Italy Wagner, Götterdämmerung: Staging by Graham Vick with Ron Howell as Director of the Mimes. Sets and costumes by Richard Hudson. Lighting Designer, Giuseppe Di Iorio. Soloists, Orchestra and chorus of Teatro Massimo, Palermo (Chorus Master, Piero Monti) / Stefan Anton Reick (conductor). Teatro Massimo, Palermo, 28.01.2016 and 2.2.2016. (JB)
Siegfried – Christian Voigt
Gunther – Eric Greene
Alberich – Sergei Leiferkus
Hagen – Mats Almgren
Brünnhilde – Iréne Theorin
Gutrune – Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs
Waltraute – Viktoria Vizin
First Norn – Annette Jahns
Second Norn / Wellgunde – Christine Knorren
Third Norn / Woglinde – Stephanie Corley
Flosshilde – Renée Tatum
Crane, Brünnhilde’s horse Jean Maurice Feist (mime)
Waltraute’s horse Gisueppe Randazzo (mime)
And some fifty other mimes of Palermo
It’s rare that imagination and intelligence are as perfectly twinned as they are in the stagings of Graham Vick. Like many great ideas, Vick’s thinking can sometimes feel like the obvious; but it wasn’t obvious until he articulated it. For instance, in act three of Götterdämmerung, Hagen (whose mother was a Gibichung but whose father was the dwarf, Alberich) manoeuvres matters in a wily, distant, calculated way, never gloating over the evil he studiedly wreaks, but quietly admiring his own management skills as the drama moves toward its inevitable destructive conclusion. To have Hagen in director’s jeans, striding through the shocked audience, giving – not so much signals, as vibes – to the stage, was a stroke of genius. Of course, you may say. But so far as I know, no one before has explored this approach. The Hagen of Wagner’s script has to keep his plans secret. They may not be spoken. But Vick has found a way of staging them.
There is also a beguiling, double whammy here. Hagen in the audience is one of us. Evil management as part of us? To be sure, reply Wagner and Vick: the evil we wittingly or unwittingly promote is one of life’s Inconvenient Truths. The greatest of these truths is Death itself: it hovers over The Ring as it hovers over life itself, and the Sicilians, like the Mexicans, have a brand of Christianity which celebrates Death. The Sicilian critics told me that the Teatro Massimo audience had never responded so deeply as they did to this Götterdämmerung.
You may remember Anna Russell’s satirical and entirely truthful “analysis” of The Ring: As the curtain goes up on part four, the three norns – a dreary bunch of Siegfried’s aunts – tell this whole story again from the beginning, so you can miss out parts one, two and three and come in at the beginning of part four and you’ll be just as far ahead. Graham Vick doesn’t apologize for the norns being bores. He underlines this. They are seated at a desk in black blouses, skirts and specs -the traditional costumes of the Edwardian schoolmarms: ladies of restricted intelligence. To present them as outmoded bores of yesteryear is to rather cruelly laugh at them, but the norns have had this coming to them since their invention. Vick merely puts some meaningful icing on their cake. Interestingly, two of the norns double up as sexy Rhinemaidens (see below): astonishing the transformations you can make with make-up and costume.
How often have you suffered at Siegfried’s Journey down the Rhine, with projections of waves on trembling net curtains? [I always have the urge to send a memo to the production team: Warning: the Rhine is a river and doesn’t have waves.] For Vick, this is moment when the entire nation celebrates Siegfried. That is all there in the music. And how much celebration the Vick choreographer, Ron Howell (London School of Contemporary Dance and co-founder of Arc Dance) gets out of the group of Palermitani mimes: the vocabulary of well directed arms and legs, astonishes by its mischievous impudence. O Anna Russell, thou shouldst be living at this hour. The whole row of critics applauded this wit.
The other painfully boring scene of the opera is Waltraute’s lengthy account to sister Brünnhilde of the gods’ downfall back in Valhalla. Another Wagnerian recapitulation scene. But as Waltraute begins her tale, net curtains slowly rise at the back of the immense stage (the biggest in Europe after Paris and Vienna) to reveal a whole “chorus” of bare-chested, frozen, downcast, muscle boys. You can’t look at anything else on the stage. Waltraute’s tale sparks unexpected sense.
