Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
The Wagner Edition
Das Fliegende Holländer (1843) [167.00]
Juha Uutisalo (baritone) - Dutchman; Catherine Nagelstad (soprano) - Senta; Marco Jentzsch (tenor) - Erik; Robert Lloyd (bass) - Daland; Marina Prudenskaja (mezzo) - Mary; Oliver Ringelhahn (tenor) – Steersman; Netherlands Opera Chorus
Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra/Hartmut Haenchen
Extras: cast gallery, insights and interviews
rec. Amsterdam Music Theatre, 16 and 25 February 2010
Tannhäuser (1845) [200.00]
Stig Andersen (tenor) - Tannhäuser; Tina Kiberg (soprano) - Elisabeth; Susanne Resmark (mezzo) - Venus; Tommi Hakala (baritone) - Wolfram; Stephen Milling (bass) - Landgrave; Peter Lodahl (tenor) - Walther; Peter Arnoldsson (baritone) - Heinrich; Kjeld Christofferson (bass) - Biterolf; Jens Bruno Hansen (bass) - Reinmar; Ioannis Marinos (treble) - Boy
Royal Danish Opera Chorus, Royal Danish Orchestra/Friedemann Layer
rec. Royal Danish Opera, Copenhagen, December 2009
Lohengrin (1850) [279.00]
Klaus Florian Vogt (tenor) - Lohengrin; Solveig Kringelborn (soprano) - Elsa; Waltraud Meier (mezzo) - Ortrud; Tom Fox (baritone) - Telramund; Hans-Peter König (bass) - King Henry; Roman Trekel (baritone) - Herald; Pel-Min Yu and Shara Applebaum (sopranos) - 1st and 2nd Pages; Marie-Lys Langlois and Corinne Marquet (mezzos) - 3rd and 4th Pages; Markus Ahme and Volker Neitmann (tenors) - 1st and 2nd Nobles; Dominik Hosefelder and Michael Dries (basses) - 3rd and 4th Nobles; Mainz Academy Europa Choir, Deutsches Symphony Orchestra/Kent Nagano
Extras: cast gallery, illustrated synopsis, Never shalt thou ask of me (documentary)
rec. Festpielhaus, Baden-Baden, 1, 3, 5 June 2006
Tristan und Isolde (1865) [256.00]
Nina Stemme (soprano) - Isolde; Robert Gambill (tenor) - Tristan; Katarina Karnéus (mezzo) - Brangaene; Bo Skovhus (baritone) - Kurwenal; René Pape (bass) - King Mark; Stephen Gadd (tenor) - Melot; Timothy Robinson (tenor) - Young sailor, Shepherd; Richard Mosley-Evans (baritone) - Steersman; Glyndebourne Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Jiri Belohlávek
Extras: cast gallery, illustrated synopsis, Do I hear the light? (documentary), on-set photo animation, talk by Richard Trimborn
rec. Glyndebourne Opera, Lewes, Sussex, 1 and 6 August 2002
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868) [280.00]
Gerald Finley (baritone) - Sachs; Marco Jentzsch (tenor) - Walther; Anna Gabler (soprano) - Eva; Michael Selinger (mezzo) - Magdalene; Topi Lehtipu (tenor) - David; Johannes Martin Kränzle (baritone) - Beckmesser; Henry Waddington (baritone) - Kothner; Alastair Miles (bass) - Pogner; Colin Judson (tenor) - Vogelgesang; Alasdair Elliott (tenor) - Zorn; Adrian Thompson (tenor) - Eisslinger; Daniel Norman (tenor) - Moser; Andrew Slater (baritone) - Nachtigall; Robert Poulton (bass) - Ortel; Maxim Mikhailov (bass) - Schwarz; Graeme Broadbent (bass) - Foltz; Mats Almgren (bass) - Nightwatchman; Glyndebourne Chorus,
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski
Extras: conductor’s notes, director’s notes
rec. Glyndebourne Opera, Lewes, Sussex, June 2011
Der Ring des Nibelungen (1876) [159.00 + 250.00 + 256.00 + 284.00]
Falk Struckmann (baritone) - Wotan, Gunther; Deborah Polaski (soprano) - Brünnhilde; John Treleaven (tenor) - Siegfried; Richard Berkeley-Steele (tenor) - Siegmund; Linda Watson (soprano) - Sieglinde; Eric Halfvarson (bass) - Hunding, Fafner [Siegfried]; Matti Salminen (bass) - Hagen; Günter von Kannen (baritone) - Alberich; Graham Clark (tenor) - Loge, Mime [Siegfried]; Francisco Vas (tenor) - Mime [Das Rheingold]; Lioba Braun (mezzo) - Fricka; Julia Juon (contralto) - Waltraute [Götterdämmerung], 1st Norn; Elisabete Matos (soprano) - Freia, Gutrune, 3rd Norn; Jeffrey Dowd (tenor) - Froh; Wolfgang Rauch (baritone) - Donner; Andrea Bönig (contralto) - Erda, Schwertleite; Kwangchui Youn (bass) - Fasolt; Matthias Hölle (bass) - Fafner [Das Rheingold]; Cristina Obergrón (soprano) - Woglinde, Woodbird; Ana Ibarra (mezzo) - Wellgunde [Das Rheingold]; Maria Rodriguez (mezzo) - Wellgunde [Götterdämmerung]; Francisca Beaumont (contralto) - Flosshilde, Rossweise; Leandra Overmann (2nd Norn; Heike Gierhardt (soprano) - Helmwige; Marisa Altmann-Althausen (mezzo) - Waltraute [Die Walküre]; Annegeer Stumphuis (soprano) - Ortlinde; Sabine Brohm (soprano) - Gerhilde; Mirela Pinto (contralto) - Siegrune; Corinne Romijn (contralto) – Grimgerde
Symphony Chorus and Orchestra of the Gran Teatre del Liceu/Bertrand de Billy
Extras: cast gallery, illustrated synopsis
rec. Gran Teatre del Liceu, 1 and 7 June 2004 [Das Rheingold], 19 and 22 June 2004 [Die Walküre], 18 and 26 June 2004 [Siegfried] and 6 and 14 June 2004 [Götterdämmerung]
Parsifal (1882) [317.00]
Christopher Ventris (tenor) - Parsifal; Waltraud Meier (mezzo) - Kundry; Thomas Hampson (baritone) - Amfortas; Tom Fox (baritone) - Klingsor; Matti Salminen (bass) - Gurnemanz; Bjarni Thor Kristinsson (bass) - Titurel; Johannes Eidloth (tenor) - 1st Knight; Taras Konoschenko (bass) - 2nd Knight; Katharina Rikus (contralto) - Voice from above; Nina Amon, Katharine Rikus (mezzos) - 1st and 2nd Squires, 1st and 5th Flower-maidens; Thomas Struckemann and Marco Vassalli (tenors) - 3rd and 4th Squires; Abbie Furmansky and Alexandra Lubchansky - 2nd and 4th Flower-maidens; Emma Gardner and Andrea Stadel - 5th and 6th Flower-maidens; Baden-Baden Festival Chorus,
Deutsches Symphony Orchestra/Kent Nagano
Extras: cast gallery, illustrated synopsis, Parsifal’s progress (documentary)
rec. Festpielhaus, Baden-Baden, August 2004
OPUS ARTE OA 1095B D [25 DVDs, durations for individual operas shown above]
This bumper box contains performances of all of Wagner’s mature operas, assembled into three multi-pack cases together with a booklet containing synopses of the plots and production photographs. However neither the DVDs nor the booklet give any listings of the individual tracks, which means that one would have to spool through the discs in order to pick out isolated passages.
