Friday 30 December 2022

Wagner - Die Walküre (Berlin, 2022)

Richard Wagner - Die Walküre

Staatsoper unter den Linden, Berlin - 2022

Christian Thielemann, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Robert Watson, Vida Miknevičiūtė, Mika Kares, Michael Volle, Anja Kampe, Claudia Mahnke, Christiane Kohl, Clara Nadeshdin, Anna Samuil, Michal Doron, Natalia Skrycka, Karis Tucker, Anna Lapkovskaja, Alexandra Ionis

ARTE Concert - October 2022

Das Rheingold didn't offer up too many clues as to the direction it was going to take in the remaining parts of the tetralogy, other than being very much within the familiar operatic worldview and aesthetic of director Dmitri Tcherniakov. Die Walküre is a place where worlds come together, where there is a deeper delving into the past and a relationship established between the present and the future and it's more of a test of whether a director has any ideas that he wants to take forward in the remaining parts of the work. Unfortunately, it appears that if Tcherniakov has anything more to offer, he is still keeping his cards close to his chest at this stage. 

Act I doesn't offer up much in the way of interest, either visually, in concept or in singing performances. Notionally, we are still within the human behavioural experiment laid out in Das Rheingold, the director here applying more relatable imagery to the pursuit of Siegmund as an escaped prisoner. Unfortunately Siegmund has inadvertently and unfortunately sought to seek shelter in the home of Hunding, who is a prison warder. If Das Rheingold went for the familiar Tcherniakov imagery of behavioural science and therapy in an enclosed world of high wooden walls (Carmen, Pelléas et Mélisande, Les Troyens), here the spaces are more open and exposed, like his Lulu, Hunding's home a framework of doorways in a modern house, with no sign of a sword in an ash tree. That's not a security camera though, Notung is buried up to the hilt in the ceiling.

It's not so much the modern setting that is out of place, as much as it's not entirely clear what Tcherniakov is trying to show us. It doesn't seem to relate in any meaningful way with what has come before, nor does it even seem to have any consistency within itself or in relation to the composer's original intentions. The clash with Wagner's sensibilities becomes more pronounced as the act progresses, as Siegmund and Sieglinde become enraptured in their joint destiny. It's not just that it diverges from Wagner's intentions, but it doesn't even fit in with the convict/prison officer concept. Unfortunately, the singing of Robert Watson and Vida Miknevičiūtė doesn't really make this any more convincing or give it the lift it needs.

One theme that is perhaps hinted at however is the wider idea of a surveillance society, of powers reaching into and controlling our everyday lives. This becomes more apparent when we get to Act II, but it's already suggested at the start of the opera where Wotan was seen observing what is going on from his window of office in Valhalla. It also has the benefit of blending the acts together as a way of creating a closer unity between the events in the distinct acts of this opera. Siegmund and Sieglinde run off at the start of Act II, leaving Wotan and Brünnhilde to walk through Hunding's home, unseen by the prison warder, the set rotating through to a Valhalla office room for the scene between Wotan and Fricka. Rotating shows that the actions of gods are not detached or unrelated from what is to play out, but exert control and direction towards consequences that might be unintended.

The folly of Wotan's actions are summed up in his admonishment towards Fricka in this vital Second Act that "You only grasp all that has been, whereas my mind longs to encompass what has not yet come to pass". If anything makes this feel as real, vital and foolhardy as it should be, it's Michael Volle's outstanding singing performance, but he is well matched with Claudia Mahnke's Fricka. Just as convincing is Christian Thielemann's musical direction, capturing the fluctuating moods, the depth of feeling, the import and foreboding at the heart of this act. For me the key to Die Walküre is what you can do with this scene, and there is at least a sense of purpose and urgency that comes across, even in the director's contextual setting of a business deal being hammered out between two high level executives with competing briefs.

Act III unfortunately doesn't find any real way of taking this forward. Returning to the forum of chairs where the Valkyrie are seated like junior executives talking up their gains of gathering dead heroes rather than actually doing anything. But no matter, there are still compensatory touches elsewhere. Vida Miknevičiūtė raises her game, gets in touch with Sieglinde's fate and her condition here and gives a fine performance. Anja Kampe is not quite up to the demands of Brünnhilde, a little light and airy of voice in places but plays the role sympathetically. Michael Volle more than makes up for any shortcomings in the dramaturgy for his Act III finale, conveying the depth of his displeasure with and banishment of his wayward daughter. Thielemann's direction of the Staatskapelle Berlin also lets this Act simmer and soar.

Unfortunately, the direction still feels inadequate, never really nailing down any ideas or extending the experiment concept for this Ring proposed in Das Rheingold. And even for a Die Walküre, viewed as a standalone opera, this just doesn't have the necessary impact. You might miss all the traditional scenes and spectacle of the mythology, not least the mockery of Loge's conflagration at the finale (Tcherniakov has a way of turning the intention of some works upside down - especially Wagner - and I expect more of this to come), but Michael Volle's masterclass Wotan is reason enough to be impressed with this production and still retain some expectations - if not exactly high hopes - for the remaining parts.

