Average performances, Post-Modern Staging
Brian D. Swan | Pensacola, FL USA | 05/05/2005
(3 out of 5 stars)
"At the heart of this production - and probably the single biggest reason to either like or dislike it - is the somewhat avante-garde staging, replacing the classic furs, leather, and armor with business suits and workmen's clothing. Instead of water nymphs at the bottom of the Rhine, you get prostitutes at a hydroelectric plant. For me, it just doesn't work. It's no secret that the Ring was symbolically linked to the class struggles and rebellions of mid 19th century Germany, nor is it a secret that Wagner, himself, was a political activist. But even he, by the time he got around to writing the music for Gotterdammerung had completely changed personal philosophies (he had embraced Schopenhaur). My feeling is that the Ring is best portrayed in it's organic mythological trappings, and left for individual audience members to apply the symbology as they see fit. That is if they even WANT to take it for more than a huge musical tapestry. 'Nuff said about that. I very clearly remember when the centenial production was staged, and how poorly the performances - especially those of Ms. Jones (who I personally saw sing an electrifying Isolde at the Met two years prior)- were recieved. Interestingly, when the LP version of that Ring was released, Gotterdammerung was released as an analog recording (the other 3 were digital). The word at the time was that the producers were so dissapointed with the performances that they didn't want to invest the additional money to make a digital recording of the final opera. Apocryphal? Maybe. Rgardless, the singing by the Met company, headed by an amazing Hildegard Behrens and James Morris SO outshines this production that there is barely competition. As a historical document the Boulez "Centennial" Ring is interesting, but if you are going to invest in only one "Ring", this is NOT the one to buy - stick with Levine and the Met!"
Steven A. Peterson | Hershey, PA (Born in Kewanee, IL) | 06/24/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This is a splendid version of Richard Wagner's "Gotterdammerung." This is the fourth and final opera in the "Ring" series. The DVD provides a rich visual component, with Patrice Chereau's production on display. While some elements of his production may not be compelling to me (characters dressed in suits or Rhinemaidens at a hydroelectric dam), it is nonetheless powerful in its own terms. Musically, this is strong, too. Pierre Boulez well leads the Bayreuth Orchestra. The cast is capable. Gwyneth Jones is not necessarily the best singing Brunnhilde ever, but she provides a rich characterization and she sings in a serviceable manner. Manfred Jung is a credible Siegfried. Jeannine Altmeyer portrayed Sieglinde excellently in the Chereau/Boulez version of "Die Walkure"; here, she is more than capable as the unfortunate Gutrune. Other singers play their role as well.
Some of the greatest scenes in all opera appear in "Gotterdammerung." The Prologue (the Norn Scene, Morning, and Siegfried's Rhine Journey) and the Immolation Scene (Act III, scene 3) are up there with other great scenes, such as The Mad Scene from "Lucia di Lammermoor," Act I of "La Boheme," Act I of "La Traviata," and Act I, scene 3 of, dare I say it, "Die Walkure."
I'll briefly note a few scenes to provide illustrations from the work.
The Prologue is something else again. The three Norns sing well and expressively, as they weave the rope; they summarize key events of the Ring saga up until this point in time, noting the decline of the gods as Wotan futilely conspired to gain control of the ring and the Rheingold. As the rope breaks, the Norns leave the stage and we see Brunnhilde and Siegfried awakening on the Valkyries' Rock. Jones and Jung sing their rousing duet well, capturing the feeling of their rapture for one another. Then, Siegfried's Ring Journey (and a nice touch of Brunnhilde on the Rock slowly shrinking as, presumably, he rides off to do great deeds in Brunnhilde's name). The reality, of course, is that he is heading to betrayal and becoming the agent of the destruction of the gods.
Act III, Scene 1 is the sparkling (and somewhat lugubrious) scene between the Rhinemaidens and Siegfried. Set again at the hydroelectric dam where we first met them in "Das Rheingold," they cajole Siegfried to return the ring and gold to them. The banter back and forth is well sung. The Rhinemaidens seem drained and tired; the dam is dilapidated,. Perhaps signifying the deterioration of conditions since Wotan's (and the gods') power was demonstrated to be in decline in "Siegfried" (when the hero shattered Wotan's staff with Nothung, his sword)?
