Tuesday 28 June 2005

Memories of The Valkyrie

I am making great strides with my listening to the Ring, interrupted periodically with forays in other lands (plainchant, operetta by Kalman). Listening to Die Walküre, many images come to mind. The opening of Act 1 has not been done better than in Richard Jones’s Covent Garden production, where Sieglinde conjures Siegmund up out of the fire. Though the brooding atmosphere of Götz Friedrich’s 2nd production there does takes some beating.

One curiosity with a number of productions, whatever their style, is how the producer manages to reconcile the logistical demands of Sieglinde’s housekeeping with the stylised nature of the production. Wagner’s libretto calls for Sieglinde to produce food and drink etc. for Siegmund and it is rather difficult to ignore these demands completely even though the plates, mugs, bread rolls etc. might sit very oddly with the stylised nature of the set. I’ve seen no-one who managed to make this work really well.

David Pountney’s ENO production of the opera (the only part of his abortive Ring project to come to completion) was notable for the sheer grandness of the surroundings; one friend joked that Pountney had turned the protagonists into Lord and Lady Hunding. It made having a tree embedded in the grand surroundings something rather surreal.

For Act 2, nothing can beat Götz Friedrich mark 1, with Gwynneth Jones singing hojoto’s whilst clambering up the peaks of the landscape which rotated round the stage. Pountney was one of the many producers who tried to turn the Wotan/Fricka dispute into a domestic drama; his version was notable for the coolly poised image of Sarah Walker as Fricka.

In Götz Friedrich mark 2, the Todesverkundigung was marred by the unkindness of the costumes for Gwyneth Jones. The now mature soprano was saddled with going round in a pair of less than flattering leather trousers. One friend reports that the Cherau Ring at Bayreuth had the most moving version of this scene that he'd ever seen; looking at the video it is affecting, but without the special buzz of the live event.

Few producers have managed to make fight at the end of Act 2 entirely convincing. Perhaps this is a case where the magic of film might make this scene easier, when you don’t have to worry about the problems of moving real bodies about and the fact that to fly singers you need cumbersome harnesses.

In Götz Friedrich mark 1, he had the brilliant idea of making the Valkyries look like crows, but this wonderful visual image was partially foiled in the opening to Act 3 because, again, the designers had not taken into account the vagaries of the shape of Wagner sopranos, few of the Valkyries had the requisite shape to do justice to the costumes and one or 2 looked rather risible.

Pountney’s must be the most spectacular staging of the Ride of the Valkyries I have ever seen with the singers having to leap between rotating concentric rings. The whole was thrilling, and brilliantly staged, in a Busby Berkeley sort of way. But I was not sure it said anything about the opera, and the set caused immense problems for the rest of staging. Richard Jones had the brilliant idea of having the Valkyries boiling up the remains of the dead heroes to create brand new ones; something that was re-cycled, with very different imagery, by Keith Warner in his recent Covent Garden production.

For the first ENO Ring, seen at the Opera House in Covent Garden, the whole of the opening of Act 3 was reduced to a dozen pairs of feet as the sight lines were so bad that the Valkyries (and later Wotan) were all but invisible (bar their feet) at the rear of the stage.

Pountney’s complex set meant that Wotan’s Farewell had to take place at rather too great a distance from the audience, which was a shame as he staged this beautifully allowing the singers to do very little.

Allowing the singers to do little paid off in the semi-staging the Royal Opera did at the Albert Hall where John Tomlinson and Hildegard Behrens made character and personal interaction count for very much, their Act 3 was spellbinding.

For the end of the opera we get back to Götz Friedrich mark 1, despite Keith Warner’s real flames recently at Covent Garden. I could not work out why Keith Warner had place the scene in what looked like a dirty Cinema foyer; perhaps our acquaintance with the further instalments will be more illuminating. Whereas Friedrich, utilising the revolve which played a large part in this Ring, created pure theatrical magic.

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