A year ago, in January 2009, that is, The Ring in the production of Staatskapelle Weimar and the Deutsche National Theatre was released on a DVD by the "ArtHaus Musik". The time of this release was somewhat unfortunate because the Copenhagen Ring, which was released about the same time, has been receiving rave reviews. The Copenhagen Ring is perhaps more fascinating with its theatrical devices and occasional shocking details, which left the Weimar Ring unjustly neglected. By sharing my personal reflections I hope to bring some justice to this extraordinary production.
This Ring is brought to life under conductor Carl St. Clair, who is a music director of the Pacific Symphony (I found it on Google maps to be near Los Angeles, California) where he has been for the last 20 years. Carl St. Clair is also a general music director and chief conductor of the German National Theatre and Staatskapelle Weimar. A student of Leonard Bernstein, he is also known as the first non-European to hold this position. The brochure declares the theme of this Ring to be the generational conflict, but to me the theme was more along the lines of esoteric exploration.
The prologue of the prologue opera starts with three schoolgirls as Norns who tell the tale of the stolen ring. The quest for eternal gold starts with a con-men Alberich presenting himself to the Rheinmaidens as a dwarf. Alberich is "dwarfed" by making him walk on his knees, creating the visual and motion effects very believable. For this purpose a special pair of boots strapped to his knees is cleverly devised.
The Rheinmaidens, a specie, rather than only three of them, appear as hands and heads and with the occasional nymph tail here and there as a prop. They guard the planet Earth behind the elevated, no-frills, concrete-like panel which reminds me of the makeshift panels encasing the seats of the state & army leaders during military parades. When the gold is stolen, the concrete-like barrier is removed, revealing the huge image of the planet earth somehow unguarded and exposed, as if setting in motion its inevitable ill fate.
Wotan's royal residence is more like a neglected rundown shelter in which the chairs are stacked, the carpets are rolled up in haste of leaving the place, and the paintings are removed, leaving behind them their pale shapes on the wallpaper. The leftovers of an abandoned meal are neglectfully scattered over the bare dining table. Doom looms. Froh is dressed as an Italian-American gigolo, and Loge is, according to the DVD brochure, a psychiatrist. They are deep asleep in a hypnotic oblivion desensitized against any disaster exuding a spirit similar to that of drunken and tired wedding guests in Breughel's paintings. Donner is dressed as a pathetic ringmaster with his oversized hammer and misbuttoned jacket, desolate of his powers as if relying solely on the magic of his sharply curled mustache.
Fasolt and Fafner are in dichotomy: labourer and manager, the former dressed in archetypal overalls and the latter in a two-piece suit and tie-an executive-like outfit.
It would be unfair to single out any of the artists in Das Rheingold: singers, musicians, masters of stage and costumes-they all blend in unison producing a coherent, strong performance.
The most remarkable singer I wish to mention here is Christine Hansmann. With her charismatic appearance and a voice of mauve and dark purple hue she stages Fricka with nobility and a manner equal to the first goddess of Walhalla. Another memorable artist is Frieder Aurich (more of him in Siegfried).
The Valkyrie brings the drama of singing and emotions to its peak. The set in Act I is a minimalist stage consisting of a slightly elevated runway that protrudes from the side to the middle of the stage. The background of a flat, white panel only occasionally slits into an opening, accentuating the dramatic arrival of Hunding and his guests. That is all. No ash tree, no props, no clutter. The drama of acting and singing has the entire stage for itself to develop and to densify with captivating, breathtaking power, as indeed it does. Willy Decker looms as an inspirational force, proving once again that the world of Rene Magritte is living a second round of life on the stages of European opera houses before the eyes of 21st century audience worldwide thanks to new DVD technology. Erin Caves as Siegmund and Kirsten Blanck as Sieglinde generate a genuine chemistry elevating the emotional drama to an electrifying peak. Hidekazy Tsumaya as Hunding dominates the stage portraying this unpleasant character as a rigid abuser. Christine Hansmann shines again as noble Fricka, who is served by eunuch like smitten rams dressed in grey suits exuding in their body language (the stupor of their curled limbs) the submissive, obedient spirit of mid-managerial structures when in the presence of their superiors.