It was Lindsay Kemp who first pointed out to me that if you wanted to be a dancer or mime and were very handsome, seventy per cent of the work has been done for you; the other thirty per cent is tough, totally dedicated, continuous strict discipline and training, he added. Ron Howell chose these mimes (all of them unemployed amateurs ready to subject themselves to fierce discipline) for Rheingold of January 2013, right through to tonight’s Götterdämmerung.
Two of the muscle boys are also the horses of Brünnhilde, Grane (Jean Maurice Feist) and Waltraute (Giuseppe Randazzo) The horses carry a see-through plastic chair which stands in for mounting block, saddle and stirrup. The horses of Teutonic myths were a rare combination of beauty, loyalty, strength. And with perfect choreography, how well these boys radiate these qualities. Kemp’s other thirty per cent shines here.
Two boys in black dress – Giuseppe Claudio Insalaco and Rocco Buttiglieri – were outstanding, yet menacingly unobtrusive as Wotan’s crows: tumbling, flying, fearsome, frolicking, savaging, scaring. These are vital roles which are often cut.
Just as the norns were bores, the Rhinemaidens are the sexiest trio you ever saw, in very short shorts, tight bras and slender frames. Moreover, Christine Knorren, Stephanie Corley and Renée Tatum have the limpid, seductive voices to match – flutteringly concerned in danger and innocent of any hint of evil –a drama all of their own and Wagner’s making. They too have a trick of popping up in the audience: a part of the Vick belonging-to-us card. Most of the audience were seduced,
Vick’s production does, however, put the Gibichungs at the centre of the drama (Gunther, Gutrune and half-brother Hagen) at the expense of the Siegfried/Brünnhilde saga. Many will object to this as a distortion of Wagner. I do not. This approach is all there in the text. It’s taken Vick to blow the dust off it.
The Afro-American singer/actor, Eric Greene (Gunter) has the perfect physical attributes of a photo-model: tall, slender, athletic of movement. Everything about Greene engages at a hundred per cent with his role, especially his warm, expressive voice with very clear German diction, superior to, and admired by the German singers in the cast. This Gunter is the easily-shapeable putty in the hands of the evil half-brother.
The Swedish bass, Mats Almgren (Hagen) is tall, of commanding appearance, not someone you would want to meet on a dark night. His appearances in the audience are unpredictable and frequently not lit. Now you see him; now you don’t. But you always hear the chilling command of Almgen’s voice.
Gutrune (Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs) is even more duped than her brother. The Blancke-Biggs vocal makeup is aptly tinged with vulnerability to convey the terror she would like to suppress. So vocally, this calls for a singer/actor who can engage with near-contradictory vocal assets. Blancke-Biggs has them.
The aged Alberich (Sergei Leiferkus) is in a wheelchair pushed by his evil son. It’s touching to hear for the first time from Alberich, some genuinely felt affection, in his repeated, Hagen, mein sohn. There is a beautifully expressed pathos in what approaches heartfelt regrets. Attempts at aggression fail him in old age. This is one of the show’s star performances.
All was not well in the Siegfried/Brünnhilde department. Both singers were faced with vocal demands they were unable to meet. Sometimes painfully so. The Swedish Iréne Theorin continued to get notes stuck in her throat with no proper regard for projection. She failed to get even near to Wagner’s requirements. A reliable Italian critic told me she had sung the role much better at La Scala. He was right to add that her unflattering costume did nothing to help her. Richard Hudson’s costumes and sets were exemplary elsewhere.
Christian Voigt (Siegfried) also had throat and projection trouble. The lengthy Wagnerian phrases were outside his technical and musical grasp. He acted well enough on stage, though there were moments even there where he looked unsure of what he ought to be doing.
Stefan Anton Reck got some remarkably good sounds out of the recently augmented Teatro Massimo orchestra. Despite a couple of mishaps, the horns, both on stage and in the pit, made impressive contributions to the show. Reck has a tendency to play it safe, so some of the great climaxes were missed. And this was a bad mistake. For if a conductor begs, borrows or steals this orchestra to give their best, they have been known to give much more.
The Teatro Massimo’s new CEO (Sovrintendente in Italian) appears to be doing an outstanding job in his native Palermo. (He had already called Graham Vick for Rigoletto during his first mandate.) He is guardedly optimistic for the future, reforming and more importantly, revitalizing the workforce. Dr Francesco Giambrone, formerly Sovrintendente of the Florence Opera, is a medic by training and an understanding of how cells and nerve synapses can work together to make a harmonious whole is surely admirable training for his task in hand.