Wednesday, July 24, 2013


If something doesn't happen soon with my Ring in Milan jottings, then all will be lost in time. Things and thoughts are already blurring out somewhat. There's no intention to chat about all the singers, all the production details or all the musical ins and outs, but to get something going mainly for my memory. It is to here I go when I need to try and remember who, what, when and where.

The long and short of it is that it was a tremendously eventful and exciting week, and that's as good as it gets. There's many good things to say about the Ring, the Barenboim/Cassiers co-production between Staatsoper Unter den Linden and Milan, and some things not so good. But that's neither here nor there in the scheme of things. It is, truly, all about the experience. And that was fantastic.

It starts with the city, and you should by now have gleaned we had a great time. And then there's La Scala, itself an experience that really exceeds expectations. It was only the second visit, but exciting no less. It is as legendary as it gets: the corridors, curving mysteriously around the halls, the stairs up and up, mirrors, wonderfully placed mirrors, toilets and bathrooms tucked into unlikely corners, red velvet curtains, the golden glow of the theatre, the lighting, the foyers, and of course then there's the Milanese. We were lucky to be seated next to a gracious couple of locals, who over the four nights befriended us, took us to dinner, drinks, introduced us to family with big hugs and handshakes, gave advice on the city, and blessed us with the personal which no money or influence can buy.

Here's inside La Scala (named after the church on whose site it is built - Santa Maria alla Scala) taken from the Royal Box during a tour on the morning of Götterdämmerung - the stage is huge (the performance space the front half in lighter colour). The door to our stalls seats you can see lower front right.

The size of the pit can really only appreciated from above. (Our seats are in the top right corner of the photo, the second row of four just behind the side door.)

They were setting up for Götterdämmerung.

And did I mention the Milanese? (They aren't meant to be photographed, so I hope I don't get anyone into trouble.)

First thing for the record is the casting, and if I refer to singers by character not name then it is in the need to write something rather than nothing. All the details are here:

Sometime during the week I remember saying to K: 'I'm starting to wonder if I'm a bit Ring-a-Dinged out'. 'I know', he said, 'I know'.

And yet, as is often the case, the whole experience becomes the event, until at the end, there's an irreplaceable satisfaction like little other, and the increasing realisation that despite all the fidgety little bits and irritations, the sense of completion, almost achievement, goes way beyond the peripheral Ring circus, and comes from the work itself. No surprise that, is it. Said K as we headed into the early morning after Götterdämmerung: 'It is a right of passage, isn't it.'

Guy Cassiers, the Belgium director, has used the Jef Lambeaux (Belgium 1852-1908) marble bas-relief "Human Passions"


as his template to build up his concept of the Ring, and I wonder if that is where he, and it, stalled. Because static and sculptured is what the finished product seems to me to be, a dissected and pulled apart jigsaw reassembled over 16 hours and, after enormous efforts at theatricality and display, you end up really having not gone anywhere. At least I didn't. Interestingly, one quoted criticism of the relief gets close to the problem:

"Sure it's large, as Lambeaux intended, but hardly a masterpiece. The relief consists of separate groups rather than forming a whole. Unfortunately Lambeaux never explianed his intentions. Even the title isn't his."

I hasten to add I've only just found this quote while looking for a picture of the work to show here. (If I'd found it earlier, I could have saved myself a lot of time.)

Also, in the first 50 seconds of his interview here you can get his intent - maximise everything, overwhelm, be big and grand, meet audience expectation. There is no reference (in the video at least) to the music, and more sadly, nor was there at the level one would hope for in the theatre. This production is at best text driven, and even then often poorly so. Things improved as the tetralogy evolved, but for all that, it still didn't manage to tell the story, and goodness there's a story to be told. The end result could best be called a series of visual images which range from the sublime to the ridiculous, but always stunning to look at. If you were to take a snap photograph at any moment, the result would never be less than impressive. But the sheer irrelevance of much of it, at least to this first time viewer, struggling to digest the barrage of visual stimuli, as well as the never ending capacity to distract from the core of the drama, was pretty frustrating. This was direction as concept down, not music up, an idea squashed onto the music and the text, not the music, especially the music, driving the ideas.

When the final curtain came down, I thought that what ought to happen now is that Cassiers would do well to go back and start all over again. You get the feeling it's not till you get to Götterdämmerung that it is possible to come to grips with this massive thing called the Ring, and that doing it forward one by one, as this has been done (costs and pragmatism at work), means that Rheingold is out there while the others are still evolving, or being conceived. Perhaps they should work it through backwards (as written of course) with Götterdämmerung first, reversing the order, and then do the tetralogy in a run.

And I think it helps give credence to the idea of mounting them as one at the outset - wham bam - as will happen this year in Melbourne, and the hugely successful and thoroughly more artistically satisfying Adelaide Ring II (the Australian production, not the Chatelet), and of course, Bayreuth.