The booklet also includes an interesting essay by Chris Walton which tackles the vexed problem of modern re-interpretations of the works, and compares them with the Bayreuth tradition inaugurated by Wagner and ossified by his widow Cosima, the ‘New Bayreuth’ style initiated after the Second World War by Wagner’s grandsons, and more recent productions of which the sets here provide a representative sample. In this context Walton quotes Wagner’s often-cited remark Kinder, schaft neues! (Children, create something new); which has been interpreted as license for experimentation of the most untraditional kind imaginable. It is probably safe to say that Wagner would have recognised none of the productions here. His concept of the ‘complete work of art’ comprised an equal emphasis on music, drama and design, and in his later music dramas he specifically links the three elements through unusually detailed stage directions which emphasise the unity of his imagined worlds. Modern producers interfere with these at their peril, and especially when they neglect the importance that Wagner attached to nature as an emotional and dramatic element in his plots.
In fact Harry Küpfer’s production of the Ring is ironically rather lacking in original concepts; he reveals, as usual, his ability to get real acting performances from his singers, but the designs and concepts are by and large recycled not only from his own earlier Bayreuth production but also from ideas initiated by other producers, many of them dubious at the time and now simply intolerable as betrayals of the musical and dramatic design which Wagner wove so carefully into his scores. The first of these comes at the beginning of the second scene of Rheingold, where Küpfer follows Patrice Chéreau’s highly suspect innovation in his 1976 Bayreuth production - much imitated since - of having all the gods onstage from the very beginning. This is simply wrong in a number of ways. Firstly, it makes dramatic nonsense of the dialogue; Fricka and Freia both refer to the fact that Donner and Froh have concealed themselves to avoid being associated with the bargain with the giants to which they have agreed. Secondly, we have the problem of characters on the stage who have apparently nothing to do except wander about, here carrying suitcases - another gloss copied by Küpfer from his earlier Bayreuth production. Thirdly, when the giants enter Donner is allowed by Küpfer to confront them, swinging his hammer, which anticipates the point later in the score when he does the same thing and is dramatically stopped in his tracks by Wotan; here Wotan stands by and does nothing about the confrontation the first time, which makes nonsense of his later intervention. Fourthly, the music associated with Froh and Donner is not presented by Wagner until they actually appear, which helps to establish their individual characters; here the meaning of the music is clouded. Finally, the entry of Freia in flight from the giants is also marked by Wagner by the appearance of her two love themes, heard in the score for the first time and of major significance for the rest of the work; the failure to identify the themes with the character of the love goddess here is a major betrayal of the symbolic significance which Wagner attached to the idea of love as the basis of the whole cycle.
So it goes on. At the end of Rheingold Loge cynically draws the curtain himself on the scene of the rejoicing gods, an idea purloined from Chéreau’s 1976 production. In the second act of Die Walküre Brünnhilde anoints Siegmund to prepare him for death - another Chéreau idea - and the resulting rather unpleasant image only serves to conceal Siegmund’s facial expressions during a scene which is both the dramatic and emotional crux of the whole drama. We inherit the laser projections from Küpfer’s Bayreuth production, now confined to a lattice of fluorescent tubes at the rear of the stage, which manage to completely obliterate any sense of nature and also give the unfortunate impression that all the scenes are taking place indoors. Nor does this lattice make for a satisfactory impression either of the rainbow bridge or the magic fire. As before Küpfer stages all the preludes, and we see Wotan and Alberich wandering around furtively at the beginning of Siegfried although the music suggests nothing of the sort – being entirely involved with Mime and the Nibelung gold. Küpfer scores however with the prelude to Act Two of Walküre where we see the references to Siegmund and Sieglinde illustrated by a representation of their flight, before Wotan and Brünnhilde enter and we get their wrestling match repeated from Küpfer’s Bayreuth staging; Deborah Polaski manages to get her notes across well despite this.
