Monday, April 19, 2010

Die Walküre, or A Testicle Unturned

On a sunny Sunday evening, I repaired back to the Deutsche Oper, Parkett 1, Row 11, Seat 11, for part two of my magical Wagner marathon .. and here are my English-language musings thereupon...

"Die Walküre is a much more difficult opera than Das Rheingold. More difficult to stage, more difficult to perform. This difficulty stems from the fact that although, in this episode of the Ring, major steps are taken in the story of the saga, the actual shown dramatic episodes are few, and the dramatic incidents themselves quickly done with. For the rest of three long acts, people talk. In act one Sieglinde and Siegmund (with a blessed variation from Hunding) talk for an hour, in the second act Fricka and Wotan deliver long monologues and scenas, and in the final part it is Wotan and Brünnhilde who debate endlessly a course of action which has been decreed and decided half an act earlier.
These long and physically undramatic sections of the opera are a minefield. If the six named performers are not at the very worst ‘good’, and at the very best ‘excellent’, the whole piece sags horribly. If the director does not find a way to present these sections in an interesting and dramatically effective way, the evening goes down like a sabotaged soufflé. Any director can make a mark with the show’s two popular highlights – the Valkyries’ Ride and the Undeification of Brünnhilde with its wall of fire – but the rest is a much more subtle challenge.

So, how did this Die Walküre stand up to the test? Half fig, half raisin. The soufflé sank sadly in the very difficult Act Two, not helped by a direction which equates passion with falling on one’s face on the ground and staying there, and indignation with stop-start sprints across the stage. But elsewhere the good fight was well enough fought.

Act one, with its vast chunks of ‘the story so far’ and ‘now I’m Wehwalt, now I’m not’ is the act of Siegmund (Clifton Forbis) and Sieglinde (Violeta Urmana), and with the help of Reinhard Hagen (much more effectively cast as Hunding than as the previous night’s Fasolt), they pretty well pulled it off.
Forbis is an interesting performer. Not endowed by nature with an heroic physique – it is hell to play a hero when you have little legs, and alarmingly tight pants -- he nevertheless made Siegmund a wholly believable human being, acting and singing thoughtfully and with nuance if, perhaps, when the nitty gritty came, not exactly with soaring rapture. But although his singing was impressive, his otherwise fine performance still left me just a tad uneasy. It is the voice. It is a big voice, well-managed and accurate, blaring and just occasionally braying forth its upper notes most successfully, but it doesn’t seem to come out of his mouth. It gets out, somehow, from somewhere, but ultimately, it lacks clarity. The seizing of Nothung, which should ring like the proverbial clarion through the auditorium, didn’t. Son of Wotan? Or Wotan’s singing teacher.
Ms Urmana does have an heroic physique: big, blonde and powerful (although her curious resemblance to the young Angela Lansbury distracted me for a while) and a voice which is equally big, blonde and powerful. Like Forbis, she treated the music and the character conscientiously, working without cease to make the longueurs of Act One vocally and physically attractive. If she, too, was not quite epic in the revealed transports which end the act, she was for much in the success of a First Part which – if it did not take off to the heavens – certainly did not sag. One can judge a Walküre Act One by the time it seems to take – sometimes a seeming 45 mins, sometimes two hours: this one came in bang on regulation time.
These two artists carried their agreeable performances on into act two, up to Siegmund’s death and Sieglinde’s big moment. My criterion for all Sieglindes is the delivery of the phrase ‘O heh-re-stes Wunder! Herr--lichste Maid…’. I should shiver, get a lump in my throat, and for a ten out of ten score, my testicles should turn over. Well, Ms Urmana rated about an eight. A clear pass, but no honours. The testicles stayed dormant.