Rheingold, for example, was marred by interminable ballet dancers, thrashing and writhing, supposedly aiding and abetting the emotions, when the effect was more the opposite, whereas any directorial attention to getting the singers to do this or that, as opposed to lean on a spear and stand awkwardly in a corner, would have been welcomed. It was dark and moody, with lots of rear projections which would continue (unlike the ballet, thankfully, except for a risible spear dance around Siegfried) with increasing success as the week went on.

Loge was the focal point, and that's a good thing, manipulator, judge, punisher, and except for some weird 'going into himself' choreography presented well, especially as Alberich was more eloquent than vile thief and got lost in the ballet. Wotan sounded dry and uninterested. Fricka was a broken wife before she came on stage, and Donner and Froh were as immature as any a dysfunctional family could produce. The lovely Anna Larson was a thoughtful rather than commanding Erda, elevated perilously on another unnecessary piece of stage machinery, and although she looked fabulous in a two story dress, the latter came from the same couturier as Fricka which just didn't ring true, for me, who worships at the shrine of Earth Mother.

Musically things were slow, but beautiful, even when beauty wasn't really the call. The Scala sound is gorgeous, and certainly the acoustic where we sat was excellent (unlike comparable seats in Munich last year when the whole sound was skewed and only half the orchestra heard), and the Italians played wonderfully, the strings especially (the horns were making a few bloopers). Barenboim took it softly, that is not dynamically softly but emotionally softly, and slowly, and it all became a melange of niceness. Even the descent into Nibelheim was nice - to a tinkling bell quality rather than a heavy nasty metal terror sound.

And while it was beautiful to dwell on this and that, to linger and savour the musical moments, this lack of forward momentum only exaggerated the stage craft and its fragmentation, and reminded me of a review I heard of Caballe in a recital I heard in San Francisco, years ago, that she was one of those marvellous singers who only move onto the next note when she's finished with the last one.

The thing is, this is a nasty piece of work telling a nasty story, a catastrophic apocolyptic story once the pin is pulled. I suppose I favour the likes of the Berliners who in Aix a few years ago made such masculine aggressive testosterone noises that by the end (of Götterduammerung) all one could say was - it's time to give the keys of this planet to the women. (And don't think Thatcher - I said woman).

Well yes, I know it's not all like that. Walküre has its share of warm romanticism well worthy of the luxury of Italian strings and woods at their best. With the singers now resorting mainly to stand and sing, things started to hot up. Some silly stage business persisted, like Hunding's house which looked eerie spooky with long hollywood shadows but everyone was on the wrong side of the walls, unless inside was out and outside was in, but who needs to think about that when these siblings are falling in love, admittedly with their backs to each other when the music speaks of the most tender recognition and joining. (Memo - Cheréau gets it right like few others.) But O'Neill and Meier would get it happening and the roar from the crowd, the Scala crowd, at the end of Act 1 was something not to be repeated all week.

Pape I'd been looking forward to hearing, and while I can't put my finger on it, still, there was little presence, and little impact. It was a strange withdrawn performance, vocally and histrionically.

Theorin can do what she likes for me. She broke my heart as Isolde last year in Bayreuth. She's big, and confident, got the money notes (occassional shreiks, but Waklyries are allowed occassional shrieks) and I want her to have the keys to the planet. The production got sillier, (although always, as I said, looked stunning) like a must-do-this-differently competition, and so the Ring of Fire came down (when did fire last descend) looking alarmingly like infrared bathroom lights, and starting dripping stuff - wax?

Lance Ryan was having an off night as Siegfried (I hope it was an off night), and the set got more complicated, all to do with awkward levels, and the rear projection kept projecting. I should mention that a major stage device was the use of video, all the time. Again, always interesting to look at, but harder to place in context. Cassiers ensured that something of the Human Passions sculpture was always present, and would coalesce at the finish line. Meanwhile, Ms Theorin sang it out, bless her.

[It can be done. We have just had a stunning concert Flying Dutchman here in Sydney with video screening (yes, you can imagine it - sea, sails, red, faces, ghosts) done so sensitively to the music (which the video director was listening to several times a day for months) that the effect was quite magical. More Later.]

By Götterdämmerung, nothing on stage would surprise. The Siegfried was now Andreas Schager and he was in fantastic form. He has become a bit of a legend as the tenor who rushed to the (Berlin) house to stand in for Lance Ryan when Lance, mmm, got sidetracked and, mmm, didn't turn up. Also a bit of a legend is Derek Gimpel, the associate director, who took to the bike leathers and acted the part while Andreas sang. I'd liked to have seen that. You'll forgive Lance Ryan just about anything when you read his side of the story (scroll down for English). And Theorin was quite magnificent, again.