In Rheingold the appearance of the Riesenwurm is a joke, a pair of claws at the back of the stage which menace nobody. The jumping toad - an idea borrowed from the English National Opera production of the early 1970s - is really rather silly. At the ENO it provoked laughter, as can be heard on the live Goodall recording; but here in Lisbon the audience are more po-faced about it. Siegfried appears to bring on a bear to bait Mime at his initial appearance, but the animal is kept firmly in the background and dismissed very quickly before we get a proper chance to see it. Otherwise we get none of the animals called for elsewhere in the score, with a nonsensical image of Brünnhilde addressing a plaster cast of a very immobile horse at the end of her immolation scene. The dragon in Act Two of Siegfried is a poor and reticent beast, and its total lack of menace is not helped by the fact that Küpfer copies another one of Chéreau’s bad innovations – that Fafner should turn back into a giant after he has been killed by Siegfried. This is again simply dramatic and musical nonsense. Wagner quite deliberately illustrates the fact that Fafner has transformed himself into a dragon by the alteration of the giants’ original rhythm with its characteristic falling fifth to a sinister diminished fifth, and he continues to use this altered version both before and after Fafner’s death. Also Siegfried refers to Fafner after his death as a dragon, which is ridiculous if he has actually seen him change back into a giant. In the same scene Küpfer also repeats an idea from his own Bayreuth production – that the woodbird is under the control of Wotan. This is also patently absurd. Quite apart from the fact that it makes a total falsehood of Wotan’s determination that Siegfried should not be under his influence in any way - that was, after all, why he killed the hero’s father - Wagner also shows that he clearly terrifies the bird, which flies away in panic when it encounters him in the Third Act.
The scenery, as in Küpfer’s Bayreuth production, is by Hans Schavernoch, and does not begin to reflect the natural world which is such an important part of the Wagnerian synthesis. There are occasional back-projections of running water, fire and foliage, but they are always confined to small areas behind the lattice. The principal item on the stage itself is the World Ash Tree, which sheds parts of itself at critical moments – when Wotan looks forward to Das Ende!, when Siegfried kills Fafner, and so on. At other times the Tree forms part of Hunding’s house; it seems to grow through the bed of the Rhine; and a segment of it hangs over Brünnhilde’s rock. The use of a mirrored floor throughout, the metallic nature of the scenic construction, and the suspended parts of the Ash Tree all in fact seem to recall the scenery designed by Ralph Koltai for the English National Opera production in the 1970s; the production was never filmed, but photographs from the set can be seen in the booklets for the Goodall recording. The costumes by Reinhard Heinrich, who also produced costume designs for Chéreau, echo the mixture of mock-mediaeval and nineteenth century favoured by Chéreau, and the sometimes jarring contrast militates against credibility. By the time we have reached Götterdämmerung the costumes have advanced into the twentieth century; Alberich has already acquired a bowler hat in Siegfried. The Gibichungs end up as a pair of effete bourgeois milksops. This is a really an old cliché now - it even predates Chéreau - and it has the undesirable effect of downplaying the real tragedy of the brother and sister caught in Hagen’s net. Of course they thoroughly deserve it, since here they don’t seem to find it at all strange that he is wandering around in a leather coat and carrying a spear on all occasions. However the Second Act of Götterdämmerung, where there is no call for any special effects other than good acting, is one of the most satisfactory parts of the cycle. During Siegfried’s Funeral March Küpfer brings on Wotan and Brünnhilde to look brokenly at each other, and Wotan throws away the pieces of his broken spear. This would be an effective idea if we had not already seen something like it in Küpfer’s previous Bayreuth production.
There are some new touches in Küpfer’s production. It has become a cliché to preface the prelude in Rheingold with a directorial gloss of some sort or another. Here Küpfer shows us Wotan drawing his spear from the trunk of the World Ash Tree - all this in silence before the music starts - with a sound of rending polystyrene. In fact this is not even true to the legend as interpreted by Wagner, where, as the Norns explain, he cut a branch from the Tree from which the spear was fashioned. It is also wrong from the musical point of view, where the identity of the spear itself and its allegorical symbolism is clearly established by the music in the second scene, music that is nowhere in evidence at this point in the score. Mime packs his poisoned drink for Siegfried in a plastic carrier bag, which reflects neither the mythical period nor the Victorian milieu of Wagner’s day as reflected in the rest of the designs at this point. Wotan for some totally unfathomable reason blows Siegfried’s horn call as a duet with him. At the very end Küpfer brings back Alberich, who manages to grab the Ring from the Rhinemaidens only to find that it crumbles to dust in his hands – a very effective dramatic image, but one that has nothing to do with Wagner’s music at this point. That is about it for new ideas; otherwise there is not a great deal here which justifies Wagner’s Kinder, schaft neues!
The musical performance on the other hand is really very good. The Penguin Guide in a very short and dismissive review described it as “hardly competitive” but this does not do full justice to the excellent orchestral playing under Bertrand de Billy. His interpretation is very much in the Solti mould, exciting and dramatic as needed, but rather slower than Solti in places; the forging scene in Siegfried has all the ponderous weight for which Goodall was noted. The orchestra only occasionally betray signs of unfamiliarity with the score; unfortunately one of these passages of shaky ensemble comes at the beginning of the great orchestral outburst during Wotan’s farewell, and the cellos don’t allow their arpeggios at the start of Rheingold to dominate the horns as they should. The horns in fact make a few minor fluffs - twice in the motif of Freia’s apples - and the hornists who play the Wagner tubas are sometimes a bit gruff. On the whole however this is an orchestral performance and interpretation that has no element of routine about it, and is often very exciting indeed.
Some of the performers here return from Küpfer’s Bayreuth production. Günter von Kannen’s Alberich is a fine portrayal, although he begins to sound a bit tired by the time he reaches his curse in Rheingold. Graham Clark’s Loge and Mime (in Siegfried) is a familiar quantity; he has attracted some criticism from some quarters because of a perceived over-characterisation of these roles, but he is always musical - except for some moments of off-key singing towards the end of Rheingold - and his acting is superlative, lithe and athletic. His voice has a degree of metallic harshness which betrays the heldentenor he was at one time threatening to become; he once sang Hermann in The Queen of Spades for English National Opera. This is not inappropriate for either part.
The Brünnhilde of Deborah Polaski is also a familiar quantity, and she gives one of the best portrayals of the role on disc; the sound of her voice is not unlike that of Gwyneth Jones, but without the unsteadiness that frequently afflicted that distressingly inconsistent singer. It is not a fully heroic sound, but it has plenty of body where needed. She is beautifully tender in places, and has a real trill - a surprising rarity in Brünnhildes. In the Second Act of Götterdämmerung and in the final section of the Immolation Scene we can hear that the part stretches her to her utmost limits, and slightly beyond.
