Looking back at Petra Lang’s vividly sung Brünnhilde in Vienna State Opera’s 2017 Götterdämmerung

20/05/2020

AustriaAustria Wagner, Götterdämmerung: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera / Peter Schneider (conductor). Performance of 5.6.2017 from the Vienna State Opera and reviewed as a Wiener Staatsoper Live stream on 19.5.2020. (JPr)

Petra Lang (Brünnhilde), Falk Struckmann (Hagen), and Markus Eiche (Gunther)

Production:

Director – Sven-Eric Bechtolf
Revived by Karin Voykowitsch
Sets – Rolf Glittenberg
Costumes – Marianne Glittenberg
Chorus master – Thomas Lang
TV Director – Jasmina Eleta

Cast:

Brünnhilde – Petra Lang
Siegfried – Stefan Vinke
Hagen – Falk Struckmann
Gutrune – Regine Hangler
Gunther – Markus Eiche
Alberich – Jochen Schmeckenbecher
Waltraute – Waltraud Meier
First Norn – Monika Bohinec
Second Norn – Stephanie Houtzeel
Third Norn – Caroline Wenborne
Woglinde – Ileana Tonca
Wellgunde – Stephanie Houtzeel
Flosshilde – Zoryana Kushpler

If there is an opera in Wagner’s Ring cycle that can stand alone it is Götterdämmerung as it summarises the previous three operas, all underpinned by its miasma of musical motifs. There are undoubtedly holes still in the plot – Brünnhilde bringing about Siegfried’s downfall notwithstanding – but (the Norns’) loose ends are rather neatly tied up and as one world is washed away, another rises from the flood and is free to make its own mistakes. That was about as much as I gleaned from Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s 2008 Götterdämmerung, now revived in 2017, though had I watched the entire cycle I might have understood more of an overarching Konzept.

To be truthful Rolf Glittenberg doesn’t provide many real sets, and with Marianne Glittenberg’s nondescript costumes and all the modern hairstyles, it was almost like an elaborate semi-staging. There was a large translucent screen – often bathed in green light – to the rear of the stage in Acts I and III and this was lowered on occasions to create more intimacy and allow figures in the background to be seen, such as Hagen’s henchmen in the final act. Act II had just two slanted rows of what looked like unadorned columns for the Gibichung Hall. What ‘props’ there were included some small fir trees for the Prologue and Brünnhilde’s rock; a slab on which Siegfried emerges as if out of a chrysalis; a plain spiralling sofa for the Gibchungs; a number of rowing boats (of the type you might hire on a pond in a park) to represent the Rhine, as well as a statue of the horse, Grane. A dark screen was lowered during Siegfried’s ‘Rhine Journey’ and ‘Funeral Music’ to let the audience concentrate solely on what they were hearing.

After several hours, the best was left for last. The final moments of the Ring with the Immolation Scene and the fall of Valhalla can be virtually impossible to bring off successfully, since Wagner’s closing bars so explicitly determines what we should see. Bechtolf’s ending is much better than most I have seen. Projected on a screen at the front of the stage was a swirling ring of fire. This engulfed Brünnhilde who together with Siegfried’s body (in a boat like a Viking funeral) and Grane disappeared below the stage. Wind-tossed waves represented the Rhine bursting its banks before roaring flames overwhelmed Wotan in Valhalla who we get to see brandishing his broken spear and stoically accepting his fate. Calm ensues with some gently rippling waters as – what looked like – embracing (naked) Adam and Eve-like figures suggested renewal of life as the last bars ebbed away.

Despite Peter Schneider’s leisurely tempi, verging on Goodall-like, the hours at the laptop passed with barely a dull moment with that moving, reflective, yet incandescent, ending proving the summation of all that went before. Through my (good) headphones the Vienna State Opera Orchestra had the odd rough moment and the exposed solo horn calls proved their musicians (brass especially) can have human frailties after all.

Falk Struckmann, once an acclaimed Wotan, was Hagen which is a role usually sung by a bass or a very deep bass-baritone. Struckmann was not conventionally dark nor particularly stentorian – his Act II ‘Hoiho, ihr Gibichsmannen’ lacked impact as a result – but it was a very intriguing fine-grained performance, nonetheless. He was very much the brutish puppetmaster to Regine Hangler’s guileless and well-sung Gutrune, an unwitting – and ultimately deeply remorseful – foil to all of Hagen’s plots to reclaim the ring. Markus Eiche’s Gunther was rather underplayed but Jochen Schmeckenbecher’s Alberich was quietly menacing as he attempted – unsuccessfully – to trick his son into reclaiming the ring for him; though Hagen forcefully showed he would be keeping it for himself.

The two female trios (Norns and Rhinedaughters) also turned in fine performances. The Norns (Monika Bohinec, Stephanie Houtzeel, and Caroline Wenborne) were like the witches in Macbeth and their rope turned into a cat’s cradle to show how tangled human affairs can be. As the playful Rhinedaughters (Ileana Tonca, Stephanie Houtzeel, and Zoryana Kushpler) bobbed – like synchronised swimmers – up and down between the boats and brought both comic relief and gorgeous singing. Waltraud Meier was luxury casting as Waltraute and while there were only a few reminders of her past Wagnerian successes, her vocal acting remains almost unsurpassed.

Stefan Vinke’s open-face, smiley, Siegfried was totally convincing: he sets out at the start on his vainglorious quest for new victories, then becomes befuddled, only to regain his self-knowledge after flirting with the Rhinedaughters, and finally, his memories as he dies. Vinke’s singing had some rough edges but improved during the opera and he could be forgiven hanging on to a hard-won top note for his third act ‘Hoiho hoihe!’ greeting as if was Calaf’s ‘Vincerò’.

Petra Lang deserved the acclamation given to her at the curtain calls for her Brünnhilde. Of her very many fine performances in recent years I have missed, this is one in particular that I deeply regret not being in the opera house for. She commanded the stage, both physically and vocally, to portray a highly-strung Brünnhilde just about keeping herself together. Nobody, and I mean nobody, does pouty indignation better than Lang; yet it was her stillness when she realised Siegfried did not recognise her in the second act that was equally impressive. You cannot ignore how remarkable Lang’s full, warm, and resonant voice is and it is even throughout its vast range, with no audible register break. High notes were produced with ease, cleanly, and on pitch and her Immolation Scene – vividly sung with expressive pathos – went right to the top of my list of the many fine Brünnhildes of the past and present I have been privileged to have seen and heard.

During the live stream, there were adverts for ‘Vienna 2020, Capital of Music. Now. Forever’ and while there will not be much chance to be celebrating there this year, hopefully 2021 will be better.

Jim Pritchard

For more about Wiener Staatsoper Live click here.

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