There's the final assembled Lambeaux at the final curtain (Rhinedaughters, Siegfried, Brunnhilde, Hagen, Gertrune, Gunter)

There is a wonderful moment during the early applause when the box lights slowly come on before the house lights and the effect is that the audience in the boxes are seen in silhouette and look like shadow puppets, standing and clapping and waving. I didn't capture it, but you can imagine from this what they would look like if entirely back lit:

Mr Barenboim, he who was a major factor in the decision to come to this Ring (half way around the world), would after rapturous applause beg indulgence and bring it all to an end.


David said...

At last - and it was worth the wait. On the background, I treasure your poetic pen re the couple who 'blessed us with the personal which no money or influence can buy'(don't we know all about that, we lucky few bloggers?)

Photos of this production are reproduced in colour on the librettos for the current Proms, and the one of Wotan and Brunnhilde (whom I assumed to be Fricka) is absurd. Overloaded. Which is exactly what the first two Proms instalments have NOT been. I usually scoff at those who say a concert performance solves the problems of staging - it's not the Gesamtkunstwek after all - but this one has. It's like the best personenregie I've seen since Chereau and Kupfer: recognisable human beings without any of the silly makeup reacting to each other as one hopes but rarely gets in Ring stagings (Warner's at the Royal Opera was catastrophic). I'm now beside myself that I can't be there for the last two, though the Britten exchange should be interesting.

Kampe was the star last night. Stemme and Terfel somehow didn't move in the last act. Now I'm listening to Gwyneth and McIntyre and weeping as I should have done last night.

wanderer said...

Yes, overloaded would just about cover it!

I should have made mention of Ekaterina Gubanova's Fricka, whom you heard there I think, as I thought she sang it with great distinction, and Wotan's capitulation made me a bit teary, though it often does, the music you know, the music.

Kampe is gorgeous isn't she. We were lucky to hear her last year, and she looked like Michelle Williams, and sang with such joy, from within.

Interesting that Stemme didn't work for you. She was stunning as the mature wronged woman in the Munich Ring, and I wonder about the merits of a different cast for each one. They are after all such different women - willful ideological teenager, awakened and aroused virgin, and finally she who burns the joint down.

You mean you're watching the Chéreau? It's devastatingly moving isn't it. We'd be no good together. We watch it here on a big screen with K's special sound system.

Pity you can't complete the four, never mind. I am very keen to hear about Turn of The Screw.

By the way, Derek Jarman's Garden has arrived and I enjoyed ieven more than expected; it's very very moi.

And, don't be too quick to dismiss Oliver Stone's latest - the footage alone is incredible. We are just past the Democratic Convention where Wallace got rolled by Truman, and the course of the world changed.

David said...

Your commendation of what's exceptional about the Stone is good enough for me. I'll catch it when it arrives.

I was thinking in that Walkuere exactly what you say - that Stemme would be hair-raising as the 'mature wronged woman' in Act 2 of Goetterdaemmerung. Shall just have to be satisfied with hearing how she does it on the radio. Anyway, I did say in the review that she was mighty impressive, just up against a different sort of stage animal in Kampe.

We listened to the CDs of the Boulez/Chereau Ring; with sound alone, the meaning still comes over exceptionally well (Dame Gwyn has all the womanly tone I missed in Nina). I have the DVDs, of course, and will go back to them when we have more time.

Never seen a better Walkuere Act 3 than that one - my first, watched in weekly instalments on the telly when I was a student - though Phyllida Lloyd's deeply upsetting ideas for the subjection of Brunnhilde (strapped down and anaesthetised by men in white coats) were even more shocking.

Ah, I can see I'm getting sucked back into my adolescent Wagnermania just when I thought I was beginning to be immune...the old devil.

Susan Scheid said...

For the most part, I can only "listen" from the sidelines as you two compare notes, but I do want to say that this comment of yours sums up my first Ring experience exactly:

"And yet, as is often the case, the whole experience becomes the event, until at the end, there's an irreplaceable satisfaction like little other, and the increasing realisation that despite all the fidgety little bits and irritations, the sense of completion, almost achievement, goes way beyond the peripheral Ring circus, and comes from the work itself. No surprise that, is it. Said K as we headed into the early morning after Götterdämmerung: 'It is a rite of passage, isn't it.'"

I remember referring to attending The Ring as a total immersion experience, and, by the end, in my case, while we wished Lepage had realized that the set should serve the music and its performance, and not the other way round, in the end, it didn't matter to any of us, either those of us who were going for the first time or the two veterans. We burst out onto the plaza at Lincoln Center exhilarated, singing what we could ((not well, but enthusiastically) of bits from the final scenes. For all its flaws, the experience was unforgettable.