In the two principal tenor roles we encounter Richard Berkeley-Steele as Siegmund and John Treleaven as Siegfried. The former is highly impressive as an actor - he might have been even better if we had been able to see his face during the Todesverkünding scene. That said, his voice has an unfortunate beat - not a wavering in pitch, but a coming-and-going of the tone - which is particularly distressing during his cries of Wälse! He is not helped by unfortunate microphone placement, which means that his drawing of the sword from the tree is placed at a distance and as a result he sounds under-powered in competition with the orchestra. Similarly Treleaven is disadvantaged in the same way during his forging song. One notes that these recordings were assembled from more than one performance although oddly enough the cycles appear to have been given out of order. Surely it should have been possible for the engineers to notice this ‘dead spot’ at the rear centre of the stage and rectify it? Otherwise Treleaven gives a rather good performance. His basically lyric tone has plenty of volume, and although he does not look as athletic as Siegfried Jerusalem - the best Siegfried on video - he responds well to Küpfer’s directorial hand. He is really tender at the end of Act Two of Siegfried. He is not scared, like most Siegfrieds, of showing off his top C – and at the beginning of his final scene he holds one rather longer than is comfortable either for him or for us.
Falk Struckmann is a good solid Wotan, with a properly heroic voice – baritone rather than bass, but capable of encompassing all the notes without strain – somewhat in the mould of George London or James Morris. He falls short however in expression, and lacks the ability of a Hans Hotter, Norman Bailey or Bryn Terfel to colour and shade the text in all its detail. He is properly savage as he hacks the Ring from Alberich’s finger – but this again is an idea borrowed from Chéreau’s production, where presumably Chéreau in turn lifted it from the climax of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Tolkien didn’t like comparisons between his epic and Wagner’s – “Both rings were round,” he once observed tartly, “and there the resemblance ceases” – but this is not the only point at which later producers have retrospectively imported ideas from the one work to the other. Struckmann is less convincing in Act Three of Siegfried, where he has greater difficulty making himself heard over Wagner’s heavier orchestration. This scene is not helped by a very weak performance of Erda by Andrea Bönig, who lacks both the top and bottom registers needed for the role. Tangled up as she is in the Norns’ ropes - an effect already seen in Götz Friedrich’s 1970s production for Covent Garden - it must be difficult for her to give of her best. At the beginning of this scene Küpfer achieved a real thrill in his Bayreuth production with Wotan approaching slowly from the very rear of the stage; here with a much shallower stage the effect is largely lost. Struckmann returns as Gunther in Götterdämmerung and gives a much more muted performance here, perhaps not helped by being made up to look like a spiv version of Hitler complete with moustache, hairlick and dressing gown. As his sister Elisabete Matos has a more mezzo-ish tinge than we are accustomed to in this role; she also sings the Third Norn, but lacks the proper heroic ring for her higher-lying passages. Matti Salminen is an excellent Hagen, but I do wish he – and most present-day Hagens – would actually sing the final notes he is given by Wagner and not a Sprechstimme approximation of them.
The Valkyries are an unruly lot, not always steady in rhythm and not all that strong of voice either. The Rhinemaidens are rather better, although Woglinde has a smaller voice than the other two. The Giants are full-voiced, although Fafner is noticeably bigger than Fasolt in Rheingold, and is clearly not the same singer at all in Siegfried (another disadvantage of having him change back from a dragon). The other gods in Rheingold are a well-balanced collection, although Froh could to advantage be more sweet-toned. The chorus in Götterdämmerung are very good, but one wishes, yet again, that conductors and producers would obey Wagner’s instructions that some passages are to be sung by one or two voices only.
The subtitles are generally pretty good, though not totally idiomatic – at one point Brünnhilde is made to refer to “council” when she clearly means “counsel” – and there are some glaring errors. Erda in her warning has Götter translated as “Valhalla”, the hall which Wotan has not yet named. Slightly earlier Fricka’s address to Wotan as Mann is translated “man” instead of correctly as “husband”; Wotan is not a man but a god. At times one gets the impression that the uncredited subtitles are intended as a singing version of the text, but at other times they clearly are not.
When I reviewed two DVDs of Lohengrin recently I received an e-mail from John G. Deacon, the former head of video at Philips Classics, pointing out the need to ensure that changes in subtitles coincide as far as possible with changes in the video picture; otherwise, it was found, viewers tended to find themselves involuntarily reading the subtitles again a second time. I have never personally found this a problem; but Opus Arte don’t seem to recognise the difficulty at all, as there are many occasions throughout this set where subtitles are carried over from one image to another.
The fact that this set splits Rheingold across two DVDs is quite inexplicable. No other DVD recording finds such a break necessary, and there are other individual discs in this set which are actually longer. Moreover the split is made immediately after the beginning of the descent into Nibelheim and occurs in mid-note, which may just about make some sort of dramatic sense but is musically ruinous. Whatever the reason for the break, it should have been rectified in this transfer. The descent into Nibelheim is a continuous piece of music and should never have been broken in this way. In fact the layout throughout is extravagant; the set of the Ring extends to eleven DVDs where most others manage to get the complete work, without any breaks other than between Acts, onto seven.
In his book Ring Resounding (recently republished as part of Decca’s anniversary edition of the Solti recording) John Culshaw suggests that producers should seek to use filmed backgrounds of natural scenes as sets for the Ring. It does indeed seem odd that at a time when film producers are producing ever more realistic effects though the use of CGI stage producers are going quite deliberately in the opposite direction. As it is, the only DVD set of the Ring which comes anywhere close to reproducing Wagner’s synthesis of music, drama and visual elements is the old Metropolitan production under James Levine. This has largely the same cast as his studio recording - which I used as a comparison recently when reviewing the Solti Ring (review) - but with the decidedly advantageous replacement of Reiner Goldberg by Siegfried Jerusalem as Siegfried. The sets for this production are not ideal, but they make a good stab at representation of the natural world; the dramatic direction could be much crisper, but it doesn’t go against the music as Küpfer sometimes does. Although de Billy is a more determinedly dramatic conductor than the sometimes ponderous Levine, the balance of advantages by and large lie with the old Met box; not to be confused with the forthcoming new set, which from the audio extracts I have heard suffers from some decidedly inferior singing. Of the modern-style productions Küpfer at Bayreuth has a marginally better cast than here, and the ideas are fresher as well. Even so it is absolutely impossible to stage the Ring realistically in the theatre.
