Tuesday 17 April 2018

Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen at Oper Leipzig

Wagner: The Ring - Opera Leipzig (photo Tom_Schulze)
Wagner: The Ring - Siegfried - Oper Leipzig (photo Tom_Schulze)
Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen; Rúni Brattaberg, Robert Dean Smith, Christian Franz, Kathrin Göring, Claudia Huckle, Gal James, Dan Karlström, Danae Kontor, Christine Liber, Jürgen Linn, Karin Lovelius, Monica Mascus, Meagan Miller, Thomas Mohr, Iain Paterson, Tuomas Pursio, dir: Rosamund Gilmore, cond: Ulf Schirmer; Oper Leipzig, Leipzig
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on April 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The Ring returns to Wagner’s birthplace

Our correspondent Tony Cooper experiences Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen in Wagner's birthplace at Oper Leipzig in April 2018, directed by Rosamund Gilmore, conducted by Ulf Schirmer with Iain Paterson, Christiane Libor, Christian Franz, Thomas Mohr, Robert Dean Smith, Meagan Miller and Jürgen Linn.

Wagner: The Ring - Gotterdammerung - Thomas Mohr, Christiane Libor - Oper Leipzig (photo Tom_Schulze)
Gotterdammerung - Thomas Mohr, Christiane Libor
Oper Leipzig (photo Tom_Schulze)   
Leipzig is rich in musical history inasmuch as Richard Wagner was born here, Felix Bartholdy Mendelssohn died here and Johann Sebastian Bach lived and worked here - from 1723 until his death in 1750 he was Kapellmeister at the Thomaskirche. Robert Schumann also resided in Leipzig and Georg Philipp Telemann worked here, too, while George Frideric Handel was born just up the road in Halle. And that’s just for starters!

History has pointed out, too, that Wagner had a difficult start in his home town but, likewise, history has also shown that Leipzig and Wagner are bound together in a common union. For one thing, the first complete performance of The Ring outside of Bayreuth took place here in 1878.

So the return of The Ring to Leipzig for the first time in over forty years - one of the prime initiatives of Ulf Schirmer on his appointment as musical director of Oper Leipzig in the 2009/10 season - has to be wildly applauded.

Like Frank Castorf’s Bayreuth Ring [see Tony's review], Oper Leipzig’s production, conceived by the English-born director/choreographer, Rosamund Gilmore, was mounted in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth in 2013 starting, of course, with the première of Das Rheingold and building up to the first complete cycle in June 2016. No plans were on hand to revive it but the production is, gladly, still in the repertoire.

Not surprisingly, Ms Gilmore - who worked at Stuttgart with the former (and well-respected) Royal Ballet choreographer, John Cranko - incorporated an element of dance in her production and to this end a troupe of 14 dancers complemented the overall stage action. And symbolism was an important factor too, in the production. For instance, a pair of rams represented Fricka and for Wotan, ravens, the latter, of course, a significant feature in Germanic-Norse mythology upon which the Ring is loosely based upon. And on the death of Siegfried in Götterdämmerung, a pair of ravens hovered directly above him.

Wagner: The Ring - Götterdämmerung - Jürgen Linn & Rúni Brattaberg - Oper Leipzig (photo Tom_Schulze)
Götterdämmerung - Jürgen Linn, Rúni Brattaberg
Oper Leipzig (photo Tom_Schulze)   
Costume designer, Nicola Reichert, came up with a wardrobe of amazing outfits particularly for the trio of Rhinemaidens adorned with bridal-type floral headdresses which perfectly matched their colourful attire. They looked as if they had just come from Glastonbury. However, Eun Yee You (Woglinde), Wallis Giunta (Wellgunde) and Sandra Fechner (Flosshilde) proved a formidable trio and were more than a handful for Alberich sung handsomely by Jürgen Linn, tall, bullish as opposed to his down-trodden brother, Mime, convincingly and cunningly sung by Dan Karlström.

