Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Sunday, 7 November 2010

The Stuttgart Ring Lothar Zagrosek

Richard Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen
Recorded live at the Staatsoper Stuttgart, 2002-3
Soloists (see below), Chor der Staatsoper Stuttgart, Staatsorchester Stuttgart
Lothar Zagrosek conductor
Euroarts 2057368 (7 DVDs)
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Like all great Ring productions, this Stuttgart cycle marks a milestone in the history of the work. It is the first time that the four operas have been produced by different directors, a plan that seems almost intuitive in retrospect, but which must have seemed a real gamble when the plans where drawn up in the late 90s. Just as significantly, it is a production that codifies the conventions of Regietheater in the context of Wagner. Yes, it is radical in many ways, but it doesn't need to use the shock factor to free itself from ingrained performance conventions. The staging ideas are, for the most part, minimal but inventive. There is some reinterpretation going on in terms of the psychology of the characters and the significance of the visual motifs, but there is little in the way of deconstruction of the work itself. Wagner gets a radical updating, but he largely avoids imminent critique.
Producing each of the operas separately allows each to be treated as an individual artistic entity. Again, the logic here is impeccable, as each of the operas does work as a largely independent narrative unit. The themes that connect the operas run through each of the scenes through leitmotifs both musical and visual. It is easy for a production of the Ring to get bogged down in the sheer quantity of symbolism, but by separating the operas out, this problem disappears. Sure, all those symbols are there, the tarnhelm, the gold, the ring, Wotan's spear etc., but by appearing in a separate guise each time, the symbolic dimension is reduced to something more manageable within a narrative framework.
Curiously, the last three operas of the cycle have a shared visual format. Dress is modern, props are small and set designs are simple and based on just a few unsaturated colours. Das Rhinegold, as directed by Joachim Schlömer, is the exception. It is set in a Turkish bathhouse in perhaps the 1920s, with the suited gods, giants and dwarves represented as businessmen. That is wholly appropriate, of course, given that the story revolves around a series of business contracts. The set is more or less unchanged throughout the opera, but has enough facets to satisfy most of the scenes. There is a central pool to represent the Rhine and a balcony for the gods to look down on their subjects. The only disappointment here is the Nibelheim scene, which really needs something significantly different, if only for the sake of atmosphere. A gramophone plays the sound of the anvils, which is a nice touch, but otherwise very little is made of the scene. As with all the operas, the singing and acting are to a consistently high standard (different casts are used for each of the operas). Wolfgang Probst is a convincing, if slightly light voiced, Wotan. Esa Ruuttenen lacks menace as Alberich, but technically his singing is excellent. Elsewhere in the cast, Roland Bracht make an outstanding (and more than sufficiently sinister) Fasolt, and Helga Ros Indridadóttir is an excellent Freia.
Another interesting consequence of the separating of the operas is the significance given, or rather taken, from the ending of each work. None of the directors feels any obligation to leave their story is a state of suspense from which the next instalment can continue. At the end of Rhinegold, the gods, rather than ascending into Valhalla, go down a service staircase into the basement. Its a powerful representation of the fate they have set for themselves, but a director in charge of a full cycle wouldn't need to represent that here as it is the subject of the following three operas.
Christoph Nel claims to have taken a psychological approach to Die Walküre. What that means in practise is a slightly elevated role for the visual symbols and relatively static performances from each of the singers. The one visual device that really sticks in the mind is the sword in act 1, which is simply projected as a white silhouette against the backdrop. When Siegmund and Sieglinde hold the sword, they do so by simply standing in front of the projector so that the image projects onto them. The last act also has some interesting visual effects. The idea here is that Wotan is watching the Valkyries over a closed circuit television. The ring of fire is represented by candles and by a floodlight, pointed by Wotan directly at Brünnhilde's face. Again, the cast is almost universally strong, but if any of the cast stand out it would be Jan-Hendrick Rootering as Wotan and Angela Denoke as Sieglinde.
Siegfried is given a grungy makeover by directors Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito. The title character is represented as a petulant teenager continually resisting authority figures. Wagner invests a great deal in the development of the character throughout the opera, and it is fair to say that if the work has a dramatic failing it is that Siegfried doesn't really change enough. Representing him as a rebellious teenager throughout does more to highlight that dramatic failing than to solve it. The liberties the production takes with its hero are most extreme in the first act, where he is seen at various times masturbating and skinning up. The leather-clad wanderer is interpreted in a similar vein, although the dress has the apparent effect of diminishing his significance. In act 2, Fafner's lair becomes a fenced off nuclear dump, and the woodbird is a young blind boy, perhaps an affliction from the nuclear waste. Act 3 represents redemption through love by recreating the bedroom scene from the close of 2001. I personally find 'visual references' from films in opera staging a bit lazy, but this is the only one in the cycle (that I noticed anyway), and the pure, light strewn ambiance makes an arresting contrast with the previous scenes. The standout performance among the cast of this opera is Lisa Gasteen, who is the best of the three Brünnhildes, both dramatically convincing and with a vocal production that is always precise and elegant.
Götterdämmerung is, paradoxically, the most low key staging of the cycle. Peter Konwitschny takes everything back to basics. He has a wooden framed building that can fully rotate, but that's about it. Grane is a hobby horse and the tarnhelm a handheld mirror. Actually, that is a link between the operas, as the tarnhelm is also represented as a mirror in Rhinegold, albeit a much larger mirror, which singers place in front of their faces to represent invisibility. But even that would be too literal for Konwitschny, and his production is all about stripping away the magical dimensions and presenting Götterdämmerung as a drama. Again, this is fully is accordance with the spirit of the work. It is, after all, concerned with the love tangles of two couples, and the broader significance of the events are based on the connections to the earlier operas, which the director has been given licence to more or less ignore. The results are curiously melodramatic, by taking the mythology and magic away, we are left with a fairly run of the mill operatic love story. That's a valuable insight, but not one that does the work any favours. The costumes are back to the neutral business suits of Rhinegold, or perhaps not of Rhinegold, perhaps just of historically neutral opera stagings in general. The way that the immolation scene is handled is daring to say the least. Some may find it a copout, but is comes as a real surprise, so I'm not going to give the game away. Suffice it to say that Konwitschny is happy for the music to do the talking in these closing minutes, and it is a testament to his dramatic sensibilities that he gets away with it at all – it could so easily be an anticlimax, but it doesn't come over like that, not even on DVD. The final instalment has yet another top notch cast and I particularly like Roland Bracht as the sinister and slightly officious Hagen (although he struggles a little on the lower notes) and Hernan Iturralde as a very human and fallible Guther. Top musical honours go to Eva-Maria Westbroek who steals the show as Gutrune: very possibly the finest performance in the cycle.
Conductor Lothar Zagrosek and Stuttgart State Orchestra are the one constant presence throughout the cycle, and their performance is very good. There are occasional ensemble issues in the woodwind section and the tone of the brass sometimes becomes a bit narrow after a few hours in the pit. Zagrosek is in tune with what is happening on the stage, and the orchestra's performance often mirrors the themes of the production. So, for example, the opening preludes of Rhinegold and Götterdämmerung are intended by Wagner to create a magical, mystical atmosphere, but that would be wholly out of keeping with what is happening on the stage, especially in Götterdämmerung, where the three Norns are represented as bickering bag ladies. So Zagrosek tones down the swirling Romanticism and plays the music straight. At other times he takes the opposite approach, such as at the end of Götterdämmerung, where the director is clearly expecting the orchestra to give it everything, and Zagrosek ensures they do.
The video production is sensitive and involving without ever being too fussy. SWR seem to have taken quite a liberty in putting two large cameras at the front of the orchestra stalls, but the close-up visuals more than justify their presence. The video editing is not too fussy or intrusive but follows the drama well. The audio favours the singers over the orchestra, but again without any excessive post-production intervention. Some of the sets are acoustically problematic, particularly in Rheingold, where the enclosing backdrop occasionally boxes in the sound of the singers. The surround mix benefits the orchestra more than the singers. It also emphasises the stage noise, which is all but absent in the stereo mix. A particular problem is the ring of fire in act 1 of Götterdämmerung. This is represented by red streamers being blown upwards from air jets in the stage. The sound is an almost constant presence in the side channels of the surround mix and can get annoying.
But such are the challenges of video productions of live performances. There is no such thing as a perfect Ring cycle, so it seems slightly redundant to complain about insignificant technical issues here. Both musically and theatrically, this production has a lot going for it. The productions are radical, but as I say, not just for the sake of it, nor just for the shock value. That said, if you like your Wagner with horned helmets, and real animals and all that, you should probably give this one a miss. But for the more open-minded, the combination of musical excellence and dramatic invention make for a fascinating and engaging operatic experience.
Gavin Dixon

