Wagner Society of New York

New York, NY

Wagner Society of New York

New York, NY

Wagner Notes

Review Archive

Archive Glossary

Click on the appropriate link below to jump down to the Review of interest:

Die Meistersinger in Munich in Wagner Notes in November 2019
Endless Journey of an Artist: Bayreuth’s New Production of Tannhäuser in Wagner Notes in Sept. 2019
Metropolitan Opera: Der Ring des Nibelungen, published in Wagner Notes in July 2019
Geneva Der Ring des Nibelungen, published in Wagner Notes in May 2019
Covent Garden Ring Review, published in Wagner Notes in December 2018
Bayreuth Lohengrin, published in Wagner Notes in October 2018
San Francisco Ring, published in Wagner Notes in August 2018

Exclusive Review: Die Meistersinger in Munich

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. S. Jakubiak, O. von der Damerau; D. Kirch, A Clayton, W. Koch, M. Gantner, C. Fischesser; K. Petrenko, Bavarian State Opera; D. Bösch, Dir.; P. Bannwart, Sets; M. Nielsen, Costumes; F. Herold, Video; M. Bauer, Lighting.  Performance of July 27, 2019.As usual, Meistersinger closed out the annual Munich Opera Festival, a month-long celebration at what many feel is the finest opera house in the world today. That reputation is certainly built on world-class casting, a vast and rangey repertory, and dramatically thought-provoking and powerful productions, but mostly it is built on unstinting musical excellence. And credit for that must go to Kirill Petrenko, who is about to finish his tenure as the company’s General Music Director as he begins his leadership of the Berlin Philharmonic, the most prestigious conducting job in classical music. The Bavarian State Opera’s (and opera in general’s) loss is Berlin’s (and symphonic music’s) gain. Petrenko’s conducting of Meistersinger, and of an Otello we saw the previous week, affirmed my sense that he is the single greatest conductor I’ve seen in 35 years of regular opera and concert-going, with the possible exception of Carlos Kleiber. Watching him, and watching the orchestra, and watching the communication happening between him and the orchestra, is a joyous phenomenon.

The overture was surprisingly fleet. Surely, I thought, the players will never be able to maintain clear articulation at this pace, and the fugue section will become messy.  I was wrong: I’ve rarely heard such precision and such vertical clarity. And – better yet – the unfolding of each new section of the prelude felt exciting, as if the orchestra couldn’t wait to share each new treasurable moment, and yet there was no sense of rushing, nothing peremptory. The rest of the opera flowed with the same kind of passion, with constant attention to little details of instrumentation and, at the same time, a delirious surrender to the big moments of emotional overflow. I’ve never heard the haunting sonorities of Sachs’s “Melancholy” motif, which opens the third act prelude and ends so many of the big, joyous moments in that final act, played with such a sense of mystery and profound, ambiguous sadness, as if each new statement dug deeper into the protagonist’s soul. Petrenko conveyed these complex sentiments and yet also conveyed the sheer, radiant beauty of the score, clearly shared by the musicians who positively beamed from the pit.

Director David Bösch took a grim approach. He had directed a terrific Verkaufte Braut which we saw earlier in the week, set in a rustic, modern agricultural commune (complete with live, scene-stealing pig). His Meistersinger was similarly updated to a working-class present. The overall pictorial approach was dark and gritty; contemporary Nuremberg was portrayed – accurately – as a town balancing kitschy tourism with industrial work.  Sachs’s workshop was a run-down trailer, parked in a graffiti-filled section of the town. The fight at the end of the second act was (as in many modern productions) bloody and brutal. The competition in the final scene was a televised Eurovision Song Contest, complete with big-screen projections and calls for audience applause. A particularly humorous extension of this conceit was the Entrance of the Masters before the contest began. Each was accompanied by a dramatic 5-second video vignette showcasing the particular Master in a dramatic revolving pose, straight out of a WWE arena match. Beckmesser wore an embarrassing silver glam costume, desperately attempting to look cool and young. His utter failure drove him to despair and, in the final moments, to bring a gun on stage which he turned on himself as the curtain fell.

This final depiction of suicide was just one of several dark, ugly moments. I did not care for many of the choices Bösch made, although there was certainly an integrity to his approach. There were some concepts that did pay off, including the delightful portrayal of Walter as a jeans-and-leather-jacket-wearing, guitar-carrying rebel, a perfect contemporary expression of the character.  And ultimately, the dramatic elements were somewhat irrelevant in that the conducting and playing were so thrilling that all else seemed to fall aside.

