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Tony Duggan
MusicWeb International, July 2009

Reviewing the first instalment of this 2008 Ring cycle from Weimar I concluded that “Das Rheingold” was valuable for the intense acting of the cast and for the great stress by director Michael Shulz on the overarching themes of family and childhood. A modern dress, highly conceptual production consciously and deliberately eschewing magic and grandeur was a price worth paying for an intense concentration on character interaction and for the way in which you could be sent back to more familiar productions with new insight. Whilst it made me look forward to the subsequent instalments, I was disappointed with a rather neutral interpretation by conductor Carl St Clair and balance problems with the orchestra. I also could not avoid the belief that some, especially American, viewers would be put off by such a rigorous approach no matter how well delivered it was.

It is a pleasure to report that this “Die Walkure” shows the cycle hitting its stride in a way I hope will now sustain to the end. For one thing the sound balance between orchestra and stage has been improved and Carl St Clair also seems to have mellowed with the lyricism that suffuses so many passages of this great score. The production values remain as before with many of the themes and ideas that were established in “Das Rheingold” now developed and explored. If anything the visual production values are even more austere and concentrated, playing up the virtues outlined above. This has the effect of welding the production together impressively. There will still be many opera lovers who remain implacably opposed to anything that does not conform to what they are used to, or what they think they are used to, on a stage. Opposed to any kind of experimentation or innovation, to me they are a lost cause and will simply dismiss this production out of hand; that is their loss. To those prepared to be challenged by theatre and by ideas I can promise a fascinating and rewarding time.

In “Das Rheingold” the drama began with the Norns as children reading Wagner’s own prologue to the original text of Siegfried’s Death. Here it is sung in Wagner’s setting of 1848 but now the Norns are older and in a tableau containing the rest of the Wotan family. So again we are taken into an unfolding drama in family context with deceit and manipulation by the father figure driving events. We will never be allowed to forget this. We even see Alberich with the child Hagen in tow to ram home the point. As the Prelude music proper starts Wotan leaves the stage and we first see Siegmund and Sieglinde parting as children. The stage is very bare. There is a platform and what appears first as a sheer wall at the rear but is in fact a series of panels which will open and close as needed. This is pretty much all we will see onstage in this opera with variations only on this modular set. For those who find it too austere I need only point out that Wieland Wagner’s productions at Bayreuth in the 1950s were, if anything, even more spartan.

Hunding enters to find Siegmund with Sieglinde in his house. He is clearly master here with greatcoat and bowler hat over a sharp suit. He brings other men in with him too, dressed as he is, who sit down at the table to be served a meal by Sieglinde. Among the men is Wotan who will remain onstage almost throughout, witness to what he sets in train, though unseen by his Walsung children. The way that Hunding’s men menace Siegmund is impressive and this only ends when the men leave the stage, though Wotan remains behind. When finally Siegmund is alone for his monologue Wotan stays in shadow, miming the placing of the sword at the point Siegmund describes having seen it in the World Ash Tree. Then completely alone at last Siegmund describes to Sieglinde the coming of Spring with the rear of the stage open but pitch black. It is only when Sieglinde has blindfolded herself and Siegmund that Wotan can return with a real sword and give it to Siegmund. This idea of literal blindness giving inner sight is hardly original but it is sufficient of a powerful metaphor to work well again here. Only when names are given - Nothung to the sword and Siegmund to a man who has concealed his name - can the blindfolds come off. Wotan can leave now and the brother and sister run off into the night. But that is not quite the end of this act. Before the curtain falls, Fricka enters. Wagner’s stage direction in Act 2 that her chariot should be drawn by six rams is usually ignored for obvious reasons. But in a surprising detail and in an adherence to a precise stage direction this so very austere production has small men in rams heads pulling Fricka onto the stage. In the final seconds of the act Hunding kneels before Fricka just as she will describe it to Wotan in the act to follow.

