing gets out of hand and threatens to smother the whole show. We don’t need it for the three changes of scene (especially with very audible splashing of water) and we certainly don’t need an already cluttered stage cluttered even more with unnecessary bodies doing unnecessary things. Alberich’s transformations into a dragon and then a frog done by dancers surrounding him is both unconvincing and laughable. Nikolaus Lehnhoff in San Francisco (1990) and Keith Warner in Tokyo both show how terrifyingly well it can be done. The dancers hardly appear from Die Walküre onwards and it would benefit the whole tetralogy if they were cut completely from Das Rheingold as well.
Musically this Ring is frankly uneven and people shouldn’t expect too much. Since the 1950s the quality of Wagner singing generally has been on a downward slide and today true heldentenors and dramatic sopranos are as elusive as the Holy Grail. The La Scala orchestra and chorus conducted by Daniel Barenboim are beyond reproach and produce a fabulous rich sonority though personally I'd prefer faster tempi with more fire in the belly. The singing predictably ranges from the excellent to the excruciating. Generally those mentioned above for their acting also produce the goods vocally. Tomlinson’s malevolent Hunding is gloriously venal while Waltraud Meier delivers a stunningly feminine Sieglinde. Her act 3 “O hehrstes wunder!” is delivered with enormous maternal compassion as she cradles the splintered Nothung as if the sword is the baby Siegfried himself. As Waltraute in Götterdämmerung she sings her Brünnhilde off the stage underlining the parallels with the closing immolation scene in an incredibly moving way. Nina Stemme makes a bright-voiced and steady Brünnhilde in the middle operas which eclipses for me her Glyndebourne Isolde. She’s in a class of her own today as a dramatic soprano. The best singing in Das Rheingold comes from Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Mime. A beautifully characterized vignette, he should really have been singing Loge instead and even the Siegfried Mime, though Peter Bronder there makes a good fist of the role. Overall Die Walküre is the best sung of the four operas, wobbly Valkyries aside. Despite the wooden acting (probably not his fault) Kowaljow sings accurately and firmly as Wotan as does Terje Stensfold as the Wanderer. Wotan is voiced best of all in Das Rheingold by René Pape who shows off an extremely beautiful noble tone. He seems rather stiff to me though. Perhaps like many of the others he’s suffering from not knowing what to do on stage. A lot of the singing is on the safe side with notes hit accurately and lots of glances at Barenboim as he slows down even more to let his singers negotiate the more difficult passages. This is especially true of Lance Ryan who would have done better to relax and play the lout more. He certainly looks the part and is probably the best Siegfried we’ve had since Siegfried Jerusalem, but he is no natural heldentenor and the search is still on for a modern day Wolfgang Windgassen. Rügamer’s Loge and Kränzle’s Alberich are both sung well without hitting the heights or being very characterful. Watch the Kupfer Bayreuth production and you realize they don’t really stand comparison with Graham Clark and Günther von Kannen. Indeed, role for role and even note for note coming from the orchestra pit, the Kupfer/Barenboim Ring is still the one to go for. Nevertheless, if you fancy a Ring in state of the art modern sound in a production that gets most of the essentials right the Cassiers version is a fair recommendation. Just beware the pitfalls. It’s very sad and bitterly ironic that as the quality of stage technology and recorded sound goes from strength to strength, so top quality true Wagner singing becomes an increasingly distant thing of the past.
René Pape (Wotan), Jan Buchwald (Donner), Marco Jentzsch (Froh), Stephan Rügamer (Loge), Johannes Martin Kränzle (Alberich), Wolfgang Ablinger Sperrhacke (Mime), Kwangchul Youn (Fasolt), Timo Riihonen (Fafner), Doris Soffel (Fricka), Anna Samuil (Freia), Anna Larsson (Erda), Aga Mikolaj (Woglinde), Maria Gortsevskaya (Wellgunde), Marina Prudenskaya (Floßhilde)
Simon O’Neill (Siegmund), Waltraud Meier (Sieglinde), John Tomlinson (Wotan), Vitalij Kowaljow (Wotan), Ekaterina Gubanova (Fricka), Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde), Danielle Halbwachs (Gerhilde), Carola Hoehn (Ortlinde), Ivonne Fuchs (Waltraute), Anaik Morel (Schwertleite), Susan Foster (Helmwige), Leann Sandel-Pantaleo (Siegrune), Nicole Piccolomini (Grimgerde), Simone Schroeder (Roßweise)
Lance Ryan (Siegfried), Peter Bronder (Mime), Terje Stensfold (Der Wanderer), Alexander Tsymbalyuk (Fafner), Johannes Martin Kränzle (Alberich), Rinnat Moriah (Der Waldvögel), Anna Larsson (Erda), Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde)
Lance Ryan (Siegfried), Gerd Grochowski (Gunther), Johannes Martin Kränzle (Alberich), Mikhail Petrenko (Hagen), Iréne Theorin (Brünnhilde), Anna Samuil (Gutrune), Waltraud Meier (Waltraute), Aga Mikolaj (Woglinde), Maria Gortsevskaya (Wellgunde), Anna Lapkovskaya (Floßhilde), Margarita Nekrasova (1. Norn), Waltraud Meier (2. Norn), Anna Samuil (3. Norn)