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Sunday, 26 August 2018

Bayreuth’s Die Walküre is pulled from the pack and given another airing conducted by Plácido Domingo

Wagner: Die Walküre - Bayreuth Festival 2018 (Photo Enrico Nawrath)
Richard Wagner Die Walküre: Catherine Foster, Stephen Gould, Regine Hangler, Anja Kampe, Mika Kaneko, Tobias Kehrer, Christiane Kohl, John Lundgren, Mareike Morr, Alexandra Petersamer, Marina Prudenskaya, Simone Schröder, Caroline Wenborne, dir: Frank Castorf, cond: Plácido Domingo; Bayreuth Festival, Germany
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 18 August 2018 Star rating: 5.0
Frank Castorf’s Ring proved controversial at first but found its feet over its five-year run

The Bayreth Festival presented Wagner's Die Walküre as a stand-alone production (seen 18 August 2018) conducted by Plácido Domingo with Catherine Foster, John Lundgren, Anja Kampe, Stephen Gould, Tobias Kehrer and Marina Prudenskaya.

In the second part of Wagner’s Ring cycle, Die Walküre (in repertoire from 2013 to 2017 as part of the complete cycle to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Richard Wagner’s birth), Berlin-based, avant-garde, theatre director, Frank Castorf, unconventionally dumped the opera’s traditional romantic Rhineland setting for the rough-and-tumble world of oil prospecting transporting the scenario to the city of Baku on the Caspian Sea in pre-Revolutionary Russia. Therefore, ‘Black Gold’ became the treasured Nibelung hoard, a political tool like no other.

And oil, of course, is a great bargaining tool in world politics and was a big influence on Soviet foreign policy during the Cold War (an era which Castorf grew up in) and in Putin-powered Russia today, energy and oil is still high on the agenda.

It was high on the agenda, too, for Wotan who travelled Route 66 to his new job as boss of the Baku oil-field from his old job as boss of the Golden Motel in Das Rheingold. A switch of jobs, too, from Scottish bass-baritone, Iain Paterson (Wotan in Das Rheingold) to Swedish bass-baritone, John Lundgren (Wotan in Die Walküre), who arrived on the scene sporting a long Russian Orthodox-style beard which, for one reason or other, was later shaved off. However, Lundgren proved an excellent choice for the role delivering a strong and authoritative performance in an interesting and detailed production that employed and merged stagecraft and video work skilfully created by Andreas Deinert and Jens Crull.

Wagner: Die Walküre - Bayreuth Festival 2018 (Photo Enrico Nawrath)
One good example came in the scene in which Sieglinde’s caught on camera preparing a sleeping-draught for her husband Hunding so she could slip off for a secret rendezvous with her long-lost Wälsung brother, Siegmund. Scenes like this, combining ‘live’ and ‘video’ action, worked well most of the time but, occasionally, cluttered up and confused the overall stage picture.

Legendary opera star, Plácido Domingo, worked well, too, finding himself in the pit of the famed Richard-Wagner-Festspielhaus but causing a furore in many quarters because of his limited experience of conducting Wagner - and for the first time at Bayreuth. Heavens above!

However, apart from one or two inconsequential issues from my standpoint he conducted pretty well and Die Walküre, after all, is a work he knows well as he has sung the role of Siegmund and, indeed, other such important Wagnerian roles as Lohengrin and Parsifal and also recorded Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Tannhäuser.

Therefore, he’s no stranger to Wagner and no stranger to conducting either as prior to arriving on the Green Hill, he conducted Puccini’s Tosca at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, a work that he’s also very familiar with as he made his ROH début in the principal role of Cavaradossi nearly a half-a-century ago.

Wagner: Die Walküre - Bayreuth Festival 2018 (Photo Enrico Nawrath)
But conducting at Bayreuth, especially Die Walküre, was, in effect, a mighty big challenge and, I think, he admirably rose to that challenge silencing most of his critics along the way. A few miserable boos crept in at curtain-call but the Bayreuth booing mafia were soon sent packing down the Green Hill.

Overall, though, the orchestra was on good form and in the opening bars of the first act, a test for any conductor, Domingo captured the essence and urgency of Wagner’s rich and powerful score by extracting from his charges some invigorating and forceful playing vividly portraying the stormy and unsettled weather in which the exhausted young warrior, Siegmund, is seen fleeing from his enemies looking for shelter while in the opera’s big number - The Ride of the Valkyries - Domingo gradually built up the piece to a thrilling and exciting climax which was glorious to hear but to hear it in the confines of Bayreuth’s Festspielhaus, built solely for performing the Teutonic works of Richard Wagner, was exciting to say the least.

Without doubt, it’s a great opening (Die Walküre happens to be my ‘favourite’ of the Ring) whilst the brother-sister roles of Siegmund and Sieglinde (the long-lost Wälsung twins) fell to my favourite choice of singers, too: American tenor, Stephen Gould (this season’s Tristan) and German soprano, Anja Kampe - a dream team! Within their tempting and incestuous world, they delivered a scintillating and exciting performance that brought the curtain down on the first act to wild audience acclaim. Such was their performance. Outstanding in every sense of the word. I was in seventh heaven!

