Reviewing the first instalment
of this 2008 Ring cycle from
Weimar I concluded that "Das Rheingold" (Arthaus Musik
101 353) was valuable for the intense acting of the cast and for
the great stress by director Michael Shulz on the overarching
themes of family and childhood. A modern dress, highly conceptual
production consciously and deliberately eschewing magic and grandeur
was a price worth paying for an intense concentration on character
interaction and for the way in which you could be sent back to
more familiar productions with new insight. Whilst it made me
look forward to the subsequent instalments, I was disappointed
with a rather neutral interpretation by conductor Carl St. Clair
and balance problems with the orchestra. I also could not avoid
the belief that some, especially American, viewers would be put
off by such a rigorous approach no matter how well delivered it
It is a pleasure to report that this "Die Walkure" shows
the cycle hitting its stride in a way I hope will now sustain
to the end. For one thing the sound balance between orchestra
and stage has been improved and Carl St. Clair also seems to have
mellowed with the lyricism that suffuses so many passages of this
great score. The production values remain as before with many
of the themes and ideas that were established in "Das Rheingold"
now developed and explored. If anything the visual production
values are even more austere and concentrated, playing up the
virtues outlined above. This has the effect of welding the production
together impressively. There will still be many opera lovers who
remain implacably opposed to anything that does not conform to
what they are used to, or what they think they are used to, on
a stage. Opposed to any kind of experimentation or innovation,
to me they are a lost cause and will simply dismiss this production
out of hand; that is their loss. To those prepared to be challenged
by theatre and by ideas I can promise a fascinating and rewarding
In "Das Rheingold" the drama began with the Norns as
children reading Wagner's own prologue to the original text of
Siegfried's Death. Here it is sung in Wagner's setting of 1848
but now the Norns are older and in a tableau containing the rest
of the Wotan family. So again we are taken into an unfolding drama
in family context with deceit and manipulation by the father figure
driving events. We will never be allowed to forget this. We even
see Alberich with the child Hagen in tow to ram home the point.
As the Prelude music proper starts Wotan leaves the stage and
we first see Siegmund and Sieglinde parting as children. The stage
is very bare. There is a platform and what appears first as a
sheer wall at the rear but is in fact a series of panels which
will open and close as needed. This is pretty much all we will
see onstage in this opera with variations only on this modular
set. For those who find it too austere I need only point out that
Wieland Wagner's productions at Bayreuth in the 1950s were, if
anything, even more spartan.
Hunding enters to find Siegmund with Sieglinde in his house. He
is clearly master here with greatcoat and bowler hat over a sharp
suit. He brings other men in with him too, dressed as he is, who
sit down at the table to be served a meal by Sieglinde. Among
the men is Wotan who will remain onstage almost throughout, witness
to what he sets in train, though unseen by his Walsung children.
The way that Hunding's men menace Siegmund is impressive and this
only ends when the men leave the stage, though Wotan remains behind.
When finally Siegmund is alone for his monologue Wotan stays in
shadow, miming the placing of the sword at the point Siegmund
describes having seen it in the World Ash Tree. Then completely
alone at last Siegmund describes to Sieglinde the coming of Spring
with the rear of the stage open but pitch black. It is only when
Sieglinde has blindfolded herself and Siegmund that Wotan can
return with a real sword and give it to Siegmund. This idea of
literal blindness giving inner sight is hardly original but it
is sufficient of a powerful metaphor to work well again here.
Only when names are given - Nothung to the sword and Siegmund
to a man who has concealed his name - can the blindfolds come
off. Wotan can leave now and the brother and sister run off into
the night. But that is not quite the end of this act. Before the
curtain falls, Fricka enters. Wagner's stage direction in Act
2 that her chariot should be drawn by six rams is usually ignored
for obvious reasons. But in a surprising detail and in an adherence
to a precise stage direction this so very austere production has
small men in rams heads pulling Fricka onto the stage. In the
final seconds of the act Hunding kneels before Fricka just as
she will describe it to Wotan in the act to follow.
As Act 2 opens we realise that the gods have come up in the world
since "Das Rheingold". Less the seedy nouveau riche,
more the affluent aristocrats. Time has indeed passed too and
this is something not always marked as well as it is here. The
Valkyries then troop on and they will certainly be a bit of a
shock to some Wagnerians. This production presents the sisters
as large, naughty teenaged girls in what look like white confirmation
dresses. They also make the Wotan salute - one outstretched hand
over one eye - that we first saw in "Das Rheingold".
After I drew attention to this in my review a reader pointed out
to me that this gesture was also to be seen in the legendary Ruth
Berghaus production of The Ring
in Frankfurt in 1982. Only
after Wotan's encounter with Fricka do the Valkyries leave the
stage to Wotan and Brünnhilde. But it is worth pointing out
a silent figure who marshals the Valkyries and seems almost in
charge of them. This is an older woman with long grey hair and
a black dress. Her appearance here and elsewhere is as a kind
of nanny or teacher to the girls and she remains with Brünnhilde
here and later. For Wotan's monologue the rear wall opens to reveal
an Earth from space image on the cyclorama. But the main talking
point of this scene will be when one of the dead heroes is brought
on in a body bag and operated on by Wotan with Brünnhilde
watching. So that
is what he does with them. He wants them
for spare-part surgery.
