Friday 12 May 2017

Wagner - Die Walküre (Salzburg, 2017)

Richard Wagner - Die Walküre

Salzburg Easter Festival - 2017

Christian Thielemann, Vera Nemirova, Peter Seiffert, Georg Zeppenfeld, Vitalij Kowaljow, Anja Harteros, Anja Kampe, Christa Mayer, Johanna Winkel, Brit-Tone Müllertz, Christina Bock, Katharina Magiera, Alexandra Petersamer, Stepanka Pucalkova, Katrin Wundsam, Simone Schröder

3Sat Live - 15th April 2017

It seemed like an interesting idea to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Salzburg Easter Festival by reconstructing the original sets created for the first production there of Die Walküre, overseen by the festival's founder Herbert von Karajan. In reality - or at least at the remove of a television broadcast - while the sets did indeed provide an impressive backdrop, they served as nothing more than a platform for a rather stagnant production devoid of any fresh ideas or real direction. Some committed performances however and the momentum of the work itself ensured that the production wasn't a total loss.

The reconstruction of Günther Schneider-Siemssen's set designs are about as far as the production goes in terms of recreating the original 1967 production. They are however stylised enough to still work to tremendous effect with a central design that works with a circular platform not unlike Pierre Audi's production for the DNO. The set designs prove to be relatively flexible for reconfiguration and spiralling and are updated with some projection technology that allows the static backdrops a little more movement without moving too far away from the original conception. The sets look suitably grand, ancient and mythological, but at the same time remain functional as a platform for the action to be played out without over-encumbering the performers.

In Act I, for example, Hunding's lodge and tree are as one; a huge twisting mass of an ancient sequoia erupting through the wooden floor of the house (and seemingly through the stage itself), providing a large hollow for a room, the hero's sword Nothung sunk deep into its bark. After the darkness of the opening of Die Walküre, the dark mists give way via lighting and subtle back projections to the brightening of Spring colour. Similar effects are used to bring darkness and shade to the tilted circular stage of the second Act, where Wotan seems to have the fate of the world marked out on the floor and handily written in erasable chalk, because Fricka has a few ideas of her own as to how things are going to play out.

It's darkly dramatic, but nothing more. Concept, themes or even direction in this Die Walküre however are almost non-existent. It's not even as if the Salzburg Easter Festival believed that they could lift the designs of an old production and expect it to work by itself. Vera Nemirova is brought in as the director to bring some kind of control over how the drama is played out, but she doesn't seem to bring a great deal to it. There are a few modern touches made to the costumes and props to prevent it looking too embarrassing, but the costumes still look frightfully outdated, Brünnhilde replete with armour, spear and winged helmet.

If there is one element that you can be fairly sure won't be old-fashioned about the production, it's Wagner's score with Christian Thielemann conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden orchestra. And, taking a look over the cast list, there's also a solid line-up with a good mixture of experience and freshness (Seiffert, Zeppenfeld, Kowaljow, Harteros, Kampe, Mayer) that on paper at least looks like it might be capable of making something more of the work on the performance side under Thielemann's direction. It does indeed win through on this front, but only in the long run and not without some initial concerns and bumps along the way.

The majority of the performances were routine and capable, but with a few exceptions not really managing to bring any great sense of life or urgency to the rather dull, traditional staging. Georg Zeppenfeld of course will always be one of those exceptions and his Hunding was flawless as usual. Peter Seiffert has the ideal tone for Siegmund, but he seems tired by the end of Act II. Siegmund would have been running from Hunding all this time so tiredness can be excusable. What matters is that, as tired as he might be, he's not yet ready to let Brünnhilde take him to Valhalla without Sieglinde, and there all the touching poignancy of the moment comes across. Vitalij Kowaljow's Wotan and Christa Mayer's Fricka were fine, but never really rose above the deadness of the direction given to them.

Personally, I was most interested in seeing how Anja Harteros coped in her scenic role debut as Sieglinde, and it wasn't without some trepidation. I admire the ambition, ability and range of Harteros to take in everything from baroque, grand opera and verismo (where she seems to me to be best suited) and extend that now into Wagner, even if not every style suits her voice. I had my doubts about her Act I performance, her Sprechgesang sounding rather thin and stretched, but her voice blooms into emotional expression terrifically. Her commitment can't be faulted and I was won over by her performance by the end of Act II. If nothing else, she brought some life to a production that for the most part felt rather static and routine.

Anja Kampe is another singer who can be relied upon to bring a certain fire to roles, but even though I've seen her sing Kundry more than capably, Brünnhilde is a role that can be beyond the reach of most mortals. I doubted Kampe's ability in her role debut when she seemed to struggle a little in her Act II opening exchanges with Wotan (her costume didn't really lend her any kind of conviction either), but like Harteros she grew in conviction as the opera progressed. Unlike the Act II scenes, there was palpable tension and fear in her Act III encounter with Wotan, a tension that carried over marvellously from the Valkyrie scene, where you can almost feel the dark cloud of the Warfather approaching.

While the lack of imagination in the direction didn't help the earlier scenes, much of this change from static delivery of long lines of text to a rather greater sense of mounting tension and danger is down to the wonder of the extraordinary inherent momentum that Wagner builds up in Die Walküre. The work itself more or less takes over, asserts its own power and comes through to a devastating conclusion/conflagration. It doesn't do it on its own of course, but those forces have to be controlled and managed perfectly. I didn't think Christian Thielemann was doing enough in the pit in the first two Acts to lift the production out of its routine delivery, but the efficacy of his tight rein is evident by the way that the dynamic shifts in the final scenes, from thunderous to deeply moving in its poignancy over questions of fate and how much influence we can have over it. That momentum in the music and singing performances carries this Die Walküre through, but other than that, there is little that is memorable about the revival of this classic production in Salzburg.

Links: Salzburg Festival