Opera Reviews
18 October 2017
Untitled Document

The Ring returns to Wagner’s birthplace

by Tony Cooper
Wagner: Deer Ring des Nibelungen
Oper Leipzig
June 2017

History has pointed out that Wagner had a difficult start in his home town but history has also shown that Leipzig and Wagner are bound together in a common union. For one thing, the first complete performance of the Ring outside of Bayreuth took place here in 1878. So the return of the Ring to Leipzig for the first time in over forty years - one of the prime initiatives of Ulf Schirmer on his appointment as music director of Oper Leipzig in the 2009/10 season - has to be wildly applauded.

Like Frank Castorf’s Bayreuth Ring, Oper Leipzig’s production, conceived by the English-born director/choreographer, Rosamund Gilmore, was mounted in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth in 2013 starting with Das Rheingold and building up to the first complete cycle in June 2016. No plans were laid to revive it but such was its success it was given another outing this year which proved tio be a popular decision.

Not surprisingly Gilmore - who worked at Stuttgart with the former (and well-respected) Royal Ballet choreographer, John Cranko - incorporated a troupe of 14 dancers to complement the scenario. I found this slightly distracting at times especially when the dancers were employed in doppelganger roles: a pair of rams represented Fricka, for instance, and for Wotan, ravens, the latter, of course, a significant feature in Germanic-Norse mythology on which the Ring is loosely based. And on the death of Siegfried in Götterdämmerung, a pair of ravens hovered above him.

Costume designer, Nicola Reichert, came up with a wardrobe of amazing outfits particularly for the trio of Rhinemaidens adorned with bridal-type floral headdresses which perfectly matched their colourful attire. They looked as if they had just come from Glastonbury. Eun Yee You (Woglinde), Sandra Maxheimer (Wellgunde) and Sandra Fechner (Flosshilde) proved a formidable trio and were more than a handful for Alberich sung handsomely by Jürgen Linn, tall, bullish as opposed to his down-trodden brother, Mime, convincingly sung by Dan Karlström.

As Loge Thomas Mohr knocked the audience for six putting in a brilliant and commanding performance, but the star of the night for me turned out to be Henriette Gödde as Erda, her richly-textured mezzo voice was near perfect and she appeared on stage with a trio of dancers entwining her with the rope of the Norns, a prediction of the chaos to come. Nicole Piccolomini took the role in Siegfried and the quality of her voice equally matched that of Gödde and her tête-à-tête with The Wanderer (John Lundgren) provided a great moment.

Fricka was admirably sung by Karin Lovelius who also delivered a brilliant reading of Waltraute in Götterdämmerung while Gal James (Freia) did likewise as Gutrune and Jürgen Kurth and Bernhard Berchtold gave a good account of themselves as Donner and Froh.
Fafner and Fasolt (James Moellenhoff and Rúni Brattaberg) looked the part through and through dressed as for pantomime with bold tight fitting-patterned suits and to give them that extra bit of height as befitting their roles they wore attention-seeking top-hats that would have made Willy Wonka look up.

Generally, the cast was on good form in Das Rheingold, but Tuomas Pursio’s portrayal of Wotan lacked, I felt, the strong authoritative measures needed to give the role clout but, on the other hand, he sang Gunther in Götterdämmerung and delivered a superb and comfortable performance - one to chalk up.

If the Rhine in Castorf’s Ring was portrayed by a peanut-shaped aquamarine swimming-pool there were some similarities to be made in Gilmore’s production, as the set designer, Carl Friedrich Oberle, came up with a wonderful and detailed set for Das Rheingold placing the Rhine in a neo-classically-designed Roman bathhouse.
At the conclusion of Rheingold, the sweeping stone-spiral staircase of the bathhouse provided a handy route to Valhalla as one witnessed a team of vassals carrying Wotan’s chattels and belongings to his heavenly home while he and his godly entourage regally followed the rainbow bridge portrayed by a series of luminescent arc-like panels - all very effective, all very simple and, by the look of it, economical too.

Nowadays, roles are often shared and such was the case in Die Walküre with Thomas J Mayer singing Wotan, a role he has undertaken many times having worked in Berlin with the likes of Barenboim and Rattle. He certainly added some bite to the part while Iréne Theorin as Brünnhilde was true to form. She’s a singer with grit and soon got down to business in this most demanding of all Wagnerian roles squeezing every nuance from the part that one can possibly obtain from it.

The pairing of Simon O’Neill and Simone Schneider in the brother-sister roles of Siegmund and Sieglinde was a gift. Their impassioned duet at the end of the first act when they confess their love for each other was passionately sung while Rúni Brattaberg (Fasolt in Rheingold) took the sinister role of Hunding (and also Hagen in Götterdämmerung) conjuring up fear just by his presence let alone his actions.

