Monday 19 April 2010

There's Runnicles - Die Walküre at Deutsche Oper

After last night's solid start, the second opera of Wagner's Der Ring opened even more strongly. From the outset the orchestral playing was wonderful, with a beautifully rich tone to the strings, especially in the love themes between Siegmund and Sieglinde. The brass fanfare that introduced Hunding (Reinhard Hagen, fresh from playing Fasolt) almost sounded as though the instruments had been placed offstage - given Runnicles' flair for this, it's entirely possible they were. The opening prelude, representing the storm in which Siegmund is caught, was vividly coloured in the orchestra. The major climaxes fired off the surges of emotion that the best Wagner does.

Vocally things were knocked up a notch too. Perhaps the outstanding performance of the evening came from Violeta Urmana, a favourite of mine who has previously appeared with Runnicles in a 2005 Edinburgh festival performance of the Verdi Requiem. She not only possesses a superb voice, which allowed Runnicles to turn the volume up without fear of drowning her, but she also delivered a wonderfully characterised performance. The voice was not simply power either, but had a wonderful tone to it and none of the excessive vibrato that I dislike.

It would, however, be a little unfair to single her out solely, for wonderful though she was, there were several other equally notable performances. Clifton Forbis was solid in the role of Siegmund. There were one or two moments when I feared for his voice, such as when he cursed his father as false and wondered where his promised sword might be, but it remained strong throughout the evening and his acting talents nicely complimented Urmana. He never wanted for passion, yet there was also tenderness. The beautiful act two scene with Brünnhilde was especially well realised (what a shame that that was the moment a mobile phone went off).

The big surprise was Brünnhilde. Always a tough role to sing and to cast, at the best of times, and given none of us had heard of Evelyn Herlitzius, there was a question as to how well served we might be. We should not have doubted. True, she didn't have quite the out and out power of a Nilsson, and it was a lighter voice than some, but the drama of her act two entrance wanted for nothing, and no matter how high Runnicles cranked the orchestra, she soared above it. In a role that often feels very masculine, she provided a nicely feminine feel. She also acted well, giving a feisty performance.

Perhaps as a result of having so many strong singers (Hagen also turning in a nicely dark and menacing performance as Hunding), Runnicles seemed to show less restraint with the volume. This generally added greatly to the drama, though once or twice he seemed to be pushing onto the weaker singers more than he had in Das Rheingold. But it was not just the loud moments, the delicate beauty he found with just a single instrument or a pianissimo was a sound too hear.

Yet it was not perfect. The cast had its weaknesses. As with the previous evening, the principal one was the Wotan of Mark Delavan. Both his voice and stage presence lacked the power and authority required. He was not helped, I think, by the slightly strange decision to dress him in white. His key scenes fell a little flat and failed to convince; act two, scene two, his confrontation with Fricka, was a case in point. This should be a powerful man utterly undermined by his wife, but he was so limp and she (Judit Nemeth) so nice, that it just didn't work. Similarly, in act three, there was nothing about his arrival that ought to have terrified the Walküren, and, indeed, at the height of the confrontation it rather looked like they could have taken him down without breaking either a sweat or a nail.

The other problem was with the production. Strong in the first part, it initially continued well into Die Walküre. Hunding's house had the feel of a cold war era, east Berlin apartment block and the way his heavies, dressed like members of the secret police in long leather coats, came into the room too was effective, adding an extra sense of power and danger. Of course, this isn't scripted, but it does fit well with the text, since Hunding and party have been pursuing Siegmund (I believe Chéreau did this in his 1976 Bayreuth Ring, but it's a while since I saw the DVD). Similarly, it worked well when the walls sprung apart to reveal the coming of spring.

Sadly it went a little downhill from there. Act two saw the tunnel decked out with various platforms covered in models of a bombed out Berlin (the Reichstag as it was, dome destroyed, at the end of the war, was easily visible). This was fitting enough for the first couple of scenes. The trouble was that when the lovers fled through this exact same set it made less sense. Similarly the upturned pram and the vast collapsed, dead and decaying horse that dominated the background. It was not instantly apparent what it was and even once I'd figured that out, I remained, and remain, at a loss to explain what it was meant to signify. The decision to have Wotan in the distance, rather than up close an personal, sapped some of the impact from his breaking of Siegmund's sword. His killing of Hunding was not half as chilling as it should have been.

Act three opened with a stunning rendition of the Ride of the Valkyries, well musically. The leather clad Brünnhilde had led me to hope we might see something to rival the fabulously loutish biker-chicks of Scottish Opera. It was not to be. Instead the curtain rose to reveal them huddled together as though they were engaged in some kind of orgy! Off to either side lay rows of bodies on hospital gurneys. This actually was rather fitting, less so was the way they almost seemed, in some cases, to be fondling them, as they danced around the stage. Once the ride was over, the stretchers were gotten rid of. This provided an object lesson in why this sort of gimmick is a bad idea: most of them slid down into the wings with no trouble, but the Walküre operating the down stage right one appeared only to have got one break off and it toppled over giving its, fortunately, dummy occupant quite a knock. The speed with which the stage hand appeared to assist indicates this isn't the first time it's happened.

I had little but praise for the lighting design after Rheingold. Here it was more problematic: especially at the climax act two, characters were poorly lit. This was perhaps deliberate in an attempt to fit with the text. Fair enough, yet characters should still be visible. While things seemed overall tighter and better rehearsed than Rheingold in terms of blocking, there were also one or two awkward moments where a character stood in darkness only for a nice pool of light to be illuminating a big patch of nothing behind him. As last night, there was perhaps a little too much smoke.

Odd blocking was the watchword for much of act three. Wotan almost perpetually had his back to whomever he was speaking to. This was possibly because his voice needed all the help it could get and he therefore needed to be looking right at the audience. Nonetheless, it looked odd. This began as he confronted the Walküren and continued through much of his time with Brünnhilde. Well, except from some long blocks of being stationary, which didn't work to well either.

Still, beneath them in the pit Runnicles and the Deutsche Oper orchestra were doing fabulous work and many of the vocal performances were excellent. He was assisted in act three both by Herlitzius and especially Urmana's breathtakingly dramatic departure, not to mention the nine jets of suitably dramatic magic fire which surrounded Brünnhilde as the curtain came down. All in all, then, pretty good, and well worth seeing. Those in Scotland should absolutely not miss the chance to hear Runnicles conduct act one with the BBC SSO in October.

One or two minor housekeeping points. Deutsche Oper seems really very well stocked for bars, which are astonishingly reasonable by London standards. Moreover, they offer wine in sensible sized glasses. These days one seems unable to get anything smaller than a 175ml which one then has to rush down before the bell goes. In the stalls, at any rate, there is no central aisle, so if you're near the end, don't go in early unless you want to stand up constantly as others squeeze past you. Oddly, though, they don't seem to have installed enough toilets (even for the men). Still, it's overall a very nice, modern, well laid out and good sounding house - well worth a visit.



I've read four reviews now of the first two nights of this cycle, five, if I count my own .. and I find it quite amazing how very differently people view operatic performances.

Tam Pollard said...

I too never cease to be surprised how different a view people can have of the same performance, but it would be terribly dull if we all agreed.

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