In the next scene the self-loathing of Sieglinde is brilliantly
conveyed by Kirsten Blanck, her nightmare of the dogs tearing
Siegmund to death is powerful and real. Great atmosphere is also
conveyed during the Todesverkundigung
scene as Brünnhilde,
now in black gown, is silhouetted against white light in an opening
of the back wall. I must also pay tribute to Carl St. Clair's
beautifully paced conducting of this key scene. In the fight between
Siegmund and Hunding, the interventions of Brünnhilde and
Wotan are well staged by the use of opening panels obscuring and
then revealing the parts of the battle. The final skewering of
Siegmund on Wotan's spear is horrific in its simplicity.
The ride of the Valkyries opening Act 3 could not be further removed
from Wagner's stage directions. It takes place in the girls' dormitory
where they jump off and bounce on their bunk beds, play with dead
heroes' bodies and generally lark about and shriek a lot. But
this sets up the shock for what is to follow when Wotan deals
with their errant sister Brünnhilde. Donner and Froh manhandle
the girls as they are clearly shown as mere instruments in Wotan's
grand design deserving little real consideration.
For the final scene Wotan and Brünnhilde are never alone.
The grey-haired woman is ever-present, watching, waiting, witnessing.
It is clear that this final scene is at the core of Michael Shulz's
conception and Renatus Meszar as Wotan and Catherine Foster as
Brünnhilde rise to the moment. Wotan's anguish when he realises
his weakness and his predicament is palpable, as too is Brünnhilde's
love for her father and her sorrow at the loss of his regard and
with it her way of life. Stage acting at its best. Here again
the fierce simplicity of the stage set concentrates on the human
drama as well as the entirely naturalistic acting which is such
a signature of this production. At the climax of the scene Wotan
hands to Brünnhilde her wedding dress. This is clearly seen
by the production as the family equivalent of what Wotan is doing
by leaving her to whatever hero comes along to claim her. I think
it works superbly and movingly, but I am sure others will not
agree with me. Interesting to compare the same moment in the Copenhagen
"Die Walkure" (Decca 074 3266) where Kasper Bech-Holten's
production calls for Wotan to tear Brünnhilde's wings off.
What a tribute to the dramatic depth of Wagner that two such completely
different pieces of stage business can be introduced and still
work with equal power in completely different ways. Brünnhilde
leaves the stage to return wearing the wedding dress and be led
up an aisle that opens in the rear wall with just a token fire
around Wotan's spear to be conjured.
Renatus Meszar assumes the role of Wotan for this production.
He is suitably older than Mario Hoff in "Das Rheingold"
as well as being as fine an actor. We can almost see this Wotan
thinking through the next part of his grand strategy on his face.
Catherine Foster is an imposing, redheaded Brünnhilde, all
girlish enthusiasm and touching vulnerability as she reacts to
her father's wrath. In the final scene with Wotan she is superb.
I have already mentioned Kirsten Blanck's Sieglinde. This is as
fine a portrayal of edgy and disturbed paranoia as you could ever
wish to see. Erin Cave is a superb Siegmund showing what a versatile
actor he is too. It wasn't until I looked at the credits that
I realised he had played Loge in "Das Rheingold". Hidekazu
Tsumaya portrays Hunding as powerful and brooding but he steers
well clear of the brutish. You do know when he is onstage, though.
Finally there is Christine Hansmann's Fricka who we also saw in
"Das Rheingold" and she has developed now from a grasping
wannabe to a Grande Dame of the family.
As before the soundtracks are PCM Stereo and DD 5.1 with the usual
subtitles. Picture quality is still excellent and TV direction
maintains the standard set in the previous opera. Liner-notes
are detailed again with some good production detailing to work
with. I didn't read these before I watched the discs for the first
time but found that everything that the notes set out was easily
grasped by just watching. Tribute to the clarity of the production
perhaps. There is a Blu-Ray version available but this review
was written from the DVD and heard in PCM Stereo. As I indicated
earlier, I felt that the sound balance was better this time. More
detail can certainly be heard in the orchestra and although they
cannot summon the majesty of the Vienna Philharmonic or a good
team from Bayreuth, the Weimar players suit the values of what
you see and hear onstage. Carl St. Clair is emerging now as a
persuasive Wagnerian. He can vary his tempo to great dramatic
effect and accompanies his actors with subtlety and assurance.
This is an excellent successor to the "Das Rheingold"
already reviewed and now makes me look forward to the "Siegfried"
even more than I was expecting. Released separately this Weimar
Ring cycle does give the opportunity to consider buying only one
or two of the cycle rather than all of it. Certainly in terms
of drama and acting this "Die Walkure" could be watched
in isolation. The ideas that underpin it work on their own as
well as in the context of a developing cycle. Michael Shulz is
a skilled and consummate director who recognises that there can
be danger in overwhelming a production of this nature with too
many ideas that in the end obscure the original drama beneath.
As in his "Das Rheingold", he judges this about right.
The interesting and innovative 2008 Weimar Ring cycle continues
with a sharp and clever "Die Walkure" that will always
interest and never bore.