The second act of Walküre, focusing strongly on Wotan and Brünnhilde’s power struggle surrounding Siegmund winning the fight against Hunding, was well executed and played against a striking backdrop of a three-storied, Italianate-style colonnaded building representing Valhalla - but on the blink hinting of things to come.
Here the Valkyries screamed out to Wotan from the first floor to spare Brünnhilde from the tortuous burning rock with eight Fallen Heroes, dressed immaculately in white, standing in ghostly silence on the floor above them while dozens of pairs of white boots were scattered at ground level representing innocent souls and, I suppose, the glory of death on the battlefield.

But the confrontation between Fricka (Kathrin Göring) and Wotan over his adulterous and incestuous affairs didn’t quite hit the mark. I think the argument needed a stronger flavour to it so that the couple found themselves at each other’s throats a bit more in similar vein to Martha and George bickering like hell in Virginia Woolf.

To arm the warrior-maiden, Brünnhilde, Gilmore decided on a First World War bayoneted rifle while her loyal steed Grane was dramatically represented by Ziv Frenkel, a member of the dance troupe, who shadowed Brünnhilde every inch of the way (annoyingly at times) and also acted as her general factotum while Brünnhilde’s team of eight hyperactive and attractive Valkyries, dressed in long-flowing military-type dresses, were charging all over the show brandishing their bayoneted rifles left, right and centre as if on a hen night out.

Loge (played by Jochen Vogel) conjured up a good flame for Brünnhilde’s lying-in-state. And the scene in which she pleads with Wotan for her godly status was highly impressive, too, as befits Theorin and Mayer’s standing as leading Wagnerian singers. They know the game well - and it showed.

Dancers were at the fore in the first act of Siegfried holding court in a forest-like setting though, to me, it looked more like a field of maize. The dancers commented upon everything and, surprisingly, one of their actions turned out to be the forging of Nothung - Mime’s attempts were scattered all over the place. Ceremoniously, they handed the sword to Siegfried who earlier in the scene was seen at the smithy getting on with the job. Hoisted by his own petard. Bizarre!

And the scene in which Siegfried (Christian Franz; Thomas Mohr in Götterdämmerung) gets the better of the dragon sending him packing to Hades witnessed Fafner (Rúni Brattaberg) blown up to outrageous proportions apropos Marshmallow Man and seen lazily spread out across a tremendously-wide red-upholstered Louis XIV-style sofa bordered by an ornate gold-painted wooden frame. The old giant, it seems, splashed out on a bit of class and comfort with his newfound riches.

Apart from gold trinkets littered here, there and everywhere, Fafner was also surrounded by a coterie of Artful Dodger-type characters, Fafner ‘look-a-likes,’ sporting top-hats and enjoying the feasting and greed that’s Fafner’s raison-d’être. But all good things come to an end and he soon found his demise at the tip of Siegfried’s sword while poisonous, scheming, cunning old Mime soon got his lot too.
As Fafner lay dying, Siegfried, dithering and confused, looked slightly forlorn over his actions - but that was short-lived. He had other business - seeking out Brünnhilde. And the Woodbird (sung off-stage magnificently by Mirella Hagen, who flies from one opera-house to another singing this lovely part) was on hand to help Siegfried in his quest while Sandra Lommerzheim’s dance sequence fitted so well the overall stage picture of this well-loved and moving scene.

A fine and powerful partnership came together in Götterdämmerung with Christine Libor (Brünnhilde) and Thomas Mohr (Siegfried). They produced enough electricity in their performance to aid the National Grid! And if Hagen raised a spark or two in his big number summoning his men for action so did Libor at the crucial point in the Ring’s scenario where it reaches boiling-point when Brünnhilde realises that lust, greed and corruption that encapsulates the curse is inextricably tied to the ring.

To ensure mankind can be rekindled to start again Brünnhilde humbly sacrifices herself while denouncing the gods for their guilt in Siegfried’s death and in the famous Immolation Scene, Libor magnificently and proudly produced her best that had the audience spellbound and gripped to their seats.

Michael Röger needs to take a bow for conjuring up some marvellous lighting effects mixed with a dash of pyrotechnical wizardry for the burning of Valhalla and the end of the gods. The stage picture told its own story and a packed house lapped up every minute of it.

The Gewandhaus Orchestra, under Ulf Schirmer, found themselves in the pit. At times the relationship between pit and stage was slightly unbalanced but in Siegfried’s Funeral March, for instance, the orchestra pulled out all stops to give a thrilling and balanced account of one of the highlights of Wagner’s mesmeric, inviting and challenging score
Further cycles are planned for 2018. Check out the performance schedule by visiting www.oper-leipzig.de

Text © Tony Cooper
Photo © Tom Schulze
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