The same could be said even more forcefully of Wagner’s first mature opera Der fliegende Holländer. Two practicable ships are required to be present on stage, and one of these is specified to be seen approaching the shore and later sinking. The difficulties are made even worse if Wagner’s original intention that the three Acts should be played without a break is followed. Producers have side-stepped the problems by adopting a psychological approach - in which the whole action is a dream of Senta’s - or by changing the setting altogether; David Pountney at Welsh National Opera set the whole drama on a space station, which completely abnegated the sea music that pervades Wagner’s score. Here we have a different sort of updating, a production by Martin Kušej which is thoroughly realistic but which seems to be about another plot altogether. During the overture we see a black-and-white film of the sea, interspersed with close-ups of the orchestra apparently playing in the middle of a thunderstorm. A still from this film becomes the picture in the Second Act and returns as a backdrop at the end. The sense of realism is heightened by a wind machine which is added prominently to Wagner’s orchestration during the opening scene. We are not shown any ships; instead a collection of rain-drenched passengers comes in from the storm to a modern reception lounge, apparently alighting from a cruise ship. These passengers remain onstage throughout the Dutchman’s monologue – he has to fend them off – and then even more strangely make themselves scarce for the more public following scene. The Second Act is set in a beauty spa with a swimming pool in the background. Oddly enough this features a single old-fashioned spinning wheel; but it is Senta alone who is using the machine, the complete opposite of the situation in Wagner’s text. In the final Act the Dutchman’s crew are revealed as illegal immigrants although they do not sing, and the words of the chorus are about something completely different. After that the stage is left deserted except for the Dutchman, Senta and Erik. The sense of modern realism is maintained to the end; there is no supernatural conclusion. Instead Erik shoots first the Dutchman and then Senta, and stalks offstage leaving the bodies to lie there. Hartmut Haenchen uses Wagner’s revised version of the score, but the transcendent music that he wrote for the final curtain is totally at odds with what we are shown.
There are some extremely effective images here, but they have little to do with Wagner’s opera. Instead we are being shown a completely different work, dramatically credible in its own right; but the subtitles continually contradict the images we see. Incidentally the subtitling here is much more closely allied to the video shots than in the Ring, even if the stage image is at odds with the text that is displayed.
From the musical point of view, however, this is an excellent performance. Juha Uusitalo is superb as the Dutchman, even if his prayer during his opening monologue is rather too beefy and not inward enough – a more gentle approach pays dividends here. Catherine Nagelstad as Senta gives a great performance; at first one fears that her voice may not really be big enough, but in the final Act she really cuts loose and delivers some superb attack. Marco Jentzsch’s Erik is also marvellous, one of the best performances I have heard of this ungrateful role. He even manages to make something of his sugary final cavatina, which almost makes one forgive the fact that he cuts the cadenza at the end. Otherwise the score is absolutely complete; although the passage in question is marked ad lib, this surely refers to the manner in which the passage should be sung and not to whether it should be included at all. Robert Lloyd makes much of the semi-comic role of Daland; Maria Prudenskaja as Mary, oddly enough looking younger than Senta, is somewhat underpowered but otherwise fine. Only the uncharismatic Oliver Ringelhahn as the Steersman rather lets the side down, although he is not helped by the fact that the production denies him any sense of falling asleep during his song. The orchestra under Hartmut Haenchen is properly tempestuous; they do not get the first of their eerily quiet chords which interrupt the sailors’ call to the Dutchman’s crew quite together, otherwise they don’t put a foot wrong. It is just a pity that Haenchen’s use of Wagner’s revised score jars so badly with the production – it might have been better if he had stuck to the original Dresden version with its more abrupt ending.
The production of Tannhäuser, on the other hand, makes a positive virtue of the contrast between Wagner’s Dresden version of the score and its later Paris revision. This is a vision of the score which again completely goes against Wagner’s original scenario, but because the producer’s concept is so closely bound in to the music it actually works. The curtain goes up at the beginning of the overture, and we see the poet Tannhäuser seated at his desk in search of inspiration. His wife and son come to interrupt his work, but it is only when Venus lays her hand on him - as the Venusberg music begins in the overture - that his muse takes flight, and the house servants become part of the orgiastic vision of the Venusberg; Friedemann Layer dovetails the overture into the Paris version of the score. When he rejects Venus, she tears his manuscript into pieces and he envisions his son as the shepherd boy. Apart from the fact that he sports a beard, he bears a certain resemblance to the young Wagner (complete with Rembrandt cap) and when his companions come to join him, and the sudden reversion to the Dresden score is reflected in the more Weberian cast of the music, they are dressed in the style of composers of the period; the pale Wolfram looks a bit like the invalid Chopin. This is an intelligent use of the contrasts in the style of the score to reflect what is happening on-stage; the offstage choruses of sirens and pilgrims reflect the various sources of the poet’s inspiration. It also helps to bind Elisabeth more closely into the action from the start.
After this the Second Act can be staged almost entirely in accordance with Wagner’s original stage directions, and the updating of the décor to an 1840s salon brings a positive advantage in that the singers can be accompanied by a proper onstage harp rather than miming unconvincingly to the sounds provided by an offstage player. Venus makes an appearance at the moments when Tannhäuser’s music evokes the Venusberg, and when the voices of the offstage pilgrims are heard the stage picture freezes as inspiration strikes him anew. Both these points are entirely in accordance with the situation as portrayed in the music, and there is a nice additional touch as Walther becomes visibly miffed when he is denied the expected opportunity to deliver his own song; Wagner cut this in his Paris version. Another nice idea is the corpulent and complacent critic who sits there making notes for his review and remains resolutely untouched by all that is going on around him.