As for Thomas Mohr, he knocked the audience for six by putting in a brilliant and commanding performance as Loge (a gift of a role, though) while Claudia Huckle as Erda, her richly-textured mezzo voice perfect for the part, appeared in Siegfried with a trio of dancers entwining her with the rope of the Norns, a prediction of the chaos to come. Her tête-à-tête with The Wanderer (Iain Paterson) in Siegfried proved a most telling moment offering a well-constructed scene.

Fricka and Freia were admirably sung by Karin Lovelius and Gal James while Kay Stiefermann and Sven Hjörleifsson gave a good account of themselves as Donner and Froh. As for the giants Fafner and Fasolt (James Moellenhoff and Rúni Brattaberg) they looked the part from head to toe dressed as for pantomime with bold tightfitting-patterned suits. To give them that extra bit of height as befitting their roles they wore attention-seeking top-hats that would have made Willy Wonka look up.

If the Rhine in Castorf’s Ring was portrayed by a peanut-shaped aquamarine swimming-pool there were similarities to be made in Ms Gilmore’s production, too, as the set designer, Carl Friedrich Oberle, came up with a wonderful and detailed set for Das Rheingold placing the Rhine in a neo-classically-designed Roman bathhouse complete with saunas.

At the conclusion of Rhinegold, the sweeping stone-spiral staircase of the bathhouse provided a handy route to Valhalla as one witnessed a team of vassals carrying Wotan’s chattels and belongings to his heavenly home while he and his godly entourage regally followed with the rainbow bridge portrayed by a series of luminescent arc-like panels - all very effective, all very simple and, by the look of it, economical too.

Christiane Libor as Brünnhilde was true to form. A singer harbouring a good range she soon got down to business in this most demanding of all Wagnerian roles squeezing every nuance from the part while delivering the goods in true Wagnerian style.

And the pairing of Robert Dean Smith and Meagan Miller in the ill-fated brother-sister roles of Siegmund and Sieglinde clicked. Their impassioned duet at the end of the first act when they confess their love for each other was thrillingly sung while Norwegian-born singer from the Faroe Islands, Rúni Brattaberg (Fasolt in Rheingold and Hagen in Götterdämmerung) took the sinister and mean role of Hunding conjuring up fear not just by his deep bass voice but also by his presence and devilish actions.

Wagner: The Ring - Götterdämmerung - Oper Leipzig (photo Tom_Schulze)
Wagner: The Ring - Götterdämmerung - Oper Leipzig (photo Tom_Schulze)   
The second act of Die Walküre, focusing strongly on Wotan and Brünnhilde’s power struggle surrounding Siegmund winning the fight against Hunding, was well executed and played against a striking backdrop of a three-storied, Italianate-style colonnaded building representing Valhalla but severely on the blink. Another hint of things to come.

Here the Valkyries scream out to Wotan - who, in fact, proudly, ceremoniously and godlike (in more ways than one!) appeared in Das Rheingold attired in a deep-blue velvet-draped Roman toga adorned with a golden-coloured laurel headdress to examine a model of Valhalla - from the first floor of the colonnaded building to spare Brünnhilde from the tortuous burning rock with eight Fallen Heroes, dressed immaculately in white, standing in ghostly silence on the floor above them while dozens of pairs of white boots were scattered all over the place at ground level representing innocent souls and the glory of death on the battlefield.

The confrontation between Fricka, ironically, the Goddess of Marriage - played positively and convincingly by Kathrin Göring - and Wotan over his adulterous and incestuous affairs hit the mark. She laid in to him in no uncertain terms but he ignored her plea in his usual arrogant and wayward manner in a scene in which Iain Paterson handled so well. His stage presence is second to none while his bass-baritone voice radiated round the vastness of the auditorium with consummate ease.

Wagner: The Ring - Das Rheingold - Jürgen Linn, Dan Karlström - Oper Leipzig (photo Tom_Schulze)
Das Rheingold - Jürgen Linn, Dan Karlström
Oper Leipzig (photo Tom_Schulze)   
And to arm the warrior-maiden, Brünnhilde, Ms Gilmore decided on a First World War bayoneted rifle while her loyal steed Grane was dramatically represented by Ziv Frenkel, a member of the dance troupe, who shadowed her every inch of the way (annoyingly at times) and also acted as her general factotum whilst Brünnhilde’s team of eight hyperactive and attractive Valkyries, dressed in long-flowing military-type dresses, were charging all over the show while brandishing their bayoneted rifles left, right and centre as if on a hen-party night out.