Finally, Act III, scene 3 is powerful indeed. Brunnhilde enters dramatically, "calling out" her betrayers and putting Gutrune "in her place." She "takes charge," organizes a funeral pyre for Siegfried (and for herself). Jones sings powerfully and is charismatic as Brunnhilde in this scene. As the fire engulfs the couple, the Rhinemaidens take possession of the Ring and the music swells and the orchestra closes out the opera with powerful musicianship.
This is one of the finer versions of "Gotterdammerung" (and the complete Ring cycle, for that matter) available. The DVD weds the music with the visual tapestry created by Chereau to good effect. This is surely worth a look and a listen.
THE GREAT METAPHOR COMPLETES ITSELF
Josef Bush | Phoenix, AZ | 12/03/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Wagner was German without apology, loved being German, loved the Geman people at least as much as he ever loved or was able to love anything in his long, twistied and excruciating creative life. The fervor of that love of his is so intense that even after more than a century we can warm our hands over its embers here, at century mark of his career's apex, with a view of the incomparable RING This production once thought so controversial is typical of the period of its conception by Chereau and Boulez, because it is both conceptual and post-modern. It is rather like one of the telephones one saw in those days, which were made of clear plastic and allowed you to examine and to enjoy the view and the function of the "innards" of the device as the transistors and wires lit up and flashed while the instrument was being used..
We should remember that before Wagner set anything to music, he wrote and published the libretti in verse that became, over time THE RING OF THE NIBELUNGENS. He began around 1848 and finished orchestrating the final opera GOTTERDAMMERUNG, in 1874. However, the production dates don't seem to fit because DAS RHINEGOLD was presented in 1852; DIE WALKURE in 1856; SIEGFRIED (begun in 1848 as SIEGFRIED'S DEATH) in 1869. What took him so long? He was a sought-after symphonic conductor. He'd already proved he could write opera successfully, when RIENZI was presented. But ultimately, that work didn't please him, and is now neglected. He wanted to get away from the School of Meyerbeer and the Franco-Latin tradition. Though far from being a linguist, in suceeding years Wagner taught himself how to become not merely a librettist, but a dramatist. He did this by studying the then new translations into German of the Greek Tragedies. His model for declamation and versification and dramatic structure was Aschelus. In sixth century BC Athens, Tragedy meant a series of narrative odes relating to the history of (a) god, or of other devine or heroic figures intersperced wth episodes --- in which some actor represented an adventure by means of narrative or dialogue with chorus. It was Aschelus who invened the Trilogy and the Tetralogy. And so, Richard decided to do what Aschelus did, but in the German language, and without compromising that languages peculiar characteristics. Needless to say, it worked, and it is this production of THE RING which, preminently, allows me to examine and to delight in, not just the music; not just the singing, but all the aspects of the creation.
THE PROLOGUE begins in darkness as the Norns, three shapeless, occult females, spin, twist and snip the skien of life. They are the German version of The Fates or Furies of Greek Tragedy. As Erynyes they seek out and punish those who break oaths. Here, they recite the story of Wotan and how he paid for his wife Frica with an eye, and how he came into his godhead. It is this recitation that forecasts the tone of GOTTERDAMMERUNG in its entirety. The Norns do not forecast anything, as the three "midnight hags" of MACBETH do. In their trance-like state these witches only remind us of what has gone before. And abruptly, without explanation, one of the life skiens snaps. They are puzzled and frightened by the event and run off to "the Mother" who is probably Erde, (or Demeter) the Earth-Mother.
Now, Wagner undestood that when Aschelus and the other tradigians wrote, they wrote for an audience already intimately familiar with the material of his stories, which material was taken directly from Greek religion. And he knew that this material had nothing whatever to do with the Judeo-Christian tradition. Therefore, when he went to the old Norse Sagas and the lore of the Celts for material he resolved not to dilute it's religious purity with 19th century sentimentality. He wrote for Germans as he imagined Tacitus to have seen them when they were a semi-nomadic, partly civilized and nearly naked, loose association of tribes living not in towns, but in the woodlands and bogs that bordered the Roman Empire to the south. Tacitus saw these folk as being a superstitious and magical-minded lot. "No people are more addicted to divination by means of casting lots," or rune-reading. Everything, wih them, is suffused witm some occult meaning. And that, to my mind, is the essential character of DIE GOTTAMMERUNG; It is like entering and wandering through a temple during an arcane ceremony, in which every symbl, every action has more than one meaning, and in which people of flesh and blood become possessed by invisible beings. We surrender to the occultism in order to inhale like resinous smoke the atmosphere of a foreign world, to become intoxicated by it and, finally to understand and accept it.