They were, too, I guess but they know the game and they know it well. I think Tobias Kehrer as Hunding picked up on it, too. He portrayed his role in the usual mean, bitter and nasty way feeling uneasy in the company of Siegmund smelling a rat right from the start. Their ‘silent’ meeting spoke volumes and his deep bass voice, combined with his dark actions, was perfect for the part while Catherine Foster’s portrayal of Brünnhilde (the first English-born soprano to sing the role at Bayreuth) was absolutely brilliant.

Wagner: Die Walküre - Bayreuth Festival 2018 (Photo Enrico Nawrath)
Blessed with a strong, articulate and wide-ranging voice, Ms Foster harbours so much tonal colour which was heard in all its consummate glory in the opening of the famous (and popular) third act which sees Brünnhilde and her Warrior Maidens - all dolled up and ready to go fancily dressed in hen-party mood - having to navigate some tricky stage movement charging about on a variety of uneven surfaces of the Baku oil-rig platform. Here they gathered the Fallen Heroes who, in this instance, were workers battling against all the odds after being overcome by toxic fumes following the Soviet’s decision to dynamite the oil-rig to stop the great German advance of 1942 whose desperate need for oil was essential to fuel their war effort.

And that great scene in which Wotan and his wife Fricka (forcibly and radiantly sung by Marina Prudenskaya) argues the toss over Siegmund needing to be punished for the break-up of Hunding’s marriage proved a right old two and eight. But as the goddess of marriage, Fricka had no choice but to uphold the laws of matrimony much to the annoyance of Wotan. At the end of their formidable tête-à-tête he was boiling over and Fricka was determined as ever.

Castorf was equally on fire and determined to get across his rugged and offbeat style of production, too, which often involves garbage-littered stages therefore it came as no surprise to see a few old discarded tabloid pages - most probably those with bad reviews! - finding themselves spread across the set of the second act whilst in the first act Hunding’s hut (complete with a pair of live turkeys noisily getting in on the act) could have passed as Fagin’s den.

However, the overall stage picture was completed by Rainer Casper’s profusion of stunning lighting capturing the mood of the opera’s ever-changing scenario while Adriana Braga Peretzki’s costumes were as attractive as ever but Loge could have conjured up a bit more fire for Brünnhilde’s ‘lying-in-state’ on her rock other than a large oil-drum blazing away by her side with Brünnhilde caught on camera looking somewhat bewildered about the situation she found herself in. And when the time came for Siegfried to awaken her (jumping too enthusiastically to the next opera in the cycle) he didn’t even have to fight through the flames to get her. She was there - her rock constituted from a swathe of recycled plastic-coated sheeting and, of course, a by-product of oil. No fire, be damned. A quiet affair all round.

But Castorf’s Ring was far from being a quiet affair and had a baptism of fire but, gladly, found its feet over its five-year run therefore to see Die Walküre pulled from the pack for just three performances proved a nice touch and gave the thumbs-up to this controversial East German-born theatre director whose ideas may not have been to everyone’s taste but they certainly made one sit up and think.

Wagner: Die Walküre - Bayreuth Festival 2018 (Photo Enrico Nawrath)
Anyhow, I thoroughly enjoyed the production and I think that it will be nostalgically remembered for all sorts of reasons not least by the copulating crocs that occupied centre stage in the last act of Siegfried interrupting the ecstatic love duet between the Burning Hero and Fiery Brünnhilde. Whatever next? I wonder? We’ll just have to wait and see as and when the 2020 Ring unveils itself.

Historical note: The Ring cycle (modelled after ancient Greek dramas) was originally presented as three tragedies and one satyr play therefore the Ring proper actually begins with Die Walküre and ends with Götterdämmerung with Das Rheingold acting as a Prelude. Wagner termed this a ‘Vorabend’ (Preliminary Evening) to the three operas while Die Walküre, Siegfried and -Götterdämmerung were subtitled First Day, Second Day and Third Day respectively.

DIE WALKÜRE

Conductor: Plácido Domingo
Director: Frank Castorf
Stage design : Aleksandar Denić
Costumes: Adriana Braga Peretzki
Lighting: Rainer Casper
Video: Andreas Deinert, Jens Crull
Siegmund: Stephen Gould
Hunding: Tobias Kehrer
Wotan: John Lundgren
Sieglinde: Anja Kampe
Brünnhilde: Catherine Foster
Fricka : Marina Prudenskaya
Gerhilde: Caroline Wenborne
Ortlinde: Christiane Kohl
Waltraute: Simone Schröder
Schwertleite: Marina Prudenskaya
Helmwige: Regine Hangler
Siegrune: Mareike Morr
Grimgerde: Mika Kaneko
Rossweisse: Alexandra Petersamer

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