As Act 2 opens we realise that the gods have come up in the world since “Das Rheingold”. Less the seedy nouveau riche, more the affluent aristocrats. Time has indeed passed too and this is something not always marked as well as it is here. The Valkyries then troop on and they will certainly be a bit of a shock to some Wagnerians. This production presents the sisters as large, naughty teenaged girls in what look like white confirmation dresses. They also make the Wotan salute - one outstretched hand over one eye - that we first saw in “Das Rheingold”. After I drew attention to this in my review a reader pointed out to me that this gesture was also to be seen in the legendary Ruth Berghaus production of The Ring in Frankfurt in 1982. Only after Wotan’s encounter with Fricka do the Valkyries leave the stage to Wotan and Brünnhilde. But it is worth pointing out a silent figure who marshals the Valkyries and seems almost in charge of them. This is an older woman with long grey hair and a black dress. Her appearance here and elsewhere is as a kind of nanny or teacher to the girls and she remains with Brünnhilde here and later. For Wotan’s monologue the rear wall opens to reveal an Earth from space image on the cyclorama. But the main talking point of this scene will be when one of the dead heroes is brought on in a body bag and operated on by Wotan with Brünnhilde watching. So that is what he does with them. He wants them for spare-part surgery.

In the next scene the self-loathing of Sieglinde is brilliantly conveyed by Kirsten Blanck, her nightmare of the dogs tearing Siegmund to death is powerful and real. Great atmosphere is also conveyed during the Todesverkundigung scene as Brünnhilde, now in black gown, is silhouetted against white light in an opening of the back wall. I must also pay tribute to Carl St Clair’s beautifully paced conducting of this key scene. In the fight between Siegmund and Hunding, the interventions of Brünnhilde and Wotan are well staged by the use of opening panels obscuring and then revealing the parts of the battle. The final skewering of Siegmund on Wotan’s spear is horrific in its simplicity.

The ride of the Valkyries opening Act 3 could not be further removed from Wagner’s stage directions. It takes place in the girls’ dormitory where they jump off and bounce on their bunk beds, play with dead heroes’ bodies and generally lark about and shriek a lot. But this sets up the shock for what is to follow when Wotan deals with their errant sister Brünnhilde. Donner and Froh manhandle the girls as they are clearly shown as mere instruments in Wotan’s grand design deserving little real consideration.

For the final scene Wotan and Brünnhilde are never alone. The grey-haired woman is ever-present, watching, waiting, witnessing. It is clear that this final scene is at the core of Michael Shulz’s conception and Renatus Meszar as Wotan and Catherine Foster as Brünnhilde rise to the moment. Wotan’s anguish when he realises his weakness and his predicament is palpable, as too is Brünnhilde’s love for her father and her sorrow at the loss of his regard and with it her way of life. Stage acting at its beSt Here again the fierce simplicity of the stage set concentrates on the human drama as well as the entirely naturalistic acting which is such a signature of this production. At the climax of the scene Wotan hands to Brünnhilde her wedding dress. This is clearly seen by the production as the family equivalent of what Wotan is doing by leaving her to whatever hero comes along to claim her. I think it works superbly and movingly, but I am sure others will not agree with me. Interesting to compare the same moment in the Copenhagen “Die Walkure” (Decca 074 3266) where Kasper Bech-Holten’s production calls for Wotan to tear Brünnhilde’s wings off. What a tribute to the dramatic depth of Wagner that two such completely different pieces of stage business can be introduced and still work with equal power in completely different ways. Brünnhilde leaves the stage to return wearing the wedding dress and be led up an aisle that opens in the rear wall with just a token fire around Wotan’s spear to be conjured.

Renatus Meszar assumes the role of Wotan for this production. He is suitably older than Mario Hoff in “Das Rheingold” as well as being as fine an actor. We can almost see this Wotan thinking through the next part of his grand strategy on his face. Catherine Foster is an imposing, redheaded Brünnhilde, all girlish enthusiasm and touching vulnerability as she reacts to her father’s wrath. In the final scene with Wotan she is superb. I have already mentioned Kirsten Blanck’s Sieglinde. This is as fine a portrayal of edgy and disturbed paranoia as you could ever wish to see. Erin Cave is a superb Siegmund showing what a versatile actor he is too. It wasn’t until I looked at the credits that I realised he had played Loge in “Das Rheingold”. Hidekazu Tsumaya portrays Hunding as powerful and brooding but he steers well clear of the brutish. You do know when he is onstage, though. Finally there is Christine Hansmann’s Fricka who we also saw in “Das Rheingold” and she has developed now from a grasping wannabe to a Grande Dame of the family.