When the curtains part on the second part of the Prelude, we see Brunnhilde who has risen from her marital bed before dawn, and paces the area outside the Walkyre rock where her cave and home is. She appears to be a least distressed and puzzled by her new human state: She is not only a woman, but a married woman. Everything she dreaded has come to pass. Nevertheless, it is in his preliminary scene that she sees Siegfried sleeping, almost exactly as he first saw her sleeping in the same place and in the same pose, in SIEGFRIED. Magnificen conceptt! Siegfried wakes, shattering her reverie, and they exchange gifts. She gives him her shield, armor and horse Grane, and he gives her his ring and title to all his Nibelungen wealth. They embrase fervently, and he races off. Tacitus tells us that "Among them the matrimonial bond is strict and severe. Almost singular among the barbarians, they cntent themselves with one wife." That "the exchange of arms between a man and a woman IS the ancient German wedding ceremony, making the celebrants one, for as long as they live. Siegfried acceptsher in exactly the same manner, a partner and an equal, and when she bestows her breastplate he says, "In dises Schildes Schin, ich Siegfried uch ich nicht."..etc.) Or, "By accepting your sheltering sheid I am no more Siegfried, but am now Brunnehilde's arm." The sacredness of their exhange of weapons justifies the welcome but otherwise incomprehensible glory of the music. And the music is indeed glorious. (How did Boulez inspire his orchestra?) As one progresses through this opera one has the impression that the orchestra has gotten fresher and stronger and more dynamic as well as more lyrical, somehow -- particularly if one's watched THE RING from first to last. Wonderful music throughout, of course! But possibly its because although Wagner wrote the "dramatic poem" or libretto a decade or two before, he only orchestated it in 1874, when he was at the height of his powers. An embarassment of riches.
Then, where's Grane? Though some productions allow Brunnhilde to ride or at least to lead an horse on stage, this one does not. Grane does not appear because he animal is unnecessary. The animal is only a symbol of the Valkyre's occult power: It is her totem, her familiar, the aura and vehicle of her divinity. "The Germans, " Tacius writes, "Are acquainted with the practice of divining from the songs and flights of birds, but it is peculiar to them - - - to derive admonitions and pressages from horses also. Certain of them -- milk-white and untouched by earthly labor -- are pastured at public expense. Priests and Kings "observe their manner of neighing and snorting. Priests consider hem as ministers of the gods, as privy to the devine will."
Meanwhile, after spectacular music wonderfully well played, we find ourselves downrier at the palace of the Gibichungs and in the presence of yet another Chereau TIME TRICK. Soon we will find that this latest reality is or will be Siegfried's destination. The set is brilliant; simple and effective at offering the illusion of sumptuousness but without the clutter. Four extremely tall columns of polished black stone set on either side of what must be a riverside terrace. There's a narrow estuary or inlet just beyond, and standing on the opposite shore, the silouhete of what apears to be a twin of this structure. Here, we find King Gunther, a tall, thin gentleman in evening dress, talking wih rather an ordinary-looking bearded man in a coarse, rumpled brown possibly tweed suit. This is Hagen, Gunther's (almost certaily illigetimate) half-brother, and a sour, loutish fellow.. There's something disturbing about him; its not only tha he's dressed inappropriately for a palace, but that he exudes a kind of familiarity that looks like contempt, and we don't know why. And Gunther? Who is he supposed to be? Is it a semi-historical Wagnerian portrait set into the opera like a trebel-entend? Is he supposed to be Wagner's friend and one-time son-in-law, Hans von Bulow? Franz Mazurka looks as t;hough he belongs on a podium. The three of them sing very well, in character, but again, there's nothing lyrical about the writing; its just Wagnerian declamation. And, it calls for the rare ability to sing at full voice -- and on pitch -- while giving the impression that one is talking. That accomplished, one goes about acting the part of the character. And then there's Gutrune. Gunther's sister sauners on and her dress fixes us in a definate hisorical era; its 1932 - 1934, though her dark hair is later and her underwear is definately conemporary. Jeanine Altemeier as Gutrune wears a floor-length white satin dress and a rope of pearls. She is the kind of woman for whom such dresses are made, and though she is revealed to be without either character or intelligence -- and therefore deserving of Hagenn's scorn -- she looks wonderful, Altemeier can act, and she certainly sings very, very well.
