Daniel Barenboim’s Ring cycle at La Scala, begun with Das Rheingold in 2010, reached its final instalment with this Götterdämmerung given in Milan in 2013. I have reviewed each of the individual operas as they have appeared on DVD and Blu-Ray. This final episode, produced like its predecessors by Guy Cassiers, draws together elements from the earlier presentations, making substantial use of the 1890 sculptured frieze Les passions humains by Belgian sculptor Jef Lambeaux. Individual elements from this frieze were featured as far back as the second scene of Rheingold, but here the work as a whole comes more solidly into the foreground. Siegfried inspects elements of it carved onto the furniture in the Gibichung hall, and at the very end of the opera it is presented reunited as the closing image of the cycle. As in the earlier segments Cassiers is prepared to engage with the natural world in the manner which Wagner’s music clearly demands, and the stage pictures are often very beautiful indeed. Less commendably he continues to employ elements of dance, mainly to depict the machinations of the Tarnhelm but also – in rather conventional choreography – to illustrate Siegfried’s Rhine Journey - although they do not appear in any of the later orchestral interludes. Otherwise he sticks pretty closely to Wagner’s original stage directions. There are no really offensive directorial glosses which fly in the face of the music. There are also some nice original touches such as Brünnhilde’s sudden expression of welcome to Siegfried when she meets him chez Gibichung. At last this nightmare of misunderstanding will be cleared up, she clearly thinks; and her expression of bewilderment when the expected clarification is not forthcoming is believable and touching.
The one thing that one has to observe is that Barenboim has not been lucky with the consistency of his casting. Each of the first three evenings sported a different Wotan, as the result of illness and so on. From the beginning to the end of the cycle only the Alberich and Woglinde from the original Rheingold cast have remained unchanged. Here Lance Ryan returns as Siegfried, but unfortunately Nina Stemme, who sang Brünnhilde in both Die Walküre and Siegfried, has been replaced by Irene Theorin.
When reviewing Siegfried I commented on Ryan that “heroism he can manage perfectly well, but sympathy for the character is harder to manufacture”. His lack of sheer romantic tone is a more serious drawback in Götterdämmerung, where the character has more lyrical music to deliver. Moreover since his recording of Siegfried in October 2012 his voice has also seemed to develop a decided ‘beat’ and unsteadiness in the tone, which is alarming in such a short space of time. His delivery of his narration brings a curious lightening of the tone during his rapid delivery of the Woodbird’s messages. This is clearly intended to be dramatically enlightening but merely sounds odd. The lack of a firm centre to the tone severely detracts from the scene of his death. Ryan is clearly an intelligent and imaginative artist, but his tone is too often simply not ingratiating enough.
That said, his problems with uneven delivery are nothing by comparison with Theorin. She is, like Stemme in the earlier instalments of the cycle, a womanly rather than a heroic Brünnhilde. The resemblance to Martha Mödl which I noted when describing Stemme’s performance is even more noticeable here. Unfortunately, and unlike Stemme, she also has inherited the faults of Mödl’s manner – a decided wobble in pitch, and a curdling of the tone which can become unpleasant. She lacks Mödl’s strong lower notes, which is a serious drawback in a Brünnhilde. There is a total lack of romantic chemistry between Ryan and Theorin in their Dawn Duet, which makes his willingness to succumb to Gutrune’s charms all too understandable. Theorin manages to achieve the high notes with confidence, but there is a degree of wildness, effort and strain which is quite effective in a role like Strauss’s Elektra but which sounds unheroic in Brünnhilde. She has plenty of dramatic presence, and her scene with Waltraud Meier’s Waltraute brings this to vivid life; but in the final scene, as she scythes her way through the high notes, she begins to sound raw and rather tired.
Nor is the casting in the other roles such as to make one willing to overlook the shortcomings of the hero and heroine. I praised Anna Samuil as Freia in Rheingold, but as Gutrune she seems over-forceful in delivery, not helped by her characterisation as a vamp who can scarcely keep her hands off Siegfried from the moment she first sees him. Mikhail Petrenko, who impressed as Fafner in Gergiev’s Rheingold when I reviewed that set last autumn, seems to have the wrong sort of voice for Hagen. The bottom notes are solid enough, but the general sound is more baritone than bass in orientation, and he can only attain volume by pulling the most grotesque facial expressions. He comes into his own during his scene with Alberich, delivered with vehemence by Johannes Martin Kränzle, where for once he really seems to be asleep, singing with his eyes shut. Otherwise he is comprehensively overshadowed by the heroic-toned Gerd Grochowski as Gunther, which surely gets the relationship between the two half-brothers back-to-front.
