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Wagner, Die Walküre: (New production) Soloists, Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra. Conductor: Simone Young. Staatsoper Hamburg. 23.10.2008 (JPr)

Production by Claus Guth, Sets and Costumes by Christian Schmidt.

There is a valid argument to the Bayreuth tradition of staging a new production of the Ring in its entirety and then refining it over a period of years. I myself however,  get great enjoyment in other opera houses watching a new Ring develop over a longer stretch of time, opera by opera, until a Cycle is complete – or the project abandoned, as it has been on at least four occasions in my experience. I hope that that never been down to anything I have written because although I say this rather tongue-in-cheek, it is certainly true that I was once berated by a Wagner authority for the part I apparently played in driving an esteemed  British Wagner director to seek work mainly abroad. Unbelievable perhaps, but genuine thoughI can’t think any critic in any form has that power these days. Certainly not me.

I came to Hamburg for the second instalment in the new Ring Cycle by director Claus Guth who has already in his short career staged Der fliegende Holländer at Bayreuth. In March I reported on Das Rheingold (See Review) and felt a underwhelmed and wary of directorial heavy-handedness. The action was played-out in a doll’s house with Wotan as the director of an expressionist film.

As the curtain rises for Die Walküre ,  the sets and costumes by Christian Schmidt make very few references to Das Rheingold and time has clearly moved on. Later the large circular set for Rheingold  - Wotan’s attic, as I described it – becomes   a model set up by one wall of Wotan’s plush stylish new office. There are some other model sets scattered around to show that Wotan has come along way from his earlier home movies and is now in the big league. Quite where this concept  is going remains unclear but perhaps the programme makes two long references to ‘The Truman Show’ - Jim Carrey 1998 film in which he played Truman Burbank whose life is a fake one. The place where Burbank  lives is actually a big studio and there are cameras everywhere. His wife, friends and everyone around him are all actors playing out their roles in the world’s most popular TV-series ‘The Truman Show’. Burbank believes he is an ordinary guy with an ordinary life but he is being exploited for the consumers of ‘fly on the wall’ TV until the  day he finds out the truth. Siegfried as Truman Burbank then? Only time will tell?

Act I takes place on a large version of the illuminated panel that Wotan has in his office in the next Act,  in which he has a  cardboard cut out of the  set and model characters to manipulate. Everything is white, there is an entrance and doorway, a table, two chairs and a stool and a small cooking area. Sieglinde is in dowdy plain blue, Siegmund is a hoodie and Hunding wears black leather. Wotan, spear in hand, strides across the front of the stage and clicks his fingers to start the action.

As previously described, Act II takes place in Wotan’s office complete with large shuttered windows and a radiator. The room is dominated by the  set of Wotan’s ‘world’ near to one wall and  there is another table and more chairs. These chairs gave me my only real moment of ‘directoritis’  in this otherwise compelling evening as it was obvious from the outset that they would be  thrown around when Wotan becomes angry whilst explaining his plight to Brünnhilde.  … They were.  The rest of Act II takes place below the large panel that seen in the first Act. Both Wotan and Fricka are expensively dressed and Brünnhilde’s costume appeared to be  partly  safari suit and army fatigues.

Act III probably will make more sense  when  Claus Guth’s entire concept for the whole Ring Cycle become available. Initial thoughts were of  a bombed out and distressed orphanage with the pasty-faced Valkyries are incarcerated and to which the only means of access is an upper level doorway and a ladder. There are washbasins stage-left and some mirrors –which may  allow the  Valkyries to be spied on in the manner familiar  to devotees of ‘The Truman Show’ or the TV-series ‘Lost’.

This Walküre had already suffered one casualty when the promised Brünnhilde, Lisa Gasteen, cancelled her performances through illness. Then on the first night,  Falk Struckmann apparently lost his voice and although he performed the role on stage,  his music was sung from the pit by Thomas J Mayer, a member of the Hamburg State Opera ensemble. For the second night, described as Première B, in a charming apology prior to the performance,  a spokesman announced there would be another ‘variation’ and that Mayer would not only sing Wotan  but  would act the role too,  although he would be unable to offer the complete performance that the director originally intended.

As a replacement, Mayer was not a totally unknown quantity as he had recently sung the role in Karlsruhe. Highly experienced,  he was preparing the four villains in Les Contes d’Hoffmann in early November at Hamburg as well as standing by for Wotan. Quite simply however,  his was the finest Die Walküre since … well I cannot really remember many better. He possesses a bass-baritonal voice that is smooth and effortless from bottom to top, clear diction and great dramatic skills. With long-hair and beard he resembled a young John Tomlinson both in character and vocal attack but even Tomlinson, as wonderful a Wotan as he is,  even in his early days, never sung the role with Mayer’s apparent ease.

As Brünnhilde we had the rare privilege of hearing once again the incomparable Deborah Polaski. I have to remark that she will soon be entering her seventh decade and that fact alone made her lively athletic and  tomboyish Valkyrie all the more remarkable. In Act II she ‘Hojotoho’-ed clambering through a large window and in Act III she went up and down a rickety ladder a number of times, stopping  at least once to sing as she did so. Her voice shows little wear and tear and is still bright at the top and well by her characteristically warm chest register. Her ‘War es so schmälich’ was emotionally draining and her ‘Du zeugtest ein edles Geschlecht’ suitably conspiratorial. With Mayer’s joyful, yet heartfelt, ‘Leb’ wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind!’ this made for a rapturous final scene which was not only the natural culmination of the entire evening but gave us heart-stopping moments for which the rest of the opera seemed merely the prelude.Finally Brünnhilde settled down on the floor, took her boots off and as Wotan evoked Loge real flames flickered to life to frame the sleeping Valkyrie.

Mikhail Petrenko was a rather bland Hunding singing well but more eloquently than menacingly, Stuart Skelton was a lyrical, effortless Siegmund though his tone lacked baritonal warmth.  He is not much of an actor either unfortunately and just often just seemed to stomp around the stage. The mezzo, Yvonne Naef was miscast as Sieglinde and her voice was often gratingly sharp. There was choppy, poorly supported, phrasing and her best moments were her final ecstatic outpouring of ‘O hehrstes Wunder!’ which was too little, too late, for me. Fricka is the role to which Naef’s voice is probably better suited but here the goddess of marriage was sung with great poise and restraint by Jeanne Piland. The Valkyries seemed well chosen and they enjoyed their pillow fights as part of some demanding choreography involving their bunkbeds. Of course their chatter about horses and heroes was just fantasy or delusion.

Loth though I am to find any criticism in Simone Young’s reading of the score I felt that  Act I and II were almost something to be got out of the way in order to arrive at her sublime Act III: and maybe she will give a more fully integrated performance at some time in the future. Yet right from the beginning with that ominous tread so obviously later adopted by Mahler,  hers was a vigorous, far from a typically stodgy Germanic interpretation. There was no lack of gravity and there were many moments when she let the long lines of Wagner’s melody cast their spells. The Hamburg Philharmonic played well throughout even if the tone of the brass particularly,  sounded a little unrelenting from my seat in the front stalls. Simone Young has a firm grasp of Wagnerian progression and there was much illuminating and imaginative detail throughout an engrossing evening. The conductor and her orchestra – who were all brought on stage at the end -  thoroughly deserved the ovation they received. Siegfried cannot come along quickly enough for me.

Jim Pritchard

Pictures © Monika Rittershaus

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