The final Act might seem to present more problems for the producer in this scenario, but Kaspar Holten rises triumphantly to the challenge. During the prelude we see Tannhäuser closeted in his study and composing the narrative of his ‘pilgrimage’ to Rome; this Tannhäuser would never actually undertake anything so conventional. Venus hovers over him as his muse of inspiration, and Elisabeth and Wolfram are locked out. Elisabeth actually dies onstage during the postlude to Wolfram’s Star of eve and the ominous music which accompanies Tannhäuser’s entrance is taken as a depiction of Wolfram’s grief. Tannhäuser himself is full of glee, not unmixed with malicious humour, as he presents the ‘masterpiece’ he has composed to Wolfram, and Venus prepares to welcome him back into her world of fantasy; but his realisation of his wife’s death brings him back to reality. The opera concludes with the recognition of the worth of his masterpiece – once the author is safely dead.
Now this is an example of a modern production which totally rethinks Wagner’s opera in psychological terms, but because it takes extreme care not to contradict anything in the music actually makes it work. It is helped by the fact that the booklet, which elsewhere simply repeats Wagner’s original scenarios, contains a synopsis by the producer which conforms not to the original but to his revised conception. If only other revisionist producers would take similar care to make their intentions clear!
The cast is very good indeed. Tannhäuser is a rather thankless role: it demands the agility and lightness of a bel canto singer, but also ventures a long way into heldentenor territory. Singers of the first category tend to be overpowered by the orchestra in climaxes, while singers of the latter type simply cannot encompass all the notes. Stig Andersen does well in both departments. As his wife Tina Kiberg is a much stronger Elisabeth than the ingénue we sometimes encounter; she can really face down the other poets at the soirée, and she brings heartbreaking passion to her prayer. Tommi Hakala is a lyrical Wolfram, but has the power to ride triumphantly over the encounter with Venus towards the end. It is a pity that Susanne Resmark as Venus looks so calculating and positively malevolent at times, but that is in the nature of muses; and apart from a couple of rather ragged top notes she sings with great power and passion. The other poets and the Landgrave are properly stiff and pompous, and the fairly small chorus has plenty of body when needed. Friedemann Layer conducts the orchestra well; he sounds rather happier in the Dresden passages than the Paris additions, but he obtains a magnificent performance of the Third Act prelude, superbly played at a pace rather slower than customary.
I have recently reviewed Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s production of Lohengrin as a postscript addition to my review of the Bayreuth and Vienna DVDs (see review) and I will not repeat here my observations there, other than to comment that Lehnhoff makes four cuts in the score, only one of which was authorised by the composer. Since one of these cuts involves an excision in the Bridal chorus, the best-known number in the opera, this production simply cannot be recommended as a primary version of Lohengrin despite some very good singing. It is a great pity that in a boxed set which is presumably intended to present modern productions of complete Wagner operas, this incomplete version should have been included; although, as I said in my earlier review, none of the currently available DVDs is really satisfactory.
Lehnhoff is also responsible for the production of Parsifal, although mercifully this is given without cuts. This staging has been seen in several different locations throughout the world to considerable acclaim, although I cannot see the reason why apart from the fact that it looks fairly cheap to stage. One of the essential points of Parsifal is the transforming and redeeming power of the natural world, and in the “twentieth century wasteland” of the designs here nature is conspicuous by its total absence. Music in all three Acts which speaks of the beauty of the spring, the woods, and the gardens, finds no reflection at all in the staging, which most of the time is simply ugly. Nor is the handling of the performers any better. Time and again singers react violently and exaggeratedly to lines delivered by other singers with total sang-froid. And although they are clearly hearing what is being sung at them, there is something drastically wrong with their eyesight. God knows we do not want to return to the bad old days when Lauritz Melchior used to leave the stage altogether during the Grail Scene. Here Parsifal is all over the place, poking his nose into absolutely everything including Titurel’s grave-like sarcophagus and pushing his way forward into the light of the grail itself; absolutely nobody seems to notice. Amfortas enters during his opening scene without any attendants at all, and although he is in obvious pain only the four knights and squires support him to his bath. Then during the Grail Scene he seems to recover his full strength before the Grail is unveiled, rushing around the stage and pawing at the knights … and Parsifal. Maybe he just wants somebody to give him the attention which his status warrants. At any event Gurnemanz takes over the Grail ceremony with total mastery, which makes one then wonder why he didn’t just control the show altogether from the very beginning. The scarab-like Titurel crawling out of his tomb looks like a corpse already, and one wonders why nobody has noticed his death before the last Act. One is reminded not altogether comfortably of one of the skeletal knights in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and in close-up the singer’s face can be seen behind the mask. There are just far too many such loose ends, and they simply don’t hang together.
Act Two begins with an alien-looking Klingsor suspended in mid-air in the middle of what looks, rather appropriately, like a pelvis; the design of this scene, with Kundry rising from the floor below, is reminiscent of Wieland Wagner’s ground-breaking 1951 Bayreuth production – a good model, but hardly original any more. However when the drop curtain rises to show the magic garden there is again no sense of natural beauty. Lehnhoff completely ignores Wagner’s division of the Flower Maidens into two contrasting groups, which makes nonsense of the text and their subsequent quarrel. They simply look like a carefully choreographed cabaret act, and the use of additional dancers seems unnecessary when their movements are so constrained.
When Kundry appears she is enclosed in what looks like a walnut shell, in which she remains entombed until the end of Ich sah’ das Kind, which denies her any opportunity to show expression despite Meier’s superb singing. With her punk-like shock of hair she also looks far less attractive than the Flower Maidens, which makes Parsifal’s abandonment of the latter incomprehensible. At the end of the Act Parsifal indulges in a physical tussle with Klingsor for possession of the spear, which completely contradicts what is essentially a spiritual battle; and the ensuing earthquake consists largely of the splitting apart of Kundry’s walnut shell, into which she has once again retreated.
It doesn’t get any better in the last Act, where the set (in both scenes) is dominated by a railway track and a hollow in the ground in which various knights are stowed like a terracotta army. Needless to say, there is not the slightest hint of the beauties of nature of which Parsifal and Gurnemanz sing so rapturously. The string playing here is decidedly lacking in fervour, too. In the final scene Amfortas drags his father’s corpse out from the middle of the terracotta army, which everyone on stage has scrupulously ignored up to this point; at the end he dies while Kundry leads Parsifal away on the railway track - precisely the opposite of Wagner’s specifications, which are mirrored so exactly in the music.