Five days before the performance, we received an email from the Bavarian State Opera stating that Jonas Kaufmann would be sick for our performance on the 27th as well as the subsequent performance on the 31st. One could suggest that Kaufmann has an uncanny ability to foretell the state of his voice and his health days in advance, but the more convincing, and sad, conclusion is that he has abandoned a sense of professionalism and now sings by whim and not by obligation. His replacement, Daniel Kirch, a Stuttgart-based tenor, acted decently, but the voice is strained and lacks the requisite glamour for the role. Wolfgang Koch was a sturdy but not particularly revelatory Sachs. Christof Fischesser was a solid Pogner. Martin Gantner fulfilled the production’s complex vision of Beckmesser with skill and excellent vocalism (he is one of the few who can belt the high note at the end of the Act III workshop scene with Sachs). David was the excellent tenor Allan Clayton. Sara Jakubiak had the vocal amplitude and proper intensity for a convincing Eva. Okka von der Damerau was a gusty Magdalene.

Erick Neher
Erick Neher, a Society member and contributing editor for The Hudson Review, is a writer on classical music, opera, theater, and film. By day, he is the Vice President of Marketing for Hearst Magazine Media.
© Wagner Notes, November 2019, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York. All rights reserved.

Sachs (Wolfgang Koch) and David (Allan Clayton) in Sachs’ workshop.
Photo: Wilfred Hösl

Exclusive Review: Endless Journey of an Artist: Bayreuth’s New Production of Tannhäuser

Principals: S. Gould, L. Davidsen, E. Zhidkova, M. Eiche, S. Milling. Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, V. Gergiev and C. Thielemann (8/13) cond., T. Kratzer, director; R. Stellmaier, sets and costumes; M. Braun, video. Performances of July 28 and August 13, 2019.A team of young creators headed by a director sporting a baseball cap; a black performer in drag; extensive use of video: the new production of Tannhäuser in Bayreuth this summer had enough advance buzz to generate pre-opening jitters for another regietheater production expected to provoke and shock the audience. Happily, the director Tobias Kratzer, a winner of the Faust Award for Excellence in German Theater for his brilliant Götterdämmerung in Karlsruhe, gives us a fresh and captivating take on the story of a singer who strays from society for sensual pleasure, only to be punished for his sin, then redeemed by the sacrifice of a woman. I was fortunate to attend two performances, on July 28 and August 13, the latter conducted by Christian Thielemann in place of Valery Gergiev. This afforded me an opportunity to savor the details of the production, which could become a classic.

The production team provides a helpful discussion of their concept in the written program. They view the opera Tannhäuser as a journey experienced by Wagner during his turbulent time in Dresden, of “disillusionment and expectations.” As the overture begins, the curtain opens to a full video screen with an arial view of the Wartburg Castle, which is the setting of Act II of the opera. A van travels through the forest; the scenery gradually changes to a contemporary urban setting. The van’s occupants are an eccentric mix: Tannhäuser in a clown outfit, Venus in glittering form-fitting pantsuit, a dwarf in the image of Oskar in Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum, and a drag queen named Le Gateau Chocolat. They steal gasoline and their Burger King dinner, using a fake credit card with Wagner’s 1849 invocation “Frei im Wollen, Frei im Thun, Frei im Geniessen” (free in willing, free in doing, free in enjoying).  Venus runs over a policeman, whereupon Tannhäuser comes to his senses and throws himself off the van, to awaken in the vicinity of the Bayreuth Festival House. The pilgrims, formally dressed, line up at the lamppost as they approach the “Mecca.”Act II features the storming of the Bayreuth Festival House by Venus, Oskar, and Chocolat and their confrontation with the police.  The stage shows a “traditional” enactment in the interior of the Wartburg Castle, and a screen above depicts “the back story”: Elisabeth, Tannhäuser, and other performers getting ready for their entrance. Venus and her two companions, whose van crashed into the barrier of the Festival House at the end of Act I, gain access to the House from the balcony, and the disparate worlds of static opera and real life perfor­mance collide. Venus sneaks onto the stage disguised as one of the singers. The physical presence of Venus in Act II makes her a more interesting character, contrasting the two women who vie for Tannhäuser’s attention. Elena Zhidkova, who was a late replacement for Ekaterina Gubanova after the latter’s injury during the rehearsal period, was perfect for the physical demands of the role, moving with athletic energy and ease.

