It Begins: The Wiener Staatsoper's Ring Cycle

 

Yes. Wagner. Here we go. This Das Rheingold was my first experience with Wagner of any kind at the Staatsoper and my first time seeing the Ring live. This performance was interesting to me because, looking at it beforehand, I recognized many of the performers as those that I had seen in R. Strauss operas and in Beethoven's Fidelio, other operas that require voices comparable in size and stamina to those demanded Wagnerian operas. Oddly, many of these singers were not thrilling to me in other roles, flaws in their voices at times rather evident in this repertoire. The singing here, was, however, more or less excellent. The costuming and sets were, in general, mediocre with a few interesting things here and there. Still, the somewhat incomprehensible improvement of the singers even compared to repertoire with similar demands.

General information & synopsis: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Das_Rheingold

DAS RHEINGOLD | Richard Wagner

Christian Thielemann | Dirigent 
Sven-Eric Bechtolf | Regie
Rolf Glittenberg | Bühne
Marianne Glittenberg | Kostüme
Mario Ferrara | Bühnenbildassistenz
Ralf Tristan Sczesny | Kostümassistenz

Albert Dohmen | Wotan
Adrian Eröd | Loge
Tomasz Konieczny | Alberich
Wolfgang Schmidt | Mime
Janina Baechle | Fricka
Anna Larsson | Erda
Markus Eiche | Donner
Herbert Lippert | Froh
Alexandra Reinprecht | Freia
Lars Woldt | Fasolt
Ain Anger | Fafner
Ileana Tonca | Woglinde
Ulrike Helzel | Wellgunde
Zoryana Kushpler | Flosshilde


The opening scene
My criticism of the set for this Das Rheingold is that it falls in a category that I might call "lackluster modern." My point here is not to rage against minimalism in set design, just as it is not to rage against modernism. A tastefully designed set with very little on stage in a modern abstract style (for instance using only dark blocks, or set within a small space on stage) can be very effective to focus audiences on the action. Older sets that are meant to literally interpret setting are, of course, the norm. Modern sets that do so, if they make effective use of new technology, can be great as well. The problem is the middle-ground. Here, the set was clearly intended to evoke a literal interpretation of the setting, but do so in a modern, abstract fashion through minimalism. The customary modern-abstract legs of black columns were on the side of each act. The first scene began with a covered amorphous shape in the center and green fabric lain across the ground. In general this was not the most interesting set. That said, it was very cool having the Rheinmaidens rise up and down on pedestals which then forced air into the fabric, creating little domes  on which the Rheinmaidens seemed to be standing. This allowed Alberich to wade through the cloth in his pursuit of the Rheinmaidens, creating an interesting visual effect. Eventually, the Rheingold, in a typical geological representation of crystals, was revealed in the center. The second and fourth scene was, by far, the most boring. This set was comprised merely of white rocks lain across the stage from which the  gods arose from their slumbers, along with a background that could support projection (for instance for the rainbow in the final scene). This is the main element that gives rise to my criticism of the show's design, especially since it comprises two of four scenes. 
The stones and some of the costuming are visible here in this photo taken
on the set for the second and fourth scenes.
Unfortunately I couldn't find a photo of the third scene.
The third scene set was, in some ways, the most interesting of the three. While not perhaps quite as innovative as the rising and falling Rheinmaidens on their pedestals, the dark red-suffused stage with rows of heavy metal racks for collected gold were imposing and effectively conveyed the totalitarianism of Alberich's ring-powered regime. The use of the screen for the giant snake and a small prop for the toad were somewhat underwhelming, however. The giant snake employed for Die Zauberflöte was more in line with Wagnerian scope, though in that case, too comedic. As far as costuming goes, the lackluster modern motif continues. Costumes for the Rheinmaidens were essentially directly tied to the set design, green and meant to be an extension of the platforms upon which they rose. The gods, in general, were clad in neutral whites, blacks, browns, and greys, mostly in fairly modern clothes with men in pants, dress shirts, and jackets of some kind and women in a bit more antiquated a style with long gowns. Some of the men, like Wotan and Loge, had long jackets reaching almost to the floor. This mixture is a common modern technique; still, it struck me as a bit underwhelming for the scope of the Ring. The best costuming, in fact, may have been in the third scene with the other Nibelung miners dressed in mining outfits and headlamps. On a related note, though I eventually came to understand that the gold pieces they had mined were human shaped so they could be fitted to "cover" Freia, it was still strange to see the "mined" gold look like body parts. The only costuming I really loved was the use of suits of fuzzy ball to give a textured look to the giants, who were obviously on some sort of stilts. It was very effective in making them seem exactly what they were.

The singing and acting was much more impressive. The Rheinmaidens, played by Ileana Tonca, Ulrike Helzel, and Zoryana Kushpler, all had voices that carried across the orchestra and were able to infuse both their tones and their acting with the flirtatious, flippant, youthful attitude necessary for their part, whether dealing with Alberich or the Rheingold. When Alberich finally renounces love and claims the gold, they were able to translate this sound into that of girls distraught but unsure of what to do with themselves. Another more minor role, Mime, was played well by Wolfgang Schmidt. His frayed voice felt rough and distasteful to me as Herodes in Salome, but here, as a suppliant, scared brother, it felt like it fit better. Anna Larsson's contralto, though only briefly heard, had exactly the eerie, earthy tone necessary to impart a haunting, almost chilling warning to Wotan and the gods.