Links: Staatsoper unter den LindenARTE Concert

Wednesday 28 December 2022

Wagner - Das Rheingold (Berlin, 2022)

Richard Wagner - Das Rheingold

Staatsoper unter den Linden, Berlin - 2022

Christian Thielemann, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Michael Volle, Claudia Mahnke, Vida Miknevičiūtė, Rolando Villazón, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Lauri Vasar, Siyabonga Maqungo, Stephan Rügamer, Mika Kares, Peter Rose, Anna Kissjudit, Evelin Novak, Natalia Skrycka, Anna Lapkovskaja

ARTE Concert - October 2022

Richard Wagner's use of mythology as a means of exploring the German psyche or defining a national identity has been exploited before, notably in Hans Neuenfels' notorious Bayreuth Lohengrin, but Dmitri Tcherniakov has also used many of his productions as a way of psychoanalysing the works in question and the mindsets behind them in productions like Carmen and Les Troyens). Not everyone likes this kind of approach, but for the most part, if not always fully (see his controversial Dialogues des Carmélites), he does so while at least still respecting the deeper intent of the works. His approach to Wagner varies, often overturning expectations, and judging from the opening prologue opera of Wagner's Das Ring des Nibelungen, it looks like following a very familiar pattern and aesthetic. Whether he continues to adhere to the underlying ideas and philosophy behind the work or not remains to be seen, but I suspect that Tcherniakov will find his own meaning in the tetraology as a whole.

Not unexpectedly then, but still finding a way to surprise, the Staatsoper unter den Linden production of Das Rheingold opens in a scientific research centre, a "Stress Laboratory", where Alberich is the subject of an experiment. The dwarf appears to be undergoing something similar to a virtual reality experience, although the period is 1960s or 70s and the method and equipment is cruder, sending signals directly into the brain. Three lab assistants taking notes play the Rhinemaidens to Alberich, which does reflect in its own way how Alberich is being toyed with. Inevitably it all goes horribly wrong.

If the scientific laboratory of the first scene is unusual, the visual appearance of Valhalla at least conforms to the current Tcherniakov aesthetic of plain boardroom oak wall panelling, the stage rotating or sliding between a sequence of boardrooms, offices and a forum-like arrangement of seating that sets this Wotan up in the manner of a businessman. Or, if not a businessman, someone with a great deal of power and influence, although his power is not infinite and he has to rely on a couple of dubious characters who are less giants than 'heavies' (although they are big as well) to help him maintain an suitable home for a man of his ambition. Wotan conducts them into the marble walled boardroom to conclude, or rather renege on their business agreement.

Loge recounts the tale of the folly of Alberich, who forsook a woman's love for the sake of gold, suggesting that there might be a solution to their current predicament to be found there, not realising that the error is about to be compounded. With that as a set-up it does appear that the anti-capitalist sentiments at the heart of Wagner's major work being the key motivating and destructive force behind the fall of the gods. It's definitely not an original viewpoint, and indeed it would be hard to see how this could be developed any further than it already has been with Frank Castorf's expansive take on the subject in the Bayreuth Ring still fresh in the memory (to the horror of some).

While that does seem to be an angle that can't be ignored, it does only seem to feature as a side element, or underlying theme that is already taken as read while Tcherniakov considers on a deeper level the impact, harm and damage that this has on people (in a scientific experimental way). Perhaps. It's too early at this stage to see where it might go, but it is at least wonderful to see the little subtle powerplays and personal conflicts against others' interests play out between all of the characters in this Das Rheingold. It feels much more meaningfully presented than it might if played straight as nothing more than a dispute between immortal beings. The only thing immortal here is the fact that the behaviours seems to be consistent in human nature throughout history.

The scientific exploration or "investigation of human behavioural models in a test group" continues with the deranged Alberich in Niebelheim exerting his power in a petty manner that leads Wotan and Loge to laugh and make fun at him. They have higher ambitions but at the same time he has something that they want, and they are prepared to exploit and cheat him - again an idea that fits in with Castorf's emphasis on the exploitation of the working classes. Whether you think this all comes together into something coherent  as an allegory (even Castorf's ideas were somewhat scattershot), we perhaps don't need to take it literally. If it's just about the curse of the lust for money and power corrupts those who long for it, it makes a point, if somewhat reductively. It's too early to expect it to express much more than that in the prologue to this huge work.

What seems less in doubt in this Berlin Staatsoper Ring is the quality of the musical and singing interpretation. This Das Rhinegold at least has a mighty performance from Michael Volle as Wotan. Johannes Martin Kränzle - who has already made a great impression as Alberich in the previous Berlin Staatsoper Guy Cassiers Ring cycle (also seen in Milan) - definitely has an interesting spin to take on the character in this production. I was also very impressed with Rolando Villazón moving into the Wagner repertoire, bringing a suitably sprightly mischievousness to the role of Loge.

All the roles here seem capably filled and the music direction undertaken by Christian Thielemann following the departure of the indisposed Daniel Barenboim is fine. There is nothing leaps out in either the concept or the performances here however, it's not entirely clear where it's going, but there are some nice touches in the direction, the musical approach and in the characterisation to suggest that it will be interesting to see where this one goes.

Links: Staatsoper unter den Linden, ARTE Concert