What's happening? Hagen (Fritz Hobner) is putitng a plot in motion. It's a pity. You play an unsympathetic character well, true to the character, and nobody likes you. You know the story; he's going to use the Gibichungs to get Siegfried in his possession in order that he can kill him and get the ring and his treasure. It' beautifully acted out here because it is so well directed. When Siegfried appears, looking like an up and coming athletic young man in a metal breastplate, Hagen gets Gutrune to slip him the nickey she's brewed up (J.I.C.) Siegfried drinks and stumbling, his long-term memory destroyed, he lusts drunkenly for Gutrune. He says that he and Gunther will be as brothers, and that he will find a worthy bride for him. They become blood-brothers and go off to find this perfect woman Siegfried recommends, leaving Hagen alone to sit in Gunther's chair.
It seemed to me that at this point the director chose to show us that the character of Hagen (whoever he may have been) is not who he seems to be. His mannerisms, the spear, the color and texture of the suit? If we recollect the scenes of McIntyre and Becht sneaking through the woods together in SIEGFRIED, their twin outfits of rough brown wool, sniffing around Fafner's cave, we can see that it is not Alberich who has changed, but Wotan. The man Hagen has been overtaken by Wotan, and frequntly sounds like him. Now and here, glowering center stage, he is much as Waltraute described Wotan, burning with resentment and anticipation.
CHANGE OF SCENE. At the Valkyre rock Brunnhilde is left wiating and ponderin her state. In this scene more than in any other, I'm made aware of the nature of Brunnhilde's power in the story: She hovers over all the RING like Quan Yin, a Bhodissatva of Empathy who resigns her divinity to wait on Earth until all lesser beings like ourselves, shall have attained Nirvana or Enlightenment. She defies Time. And it is probably in this aspet and for this unusual and very spiritual portrayal of the heroine that Gwenneth Jones will be long remembered.
At any rate, it is in this state that Walraute, who arrives as lightening crackles, finds her sister. Waltraute is frantic with worry and she tells Brunnhilde that their father Wotan, distraught by his defeat at Sigfried's hands, now sits on his throne, glowering and silent, the pieces of his ashwood spear on his lap, and all the trees of his sacred Ash grove cut down and split into logs. These lie piled up around Vallah and himself, like a pallisade of firewood. "Only the ring can save him. You must give it to me," Waltraute pleads, "In order that I can return it to him." Brunnhilde refuses. They struggle for the ring until, triumphant, Brunnhilde says that whatever may happen, the ring was given to her by Siegfried, "who loves me,," and whatever may happen, the ring is a token of his love, "And I will never part with it." Defeated, horrified by the prospect of what is to be, Waltraute flees.
In this prolonged and emotionally intense scene, Jones is assisted by a great and sensitive director who, without diluting her persona as Brunnhilde, allows Gwendolyn Killebrew as Waltraute, everything needed to share the stage in an emotionally demanding duet. Most effective! One doesn't know if this is moot or not, but in this production the part of Waltraute is sung by a woman with a dark, brown face. Myself, I'd noticed the actress earlier on the Valkyre rock with her sisters, but paid no mind. We are so used to seeing black women on stage singing Opera now, that it didn't seem wothy of notice until, last night, when I wondered whether despite her obvious abilities, Miss Killebrew's skin pigmentation might have provoked some of the harsh reaction to this production? In those days, might her non-aryan appearance at Beyreuth have been seen as a threatening novelty? A token of disrespect for an old tradition of exclusivity?
Eventually, alone again, Brunnhilde examining and meditating on her wedding ring, settles into a contemplative quiet that is shattered when a masked intruder appears and accosts her. It is Siegfried wearing his Tarnhelm and disguised as Gunther, and it is in Gunther's name that (as proxy) he takes Brunnhilde's wedding ring and forces her to bed wih him in her cave until moring. In this ugly scene Brunnhilde is insulted by avin her marriage violated, and further demeaned by being put on the level of a common fornicatrix. As a mortal woman she is immediately in danger not merely of being ostracised, but of being executed, for punishment for adultery is instant. "Among the Germans," Tacitus tells us, "None looks on vice with a smile, or calls mutual seduction the way of the world."
