It Continues: The Wiener Staatsoper's Ring Cycle

Wagner's Der Ring der Nibelung continued at the Wiener Staatsoper with a well-sung production of Die Walküre. With all elements of the production the same (singers, conductor, director, designer), it had great continuity. This meant the singing and the conducting continued to be excellent while the design still did not impress.

General information & synopsis: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Die_Walk%C3%BCre

Cast:

Die Walküre | Richard Wagner

Christian Thielemann | Dirigent
Sven-Eric Bechtolf | Regie
Rolf Glittenberg | Bühne
Marianne Glittenberg | Kostüme
fettFilm | Video

Christopher Ventris | Siegmund
Eric Halfvarson | Hunding
Albert Dohmen | Wotan
Waltraud Meier | Sieglinde
Brünnhilde | Katarina Dalayman
Janina Baechle | Fricka
Donna Ellen | Helmwige
Ildikó Raimondi | Gerhilde
Alexandra Reinprecht | Ortlinde
Aura Twarowska | Waltraute
Ulrike Helzel | Siegrune
Monica Bohinec | Grimgerde
Zoryana Kushpler | Schwertleite
Juliette Mars | Roßweiße

Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper
Bühnenorchester der Wiener Staatsoper

Sorry the photos are blurry - all I could find
The set for Die Walküre abandoned the three black legs from Das Rheingold, with all the action and set changes instead taking place essentially in boxes. The first box was a relatively small horizontally rectangular space that was relatively simple. A hearth on stage right and the dominating tables and central tree were the only elements on stage. Most of the action took place on or around the square ring of tables around the central tree, in which, of course, Nothung, the sword, was set. In the second act, we saw a return of the infamous Boring White Stones from which the Gods awakened in Das Rheingold. This time, however, they were in a dark box set onto stage. This one, unlike the one for the first act, didn't restrict the amount of space on the stage, but still created three walls. Also, the stones were downstage and less of a focus because there was a forest of treest behind them, shrouded in shadow. 
While still not thrilling in general, this was a nice way to tie the two operas together, and the depth of the shadowy forest did allow for interesting interplay between Wotan, Fricka, and Brünnhilde as they tried to come to an agreement about how to handle Siegmund and Sieglinde. In the final act we were left only with the box that had previously contained the forest and stones now filled with nine prancing horses, in an almost grecian style, representing the nine horses of the Valkyries. Wagner certainly has created a problem for directors and designers by referencing in the libretto the Valkyries as actually trying to manage their horses. Recognizing our sympathy should be extended to those trying to figure out how to do this without needing nine live horses, this solution nonetheless felt static, unrealistic, and untrue in its representation, perhaps because it was abstract compared to all the other scenes in the opera. One final complaint about the design here is the use of projected imaging. Having a white wolf walking across the first act's set did not really add much to the music preceding his entrance. Later, it was kind of interesting to have the entire cube of the third act with fire projected across it, but it felt a little odd, perhaps for the same reason as the horses.

What issues there were with the set were not reflected in the singing. I will, as these Ring reviews go along, not spend as much time discussing the basic performance and suitability of the singers whose roles recur, though I will touch on them briefly.

Also, in this case, the Valkyries other than Brünnhilde cannot be treated individually. As a whole however, they brought the large, bombastic, and sometimes even cacophonous sound necessary for their roles. They have the advantage of numbers when trying to be heard over the orchestra, but it is insufficient for them to be heard as a chorus, they must sound like eight individual women all talking simultaneously. They managed to convincingly sound like a group and to portray their emotions over Brünnhilde's plight. The shock at her disobedience showed in their voices, yet ultimately they also sounded tough when facing Wotan.

In the role of Hunding, Eric Halfvarson voice was deep and rich, but with a tinge of iron in it. He was able to, through physical stature, a mixture of forceful and nonchalant acting, and use of this iron-lined tone to produce the effect of a man fully aware of the strain on his marriage and the trials of life in the wilderness but who tries, at least, to respect hospitality, until it is clear Siegmund and his wife intend to betray him. Halfvarson was very consistent, giving us a performance where the voice never wavered from the tone with which he initially opened.

