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Seen and Heard International Opera Review

 

Wagner: Die Walküre, Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden, Premiere on June 27, 2004 (SM)

Conductor: Toshiyuki Kamioka
Director: John Dew
Sets: Peter Schulz
Costumes: Jose-Manuel Vazquez

Siegmund: Alfons Eberz
Hunding: Christoph Stephinger
Wotan: Ralf Lukas
Bruennhilde: Barbara Schneider-Hofstetter
Fricka: Gabriela Kuenzler
Valkyries: Annette Luig, Oxana Botscharova, Thora Einarsdottir, Jelena Bodrazic, Gabriela Kuenzler, Martina Langenbucher, Emma Foster, Sandra Firrincieli

Tacky wallpaper seems to be very much en vogue in Wagner opera at the moment, as do dank and dingy kitchens. First, there was Anna Viebrock's stage design for Jossi Wieler's and Sergio Morabito's superb "Siegfried" in the ground-breaking Stuttgart "Ring" a few years ago. That was Wagner as real kitchen-sink drama, complete with rising damp, mouldy tea-towels, and a grubby apron for Mime. Similar floral and paisley-patterned wallpaper put in a brief appearance in David Alden's wilful Munich Ring last year. And it even found its way into Bayreuth, in Claus Guth's striking "Hollaender".


John Dew's new "Walküre" which opened at the Hessisches Staatstheater in Wiesbaden on Sunday uses garish wallpaper again, this time in faded 70s chic, all treacly browns and oranges, in Hunding's hut in Act I. And there's a drab kitchen complete with mildewed fridge and clogged-up extractor hood to boot. In fact, Dew and his stage designer, Peter Schulz, seem to have come up with very similar ideas to other recent Ring productions -- the paratrooping Valkyries of Juergen Flimm's Bayreuth, being aired for the last time this year; and the snow blizzards and army fatigues of Robert Carsen's recently completed Cologne cycle. Like Flimm, Dew casts Wotan (at least in his scene with Fricka) as a powerful corporate boss, complete with expensive suit and sleek chrome and black leather office. And he also gives a nod in the direction of Carsen's view of the Ring as an environmental drama about mankind's squandering of the earth's resources and the degradation of the planet into a huge ecological waste bin.

 


That is not to suggest that Dew is merely a copycat, magpie collector of other people's ideas. The New York-born director, who already staged a complete cycle in Krefeld/Moenchengladbach in 1981-1985, offers plenty of new takes and perceptive insights of his own in his new Ring-in-the-making in Wiesbaden. In "Rheingold", Loge is Einstein and Valhalla a nuclear power plant. Dew takes up the theme again in "Walküre", when he casts Siegmund as an anti-nuclear demonstrator complete with straggly hippy hair and CND T-shirt on the run from the riot police, of which Hunding is a member. No doubt the nuclear motif will be continued and developed in the subsequent parts ("Siegfried is due in November and "Götterdämmerung" some time next year).


As for the Ride of the Valkyries, there is no Ride at all. The action takes place in a vast aircraft hangar in which some of the Valkyries are wartime air-traffic controllers calling out orders through radio microphones or sorting through the files of the names of the dead warriors, while others stride in, in full jumpsuits, flinging down their report sheets before cracking open a bottle of beer.


The scene generated much tutting and shaking of heads among the first-night audience and was undoubtedly the main reason for the booing when the production team took their bows at the end of the evening. But at least it steered clear of some of the unintentionally comic corpse-lugging frequently seen elsewhere. And there was some gentle tongue-in-cheek self-irony, too, as some of the Valkyries camped it up in front of the microphones.


Perhaps the main strength of Dew's new "Walküre" lies in his portrayal of the different dysfunctional relationships of the main characters. Ute Doering is a nimble and light-voiced Sieglinde, who dares once or twice to just about hold the gaze of Christoph Stephinger's gruff bulldog of a Hunding in Act I, but is suitably harassed and terror-stricken during the lovers' subsequent flight. Gabriela Kuenzler was an admirable Fricka, even if her mezzo did not always sit comfortably as estranged husband and wife wrestled over the remains of their loveless marriage.


The pairing of Sieglinde and Siegmund was weakened by the casting of Alfons Eberz as Siegmund. Eberz appears to believe he's already the bumbling and oafish Siegfried rather that the fate-stricken Siegmund burning with incestuous passion for his twin sister. His acting is as one-dimensional as his singing, and he spends much of the time stumbling or sitting around on stage, open-mouthed and flummoxed as to what's going on around him. His diction was frequently unclear, his tone often inflexible.


By contrast, Wotan and Brünnhilde were the stars of the show, carefully drawn and lovingly played by Ralf Lukas and Barbara Schneider-Hofstetter. Father and daughter are inseparable from the very beginning, Wotan pulling all the strings, conjuring up Hunding's hut with a wave of his hand, and both watching conspiratorily from behind the trunk of the Weltesche as the lovers' drama unfolds. They horse around like big kids at the beginning of in Act II. Brünnhilde hangs on Wotan's every word, her face beaming with love and admiration. And that devotion is returned by Wotan.

Lukas and Schneider-Hofstetter are so completely absorbed and absorbing that they have no need for stage props or scenery in their final farewell scene, which Dew reduces to a dark stage, empty except for the even darker shadow of the Weltesche looming in the background.

Schneider-Hofstetter was making her role debut and what a warm, humane soprano she has, full and firm in tone, but with lots of different shading. Let's hope she'll also be the Brünnhilde in the next two parts of Dew's Ring. Lukas, too, went from strength to strength, convincingly catching the god's plight, arrogantly swaggering on the one hand, weak and fumbling on the other, ever flexible, always pleasing in tone.


Finally, in the pit, Wiesbaden's departing general music director, Toshiyuki Kamioka, was a phenomenon. Small and wiry, he noisily jumped up and down, huffing and puffing for all his worth, and the Hessisches Staatsorchester played as if its life depended on it, even if some of the edges were a little rough.

 

Simon Morgan

 



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