Saturday, 22 March 2014

Wagner - Götterdämmerung

Richard Wagner - Götterdämmerung

Teatro alla Scalla, Milan - 2013

Daniel Barenboim, Guy Cassiers, Irène Theorin, Lance Ryan, Mikhail Petrenko, Gerd Grochowski, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Anna Samuil, Waltraud Meier, Margarita Nekrassova, Aga Mikolaj, Maria Gortsevskaya, Anna Lapkovskaja

Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

While there are undoubtedly critical elements that it's important to get right in the earlier parts of the tetraology, it's Götterdämmerung that is ultimately the real test of any Ring cycle. After the years of hard work preparation that go into putting on a work of this scale, it has to come together meaningfullly at the end. It really wouldn't do if the epic end of the world finale of Götterdämmerung proved to be anticlimatic. The La Scala production is certainly unconventional in how it presents that all-important conclusion, but I don't think anyone could say that it is anything but bold and deeply impressive. That's not to say that the production here doesn't suffer from the same problems that face any company staging this demanding and exhausting work - principally in casting and singing - but it's a fitting conclusion nonetheless to a consistently impressive if not exactly revelatory new Ring cycle.

There is at least one important aspect to the La Scala Ring that has remained consistent and left no cause for concern about how the final segment would play out, and that's Daniel Barenboim's contribution. The sheer scale and ambition of Wagner's masterwork means that Götterdämmerung has to bring together all the earlier themes and leitmotifs the earlier works and bear the conceptual weight of the Ring as a whole. It's an enormous musical challenge, but Barenboim has been remarkably consistent and adaptable to Guy Cassiers' concept and he conducts the orchestra of La Scala through the varied tones of this particular work with a beautiful fluidity and a rising sense of urgency. It feels of a whole in a way that Götterdämmerung rarely does, consolidating those elements elaborated in the earlier parts into something much grander than their constituent parts. The whole point of Götterdämmerung is that all the little dramas and personal tragedies add up to something meaningful in the grander scheme of things, and in this production under Barenboim, that is exactly what is achieved.

There has also been a strong consistency to the look and feel of Guy Cassiers' production design, even if any deeper meaning or significance has been hard to determine. The source of certain imagery that has cropped up regularly throughout the cycle however is revealed here - in all its glory at the finale - to have been inspired by Jef Lambeaux's relief sculpture 'Les passions humaines'. This certainly gives substance to imagery and the ideas the director has been working with and leads to an immensely powerful conclusion, finding a strong visual concept that supports and illustrates Wagner's music and ideas, even if it doesn't add anything new to our understanding of the meaning of Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Even with its mythological setting and its play on the affairs of Gods, Giants, Dwarfs and Nymphs, the Ring is indeed about "human passions". It's about stripping away those God-like ideals and revealing the complexity of those human passions that are no less capable of destroying the world. There's nothing in the greed of Alberich and Mime, in the marital discord between Wotan and Fricke, in the pride of Wotan and the despair he feels at the defiance of his will by his wayward daughter Brünnhilde that isn't representative of real human passions. There's an inevitability too that the great romantic forbidden love of Siegmund and Sieglinde and the actions of the great hero Siegfried will inspire great passions and lead humanity to new heights, but that ultimately even those will eventually come to a tragic end.

That at least is one aspect of what the Ring is about. The mythological aspect is also a vital component in Wagner's exploration of human passions in his search for a national identity and his expression of it through a new art form for a new nation. That's not neglected either in Guy Cassiers' direction with its spectacular visuals and projections, while the question of where the wielding of that newfound power will lead is to be found throughout in the mutilated body parts that merge together in Lambeaux's sculpture. It's a superb illustration of those themes on a number of levels, but in itself it's also a stunning state-of-the-art visual spectacle that has the look and conceptual qualities of an art installation. With Barenboim conducting the groundbreaking, genre-defining brilliance of Wagner in the full-flower of his genius, this is every bit as "momumental" as Götterdämmerung ought to be. 

It also reveals and emphasises however the weaknesses or the difficulties that are nearly impossible to overcome in a work of this scale and ambition. With the emphasis on the grander scale, the actual playing out of the drama with any kind of conviction is unfortunately, and perhaps necessarily, often neglected. In the context of Guy Cassiers' production, in a the set never looks naturalistic but merely an arrangement of stage props and "installations", there is scarcely any dramatic playing within it. That's understandable considering the exceptional demands placed on the singers in Götterdämmerung, but even so, there's an awful lot of standing and declaiming out to the theatre and very little interaction or dramatic interplay between the characters. Anna Samuil for example, although she sings well, only has eyes for the conductor and barely glances at her on-stage companions.

For Götterdämmerung sadly we lose Nina Stemme, who made such an impression as Brünnhilde in Die Walkure and Siegfried, but Irène Theorin proves to be a more than worthy replacement. She's perhaps not as strong across at the lower end of the range, but her top notes hit home in a performance that is full of fire. Just about passable in Siegfried, Lance Ryan's weaknesses are however cruelly exposed in the more open and testing environment of Götterdämmerung. His delivery is sometimes good, particularly in shorter phrasing, but any long notes waver around wildly. I'm not sure that there are many heldentenors around nowadays though who are capable of holding down this role, and at least he appears engaged in the role. Mikhail Petrenko sings Hagen well, although his delivery is a little too Russian in declamation. The other roles are more than competently played by a strong cast that includes Gerd Grochowski, Johannes Martin Kränzle (as a disturbingly distorted version of his already sinister Alberich), Waltraud Meier and Anna Samuil.

A four hour forty-five minute performance is a lot to get onto a single disk, even a BD50 Blu-ray, but the image and sound quality hold up alongside the fine presentation of the other releases in this cycle. Like those, the BD is region-free, with subtitles in German, English, French, Spanish, Italian and Korean. These can only be selected from the player remote or from the 'Pop-up' menu during playback. There's no synopsis in the booklet, just a fanciful essay that unconvincingly attempts to link Götterdämmerung with Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' and with the Belgian Congo. It does however provide that useful information about Jef Lambeaux's 'Les passions humaines' sculpture, which might otherwise not be recognised. Its significance however can fully be felt in this powerful conclusion to an intriguing Ring cycle.