Monday, November 26, 2007

Environmental Impact

Heredity and environment play major roles in shaping an individual's growth. One of the oldest arguments in the world concerns which factor plays the stronger part in determining the final product. Some feel that a person is born gay; others think that each person's sexual identity evolves in response to various social and sexual stimuli.

When the same theory is applied to opera, one can label the score written by a composer as the genetic material which gives any production its basic musical form. However, the personalities which make up the creative team (designer, director and conductor) have a great deal to do with the shape of the final product. Ultimately, it is the cast of singers -- an eternally variable factor -- which puts its personal imprint on any performance.

I stress this because, of all the operas in the repertoire, Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen (which was created with one of the strongest musical scores) has been most severely affected by the environments in which it has been staged. Thanks to a variety of designers and directors, the Ring has been set in industrial factories, concentration camps, the backstage areas of a Victorian theatre and on the surface of the moon! Last month, I attended performances of the Ring by the Deutsche Oper Berlin at the Kennedy Center, in which Gotz Friedrich's "time tunnel" interpretation of Wagner's tetralogy was used. Because the scenic inspiration for this production came from the design of Washington's Metro stations, one experienced the creepy feeling of going from the subway into the opera house without much change in scenery.

This particular version of the Ring (which was conducted by Christof Perick and benefitted immensely from Frank Rizzo's superb Supertitles) proved to be the most schizophrenic Wagnerian experience I have ever had. The first two operas, Das Rheingold and Die Walkure, suffered from big problems onstage and in the pit, making one wonder if the Deutsche Oper Berlin wasn't some provincial German company with rather mediocre artistic standards. Yet the final two installments, Siegfried and Gotterdammerung, were superb performances. Therefore, in order to deal with all four operas fairly, I am going to split my review into two columns: this week's devoted to Das Rheingold and Die Walkure and next week's focusing on Siegfried and Gotterdammerung.


Anyone who has spent long hours in subway systems around the world can appreciate the sense of distance, despair and foreboding which dominates the visual images created by Peter Sykora for the Deutsche Oper's Ring. The drop curtain creates a great sense of audience anticipation, almost as if one were entering the subterranean mineshaft where some radioactive monster (or, even worse, Shelley Winters) lurks in a dark cavern. The forced perspective of Sykora's "time tunnel" (which resembles the view one gets by looking from one end of the platform in Washington's Metro system toward the other) gives audiences an eerie "Twilight Zone" sensation of prolonged doom.

Although the orchestra and singers were not in great shape, much of Das Rheingold was awash in theatrical gimmickry. The use of several silken drops to create a watery effect for the Rhine Maidens worked well and I was particularly impressed by the high-tech science-fiction console from which Alberich ruled over the Nibelungs. Friedrich's depiction of the Gods as shallow aristocrats (with a sarcastic hint at spoiled Yuppiedom) gave a nice dramatic twist to the proceedings: when the Gods finally embarked on their entrance into Valhalla, they progressed up the rainbow bridge in a rather smug and snotty waltz step. And their shallowness was underlined by their leader's greed. Before removing the ring from Alberich's hand, Wotan mercilessly used his spear to chop off and remove the dwarf's hand from the rest of his arm -- thus leaving the Nibelung with something to really curse about.

Musically, Das Rheingold lacked much in the way of excitement. As Wotan, Simon Estes offered a distinctly monochromatic performance and received precious little support from Ute Walther's anemic Fricka. The Rhine Maidens (Carole Malone, Daniela Bechly and Iris Vermilion) were passing fair and the rest of the gods (Lucy Peacock's Freia, David Griffith's Froh, Gerd Feldhoff's Donner) were far from impressive. Horst Heistermann's Mime, Jadwiga Rappe's Erda, Matti Salminen's Fasolt and Bengt Rundgren's Fafner added some badly-needed vocal and dramatic heft to the proceedings while George Shirley's nearly voiceless performance as Loge put a severe handicap on the evening. Mr. Shirley has always been a particularly stageworthy artist but, on this one occasion, the tattered remains of his once-beautiful voice were downright embarrassing.

Top honors for the evening went to Gunter von Kannen who, with a booming voice and dramatic intensity that put his colleagues to shame, did a stunning job of capturing the megalomania inspired by Alberich's newly-found wealth and power. Unlike the rest of the cast (who kept their eyes rooted firmly on the prompter's box), von Kannen's attention was always focused on communicating the blackness and evil within Alberich's heart to the audience. In doing so, he created a characterization which will be treasured by this critic for many years to come.


The Deutsche Oper's performance of Die Walkure was one of those sadly curious occasions where the audience watches helplessly as a great work of art falls apart at the seams. Some of this was due to casting problems: soprano Janis Martin flew into town to replace an allergy-stricken Anne Evans as Brunnehilde while mezzo-soprano Ute Walther substituted for the ailing Hanna Schwarz as Fricka. Meanwhile, the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin sounded quite a bit below par.

Onstage, Simon Estes was rapidly losing the battle to fill Wotan's boots while the symbols chosen by Gotz Friedrich and Peter Sykora to illustrate Die Walkure were taking a turn for the worse. Hunding's hut looked like a Nazi interrogation chamber and Sykora's "time tunnel" was beginning to grate on the nerves. Dressing the Valkyries up in leather to look and sound like the noisiest bunch of Dykes On Bikes (as they carted their dead heroes off the stage and struck semi-erotic poses that would barely cut the mustard in a Frederick's of Hollywood catalog) became little more than a cheap directorial gag.

In sharp contrast to Matti Salminen's intimidating Hunding, soprano Karan Armstrong offered an extremely sympathetic and understated portrayal of Sieglinde. Janis Martin's Brunnehilde was a most pleasant surprise -- a wonderfully musical performance which captured the warrior maiden's spirit without ever compromising her faith. Martin's farewell to Wotan, set amongst flames and fog machines galore, was a superb piece of musicodramatic stagecraft.

While I found Simon Estes' performance as Wotan to be singularly unmoving, the most appalling singular sensation in this performance of Die Walkure was tenor Peter Hofmann's abysmal singing. In recent years, Hofmann's artistry has gotten thinner, his voice sounded scratchier and his dramatic involvement grown ever more distant. On this occasion he sang most of Siegmund's music off pitch with little if any voice. By single-handedly ruining nearly half of Die Walkure, Hofmann convinced me that he should really hang it up and concentrate his efforts on his secondary career as a rock singer.

As he attempted to play devil's advocate during intermission, one of the opera scene's most astute administrators confessed to me that although Hofmann's singing was, indeed, quite wretched, "Peter has such a fabulous ass -- just wait until you see how it looks when he runs upstage in Act II." What can I say? Although I've attended many a performance of Die Walkure in which Peter Hofmann was cast as Siegmund -- and have thrilled to the eroticism of the moment when he pulls his big throbbing sword out of the ash tree in Hunding's hut -- I have yet to hear the glorious sounds of Wagner's "Wintersturme" emanating from the enticing depths of this heldentenor's asshole!

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on July 20, 1989.

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