For Brünnhilde’s lying-in-state, though, Loge conjured up a good flame and the scene in which she pleads with Wotan to keep her godly status was highly impressive, too. Libor and Paterson know the game well - and it showed.

Dancers were at the fore in the first act of Siegfried holding court in a forest-like setting which, to me, looked more like a field of maize. But I come from Norfolk! The dancers commented upon everything and, surprisingly, one of their actions turned out to be the forging of the sword, Nothung. Mime’s attempts were scattered all over the show. Ceremoniously, they handed the sword to Siegfried who earlier in the scene was seen tapping away at the smithy getting on with the job. Hoisted by his own petard!

And the scene in which Siegfried - sung by Christian Franz but by Thomas Mohr in Götterdämmerung - gets the better of the dragon sending him empty handed to Hades witnessed Fafner blown up to outrageous proportions apropos Marshmallow Man lazily spread out across a tremendously-wide deep-red velvet upholstered Louis XIV-style sofa bordered by an ornate gold-painted wooden frame. The old giant, it seems, splashed out on a bit of comfort with his newfound riches.

Apart from gold trinkets littered here, there and everywhere, Fafner was also surrounded by a coterie of Artful Dodger-type characters, Fafner ‘look-a-likes’, really, sporting top-hats and enjoying the drinking and feasting that’s Fafner’s raison-d’être. But all good things come to an end and he soon found his demise at the tip of Siegfried’s sword while poisonous, scheming, cunning old Mime soon got his lot, too. There were no more dancing bears to put the wind up him.

But as Fafner lay dying, Siegfried, dithering and confused, looked slightly forlorn over his actions. But that was short-lived as he had other business to attend to, seeking out his bride, Brünnhilde. And the Woodbird, sung so tenderly off-stage by Danae Kontora, was on hand to help him in his quest while Sandra Lommerzheim’s dance sequence fitted well the overall stage picture of this well-loved and delicate scene.

The ending of Siegfried proved a bit daunting, though, for the German tenor, Christian Franz, who has sung Wagner and, in particular, the role of Siegfried so many times and, indeed, in many great houses. He didn’t come across as well as one would have expected and although his voice was soft and lyrical in the middle register it sounded slightly raw and strained in the higher and, at times, he struggled against the pit.

But that well-loved scene in Gotterdammerung where Waltraute (Kathrin Göring) arrives unexpectedly to warn Brünnhilde to return the ring to the Rhinemaidens to end the dreaded curse - one of the loveliest passages in the whole of the cycle - was passionately sung (and acted) by Ms Göring while Tuomas Pursio and Gal James made a brilliant team in the brother-sister roles of Gunther and Gutrune. Always looking unsure of themselves, they felt the beat and heat of nasty old Hagen (Rúni Brattaberg) at every conceivable turn.

Another fine and powerful partnership which blossomed so well in Gotterdammerung surrounded Christiane Libor (Brünnhilde) and Thomas Mohr (Siegfried). Wagnerian singers at their very best. They produced enough electricity in their performance, I felt, to aid the National Grid. What a sparkling pair they made. And if Hagen raised a spark or two in his big number summoning his men for action so did Ms Libor at the crucial point in the Ring’s scenario where it reaches boiling-point with Brünnhilde realising that lust, greed and corruption encapsulating the dreaded curse is inextricably tied to the ring.

However, Brünnhilde soon gets to grips with the matter and to ensure mankind can be rekindled to start afresh she humbly sacrifices herself while denouncing the gods for their guilt in Siegfried’s death. And in the famous Immolation Scene, Ms Libor magnificently and proudly produced her best that had the audience spellbound and gripped to their seats. Such was her performance.

Michael Röger needs to take a bow for conjuring up some marvellous lighting effects mixed with a dash of pyrotechnical wizardry for the burning of Valhalla and the ending of the gods. The stage picture told its own story.

