Monday, November 26, 2007

The Dwarf's Revenge

In last week's column, I described some of the problems which contributed to inadequate performances of Das Rheingold and Die Walkure when the Deutsche Oper Berlin recently presented Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung at the Kennedy Center. This week I'd like to examine the flip side of the equation: how Gotz Friedrich's productions of Siegfried and Gotterdammerung achieved brilliant artistic successes, overcame the oppressiveness of designer Peter Sykora's "time tunnel" and left the audience at the final curtain for Gotterdammerung as high as a kite.

How could there have been such a dramatic turnaround in the course of one Ring cycle? The most obvious answer is to be found in the pit. The Deutsche Oper Berlin's orchestra may have been overworked by performing the Ring one week under Jesus Lopez-Cobos's baton while rehearsing the second cycle with Maestro Perick but, by the time the second cycle's performance of Siegfried rolled around, the instrumentalists had been able to get some rest. In addition, most of the problems with illness and allergies which had affected certain soloists had been dealt with and, for the final two installments of the Ring, a cast of secure principals was firmly in place.

My own prejudice toward the second half of Wagner's Ring is that, although Siegfried and Gotterdammerung take longer to perform, the dramatic force in these two operas continually gains momentum so that, as the plot accelerates, it strengthens the cumulative experience of the Ring. Siegfried is, of course, based upon the exploits of the young Aryan hero who was once described by Anna Russell as "very big, very strong, very masculine and very stupid." However, this work contains enough elements of grand opera (dragons, special effects, glorious music and a linear plot line) that, with the help of Supertitles which are as well-crafted as Frank Rizzo's, I honestly think it might be the best work with which to introduce a novice to the operatic art form.


For Siegfried, Peter Sykora's designs took on a new strength. Surrounded by a child's fantasy forest, Mime's hut served its dramatic purpose well (although having soloists climb onto the roof numerous times seemed a bit unnecessary). The forest near Fafner's cave gave audiences a strange sense of wonderment and the dragon fought Siegfried in the guise of a fierce mechanical monster resembling an army tank. In Act III, the musical transition from the confrontation between Siegfried and the Wanderer to the hero's awakening of Brunnehilde was handled magnificently. However, I was surprised to learn that several of the critics who attended the previous week's Ring had mistaken Brunnehilde's faithful steed, Grane, for the completed statue of a partial horse they had seen onstage during Act II of Die Walkure. Didn't they read the line in the libretto which says "I'll spurn you and your little horse, too!"?

In any event, by the final moments of the evening everyone in the theatre was on a cloud of rapture. Their excitement was fully justified, for this performance of Siegfried boasted one the strongest casts I've heard in quite some time. Horst Heistermann offered a fabulously well-sung and grouchy characterization of Mime; his brother, Alberich, was once again given top-quality treatment by Gunter von Kannen. Bass-baritone Robert Hale (who replaced Simon Estes as the Wanderer) delivered a stunning performance as the increasingly fatalistic Wotan. I eagerly await his participation in the San Francisco Opera's Ring next summer.

In the final act, Jadwige Rappe's Erda made a strong vocal contribution, followed by the awakening of the deliciously feminine Anne Evans -- one of the few Brunnehildes to ever make an audience fully accept her transition from an invincible warrior maiden to a mortal and extremely vulnerable woman.

The ultimate hero of the evening was, is and always should be the tenor singing the title role. Although I have enjoyed Rene Kollo's artistry as Siegfried on several other occasions, the heldentenor was in top form at this performance. Kollo paced himself so beautifully that, by the end of his five hours onstage, he was singing freshly and sounding as if he had an unending reservoir of strength. Granted, he was helped by the fact that he was singing in a 2,200-seat theatre (as opposed to the Met's cavernous 4,000-seat auditorium) but size, as they say, isn't everything. In the long run, it's what you do with what you have that counts.


Although the final installment of Wagner's Ring may not have offered as strong a performance as the Siegfried, the Deutsche Oper's Gotterdammerung certainly had its merits. Down in the land of the Gibichungs, Peter Sykora created a fortress whose walls had fish-eye lens panels which allowed certain characters to spy on each other or dominate the stage in moments calling for horrific psychological insights (Sykora's plastic lenses greatly accentuated Siegfried's gullibility, Gunther's pathetic empty-mindedness and the baseness of Alberich's son, Hagen). Siegfried's encounter with the Rhine Maidens was staged with exquisite beauty and the hero's death carried off with a great sense of dramatic dignity. The immolation scene (an orgy of fog machine technology) was executed with great skill so that the final image onstage matched the mysterious white-sheeted lumps which had been seen populating the production's "time tunnel" during the opening moments of Das Rheingold.

Vocally, Rene Kollo's Siegfried maintained its bullish heroism while, as Brunnehilde, Anne Evans brought an emotional complexity and psychological depth to the Valkyrie maiden which is rarely achieved by Wagnerian sopranos. Lenus Carlson portrayed the heir to the Gibichung throne as a fatuously weak and impotent mortal. As his sister, Gutrune, Lucy Peacock appeared to be more sympathetic to Brunnehilde's confused anger than the usual stereotype of a dumb Gibichung blonde.

Ute Walther's Waltraute failed to capture much of the vocal urgency required in her big scene with Brunnehilde but was soon overshadowed by the formidable strength of the chorus in Act II. Much of the evening's real vocal mettle rested in the hands of Matti Salminen, whose performance as Hagen was nothing less than phenomenal. Transforming Hagen, even more than Alberich, into the embodiment of all evil, Salminen sang and acted so forcefully that his performance became a sore reminder one of the kind of superlative artistry which, these days, is absent from far too many operatic performances.

Reflecting back on the production's cumulative impact, what bothered me the most was the feeling that most of the symbols chosen by Gotz Friedrich and Peter Sykora really didn't pull together to form a unified and credible whole and, all too often, the director's blocking was undermined by singers who refused to take their eyes off the prompter's box. There was an uneasy sense of people being crammed into a puzzle without much consideration for their individual contributions to the larger picture. It's a problem which confronts any production of The Ring of the Nibelung. And one which, thankfully, is almost always overcome by the strength of Wagner's music.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on July 27, 1989.

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