In a similarly positive turn, I found Markus Eiche much more agreeable as Donner than in the role of Eugene Onegin. I don't mean to say that there aren't leading roles for which the man is appropriate, still, it felt like here the simpler character, with less emotional dynamism required, was easier to play. Also, while his baritone voice did fit for the heavy Russian role, the steely quality to it felt right in place for a god.
As his brother Froh, Herbert Lippert, who I had recently seen as Narraboth in Salome, brought a heroism to his voice that I had not detected in the strange, timid psychological character of the other opera despite the heavy orchestration. His acting, as in Salome, fit the part very well.

Alexandra Reinprecht's voice was an intriguing mixture of large vocal size and young, almost girlish vocal color. In the role of Freia, a young woman (god) running from giants pursuing her for her beauty, this seemed apt. The part is, of course, not one that can be sung by a soubrette or light lyric, the voices normally associated with this quality and used for this in earlier operas. Fortunately, Reinprecht's color and occasionally frantic and scared acting brought home this sensation to us while still filling the hall over the Wagnerian Orchestra.

Fafner and Fasolt, played by Ain Anger and Lars Woldt respectively, did excellently in their roles. My opinion of Lars Woldt has continuously improved since I first saw him in Arabella, and after seeing him in Fidelio and comparing that performance to this one, his character range is excellent. I thought one of the nicest things about the casting for the giants was the fact that Anger and Woldt actually have voices that are similar enough that, along with the similar costuming, it really felt like they were brothers. The individual voices also carry the power and the slight gravelliness that fits perfectly for giants.

Fricka, played by Janina Baechle, felt almost oddly like a continuation of the woman's role as Herodias in Salome at the Staatsoper just a short span earlier. Though she does become more confrontational in Die Waklüre, she is fundamentally a motherly figure, concerned about her sister (in a motherly fashion) in Das Rheingold, and about her charge of wedlock in Die Walküre. The same motherly tone (though without the strange psychological implications) that made her a fitting Herodias helped her here. Even so, the voice seemed even more suited to the role of Fricka. It was almost as though the additional power, presence, and glory of being a goddess (instead of a queen, hah), added something to her presentation on stage and the impact of her voice in the house.

Perhaps I am at fault for not being able to separate out the different roles played by one man, however, Tomasz Konieczny, who played an excellent Mandryka in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, felt somehow ill-fitted to the role of Alberich, yet managed to pull off a stunning performance. The trick here is, in part, the presentation. Though he is not a body-builder of any kind, having him prancing around shirtless on stage with long, thick hair in the flush of youth with only a little facial makeup did not contribute to the sense that he was a hideous Nibelung that the Rheinmaidens would reject and who would ultimately come to be as greedy and arrogant as he does. The fact is that despite this (and the virile baritone voice that seems so well fitted to a dashing young nobleman) through his acting, using shaking gestures, skulking movements, and impetuous physical impulses, he conveyed the character we expect to see in Alberich. The voice's beauty, while seeming almost odd in the role, carried across the hall, and he was able to use it to give weight to the ideas that he was conveying. All in all his performance was excellent, even if I still saw a bit of the nobleman Mandryka from time to time.
One intriguing factor: Eröd is apparently
a baritone...

Adrian Eröd's light voice fit the role of Loge well due to Wagner's excellent scoring. One of the quirks of the role is that Loge is frequently played by light, almost Mozartean voices in an opera dominated by some of the heaviest roles for the largest voices in the art form. It's true that Eröd's light voice was summarily drowned out the few times he was required to sing over the orchestra at its height. These moments were few and far between however, and they are moments where, for instance, Albert Dohmen's comparatively huge voice was also not heard over the orchestra. What brought excellence to Eröd's performance, however, was his acting ability and his lithe stage presence. His thin form, draped in long coat, was always moving quickly and jumping to a lounging position, whether on the god's white stones, Alberich's metal racks, or elsewhere. This passive-aggressive menacing gave us a real sense of a character we would describe as a "snake." While he seemed helpful in many cases, and in many cases his unreliability and untrustworthiness seemed like a necessary evil, especially to the gods on stage, we as an audience never lost sight of the fact that he was in fact slippery and not the man you'd want to have your back, ultimately.

Note: not a costume form this production
Albert Dohmen may not be the most godly Wotan there has ever been. While his voice is definitely of considerable size, I can imagine a larger baritone voice with a richer tone. Still, for a man I gave a poor review as Il Commendatore in Don Giovanni and a mediocre review as Don Pizarro in Fidelio, his performance here was excellent. It seems odd to me that by taking on a larger role, requiring greater vocal size and incredible stamina, the tone would improve. Nonetheless, Dohmen was consistent throughout, with a tasteful, healthy vibrato and a pleasant depth. His imposing stage presence and odd hair felt fitting, somehow, for the wearied king of the gods. His frowning, gruff presence lent itself to this, as well, making us feel as though he had some right to power over us and the others on stage while nonetheless demonstrating his pain and fatigue.

This performance of Das Rheingold marks the beginning of Wagner's opus magnum Der Ring des Nibelungen. I will be attending each performance and reviewing them. Perhaps when the cycle is complete I will comment on the cycle as a whole and mark comparisons and discuss continuity in both design and characterization. It is a wonderful opportunity to see the cycle performed with the same designers, same conductor, same orchestra, and same singers. This production may not be the newest, but the voices that have been brought in are on the whole very good for the roles. I look forward to the continuation of the cycle.

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