Thursday 19 January 2023

Wagner - Götterdämmerung (Berlin, 2022)

Richard Wagner - Götterdämmerung

Staatsoper unter den Linden, Berlin - 2022

Christian Thielemann, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Andreas Schager, Anja Kampe, Lauri Vasar, Mandy Fredrich, Mika Kares, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Violeta Urmana, Noa Beinart, Kristina Stanek, Anna Samuil, Evelin Novak, Natalia Skrycka, Anna Lapkovskaja

ARTE Concert - October 2022

To save you time - and not everyone has the endurance to last through the fourth segment of a Ring cycle - what goes for Siegfried also holds true for Götterdämmerung. There are no sudden revelations in the last part that build on what little we have been able to make of what came before in Dmitri Tcherniakov's 2022 Ring cycle for the Berlin Staatsoper. There is little that is different in style, theme, singing and musical performances. You could say that Tcherniakov has run out of ideas, but some would dispute (and it would be hard to disagree with) that he didn't really have any new ideas in the first place. The bringing down to earth of high-flown spiritual, philosophical and mythological elements in Wagner's music dramas through psychological exploration has been a feature of his Wagner productions, and indeed many of his other recent opera productions.

Götterdämmerung's opening showing a happy home and everyday domesticity before the rot sets in, has been done numerous times, not least in the just passed 2022 Bayreuth Götterdämmerung. The three Norns are wobbly bent-over old ladies, previously seen as being present in the background in the rotating passing between rooms. Perhaps the point is that they are ancient and wise, or perhaps not so wise as they can't prevent what has happened and the course that future events will take. All in all though it's a very dull prologue, lacking on any kind of drive, purpose or meaning in the context of this production, but at least consistent within it.

Also not unlike the recent Bayreuth production, Gunther (Lauri Vasar) and Gutrune (Mandy Fredrich) in Act I are styishly dressed and think themselves sophisticated, giggling and making fun of the rather square Siegfried when he turns up in his yellow pullover with elbow patches and grey blue slacks and jacket. He presents a suitably naive figure it must be said, Tcherniakov making sure you don't mistake him for anything heroic. And let's not forget that this is supposed to be taking place within a virtual reality experiment of some kind, isn't it? Is everyone else but Siegfried in on the scheme? It would appear so, Gunther playing along with the idea that this fool's cuddly toy is his horse Grane to see where the experiment will end up. Although his delusions could be dangerous. Just look at what happened to Alberich in Das Rheingold! (Johannes Martin Kränzle's shambling semi-naked figure in the prelude to Act II reminds us of that).

There is little to enliven the scene between Brünnhilde and Waltraute (long time since I've seen Violeta Urmana), who wanders into their home in a blue trenchcoat. As with Siegfried, there is a lot of pacing up and down, but Kampe and Urmana at least get across the import of Waltraute's impassioned warning to her sister about the fate of Valhalla (are we talking about the E.S.C.H.E institute?) should she fail to renounce the ring. Christian Thielemann's equally impassioned musical direction certainly helps get this across; the swirling fire leitmotif at the end of the scene heralding the arrival and menace of Siegfried and Gunther's deceit is powerfully employed. Andreas Schager is suitably threatening also in his thuggish assault as Gunther on Brünnhilde, still Siegfried in appearance, which perhaps adds to the menace.

As elsewhere, not just in the previous scenes but throughout the whole Tchernaikov version of Das Ring des Nibelungen, the subsequent prelude to Act II between Hagen and Alberich is a mixed affair. The director fails to find any interesting way to stage the dramatic scenes of confrontation in any interesting way, or indeed connect it in any meaningful way to his testing centre experiment idea, but the performances of Mika Kares and Johannes Martin Kränzle nonetheless set up very well what is at stake and the tragedy that is to ensue in the subsequent scenes.

That at least is fully realised - or at least goes someway to redeeming Tcherniakov's staging elsewhere and deliver on Götterdämmerung as an effective conclusion - in the remaining scenes in this production. Avoiding making any real connection to the stress laboratory experiments - which let's face it, have contributed very little so far - the drama of Brünnhilde revealing Siegfried's betrayal carry the full weight of Wagner's intent. Anja Kampe is excellent here, as is Kares's Hagen and Lauri Vasar's Gunter. Andreas Schager fits the bill perfectly as Siegfried, showing that attention to the characters and their reactions to this scene are critical to the charge of the scene.

This takes place in the "assembly room" of the testing centre, which stands in here for the Gibichung Hall, and for the first time, it struck me as similar to Lohengrin's playing out of tragedy and betrayal by those who would see themselves as leaders or upholders of laws as a wider act that affects/involves the public/the nation. Whether that was intended or not, it does enhance the effectiveness of the scene. I also actually liked the baseball team locker room as a stand-in for the "hunting" scene that leads to the death of Siegfried. The gossip and toxic attitudes expressed suited the context of the scene and the death scene was genuinely touching and dramatic. Likewise the mourning gathering appearance of the old lady Norns, Erda and the Wanderer sufficed as a moving substitute for the usual theatrical conclusion of conflagration and immolation.

Overall then, this was a good Das Ring des Nibelungen at the Staatsoper unter den Linden, particularly as far as the musical performance and the majority of the singing were concerned. As far as Tcherniakov's science laboratory experiment is concerned, the only worthwhile experiment here, whose results are indisputable, is the force of Wagner's music to carry mythology, narrative and opera in service of something so powerful it resists time and fashions, something capable of renewal and reexamination of its meaning which remains a remarkable piece of art and culture, something that indeed has created its own mythology around it. It's been "stress tested" again, this time by Dmitri Tcherniakov, and The Ring still endures.

