Haphazard Götterdämmerung fails to light up Paris

21/06/2011

Wagner, Götterdämmerung: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra national de Paris, Philippe Jordan (conductor). Opéra Bastille, Paris, 18.6.2011 (MB)

Siegfried – Torsten Kerl
Gunther – Iain Paterson
Peter Sidhom – Alberich
Hagen – Hans-Peter König
Brünnhilde – Katarina Dalayman
Gutrune, Third Norn – Christiane Libor
Waltraute – Sophie Koch
First Norn, Flosshilde – Nicole Piccolomini
Woglinde – Caroline Stein
Wellgunde, Second Norn – Daniela Sindram

Günter Krämer (director)
Jürgen Bäckmann (set designs)
Falk Bauer (costumes)
Diego Leetz (lighting)
Otto Pichler (choreography)
Chorus master: Patrick Marie Aubert)

Production Picture © Charles Duprat/Opéra national de Paris

And so, the Paris Ring comes to an end, though complete cycles are scheduled for 2013. Alas, though Wagner wrote to Liszt in 1853, ‘Mark well my new poem — it contains the beginning of the world and its destruction!’, this world, often highly promising, came to an end not with a bang but a whimper, and not in the sense intended by TS Eliot.[1] Günter Krämer’s production, which I have previously admired, if not without reservations appeared to have run out of steam, as if to give succour to those followers of George Bernard Shaw who regard the Ring’s culmination as its fatal weakness. (How anyone reading the score or poem, let alone both together, could possibly think such a thing, I do not know, but it is a point of view, albeit seemingly presented more by default than design on this occasion. Remaining with Eliot, one might charitably think the scenario a ‘heap of broken images,’ though there is no sign of the sun beating here. The erstwhile Speer-like GERMANIA is now reduced to the shell of a stadium: Nuremberg-like, I suppose, though there seems something of a confusion, admittedly commonly-held, between stadium and Kongresshalle. That, alas, more or less seems to be it. There are other touches, some irritating, some not, but I struggled to sense much of an idea, let alone something that would properly unite Götterdämmerung with the rest of the cycle. Falk Bauer’s costumes continue to do good service, here in an all-purpose relatively contemporary fashion, but none the worse for that.

It falls to me, then, with little pleasure, to delineate those ‘other touches’. Hagen is wheelchair-bound: the cliché did no harm and indeed gave physical presence to his ‘degeneracy’, though it is an image as insensitive to the disabled as Mime’s camp extravaganza to homosexuals. What really lies behind this confinement, however, is a greater role allotted to Alberich. During the Prologue, Hagen is wheeled around by an unidentified hooded figure: I thought it might be Hagen’s father or mother, though it might merely have been an extra. That figure is present for much of the first act, eventually revealing his identity. So Hagen is doing Alberich’s bidding in a far more straightforward way than usual: a pity, since Wagner rends the ‘Schläfst du, Hagen, mein Sohn’ confrontation so rich in its ambiguity – Boulez describes it with atypical hyperbole as ‘amazing’ – but never mind.[2] Things really fall apart, however, when it comes to the third act. Alberich, not Hagen, stabs Siegfried, but it is not clear what is gained by this. Hagen is merely wheeled off by Gutrune, whereas it is Alberich who returns onstage to deliver the final line, ‘Zurück vom Ring!’ Alberich is then speared in turn by the Rhinemaindens, and lies dead on stage as the curtain falls. (Siegfried is still there too.) The question ‘what happens to Alberich?’ is resolved, but instead one might ask, ‘what happens to Hagen?’ Is there any point in the exchange? So bold a rewriting ought at least to have provoked; here it seems merely haphazard, part of a final couple of scenes which might have arisen had one asked someone unacquainted with the Ring to guess ‘what happens next?’ There are no ‘watchers’, so crucial to the remnant of society and the possibility of a future, either. Whereas Krämer has tended previously to avoid video, now it is all over the place, first for water and fire and then for a bewildering portrayal of a Valhalla-like hero – or is it several heroes? – ascending something akin to a virtual Jacob’s Ladder during Siegfried’s Funeral March. Is heaven being reinstated, or is it merely a Feuerbachian critique of immortality that is obliquely being reiterated? The problem is: one is granted no reason to know and, frankly – sadly – little reason to care.