As before the soundtracks are PCM Stereo and DD 5.1 with the usual subtitles. Picture quality is still excellent and TV direction maintains the standard set in the previous opera. Liner-notes are detailed again with some good production detailing to work with. I didn’t read these before I watched the discs for the first time but found that everything that the notes set out was easily grasped by just watching. Tribute to the clarity of the production perhaps. There is a Blu-Ray version available but this review was written from the DVD and heard in PCM Stereo. As I indicated earlier, I felt that the sound balance was better this time. More detail can certainly be heard in the orchestra and although they cannot summon the majesty of the Vienna Philharmonic or a good team from Bayreuth, the Weimar players suit the values of what you see and hear onstage. Carl St Clair is emerging now as a persuasive Wagnerian. He can vary his tempo to great dramatic effect and accompanies his actors with subtlety and assurance.

This is an excellent successor to the “Das Rheingold” already reviewed and now makes me look forward to the “Siegfried” even more than I was expecting. Released separately this Weimar Ring cycle does give the opportunity to consider buying only one or two of the cycle rather than all of it. Certainly in terms of drama and acting this “Die Walkure” could be watched in isolation. The ideas that underpin it work on their own as well as in the context of a developing cycle. Michael Shulz is a skilled and consummate director who recognises that there can be danger in overwhelming a production of this nature with too many ideas that in the end obscure the original drama beneath. As in his “Das Rheingold”, he judges this about right.

The interesting and innovative 2008 Weimar Ring cycle continues with a sharp and clever “Die Walkure” that will always interest and never bore.

Hugo Shirley, June 2009

Wagner: Rheingold (Das) (Deutsches Nationaltheater, Weimar, 2008) (NTSC) 101353

Wagner: Walkure (Die) (Deutsches Nationaltheater, Weimar, 2008) (NTSC) 101355

Home to both Goethe and Liszt—who conducted the premiere of Lohengrin there in 1851—Weimar has an impressive cultural heritage, yet doesn’t occupy the kind of position on the musical map one might expect. However, the Staatskapelle Weimar has recently been gathering an excellent reputation, largely through recordings of Richard Strauss on Naxos, and they excel themselves on these DVDs from Arthaus of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, filmed at performances of the ‘Weimar Ring’ at the Deutsches National Theater Weimar.

Under the baton of Carl St. Clair, the orchestral support for Michael Schulz’s production—part of a Ring started in July 2006—is very fine indeed. Schulz’s Götterdämmerung was unveiled in July 2008 and the whole cycle is being released in monthly instalments on Arthaus, both on DVD and, for the technologically up-to-date, blu-ray.

On the evidence of the two first instalments, it’s a production with a lot to commend it, and its qualities shine through in spite of some rather irritating directorial quirks. The first of these is the decision to create ‘prologues’ for each opera out of Wagner’s earliest dramatic and musical sketches. For Rheingold, then, we have the Norns’s brief scene from the prologue to Siegfrieds Tod, Wagner’s first crack at what a quarter of a century later would be the Ring, spoken by three girls addressing each other with frog sock-puppets. For Walküre, the prologue is sung by three of the Valkyries in Valhalla, with Wotan and others in attendance. Not immediately obvious is the fact that among these others are Alberich and the young Hagen, Siegmund and Sieglinde; an unearthly scream from Hagen breaks up the scene of domestic music-making, before the storm of the Prelude breaks out.

