Monday, 29 January 2018

Wagner - Die Walküre (Munich, 2017)

Richard Wagner - Die Walküre

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2018

Kirill Petrenko, Andreas Kriegenburg, Simon O'Neill, Ain Anger, John Lundgren, Anja Kampe, Nina Stemme, Ekaterina Gubanova, Daniela Köhler, Karen Foster, Anna Gabler, Michaela Selinger, Helena Zubanovich, Jennifer Johnston, Okka von der Damerau, Rachael Wilson

Staatsoper.TV - 22 January 2018

Based on the live streaming broadcast of Die Walküre, there doesn't appear to be any grand concept applied to Andreas Kriegenburg's Munich Ring cycle, but after a few recent Ring cycles that have been heavily weighed down by all manner of symbolism and interpretation (Bayreuth, Mannheim), it's refreshing at least to step back once in a while and just let the music speak for itself in Wagner's epic work, as it's surely strong enough in that respect. It's perhaps easier to get away with that though when you have Kirill Petrenko conducting and an exceptional cast of the level assembled here, but Kriegenburg's direction isn't without some ideas and character, even if it's difficult to determine just what it is from this part of the cycle alone.

There certainly doesn't seem to be any grand vision here as Kriegenburg's Die Walküre plays the familiar story out in a fairly straightforward fashion on relatively minimalist sets. It's an approach that is rather more in keeping with the recent move away from the more extreme kinds of interpretation we have been accustomed to seeing at the Bayerische Staatsoper. The production is unobtrusive, it doesn't call attention to itself, but by the same token it's not particularly attention-grabbing. The intentions of the director however would appear to be working not so much with drama as with the 'space' around it, using supernumeraries and dancers who "represent the reality that surrounds the singers" rather than interfering with the work itself.

Act I, for example, is dominated by a huge tree in Hunding's lodge, which is decorated it seems by desiccated corpses. Siegmund is initially kept at a fairly large distance away from Sieglinde on the large open set that has only a few indications of a home environment, the space filled rather by 'invisible' servants who pass the drinks and set up a long dinner table between them, as well as (curiously) tend to dead bodies in the background. Wearing torch lights strapped to their palms, they also reflect light and appear to be directing or highlighting the invisible tensions between the twins and Hunding. Other than establishing that undercurrent of menace and confusion, there isn't a lot else you can do with characterisation here to bring any real drama out of the scene, but the musical and singing performances take care of it well enough. The richness of the score and how Petrenko manages it is clearly evident even at this stage, the Act flowing from cold menace to warm wonder, with Ain Anger's menacing Hunding fully conveying one end of that scale and Simon O'Neill and Anja Kampe bringing us gloriously through to the other.

Act II is of course an even greater challenge with its long scene between Wotan and Fricka. Kriegenburg plays around with the various tones of this Act, opening with an epic Valhalla intro in swirling mists, but then settling for a tone set by the extra figures around the singers that establishes itself as business-like. In a bare wood-paneled wide office space, with a large prestigious painting hanging on the wall. Wotan is more of a businessman or lord of a vast estate, playfully engaging with his daughter Brünnhilde, but he has documents to sign, matters to arrange. Up to now, like the servants who even form a throne for him to sit on, everything bends to his will and it's been a relatively simple matter of sending Brünnhilde and the Valkyrie warriors to carry out his orders. That way of working, as we all know, is about to change.

Dancers are used to set up the war-like environment that prefigures Act III's Ride of the Valkyrie, with warriors (in business suits), impaled on top of spears. It's a strong image, but the actual appearance of the Valkyrie is disappointing. With no mounts of any kind, their reins are attached to the poles and it's a bit undramatic. The singing again makes up for any shortcomings here, as does Petrenko's conducting which works hand-in-hand with the action and the demands of the singers. Act III is critical and regardless of the strengths and qualities of a production, the musical performance, no Die Walküre is going to have the necessary impact unless it has a convincing Wotan and Brünnhilde, and no-one could surely be disappointed with John Lundgren and Nina Stemme in those roles.

If Andreas Kriegenburg's production is successful (provisionally as far as Die Walküre is concerned, without having seen the other parts of this Ring cycle), it in how he (and the performers) manage to bring out the father/daughter relationship as the true heart of the work. It's much more than just a regular parent/child relationship that you would find, for example, in a Verdi opera. With his daughter as an outward expression of Wotan's will, it's also about the wielding of power and how the exercise of it can corrupt and have other unforeseen consequences. As Stemme alludes to in her interval interview, it's also about becoming human, emancipating oneself from older ways, and Brünnhilde makes mistakes but makes them honestly with the best of intentions. Critically, through Siegmund and Sieglinde she learns about true love and doesn't so much lose her divinity as become more human.

Stemme, seeing this character though all three Ring operas in which she has a role in this Munich Ring cycle, sings terrifically as you would expect, but also displays a wonderful warm, sympathetic relationship with Lundgren's superbly sung Wotan. Lundgren has already demonstrated his capability in this role at Bayreuth, and here he just seems to have assumed the personality of Wotan completely. The Wotan/Brünnhilde relationship is a vital element in Die Walküre, and whether you put it down to the quality of the singing or the direction, or both, it's really nailed here. Although important as the lynch-pin that the drama of Die Walkure turn on and a formidable character in her own right, Fricka's role has less room for interpretation and motivation. She acts out of wounded pride at the evidence of Wotan's betrayals making a mockery out of her office of marriage, compounded by the brother and sister relationship of Siegmund and Sieglinde, and can consequently come across as strident and harsh in her judgements, but Ekaterina Gubanova sings the role well and succeeds in showing Fricka as someone with a sense of what is right and how false actions can have consequences.

Occasional cutaways to the orchestra pit during the broadcast showed just how much Kirill Petrenko was not only managing the detail and dynamic of the score, but clearly enjoying himself immensely with the wonders on offer. The musical director of the Munich house seems to have a strong affinity with Wagner, and indeed with the Bayerisches Staatsorchester if the broadcast performances this season and last are anything to go by. Everything you want from Die Walküre is there in terms of drama and romantic sweep, but Petrenko never lets the work get carried away into bombast, finding the deeper sensitivities in the anguish and tragedy of the final act, giving them voice and allowing room for the singers to fill these epic characters of legend with real human feelings. And the singers assembled are more than capable of doing that.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper.TV