Haphazardness is the impression, moreover, one gains from the non-appearance of Siegfried and Gutrune at the end of the second act. They are there in the music and clearly should be on the stage: one might argue that musical presence renders visualisation unnecessary, but I could not help wonder whether Krämer, in his arbitrary haste to disregard Wagner’s stage directions with pretty much anything, had even studied the score. Blood brotherhood is for some reason accomplished as if Siegfried were an unsuccessful vampire: again, the idea seems to have emerged from nowhere and to lead nowhere. A final case of undue confusion, which I can hardly avoid mentioning, comes at the end of the first act. There are difficulties, of course, in staging the Siegfried-Gunther-Tarnhelm matter, but having Siegfried come along with Gunther, first hiding behind Gunther – one wanted to call out, pantomime-style to Brünnhilde, ‘He’s behind him!’ – and then under the table, merely popping out to grab the ring – now, ‘He’s behind you!’ – only serves to make matters worse and to add to a general sense of tiredness. Whatever the Tarnhelm, actually visible on stage, was supposed to accomplish, it did not, but nor did a critique of its powers seem intended. A weird interpolation beforehand had been some dirndl-clad men dancing during Siegfried’s Rhine Journey. It was good to see the Rhinemaidens during that scene, however, affording a sense of place all too often absent from the rest of the production.

It was a visual mess, then, but Philippe Jordan might conceivably have salvaged something. Alas, the prologue and first act proved equally undisciplined in terms of conducting, despite generally impressive playing from the orchestra. Slowness without direction was the order of the day, a sluggish transition from the Gibichung Hall to Brünnhilde’s rock seemingly interminable. Yes, there is a sense of world-weariness to this drama, but forward impetus should be difficult rather than impossible. (Again, unless one conceives the work as a failure and wishes to expose it as such.) Having said ‘not with a bang but a whimper, and not in the sense intended by Eliot,’ then, there was something of Guy Fawkes’s torture rack to be endured. It has sometimes been alleged that the combined prologue and first act are simply too long, but never does it feel that way in a great, or even good, performance. For instance, Bernard Haitink’s long-distance hearing at Covent Garden almost made Wagner’s great span fly by. The Waltraute scene probably came off best, moving between extremes of speed, yet with a proper sense of the whole, rather as if it were a cantata, which in a way it is. It undoubtedly benefited from wholly committed performances on the part of Sophie Koch and Katarina Dalayman. The second and third acts were paced much better, but it was arguably too late to regain confidence by then. Perhaps Jordan was simply having an off day: his readings of the earlier dramas had certainly had their moments.

Vocally, there were two undeniable stars, who just about persuaded one not to relinquish the will to live. Hans-Peter König’s Hagen was, one strange moment of wild tuning aside, impressive indeed: black, forthright, clear of text. Dalayman continued to impress as Brünnhilde, powerful of voice, but equally attentive to the role’s subtler demands. Her Erwartung-style account of the final scene in the second act was a true wonder to experience: reminiscent of Gwyneth Jones, but in tune. Iain Paterson’s assumption of Gunther grew in stature. It is a difficult role at the best of times: to portray weakness without sounding vocally weak is no mean task. Paterson was thoughtful, conflicted, and careful with his words. Torsten Kerl simply does not possess the strength of voice to sound as a true Heldentenor, but he did what he could in a similarly thoughtful reading; it was undoubtedly a pity, however, that in any encounter with Brünnhilde, let alone Hagen, this Siegfried was so utterly overpowered. Unfortunately given the greater role allotted by the production, Peter Sidhom’s Alberich lacked presence, though all the notes and words were there. Strangely, Christiane Libor’s Gutrune came into her own in her final scene; she had previously seemed merely anonymous, without the slightest hint of the corrupting allure for which Wagner’s potion is not entirely a substitute. The end when it came, then, was welcome for all the wrong reasons – and not only because a 6 p.m. start ensured that the performance would conclude ten minutes short of midnight.

Mark Berry


[1] * Letter of 11 February 1853, in SB, V, p. 189.

[2] Pierre Boulez, ‘A Performer’s Notebook,’ in Orientations, tr. Martin Cooper (London and Boston, 1986), 291.

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