The Gewandhaus Orchestra, under Ulf Schirmer, found themselves in a pit they know so well just over the road from their near acoustically-perfect concert-hall. The relationship between pit and stage was fairly balanced and in the big-production numbers such as The Ride of the Valkyries and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey not forgetting, of course, Brünnhilde’s famous Immolation Scene - one of Wagner’s greatest achievements - Maestro Schirmer pulled out all stops to deliver a thrilling account of Wagner’s mesmeric, inviting and challenging score while in Siegfried the solo English horn was played by Simon Sommerhalder, solo French horn by Bernhard Krug and solo tuba by David Cribb. Bravo!

Conductor: Ulf Schirmer
Director/Choreographer: Rosamund Gilmore
Set designer: Carl Friedrich Oberle
Costume designer: Nicola Reichert
Lighting designer: Michael Röger
Video designer: Andy Zabel
Dramaturg: Christian Geltinger

Wotan: Iain Paterson
Donner: Kay Stiefermann
Froh: Sven Hjörleifsson
Loge: Thomas Mohr
Fasolt: Rúni Brattaberg
Fafner: James Moellenhoff
Alberich: Jürgen Linn
Mime: Dan Karlström
Fricka: Karin Lovelius
Freia: Gal James
Erda: Claudia Huckle
Woglinde: Eun Yee You
Wellgunde: Wallis Giunta
Flosshilde: Sandra Fechner
Dance ensemble: Leila Bakhtali, Sidnei Brandão, Ole Driever, Ziv Frenkel, Unita Gay Galiluyo, Mathis Kleinschnittger, Elodie Lavoignat, Sandra Lommerzheim Juliette Rahon, Alexander Range, Alicia Varela Carballo, Jochen Vogel

Siegmund: Robert Dean Smith
Sieglinde: Meagan Miller
Hunding: Rúni Brattaberg
Wotan: Iain Paterson
Brünnhilde: Christiane Libor
Fricka: Kathrin Göring
Gerhilde: Gal James
Ortlinde: Magdalena Hinterdobler
Waltraute; Monica Mascus
Schwertleite: Sandra Fechner
Helmwige: Daniela Köhler
Siegrune: Sandra Maxheimer
Grimgerde: Karin Lovelius
Rossweisse: Wallis Giunta
Grane: Ziv Frenkel
Loge: Jochen Vogel
Dance ensemble: Leila Bakhtali, Sidnei Brandão, Unita Gay Galiluyo, Elodie Lavoignat, Sandra Lommerzheim, Juliette Rahon, Ayako Toyama, Alicia Varela Carballo, Jochen Vogel

Siegfried: Christian Franz
Mime: Dan Karlström
The Wanderer: Iain Paterson
Alberich: Jürgen Linn
Fafner: Rúni Brattaberg
Erda: Claudia Huckle
Brünnhilde: Christiane Libor
The Woodbird: Danae Kontora
Dance ensemble: Leila Bakhtali, Sidnei Brandão, Ziv Frenkel, Unita Gay Galiluyo, Elodie Lavoignat, Sandra Lommerzheim, Martina Morasso, Juliette Rahon, Mathis Kleinschnittger, Ayako Toyama, Alicia Varela Carballo, Jochen Vogel

Siegfried: Thomas Mohr
Gunther: Tuomas Pursio
Alberich: Jürgen Linn
Hagen: Rúni Brattaberg
Brünnhilde: Christiane Libor
Gutrune: Gal James
Waltraute: Kathrin Göring
First Norn: Karin Lovelius
Second Norn: Kathrin Göring
Third Norn: Olena Tokar
Woglinde: Magdalena Hinterdobler
Wellgunde: Sandra Maxheimer
Flosshillde: Sandra Fechner
Dance ensemble: Sidnei Brandão, Ziv Frenkel, Unita Gay Galiluyo. Mathis Kleinschnittger, Elodie Lavoignat, Sandra Lommerzheim, Juliette Rahon, Ayako Toyama, Alicia Varela Carballo, Jochen Vogel

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