The casting of the three Norns at the beginning of the Prologue, where the three singers never appear again, is not infrequently achieved by doubling singers from elsewhere in the production. This is quite justified. The three Norns need to be strong singers, otherwise the scene can go for nothing. There is plenty of time to allow for costume changes before they have to reappear later in the evening. Samuil, while being too strong to be a convincing Gutrune, is at the same time too weak to be satisfactory as the Third Norn where the orchestral writing really calls for a Brünnhilde-type of heroic delivery. Waltraud Meier, who is excellently involving as Waltraute, sounds out of sorts as the Second Norn. Only Margarita Nekrasova, with a rich solid lower contralto register, really comes across during the scene. On the other hand the three Rhinemaidens are enchanting, skittish and ominous by turns, although again we have two new singers in the trio when compared with their original appearances in Rheingold. The chorus is excellent, and it is interesting to find Barenboim reducing the number of individuals singing sometimes where Wagner indicates this - as in their opening bars - although he does not extend this to allowing some of the choral lines in Siegfried’s narration to be delivered by solo singers as Wagner demanded, clearly in the interests of dramatic verisimilitude.
The booklet note by Michael Steinberg is interesting, if only because it draws the reader’s attention to the use in Guy Cassiers’s designs of Lambeaux as a unifying factor throughout the cycle, which I must admit had totally passed me by in the earlier episodes. However one’s faith in the article is somewhat shaken by the blatantly exaggerated statement that Siegfried’s Rhine Journey should be regarded as the “first tone poem”. This totally overlooks Liszt’s symphonic poems and Berlioz’s dramatic cantatas and symphonies, quite apart from the frequent deployment of the ‘concert overture’ by composers throughout the earlier romantic era. Such a nonsensical assertion, trivial though it may appear in context, has the unfortunate result of throwing into doubt everything else that the writer may then say. Nonetheless the staging of the Rhine Journey is impressive, although the visualisation of the Rhine itself arrives rather later than the music clearly suggests – and Cassiers’s willingness to accept Wagner’s dramaturgy displays a confidence in the fact that the composer knew precisely what he was doing. That faith has been sadly lacking in some famous recent productions such as those by Chéreau and Küpfer.
Whether the cycle, with its changes in casting from one evening to the next, really works as a whole is more doubtful; but what success it has in this area is clearly down to the conducting of Daniel Barenboim. He conjures marvellous sounds from the La Scala orchestra, time and again illuminating elements in the score that are often concealed. In the final pages, which he gets exactly and rightly balanced in a manner I had despaired of ever hearing, he keeps the brass statements of the Valhalla theme down at the beginning, to allow them to build over their successive modulations in the precise way that Wagner clearly intended with his reiterated markings of immer stärker. This also allows the statement of the rising and falling Götterdämmerung motif in the lower reaches of the orchestra, so often obscured, to come across with the full weight needed to make the counterpoint work. The otherwise admirable Reginald Goodall, with a weaker orchestral bass section, fails to make this ‘tell’ properly in his live English National Opera recording. Barenboim rightly has no truck with the spurious insertion of a Luftpause just before the final bars, allowing the Redemption motif to rise above the continuous descending bass line which underpins it and achieving a cathartic climax.
The video direction of the production, as in earlier instalments, is fussy and too often finds the camera pointing where it is not needed; the continual drifting away of the viewpoint from whoever is singing becomes very annoying after a time. As I observed of Rheingold, there is a massive roster of people credited with the “TV production” and presumably they had to find something for them to do. Those who are looking for a ‘traditional’ presentation of Wagner’s cycle will clearly remain faithful to James Levine’s old Metropolitan Opera set. With its more consistent casting throughout this is a thoroughly acceptable depiction of Wagner’s intentions. Others may find the directorial glosses of modern producers such as Chéreau and Küpfer less intrusive than I do, for which individual moments of enlightenment do not really compensate. Apart from the dubious transformation of Fafner back from dragon to giant at the moment of his death Cassiers manages to avoid most of their more objectionable innovations. Indeed, of the modern productions of the Ring which I have encountered over the years, this is one of the best if you can accept elements of singing which at times lack the ideal sense of weight and style. Even here compensation can be found in Barenboim’s often revelatory conducting, superior in experience and understanding to his older Bayreuth self.
There are no extras on the disc, but subtitles are provided in German, English, French, Spanish, Italian and Korean.
Paul Corfield Godfrey