Janina Baechle continued to sound full, warm, and like a goddess as Fricka. The motherly tone that I praised in Das Rheingold is perhaps slightly less appropriate as she is fighting with Wotan about whether or not two lovers deserve to die. nonetheless, she is doing so out of a sense of duty to her role as the protector and guarantor of wedlock, which does have a sort of motherly aspect to it. We must also remember that she is a goddess, and dispensation of justice is a part of that role. Baechle also recognized this, and in her argument with Wotan there was more bite to her voice. This steelier tone helped to differentiate the different moments in her role and fit well with her austere acting as she coldly regarded her husband.

Albert Dohmen continued his excellent performance in the role of Wotan. As I mentioned before, his voice isn't perhaps the most dramatic, fiery, or even the largest that could suit the role, and at the very loudest moments he is covered by the orchestra. Nonetheless, his performance is consistent and his acting is admirable. The more I see of him (particularly since seeing him in the Ring and not in the small roles I had seen him in outside of the Wagnerian repertoire) I recognize his versatility in acting. Here he continued to play the resigned God, trying to hang onto his gains and figure out how to manage the loss of the ring. He was able to show Brünnhilde a kind of hard love, stern yet ultimately kind, even if he never does anything other than frown (making his range of emotions that much more impressive). He was also able to show passion for the cause of the Volsung yet resign himself and demonstrate a trueness to duty when faced with Fricka's demands. This acting was demonstrated in the voice, as well as in the body, but only subtly. Dohmen's interpretation of Wotan remains very solid.

I had previously seen Waltraud Meier in the role of Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio and been relatively unimpressed and even worried about her vocal health. As Sieglinde she performed better and seemingly more healthily, but some of my initial artistic criticisms remained. It felt to me as though she was still warming up or really holding back for most of the first act. It was not until she said Siegmund's name where she forced the voice to such a dramatic height that it was mind blowing. After this she kind of struck a middle ground and the performance was more energized. But as with Leonore, it felt like it took a long while for her to get going (though in both cases she really started to bring out the performance at the important point). Also, as she went along her acting felt less stilted and more organic, especially in the second and third acts. Her voice still felt like it could use a little more squillo, but I was ready to accept her as Sieglinde, whereas ultimately I didn't feel I could accept her in the role of Leonore, at least not in the performance I witnessed.


Christopher Ventris' Siegmund was very impressive. The trick with both Siegmund and Siegfried is that they are relatively long tenor roles, requiring huge voices, that have at least some range, and yet should be evenly sung. The great thing about Ventris' singing was that he not only met the basic criteria for the role, never seeming to grow tired and always maintaining a consistent tone that carried over the orchestra, but was able to do so without sacrificing the artistic demands of the role as well. His voice was rich and heroic. Many famous large tenor voices are either very steely, many Wagnerian tenors have an almost muffled (though huge sound), and some tenors end up half-shouting to sing Wagnerian roles. Ventris did none of this, maintaining a big, resonant, and ringing sound that made him sound very heroic. This added a sense of truth to his acting as he seemed like the sort of man who really would fall for a woman, declare his love, and run with her, battling anyone who got in his way. Ventris was, primarily because of this wonderful vocal tone, able to bring a great portrayal of Siegmund to the production and to emotionally involve me in the wellbeing of him, his lover, and ultimately, their child.

Some might cast Katarina Dalayman's performance as Brünnhilde might be labeled by some as eccentric. She brought a vibrant, youthful sounding voice and a lot of enthusiasm to her performance. This was apparent as soon as she entered the stage with her opening cries. This lighter sound in the voice was almost surprising given the demands of the role and I feared she would not be able to hold her own with the orchestra. It's true that, not unlike Albert Dohmen, at the very loudest moments the voice wasn't quite a match. Nonetheless, the vibrancy of her tone was absolutely preferable to a voice that could be heard but wasn't interesting or desirable in any other way. She looked exactly the part as well, without fitting the stereotypes. She was solid, but in an attractive, wholesome way, and her long dark hair and young face were quite becoming. This, combined with her acting, convincingly showed us a young woman who loves her father, wants to be faithful to him, and ultimately wants to help him no matter what the cost. It gave her the joyous innocence of youth but the conviction of a battlemaiden.

All in all, Die Walküre was well sung and impressive as a production. The set left a little bit to be desired, but the singing and acting more than made up for that with an all around solid cast. Halfway through, the Wiener Staatsoper's Ring Cycle is looking like quite a success.


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