In short what is lacking here is any of the sense at all of the mystery or transcendence which breathes through practically every bar of Wagner’s score. The impression is not helped by Kent Nagano’s conducting, clear and precise, but without much warmth and often far too fast. In the prelude to Second Act the strings are unable to articulate their running thematic passages with sufficient weight to counter-balance the sustained brass chords. The singers do the best they can under the circumstances; the best is Thomas Hampson, who delivers his lines with fine burnished tone and considerable sense of what character is left to him by Lehnhoff. Waltraud Meier is a known quantity as Kundry - the part practically belonged to her for some twenty years. That said, one feels here she is thrown back on her own resources as far as interpretation is concerned. Matti Salminen is a solid Gurnemanz, but there is not sufficient inflection in his long narrations during the first Act to keep the sense of boredom at bay. Christopher Ventris is young and fresh as the foolish hero, but some of the things that Lehnhoff asks him to do undermine the sense of the character growing wise through pity. Here he is all too knowing from the very beginning, even seeking to purloin Amfortas’s dropped crown behind Gurnemanz’s back. The lesser characters and the chorus are efficient but no more, and the Flower Maidens are a shrill and rather under-lyrical crew. The anonymous subtitles are sometimes unintentionally amusing: Gurnemanz asks the squires if they “maintain” Kundry, for all the world like Jeremy Kyle or Jerry Springer interrogating one of their unfortunate “guests”. Bizarrely at the end the curtain calls are cut short before the appearances of the three principals and the conductor.
The Tristan und Isolde is yet another Lehnhoff production, but it is a completely different matter from the other two. One is immediately struck by the far superior orchestral playing under Jiri Belohlávek, which is emphasised even more by the fact that no attempt is made to provide any sort of visual counterpart to the Prelude; we hear it in darkness, exactly as in the theatre, apart from the title Tristan und Isolde which proceeds slowly over ten minutes towards the camera - a similar procedure is used in the later Acts. When the curtain does rise – to a superb performance of the Young Sailor’s song by Timothy Robinson - we are in an abstract world, the ship only vaguely suggested by the whirls of colour that surround the singers. Within that world - and Tristan is above all an opera of the inner mind - the singers act and react to one another with total naturalness, and total faithfulness to the meanings conveyed by the music. This is obviously helped by Glyndebourne’s generous rehearsal schedules. There are no production glosses at all here. Even the arrival of King Mark at the end of the first Act, not specified by Wagner but practically always adopted by modern producers, is anticipated but not shown. The voices and instruments specified as coming from offstage really do sound from behind the scenes.
Similarly in Act Two, Brangaene’s warning is correctly delivered from offstage although it sounds as though she is amplified. The only departure from Wagner’s stage directions comes when Isolde does not extinguish the torch as a sign that it is safe for Tristan to approach. She drops her cloak, and at once darkness descends, which amounts to much the same thing. Later dawn comes slowly, beginning to appear in the sky as Brangaene’s voice is heard from the watchtower. This makes more sense than the sudden appearance of daylight at the end of the love duet which we more often see. There is a nice touch as Tristan embraces Marke at the end of his monologue. It is not in the score although it certainly helps to illuminate an important emotional crux in the drama but – and it is a very big but - the dichotomy between darkness and night, of which Wagner makes so much in the text, is rendered totally nonsensical because of the cut that is made in the first half of the duet. This cut was standard practice in many theatres until the 1960s - it helped the two leading singers to keep their voices fresh - but it has since become discredited, and quite rightly so.
The discussion between the two lovers – how the daylight blinded them to their mutual attraction, and how their love could only blossom in the world of night – is central to the whole of the plot as it develops: their reference to the realm of night as a consummation devoutly to be wished, and Tristan’s continual agonies in the realm of light in the Third Act. It is amazing that Lehnhoff could not see the dramatic point of this passage, and it is even more amazing that Belohlávek allowed the cut to be made.
In the Third Act the action proceeds as instructed by Wagner, and fortunately here we are spared the cut that was also sometimes made in Tristan’s monologue in the bad old days. One peculiarity: Kurwenal seems to have stopped off in his flight with Tristan to Brittany to take his master to the hairdressers – the hero’s shaggy wig has been replaced by a severe crew-cut; some may think this an improvement. The fight towards the end is staged in a sort of slow-motion dream, largely offstage, which actually helps to maintain the contemplative atmosphere. Lehnhoff does exactly the right thing, assisted by some excellent camera work, in keeping the focus on Isolde throughout the transcendent Liebestod.
The singing is superlative. Nina Stemme is quite simply superb as Isolde, with all the firmness of Birgit Nilsson coupled with a womanly warmth. Her tone is reminiscent of Kirsten Flagstad, but in place of Flagstad’s imperiousness we have a degree of subtlety, vulnerability and a pointing of the text which is in a class of its own. Her later performance in the audio set with Plácido Domingo is good, but given her stage presence this is something better again. Only in the Liebestod is there any hint of tiredness, with a slight tremulousness on the long-held notes. The only other obviously Wagnerian voice in the cast is René Pape, but he is not heard here at his best, probably because he is kept towards the back of the stage during the first part of his monologue which means that his more subtle inflections become lost.
Robert Gambill is a very baritonal hero, rather reminiscent of Ludwig Suthaus in the old Furtwängler recording, but his top notes ring out thrillingly and he does not give any evidence of strain in the long monologues of the third Act. Katarina Karnéus and Bo Skovhus are both obviously lyrical singers rather than heroic voices, but they generally manage to make themselves heard and the actual sound they produce is beautiful. A special mention must be made of Timothy Robinson, who is not only superb as the Young Sailor, as already mentioned, but is also most touching as the Shepherd at the beginning of the last Act. The performance gives no evidence of an audience presence, not even applause or curtain calls at the end.