Sunday 8 January 2023

Wagner - Siegfried (Berlin, 2022)

Richard Wagner - Siegfried

Staatsoper unter den Linden, Berlin - 2022

Christian Thielemann, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Andreas Schager, Stephan Rügamer, Michael Volle, Anja Kampe, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Peter Rose, Anna Kissjudit, Victoria Randem

ARTE Concert - October 2022

Up to this point, with Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, Dmitri Tcherniakov hasn't really revealed any compelling new insights or themes in his Berlin Staatsoper production of Der Ring des Nibelungen, which makes the prospect of what is to come in the remaining two parts feel something of a chore. Aside from the music, which can always reveal new facets and colour - and I have to say is well worth listening to under the musical direction of Christian Thielemann - it takes something creative to draw me into Siegfried. Heck, even Wagner decided he needed a break in the middle and embark on a couple of new projects before he could face going back to it. There are a few compensations in this production to make it worthwhile then, but as far as seeking to find a purpose to the cycle as a whole, there's not a great deal to grasp onto here.

Tcherniakov appears to struggle to find any way to make the exposition in the first act of Siegfried a little less tedious. If anything he makes it even more pedestrian. We remain in the same open framework of a room that is seen in the first two operas, where events/experiments are being observed by the watchful eye of Wotan, the Wanderer. Tcherniakov seems to just over-emphasise the rather heavy-handed exposition, already composed in this state by Wagner before he went back and wrote the operas for the backstory, by making Siegfried even more of a child, wearing a tracksuit in a room that is a playpen of colourful building blocks. By way of contrast, Mime and Wanderer look even more doddery old men in old man clothing, with whispy strands of remaining white hair. All of them have little to do but pace up and down.

Michael Volle of course puts heart and soul into it, but it's not enough. Andreas Schager sounds fine as Siegfried, but you get the impression that he is either pacing himself for the long haul or is not really engaged with the depiction of Siegfried he has been saddled with here. There is no forge, nothing to spark and enliven the scene, Siegfried taking a teddy bear and setting fire to the contents of a table top, before taking a sledgehammer to it and anything else within reach. It's almost like Tcherniakov is mocking the heroic fantasy of the work, but doesn't have anything useful to offer as a meaningful commentary on the content of this opera or its deeper purpose. Unless it's a willful expression of destruction of the old with the intent of building something new, including destroying old Wagnerian tropes and mannerisms in order to forge it anew, not unlike Katharina Wagner's controversial 2008 Bayreuth Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg.

That would also seem to be the intention, what little you can make of it, of his approach to the second act of Siegfried, where - reminding us that this is not reality taking place in a laboratory of some sort - we are advised that the next experiment is soon to commence. Siegfried is the subject of the experiment this time, the defeat of the 'dragon' Fafner (a demented inmate of the institution) which permits him to gain an insight into the secret hidden intentions and corruption of the older generation. (The Wanderer looks even more decrepit in this act, but still more stable than Alberich with his walking frame). He is given the opportunity to deal with them in a "realisation of unconscious desire", and clearly, he rejects their greed. Presumably though, from what we know of how events play out, he doesn't have the substance to make a better world.

Whatever you want to make of this, the second act is at least considerably more entertaining and engaging than the first act. It has a solid performance from Schager, and lovely singing from Victoria Randem as the Waldvogel, able to actually grace the stage thanks to this production's overturning of Wagner's stage directions, presumably as one of the lab assistants leading him through the path of the experiment. There is also excellent sparring between Michael Volle and Johannes Martin Kränzle as the doddery old Wanderer and Alberich. I also enjoyed what Stephan Rügamer brought to the second act as Mime, the combined singing performances along with Thielemann's musical direction ensuring that it was a livelier act than the previous one.

The third Act also gets off to a good start with a powerful scene between the aged Wanderer and Anna Kissjudit's Erda, which in the context here might be another behind-the-scenes image of Wotan discussing the project with the Erda as Project Manager. Who knows? Any desire to make an effort to make sense of this disappears when the Wanderer leads a laughing and joking Brünnhilde into a Sleep Laboratory as if to carry on the experiment between her and Siegfried. Bringing her cuddly toy Grane with her she draws flames on the glass walls with a marker. Siegfried soon gets in on the joke and he and Brünnhilde then break into laughter at the pomposity of it all, try to compose themselves and then act out the heroic romantic declamation with a twinkle in the eye and a wink.

That's all very well. We know that Tcherniakov can't possibly take the Wagnerian heroic fantasy elements seriously, as we've seen in his previous Wagner operas (Parsifal, Tristan und Isolde, Der fliegende Holländer), but this time it feels like he is mocking it without being able to offer any deeper insight into the underlying meaning in the work or find some human element worth drawing out. Admittedly Parsifal and Tristan und Isolde have far more intriguing philosophical and spiritual levels that present more opportunities for ideas to be explored, but it's as if the director is not really making any effort to make sense or provide consistency here. The silliness of the direction doesn't do Anja Kampe or Andreas Schager any favours as they struggle to make the high-flown sentiments sound meaningful, but it's still a vocal challenge that Kampe can't quite measure up to. Schager does well enough, but he is certainly tested.

Yet as absurd as it gets there are moments of sublimity to be found there, not least in the work's regretful, fearful moments, mainly between Wotan and Brünnhilde, and in the ever-intriguing score that Thielemann conducts, finding that deep seam of human feeling and impending tragedy that lies within. Dmitri Tcherniakov could surely be expected to do more with Siegfried and the Ring as a whole than merely subvert it, but perhaps in some way he is also finding or attempting to find a way to express the heart of the work without all the heroic and mythological embellishments. While there are good moments here, I'm not sure he really succeeds in whatever it is he is trying to achieve.

Links: Staatsoper unter den LindenARTE Concert