Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam - 2014
Hartmut Haenchen, Pierre Audi, Christopher Ventris, Kurt Rydl, Thomas Johannes Mayer, Catherine Naglestad, Catherine Foster, Doris Soffel, Marion Ammann, Martina Prins, Lien Haegeman, Julia Faylenbogen, Elaine McKrill, Wilke te Brummelstroete, Helena Rasker, Cécile van de Sant
The Opera Platform - March 2016
Aside from the merits of the music and the compositional qualities - which since they are among some of the most revolutionary innovations in opera history are not negligible - the modern day relevance of Wagner's cycle of Ring operas as work of literary value and human meaning is rather more debatable. There have been some impressive productions in modern times that have explored Wagner's ideas on mythology for its cultural and national significance and attempted to relate them to wider concerns, but the works seem to resist efforts to impose contemporary meaning and relevance on them.
The real strength of Der Ring des Neibelungen lies, perhaps surprisingly, in its qualities as a human drama. Prevailing thought on the works considers that there is very little human context in its recounting and reworking of the stories of the Gods of Norse mythology, but particularly in Die Walküre (and even in the earlier prologue Das Rheingold), the conflicts between family members and how they look upon other races all have very recognisable human characteristics. At the very least, the treatment of tells us a lot about Richard Wagner's ideas and his own personal views and life.
That doesn't necessarily need to be brought out in a production of the Ring, but it is important to recognise the human characteristics that lie within it, and it's also important to recognise that the work is best served not with a concept, but with adherence to its tremendous dramatic qualities. Based only on a viewing of Die Walküre (which is at least the centrepiece of the whole Ring cycle), Pierre Audi's 1999 production for the Dutch National Opera doesn't appear to be a high-concept one, but its strength is in how it plays to the sheer theatricality of the drama.
There might well be a theme followed through in the subsequent parts of the Ring cycle, but as far as this production of Die Walküre fares on its own merits the work fairly reverberates with dramatic tension in its own conflicts, domestic and celestial alike. The stage for Pierre Audi's production is semi-abstract, consisting of a wooden circle (or ring) with a cutaway section within it to accommodate the orchestra with just enough use of props and objects to cover the various locations used in the opera and retain its more familiar characteristics, such as Nothung and the Valkyrie, in a recognisable form. The Valkyrie in particular look the part with shiny wings fitted to their arms.
The tilted wooden circular stage gives the performers sufficient room to stride across it dramatically, and stride it they do, without being strident in the singing. That could well have been the case in the second act at least with the casting of Doris Soffel as Fricke, who can sometimes come across as shrill and weak in places, but the emphasis on the dramatic delivery puts paid to that and Soffel also gives one of her better performances here. Striding across the stage with walking sticks with goats heads atop them also gives her the kind of air of menace and authority that Wotan should be unable to stand up against, and that's no mean feat when Wotan is as strong a performer as Thomas Johannes Mayer.
The curved wooden planking in a variety of wood tones that also suggest a less garish version of the rainbow bridge (of more use presumably in Das Rheingold), are also surprisingly versatile when it comes to other key moments in Die Walküre. Streams of fire appear at the appropriate points for Brünnhilde's fate at the end of the work, which when supported by changes in the lighting, prove to be just as effective as required, without going overboard. The consistent minimalist approach suits the purposes of the production and its emphasis on the drama more than the spectacle, but it also allows focus to be placed on that other effective dramatic quality of Die Walküre - the singing.
There's a fine cast capable of achieving that in this 2014 recording of this production, a production that has gone through a number of line-ups and changes in revival since its first performances in 2005. That's immediately apparent from the casting of Christopher Ventris as Siegmund and Catherine Naglestad as Sieglinde in the first act. These are solid performances with the kind of lyrical quality that you want from the brother and sister lovers (Audi detects a Tristan und Isolde moment between them in the sharing of a drink and plays well up on it here). Kurt Rydl plays against them as Hunding, with a little bit of wobble, but still wonderfully sonorous. Catherine Foster is a fine Brünnhilde who holds it together wonderfully through to the finale.
All would be to little avail if the musical performance didn't capture the sense of 'human' drama involved, and wasn't up to the task and fortunately Hartmut Haenchen manages proceedings well. Whether it's anything to do with the orchestra being up there in the stage-pit and more closely connected to the drama I couldn't say, but the reading was measured, sensitive and soulfully Romantic, mindful of the importance of the leitmotifs in this work and giving them almost physical form.
Links: The Opera Platform, Nationale Opera & Ballet