The invasion by the outsiders is brought under control as Katharina Wagner summons the police (shown on screen) and several police men and women storm onto the stage. Tannhäuser is arrested as he sings of “Rome.” Elisabeth, by no means a simple saintly figure, was shown earlier as a troubled wrist-cutter and almost steps out of her rarefied surroundings into the world of Tannhäuser at the end of Act II but returns to her society.

Act III takes place in a desolate area with the broken van and other metal scraps and the pilgrims as homeless vagrants. Elisabeth appears and shares a meal with Oskar.  She has sex with Wolfram, who disguises himself as Tannhäuser by donning the clown outfit, and then commits suicide by slitting her wrist. As Tannhäuser cradles her body, we see on the above screen the happy pair embarking on a road trip in the van, this time with Tannhäuser (and not Venus) in the driver’s seat. The last scene, with its swelling and dramatic music, ends as the pair rides off into the sunset, in Tannhäuser’s imagination. This was one of the most moving and hopeful endings of the opera I have experienced.

On August 13, with Thielemann at the helm, the orchestra was in top form. Stephen Gould showed again, with his stamina and powerful but nuanced singing, that he is the reigning Tannhäuser. The young Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen, hailed by many as the next great Wagnerian soprano, impressed with her huge and brilliant voice that became creamy in soft singing. Markus Eiche was a sympathetic and warm-voiced Wolfram. Stephen Milling headed a strong ensemble of singing knights.

The success of this production rests on the meticulous care taken to develop the four main characters in a modern interpretation. Unlike the Castorf Ring, it did not distract me from enjoying the music, because the director, who had a good understanding of the opera, giving precedence to the music. A delightful bonus of an outdoor performance by Tannhäuser’s companions during the first intermission attracted not only the festival-goers but also the local audience who were not attending the performance. A splendid integration of theater with real life.

Ako Imamura
Ako Imamura, a Society member, is a familiar face at international performances and a reviewer for “Bachtrack.”
© Wagner Notes, September 2019, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York. All rights reserved.

      Tannhäuser (Stephen Gould) and Venus (Elena Zhidkova) at Burger King. Photo: Enrico Nawrath.Tannhäuser (Stephen Gould) and Elizabeth (Lisa Davidsen); Act iii. Photo: Enrico Nawrath.
    • 2019 Richard-Wagner-Verband International Congress:

November 28–December 1, 2019

  • The much anticipated RWVI 2019 Congress in Venice promised a number of unique events and special programs of great interest to Wagner enthusiasts. Unfortunately, seasonal high tides, to which Venice is particularly vulnerable, struck on November 12 with the second highest tide in the city’s history. Flooding occurred in Ca’ Vendramin Calergi (the Congress venue) as well as Teatro La Fenice, Piazza San Marco, and other important city sites. Subsequent high tides occurred in succeeding days, which caused additional damage and hampered cleanup and repair efforts. Luckily, tide levels dropped enough that cleanup could begin, and the Congress began as scheduled with a special Concerto per Cosima at Teatro La Fenice on November 28. Those in attendance were not deterred by the remaining water in the streets and walkways, but many arrived wearing rubber boots which were exchanged for dress shoes before entering the theater.The Delegates’ Assembly, a very formal meeting conducted in three languages, began the next day at 9:30 a.m. with a full agenda, including the reading of a letter from Bayreuth Mayor Merk-Erbe and greetings from Eva Wagner-Pasquier, who attended the Assembly. The item of greatest interest to the Delegates – Festival ticket allocations – was not listed on the agenda due to a late development. Three days earlier Bayreuth Festival management had written to RWVI society presidents informing them that ticket allocations for the 2020 Festival to these presidents would occur despite its earlier announcement to the contrary, and that further information would be announced at the Congress. Out-going President Horst Eggers stated that Festival management would allocate 100 Ring tickets, along with 80 Meistersinger and 80 Tannhäuser tickets to the overseas (non-European) societies, as well as a separate allocation for European societies and that distribution will be managed by the new Board. It was apparent that the President’s efforts, along with other RWVI Board members, were instrumental in convincing Festival management to reconsider its earlier decision, and appreciation was extended to the Festival management.Dr. Stefan Specht, Geschäftsführer of the Richard-Wagner-Stipendienstiftung, gave an abbreviated report about the Richard Wagner Scholarship Foundation. Since the 2019 Congress was late in the year, Scholarship Week 2019 had already occurred and it was too early for any details about 2020. Festival management had indicated that it might take over the program, although as of January 2020, this had not been clarified. Incidentally, WSNY plans to send a stipendiate for Scholarship Week 2020.
    The main item of business was election of new officers and directors for the prescribed five- year term.  President Eggers and some others did not stand for reelection, and there were only two contested positions. Two candidates ran for President and addressed the delegates, and Rainer Fineske was elected for a five-year term. The only other contested race was four German Board of Director positions for which six individuals applied. RWVI practice was to have formal written ballots for each position, including those with only one candidate, and the counting of ballots was time-consuming. The Assembly did not adjourn until almost 2:30 p.m., leaving only a short break before the 3:00 p.m. Symposium.

