Barenboim’s Die Walküre in Berlin

Wagner, Die Walküre: Soloists, Staatskapelle Berlin, Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Schillertheater, Berlin, 17.4.2011 (MB)

Siegmund – Simon O’Neill
Sieglinde – Anja Kampe
Hunding – Mikhail Petrenko
Wotan – René Pape
Brünnhilde – Iréne Theorin
Fricka – Ekaterina Gubanova
Gerhilde – Danielle Halbwachs
Ortlinde – Carola Höhn
Waltraute – Ivonne Fuchs
Schwertleite – Anaïk Morel
Helmwige – Erika Wueschner
Siegrune – Leann Sandel-Pantaleo
Grimgerde – Nicole Piccolomini
Rossweisse – Simone Schröder
Dancers – Guro Nagelhus Shia, Vebjorn Sundby

Guy Cassiers (director, set design)
Enrico Bagnoli (set design, lighting)
Tim van Steenbergen (costumes)
Arjen Klerkx, Kurt D’Haeseleer (video)
Michael P Steinberg, Detlef Giese (dramaturgy)
Csilla Lakatos (choreography)

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

Picture Courtesy of Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Guy Cassiers’s production of the Ring continues, in its second instalment, to baffle. So far, so unusual, one might say, but the nature of my bafflement is different from any other Ring I can recall. If ever there were a work overflowing with ideas – the overflowing and the conflict being part and parcel of the experience – it is surely the Ring. Yet Cassiers seems to have none at all. I was highly critical of the Weimar Ring, released on DVD, but at least it tried to present some conceptual framework, however confused. The concern of the present production, already staged at La Scala, though Siegfried and Götterdämmerung will be staged first in Berlin, seems to be present a pleasant backdrop for what otherwise might as well be a concert performance. It is not ‘traditional’ in the sense of Otto Schenk’s mindless ‘restorationist’ production for the Metropolitan Opera; it merely seems empty, devoid of meaning, whether political or otherwise.

Take the Ride of the Valkyries. I recall Deryck Cooke’s wise retort to Eric Blom’s jibe about ‘the most tasteless piece of music ever written’: namely, what on earth would be the point of a tasteful Ride of the Valkyries? This seems to be it, or at least to approach it: a scenic backdrop of elegant black horses, not entirely dissimilar from what one might find emblazoned on a Baroque fountain. That is it. At a push, one might wonder whether a point were being made concerning representational culture, a feudal order about to be overthrown, but there is no suggestion that this might be the case. A little later, we see ‘tasteful’ video projections of a male nude, credited as a dancer, almost Old Master-ish; I have no idea why. Video projections of René Pape’s (Wotan’s) face occasionally surfaced during the first act, when Wälse was mentioned; otherwise, it was difficult to note any other feature to the production. Red poles descend from the ceiling during the third act: they are not unpleasant to look at, yet do not seem to signify anything. Costumes tend to be expensive-looking but unflattering, Brünnhilde’s taffeta-style bustle a case in point.

The performance was considerably better. Daniel Barenboim led a warmly Romantic account, considerably contrasted to the surprising Neue Sachlichkeit objectivism he had imparted to Das Rheingold. I assume a contrast between the frigid world of the gods and the purely human love of the Volsungs was intended; that, at any rate, is how it came across. It may be of interest to note that Barenboim has insisted upon a semi-covered pit for the Schillertheater, in partial imitation of Bayreuth. I am not sure what good this does; it is difficult to tell whether the somewhat restrained – or constrained – result is a product of the less than sensational acoustic of the Staatsoper’s temporary home or a matter of deliberate intent. What I can say is that Barenboim’s reading proved full of momentary incident whilst maintaining the necessary longer line, an especially difficult task in the second and third acts. This seemed to me the best conducted Walküre I had heard since Bernard Haitink’s account for the Royal Opera at the Royal Albert Hall. The Staatskapelle Berlin’s performance was not faultless, but a few fluffs were more than compensated for by the rich, variegated tone emanating from the pit.

The cast was generally fine. Simon O’Neill’s Siegmund was slightly disappointing. His metallic timbre is not to my taste and his stage presence might best be described as old-fashioned gestural. (On the other hand, it was not clear that any of the singers received any assistance from the director.) Anja Kampe proved an increasingly spirited Sieglinde, improving in each act, her performance culminating in a radiant ‘O höchstes Wunder!’ Mikhail Petrenko maintained the high standards I noted from him as Hunding in Aix – and Hagen there in Götterdämmerung too. There have been many blacker-toned Hundings, but Petrenko’s malevolent stage presence and delivery of text are ample substitute for the more ‘traditional’ sound. Ekaterina Gubanova presented an imperious, wounded Fricka: the woman within and the stern moralising presence without were placed in finely judged counterpoint. Iréne Theorin overcame the handicap of her costume to show a Brünnhilde gaining in humanity throughout her two acts. I have heard Valkyries with more beautiful of tone, but Theorin presents no particular reason for complaint. René Pape’s Wotan, however, proved somewhat frustrating. There were times when his fabled rich beauty of tone came very much to the fore and there was bitterness too. However, his attention sometimes seemed to stray, most persistently during his ‘Farewell’ scene, in which a good number of words were the victims of substitution. I am told that there had been a greater number of errors during the final rehearsal. A great hope for the role has yet, it seems, to fulfil his promise.

Mark Berry