Monday 8 August 2016

Wagner - Die Walküre (Bayreuth, 2016)

Richard Wagner - Die Walküre

Bayreuth, 2016

Marek Janowski, Frank Castorf, Christopher Ventris, Georg Zeppenfeld, John Lundgren, Heidi Melton, Catherine Foster, Sarah Connolly, Caroline Wenborne, Dara Hobbs, Stephanie Houtzeel, Nadine Weissmann, Christiane Kohl, Mareike Morr, Wiebke Lehmkuhl, Alexandra Petersamer

Sky Arts - 27 July 2016

I often find it the case that once you've seen a concept established in Das Rheingold you wonder whether you really need to sit through another 14 hours in the three Ring operas to have the point hammered home. If you already know how the drama plays out, you can to some extent extrapolate the rest from how Das Rheingold is presented, give or take one or two points and themes that do need to be explored more deeply. You do at least have the wonder of watching those traps laid in Das Rheingold tighten their grip as events take on momentum in Die Walküre. For all its familiarity there's still much to compensate in the composition of this work, but it soon becomes clear in the Bayreuth production that Frank Castorf clearly isn't going to rely on just following through. Within the vast scope of the Ring those other ideas associated with what has been set in motion are also worth exploring outwards.

The theme that Castorf chooses to set Die Walküre is not an obvious one. It extends the Route 66 petrol station location in the USA here to a farmstead in Azerbaijan where Wotan and Brünnhilde are involved in a primitive early means of oil production. Before we are aware of what exactly is being refined here, the first Act where Siegmund stumbles into Hünding's lodge is also located on the same farmstead seemingly on a different plane. The use of the locations, consisting of a barn, stairs to upper levels and a watertower is extended again through the use of screens of a black and white film showing mining operations, with close-ups on some of the interior action, such as Sieglinde preparing Hünding's night-time drink. Conceptually it's certainly a bit of a leap, but dramatically the direction functions well.

Whatever you might make of Castorf's intentions for the sets and locations doesn't really matter on a rational level. The action that takes place within it at least works within the boundaries of the themes and the libretto and brings it to life. It's Marek Janowski's pacy conducting of the music that drives the first Act however, capturing that wonderful blend of danger and romance that arises between brother and sister much more successfully than the performances of Christopher Ventris and Heidi Melton, which are individually fine, paying attention to little glances and touches, but they doesn't really have a lot of evident chemistry, or at least not of the Wagnerian Romantic scale. Musically it also captures the dramatic perfection of this work that is full of undercurrents and foreboding. You can sense all of this even if you don't 'get' the concept.

As with the earlier Das Rheingold however you'll find that there's little time to really let your mind wander into considerations about what it all means or be concerned about individual performance or technique. Perhaps it's because the subtitles translate Wagner's florid and archaic libretto a little more understandably, but I don't think I've been inclined to pay as much attention to the words and what we are being told through all the dramatic conflict and tensions. It works on a purely dramatic level, which is the strong point of Die Walküre, drawing you in and allowing you to consider how brilliantly the dangers and the complications that are to play out have entrapped each of the characters, allowing you to really feel and sympathise with each one of them. You don't have to take Wotan's side or Fricka's here, both have valid claims and the fact that they are irreconcilable really feels tragic.

The person who has the most to lose however by being caught up in the post-Rheingold machinations is Brünnhilde. Siegmund's fate is also incredibly sad and unfortunate, but it's Brünnhilde who ends up carrying the can for the decisions and actions that are taken around his fate, and it will lead to even more tragic consequences down the line. If there's usually any one element that will determine how good any Die Walküre will be as the lynchpin of the entire Ring cycle, it relies heavily on the qualities of its Brünnhilde and in Catherine Foster we have one of the best daughters of Wotan I have seen. The choice of words is deliberate, as Foster really shows how much of the father is in the daughter, fully inhabiting the role and understanding it as being the will of Wotan. Her singing performance is nuanced and impressive in delivery.

That's not to say that any of the other roles in this opera are any less vital to the dramatic function of the work. Much of the dynamic revolves around the father and daughter relationship and John Lundgren gives us a powerful and authoritative Wotan, much more convincing than Iain Patterson in Das Rheingold. This is a very different Wotan however and there's a good case for having a different singer play the two parts. This is a Wotan who is starting to recognise how much he has given away in his desire for power, how his corrupt actions in cheating Alberich of the gold and the ring have set off a series of events that will ultimately destroy him, destroy them all. Lundgren gives a great performance that shows the formidable power of Wotan, one that bears more than a trace of bitterness, anger, regret and fear for what lies ahead.

With a Wotan and a Brünnhilde like that, both completely in tune with the drama and the intent, and with the conductor completely behind it, this Die Walküre is never going to be anything less than impressive. The other performances aren't quite up to the same level, but they are all very good indeed. I particularly liked the passion and the lyricism of Heidi Melton's Sieglinde, and her acting performance was also fully committed. Christopher Ventris was stretched to his limit, but held out and rallied through at the end of the second Act. Sarah Connolly didn't really succeed in placing a distinctive stamp on Fricka and also sounded a little pushed, but she was strong enough to present a credible opposition to Wotan's delusions. Georg Zeppenfeld sounded as accomplished and capable as ever, although his arched-eyebrow 'baddie' act is proving to be rather limited (he plays a similar thuggish King Marke in last year's Tristan und Isolde at Bayreuth).

The combined forces of the singers, the musical performance and the adherence to the dramatic integrity and themes of the work (which is after all everything opera should be about) ensured that this was a compelling Die Walküre in its own right, but Die Walküre is not a stand-alone opera. Castorf's production introduces a number of other talking points, ambiguities, subtexts and uncertainties that feed into the wider mythology of the Ring and its associated themes, but dramatically and emotionally everything comes together impressively in the third Act conclusion in a way that almost makes you long for some way to escape the terrible predicament of what must be inevitable by the time we get to Götterdämmerung.

Links: Bayreuth Festival