Act One negotiated, we arrive in Valhalla and re-meet the Gods. I had hoped and prayed that Mr Delavan’s Wotan might have simply had an off night in Rheingold and that he would deliver the goods tonight. No such luck. He did sing better – although that throaty voice production meant that he was more than thrice simply swallowed up by the orchestra – but Wotan was still an English teacher in (eons on) the same dirty trench-coat, passive, off-hand, ineffectual and ultimately just plain dull. He would finally shake off his torpor in Act Three when he made a truly moving moment of his final embrace of Brünnhilde, but it was far, far too late. In Act Two he was roundly eclipsed by the feisty, dramatically-pointed Fricka (Németh again), and it was his monologue that was the occasion for the soufflé – valiantly kept buoyant by all concerned till then – to subside distressingly into a sad and sticky heap.
There arrives now the last of our stars of the evening: Brünnhilde (Evelyn Herlitzius). Horrifyingly, this lady’s entry was quite simply catastrophic. Big, open soprano voice wobbling and waving like windy washing, intonation teeth-curlingly awry, hideous costume – more like an Urbano or an Oscar than a Wishmaiden – disastrous red ‘Walhalla salon’ hair-switch … horrible primping and posing and meaningless moves..
But Ms Herlitzius is made of stern stuff. Pretty soon, the big, clear voice came under control (although that wobble is a bit persistent) and – in spite of a further plethora of ‘fill in the dull bits’ meaningless moves -- in the final act she produced some truly fine singing, soaring effortlessly over the once prosaic, now pounding and brass-blasting, orchestra which had not only vanquished Wotan but also, at one stage, threatened to drown the entire coven of Valkyries.
The Valkyries. I suppose every director wants to try to do something different with these ladies and the scene of their too famous Ride. But most of what was done here simply didn’t succeed. It would have been better had the ladies just stood still and sung, which they did splendidly (love you, Schwertleite!), but no. Firstly we had the tired old chorus-line joke – one fatty amongst the sveltes (actually there were two) – then we had rows of modern hospital-beds (probably the same ones as were used in Tannhäuser to equally bad effect) with the battle-fallen heros comatose therein. One hero didn’t get to stay comatose. The Valkyrie pushing his bed misjudged her moment: the bed toppled over and the extra ‘hero’ was ejected on to the floor. Heroically, he lay there .. unmoving and dead, whilst the ladies continued their giggleworthy perpetuum mobile.. swoop a little here, swoop a little there ..
The other great scene of the act was much better staged. It’s hard to go wrong with fire, but the fires called up here by Wotan to protect Brünnhilde’s mortal sleep were particularly effective and, as I’ve said, this episode provoked Wotan to easily his best moment of the two nights. Alas, his off-hand delivery of the famous Farewell annulled much of the good. Oh, why is this man so … so… unforthcoming? Why can’t he give his full-range bass-baritone voice to us, instead of keeping it to himself? throw it across the footlights instead of drowning it somewhere around his uvula? He is a fine-looking man, made by nature to be heroic: but he comes across as a being without a positive personality: mild, apologetic, round-shouldered and suburban. If it can’t be cured, it is the most infuriating waste.
So, Die Walküre. A sort of half success. Act One has to be counted a definite success, if not perhaps a ragingly memorable one, Act Two – given Wotan’s impuissance and Brünnhilde’s vocal mishaps, and in spite of Fricka -- regrettably not, and Act Three .. well, I defy anyone to fail with Act Three of Die Walküre … but, until this night, I’d have said it was impossible to make no effect with Wotan’s farewell …
And my testicles remained unturned, so .. shall we say six out of ten?
And on to episode three…"

Note: I admit to having rarely been comfortable with ‘concept’. I will also admit that I don’t actually know what a ‘Time Tunnel’ is. But when Brünnhilde walked out through the tunnel’s side, did this signify that – like the fallen heroes who were shovelled down a chute in the wall to presumed eternity – she had stepped out of time and the tale? I merely ask for information.

Another note: This production apparently, for some reason, contains a lot of World War Two references, which locals connect with immediately. As an Austrian-Scottish-Jewish-bred New Zealander born in 1946, they floated right past my left ear, uncomprehended and unnoticed, until they were pointed out to me, after the event. I did wonder why Hunding was carrying an anachronistic gun, and his henchmen wore gangster hats. but I put it down to the usual incoherence of operatic stagings.

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