The opening of Act III is always a curious moment, to see how a particular production manifests the mighty ride of the Valkyries. What you encounter here is a carefree pillow-fighting morning of schoolgirls waking up in bunk beds. Just as we are recognizing the scene as akin to the cheerful atmosphere in Norman Rockwell's illustrations, we are suddenly anchored back to Wagner's reality by witnessing a graphic, bloody head of a male corpse protruding from the coroner's bag.
Catherine Foster sings Brünnhilde with all the rights tones in their right places but the role for some reason remains visually unfulfilled, which is even more noticable in Götterdämmerung.
The most striking feature of this Siegfried production is that it is brazenly confident. The stage is the archetype of a theatrical idea of a house. Its furnishing is reduced to a simple table with two chairs (my elementary school snackroom was furnished with such chairs and tables) a mop, a deep freezer with the control red light diligently turned on, and few "echte deutsche" Vileda cloths. As in any good staging each prop has its turn and its role. One couldn't think of better props for Mime, dressed as a housewife in the bottom half of pajamas and a floral apron-dress, yet losing nothing of his masculinity. Remember the name of Frieder Aurich. He is the best Mime I have ever seen, approaching in dramatic enthusiasm the legendary cast of Heinz Zednik It is hard to say if he is a better actor or singer. His crisp pronunciation and reaching for an occasional deliberate falsetto infused this Mime with an emotion palpably invoking a sleazy, cunning, cowardly, manipulator such as Mime is. Frieder Aurich's Mime is counterparted with a no less excellent Siegfried, brought to life here by John van Hall. A young crude Siegfried goes through forceful growing spells with each new entry to the scene which is cleverly accentuated by his outfit and the changes on his bear. The bear is depicted as an oversized toy-bear who in the adolescence of young Siegfried has protruding nipples and wears a bra. Fresh, original and daring. I have now watched this Siegfried at least 4 times and there is still more to absorb. Both Frieder Aurich and John van Hall are artists of the fine substance, well suited for their roles. Wanderer is Tomas Möwes (in Rheingold he is Alberich) whose voice of a somewhat longer wave length and has a cylindrical and hollow quality that may not be appealing to every listener but compensates on the side of forcefulness. Erda is Nadine Weissmann a rather young singer with a bronze streak in her voice of marked clarity and depth. The aging Fafner is worth mentioning also for the excellent stuffed fabric sculpture-costume showing as an obese tired human. The forest-bird appears in this production here. It is Heike Porstein, who sings, dances and almost flies with grace and beauty equal to her role. Her ballerina-like body are complementing her role to full excellence. Regretfully, it is difficult to find any information about her.
After two viewings, the Götterdämmerung unfortunately appears to be the least remarkable of the four, failing thereby to wrap up this magnificent production. It appears that in the making of the Twilight of the Gods there seemed to be a lack of orientation and guidance. Whereas in each of the previous three operas the drama escalates to a new level in powerful broad strokes, the Götterdämmerung fails to deliver the climax. It is reflected in all the aspects: scenography, choreography costumes and music. singing and orchestral performance alike. The costumes are conceptually incoherent, the scenography is lacking in final touches. It feels as if it was produced in haste, under some constraints, or with lack of communication among the production team. There are hints of concept but they are under-developed to convey the idea clearly with vocal and instrumental renditions falling short of interpretational courage and edge. Brünnhilde's horse, Grane, is personified by an elderly lady with long grey hair, and given too much of a focus, leaving us to wonder why. The overall impression is that it is rather unfortunate, as if the brewing process was interrupted and the final outcome came without required maturity and character. If this production may be given a second round of fresh attention from all participants and a chance to finish up and glue together the parts and pieces into an integral piece and in a more coherent way, we at the receiving end may be able to say that a remarkable Ring has been made with the aid of stick and a rope alone.