Tristan has not been a lucky opera on DVD. The best version visually is the beautiful Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production from Bayreuth in 1983, but this suffers from some unsatisfactory singing, the youngish Barenboim at his most wilful in the pit, and above all from a silly producer’s gloss by Ponnelle at the very end: Tristan does not die, and the arrival of Isolde is portrayed as a vision in his deluded mind. The productions at the Met and Orange are abstract in a much less visually attractive style than here, and also suffer from some directorial glosses which are at odds with the music; the Orange performance is also cut. The best production I have ever seen, the swan song from Sir Peter Hall and Sir Georg Solti at Covent Garden in 1971 - with Birgit Nilsson and Jess Thomas - was grievously never recorded for video. Therefore apart from the quite unforgivable cut in the love duet, for both the interpretation and the production this version is otherwise the best currently available. Those looking for a DVD recording might consider this as an individual purchase if they don’t mind the butchery of the score.
Finally we come to Meistersinger, also from a Glyndebourne staging and the most recent production in this collection. Here during the Prelude we return to the more traditional view of the conductor and orchestra in the pit. There have been quite a number of productions of this opera which relocate the action to the mid-nineteenth century, and this is an updating which generally works well. We know that Wagner had specifically intended that the plot should mirror his own personal experiences, and that the pedant Beckmesser was originally named “Hans Lick” as a parody of Wagner’s own bugbear the malevolent Viennese critic Hanslick. The character of Walther, with his attempt to drag the crusty old Mastersingers into the realm of modern music, could well be envisaged as a portrait of Wagner himself – although it must be doubted that Wagner even in his younger days could ever have looked as attractive as the naturally designer-stubbled Marco Jentzsch is here, with his handsome figure, engaging smile and expressive eyes. His look of puzzled concentration during the composition of the Prize Song is exactly right.
Apart from the updating, this is a traditional staging which makes no attempt to re-interpret the work in accordance with any intrusive producer’s concept. David McVicar gets plenty of believable inter-reaction between the singers, and succeeds in bringing the implied love triangle between Sachs, Walther and Eva to real life. Making Sachs a younger figure than usual underlines the poignancy of his renunciation, with a sense of heartbreak which continues through into the final bars. Beckmesser remains onstage to hear the Prize Song, but rejects Sachs’s proffered hand of friendship at the end – again, a realistic touch which brings both characters to life. The use of nineteenth century costumes not only underlines the parallels with Wagner’s own career, but also serves to bring out the social distinctions of the characters in a way that a traditional staging cannot. The only criticism that could be levelled at the designs is the very grand setting given to Sachs’ workshop in the opening scene of Act Three, which utilises elements not only from the opening church scene but also the final festival; this might render scene-changes easier, but it somewhat blurs the class division between the cobbler Sachs and the nobleman Walther.
The personal relationships between the characters is underlined by the use of lyrical rather than grandly Wagnerian voices, and the occasional lack of the heroic manner is a small price to pay for the dramatic realism that the interplay brings to the plot. Passages in the score than can drag in the theatre, especially as here in an uncut production, simply fly by and hold the attention throughout. The whole is a demonstration of how a modern re-interpretation of Wagner, free from jarring elements, can be a total success. McVicar actually restores some elements of Wagner’s original stage directions - frequently omitted even in traditional productions - such as Eva’s crowning of Sachs at the end of the opera. This is given a touchingly ambiguous poignancy which really illuminates the music.
In that final scene Gerald Finley lacks the total sense of command of Bryn Terfel or Norman Bailey, for instance. However, he sings with strength and passion and brings out the feeling which underpins the music superbly. Anna Gabler is a very positive Eva; if she lacks the ideal delicate poise for her final floated lines at the end of the Prize Song, she otherwise supplies a convincingly passionate characterisation. Marco Jentzsch - who one had already noted with pleasure as Erik in The Flying Dutchman - sounds in places here very much like a young René Kollo, with attractive lyricism somewhat vitiated by a slightly rasping production. One also notes occasional moments of strain on high notes, and hopes that he will not, like Kollo, push further at this time into heldentenor territory with consequent damage to his voice. One observes with some concern that he is already singing Parsifal. Michaela Selinger is a younger than usual Magdalene, which makes her relationship with the bubbly Topi Lehtipuu’s David more readily palatable than with the elderly matrons we are sometimes given; she is Eva’s companion rather than her nurse. Johannes Martin Kränzle thankfully gives us a properly comic Beckmesser, although he has the voice to deliver his songs with sufficient lyricism to convince us of his status as a composer - on which even Sachs remarks. Singers who adopt the modern fashion of making the character totally serious can end up simply being dour. The masters are a personable bunch, individually characterised, even if Henry Waddington lacks proper definition in Kothner’s enumeration of the rules. Vladimir Jurowski keeps the score on the light side, which is fine in what is after all a comic opera even if it has its bitter-sweet side.
To sum up, then. The two Glyndebourne productions stand out as superb modern versions of their scores despite the cut in Tristan; the re-interpretations of Der fliegende Holländer and Tannhäuser are also enjoyable even if they drastically rewrite Wagner’s original scenarios. The remainder are a rather mixed bag, and suffer from some really ugly stage designs from which the essential element of nature is altogether missing. Lehnhoff’s Lohengrin and Parsifal, while sticking to Wagner’s general directions, add nothing to them; and despite some good individual vocal performances, Nagano does not convince as a natural Wagnerian conductor. Küpfer’s Ring is not particularly original, many of his sillier glosses on the text being carried over from earlier productions when they should ideally have been unceremoniously sidelined. Despite some excellent musical performances here, his earlier Bayreuth production had more life than this.
It is above all a great shame that in a box which purports to be an encyclopaedic record of modern Wagner production should include stagings in which Wagner’s music is subjected to cuts, those in Lohengrin and Tristan being particularly distressing. The productions themselves show some of the better aspects of modern Wagnerian stagings. Chris Walton in his booklet notes refers scornfully to absurdities such as “Siegfried … playing on his home computer (and) ripping a teddy bear limb from limb”. Thankfully we are spared any such horrors here. However, in this box the Glyndebourne Meistersinger is the only production which really sheds new light on Wagner without, to a greater or lesser extent, throwing out the baby with the bath water. I will reiterate the point I made earlier: in these days of CGI, when is someone going to give us filmed productions of these works which adhere as closely as possible to the ideas that Wagner himself in mind? We might even find they work better than modern directors think.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
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