Schulz’s decision to undercut the theatricality of Wagner’s own openings is a brave one. He goes further, too, by giving us a dumb show between Alberich and Wotan during the Rheingold Prelude’s evocation of primordial nature. One of the production’s professed aims is to emphasise their roles as different sides of the same coin and the two of them sit at a table and Wotan himself becomes half god, half Hans Sachs, providing Alberich with a special pair of shoes which he then wears to shuffle along as a dwarf on his knees. There’s no denying the power, however, in the later scenes of having Tomas Möwes’s Alberich as an imposing figure; when he is lording over Nibelheim the props are gone and one believes him very much to be an equal to Wotan, rather than the scheming caricature we’re often presented with.

The characterisation of Wotan also sets out to emphasise his weaknesses and it’s an effect inadvertently heightened by two singers whose bass-baritones might have the notes but who lack the vocal authority one would want: Mario Hoff is light-weight in Rheingold and Renatus Mészár’s voice lacks focus and edge in Die Walküre. There’s a danger in Walküre in particular, however, that he is characterised as too impetuous and immature, bringing the internal conflict he feels between his obligations and his aspirations to a more mundane level. Schulz’s decision, too, to demonstrate Wotan’s intervention in Siegmund’s life by having him on stage, choreographing and observing the events of the first act detracts from the wonderful intimacy achieved between the excellent twins: Erin Caves’s Siegmund and Kirsten Blanck’s Sieglinde.

Meanwhile, the Valkyries are portrayed very much as Wotan’s immature offspring, parading in with Brünnhilde at the start of Act Two with childish glee. At the start of Act Three, the Walkürenritt serves as an alarm call to wake them from sleep in their dormitory; at one stage, the body of a dead hero is absentmindedly rediscovered and tossed off the bunk. Wotan’s knowing complicity in events is once again emphasised at the end of the act as he presents Brünnhilde with a wedding dress to don in anticipation of Siegfried’s arrival on the rock.

Catherine Foster does well to portray Brünnhilde both with girlish innocence and gravity and has the role’s vocal demands very much in her grasp. But having Brünnhilde accompanied constantly by a grey-haired confidante—who, as far as I can tell from the cast list, is actually Grane—is just one example of a tendency to overpopulate the stage in what’s, essentially, a simple and minimalist staging, the action at the front of the stage separated by movable panels from the conflicts raging behind. Christine Hansmann’s Fricka charges on at the end of Act One with her ‘rams’ and Hidekazu Tsumaya’s fearsome Hunding makes his entrance with his men, taking part in a ‘perversion of the Last Supper [which] develops into a biblical metaphor of guilt, atonement and damnation.’ The significance of all these additions has obviously been carefully thought out, but there is some doubt as to whether or not it all adds up to a coherent, overarching concept; it also runs the risk several times of distracting from some excellent Personenregie and acting.

Schulz seems to have been more at ease with Das Rheingold were there’s less of the subtle, drawn-out psychological dialogue that demands directorial patience. So although we have a whole bevy of Rhine Maidens in the first scene rather than just three, Schulz is happier to trust Wagner’s own instincts. There are still some niggling irritations in the staging, but the overall effect is powerful, particularly the Nibelheim scene, staged with a confident sparseness.

Of the cast, Erin Caves is again outstanding, this time as an irresistibly suave Loge, masterfully stage-managing events. Hidekazu Tsumaya makes an excellent Fafner opposite Mészár’s Fasolt. Nadine Weissmann as Erda benefits from one of production’s clever theatrical touches, her pronouncements made in front of the closed curtain. Again, there are a great many details of the production whose significance is often not entirely clear. One’s reaction to the production might depend on whether one feels these concepts should be clear from the production itself or is happy to have to rely on help from the explanations provided in the booklet; many of the details will also no doubt become clear in the context of the whole cycle.

On this evidence, though, Weimar’s Ring is a highly commendable ensemble production from a German theatre carefully pooling its no doubt limited financial resources. Although the staging itself is modest and minimalist, Schulz’s production is never boring, even if it can seem a bit busy, and in places the drama is compellingly portrayed. With fine orchestral support from the Weimar Staatskapelle and excellent picture and sound, this looks to be a Ring well worth exploring.

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