Das Rheingold 
Wotan - Wolfgang Probst
Alberich -
Esa Ruuttunen
Fasolt -
Roland Bracht
Fafner -
Phillip Ens
Loge -
Robert Künzli  
Woflinde - Catriona Smith  
Wollgunde - Maria Theresa Ullrich
Joachim Schlömer, stage director Jens Kilian, sets and costumes

Die Walküre
Siegmund - Robert Gambill
Hunding -
Attila Jun
Wotan -
Jan-Hendrik Rootering
Sieglinde -
Angela Denoke
Brünnhilde -
Renate Behle  
Fricka - Tichina Vaughn  
Gerhilde - Eva-Maria Westbroek 
Christoph Nel, stage director Karl Kneidl, stage design and costumes

Siegfried - Jon Fredric West
Mime - Heinz Göhrig  
The Wanderer - Wolfgang Schöne  
Alberich - Björn Waag Fafner - Attila Jun 
 Forest Bird - Gabriela Herrera  
Erda - Helene Ranada  
Brünnhilde - Lisa Gasteen
Jossi Wieler & Sergio Morabito, stage director / dramaturgy Anna Viebrock, stage design and costumes

Siegfried - Albert Bonnema
Gunther - Hernan Iturralde  
Alberich - Franz-Josef Kapellmann  
Hagen - Roland Bracht 
 Brünnhilde - Luana DeVol  
Gutrune - Eva-Maria Westbroek  
Waltraute - Tichina Vaughn  
The three Norns - Janet Collins, Lani Poulson, Sue Patchell  
Woglinde - Helga Rós Indridadóttir  
Wellgunde - Sarah Castle 
Flosshilde - Janet Collins
Peter Konwitschny, stage director Bert Neumann, stage design and costumes

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