In ACT TWO, afer a haunting and protracted duet between Alberich and Hagen that feels more like an anxiety nightmare than anyhting else, we find ourselves in the mansion of the Gibichungs, and it is from this point on that, for me, the action of GOTTERDAMMERUNG truly begins. I think of the music-drama as BRUNNHILDE'S HUMILIATION. Hagen summons the townspeople and soon there's quite a lot of very fine choral singing. Then, presently, Siegfried will drag Brunnhilde into what now appears to be a town square, and present her as now belonging and betrothed to Gunther. It is shocking. I have never seen an enrance quite like it; never have I seen anything so illustrative of disgrace and abject shame. Her disgrace is a kind of spectacle for the townspeople. It seems in essence to be a symbol of all women who have ever been mistreated and abused, everywhere. Jones handles it supremely well -- though I don't know she is able to hold the semi-supine posture for so long -- and things go along reasonably well until Siegfried, who's gone off to change, returns and wonders why the woman is behaving so ridiculously. He approaches and tries to life her up. She sees him and is aghast; he looks like a handsome young bridegroom in a rented tuxedo. And truly, Jung has never looked better. But the damn bursts and Brunnhilde accuses him of having first married and then seduced and then abandoned her; of haing tricked her from the beginning. She rages and demands justice. He denies everything, and everybody petends to believe him. They drag her off to witness what had been expected to be a double wedding, as she howls for revenge. Hagen asks her how to kill Siegfried and she reveals to him that her magic protects all of Siegfried's body except for a place high on his back.
ACT THREE: After an extended orchestral passage of great beauty and mysery, we're at the hydroelectric facility on the river, and the Rhinemaidens appear to sing and twist and write around the pylons. They appear to miss their gold and carry on abou it for a while, until Siegfried appears. They flirt with him and try to persuade him to return the ring and the gold to them, but he has no inention of doing it. (Although the girls are supposed to look old and tired, in this production they are most attractive and sing deliciously. That he doesn't give way to their demands is a testament to his wooden-headedness, rather than to his character.) Eventually the hunting party arrives. It's what one does on one's wedding day; one goes hunting. It's Gunther and the guys. They've brought deer carcasses and feel the time has come to have a sit-down venison dinner. Siegfried wants to sing, and does. He jump up and begins a song that like some other arias in the opera, talks of something that's happened in the past. In this case its a re-telling of his life with Mime; of his battle with the dragon, and of Mime's death. Hagen gives him to drink what turns out to be an antidote to the drug he's already ingested, and knocked almost senseless, he begins to recall BRUNNHIHLDE. And it is at this piont that Hagen kills him with the spear. He doesn't die easily or quickly, but it is in the final third of his aria that Manfred Jung delivers what may well be the pinnacle of his performance in this demanding but unsympatheic role. His performance throughout has been as full and convincing as his singing has been solid and right. If he has not persuaded some to see him as an heroic tenor, it may well be that he is playing the part of a man who is flawed, and in a sense soul-less: A suit of armor with a child inside. But the part of Siegfried is certainly heroic in its demands.
There's that wonderful funeral march, which is played wonderfully, and soon we find ourselves on the quai of that proto-hanseatic town Chereau and company have given us, with all the townspeople present. The body is presented, laid down, and after explaining to Gutrune and others that she was and remains married to Siegfried, she takes back the ring. There is a great deal of singing by everybody, and the stage is indeed busy as the funeral pyre is being built, but towad the end of it Brunnhilde begins her mourning for Siegfried (and for her father too, it appears) and this seems to me to be one of the best things Jones does in the RING For if her high notes are adequate but not remarkable, her mid-range is very, very good. Her lament from "Ruhe! ruhe, du Got!" is heartbreakingly sad and noble. Eventually she lights the pyre, and throws the ring into the river. As the flames rise she finds her way through the crowd to the fire and jumps into it as the music like the fire itself rises. Hagen. follows after her still crying out for the ring. Walhalla appears in all its splendor, burning until it too is consumed and tumbles like an old wood fire, into the river, which swirling around all, consumes all as the Rhinemaidens sing.
Caught up in all this and watching all those ordinary looking German people standing around staring into the flames, I asked myself, "That horror! What was it? Dresden?" And I didn't know, and don't know. But I watch as all those men, women and children turn from the conflagration they've witnessed, to look at us, expressionless, as if to ask "Did you see what we saw?" I don't know what I saw, but I know it wasn't novelty. I think it was history.