    The Symposium had two parts. The first was listed as “Wolfgang Wagner: The Festival Director, The Stage Director” and included a discussion of Festival revival after 1945 and its subsequent productions. This segment was about Wieland Wagner and did not really discuss Wolfgang Wagner’s role before Wieland’s death. The second part was a conversation with Katharina Wagner about her recollections of her father and the Festival, from her childhood forward. This very full day at the Assembly and Symposium was capped with another special concert at La Fenice titled “Love and Death in Venice” and featured vocal selections from Die Walküre and Tristan und Isolde.

    On Saturday, November 30, and Sunday, December 1, a number of optional tours were offered, including several walking tours and a visit to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum. I did not participate in these, but I did visit the Richard Wagner Museum, located in the Ca’ Vendramin Calergi (CVC), which on Saturday opened an exhibition titled Richard Wagner in Venice. The museum is located on the second floor of the CVC in space Wagner rented in September 1882 and lived in until his death on February 13, 1883. The CVC is a 16th century palace that was renovated around 1850 to include a heating system of stoves in each room, which reportedly is the reason Wagner selected the space. The museum contains an extensive collection of scores, art work, performance programs, letters, and other items, and there is an ongoing effort to restore the rooms to their appearance at the time Wagner resided in them. A plaque on the outer wall of a ground level courtyard commemorates Wagner’s death in 1883.

    On Saturday evening a number of Congress participants attended a performance of Don Carlo at La Fenice. Flooding had caused the theater to cancel rehearsals and then move them to a different location, but theater staff worked around the clock and received clearance from safety inspectors to resume performances. The Royal Box was set aside for RWVI on Saturday, and all who attended enjoyed the performance and the beautiful theater.

    This was my first RWVI Congress. I deeply enjoyed the experience, not only for the musical feasts but also because of the people I met, all of whom are Wagner fans committed to the goals of RWVI. Many expressed appreciation to the outgoing Board for their effectiveness and integrity.

    Author and Photo: David Hughes
    A Society member, David Hughes is the Society’s International Liaison, and was our delegate to the RWVI Congresss in November 2019.
    © Wagner Notes, February 2020, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York. All rights reserved.

    Jacques Bouffier, 4th Vice President, who has served faithfully throughout his five-year term, sent a final communication. He noted that the new President Fineske will follow the path that Eggers initiated with the Bayreuth management, and that Fineske understands the special needs of the overseas societies. Hughes personally expressed our gratitude to Bouffier and Eggers. They were pleased that WSNY had a delegate to the Congress; Hughes succeeded Hannelore Wilfert, who was our excellent delegate to several Congresses. (If a society does not have a delegate, there is a provision for proxy, which Bouffier was for three years.)

    Andrea Buchanan, who has succeeded Bouffier as 4th Vice President, is well known to WSNY for her reviews and clarifications of RWVI matters. She reported that it was one of the best congresses she could remember. The music was wonderful: an excellent Don Carlo and a superb chamber string orchestra playing Venetian music, Mendelssohn, and the “Siegfried Idyll.” “I just wanted to let you know how much I look forward to working with you and the other overseas societies in our common cause.” She has coordinated the ticket allocations for the non-European societies, and ours have almost entirely been sold.

    The RWVI performs many services for its nearly 130 member societies throughout the world, the most important to us being access to Bayreuth ticket allocations. These societies report their activities
    in the online Jahresbericht (annual report). The RWVI also produces an excellent online bimonthly newsletter which gives an amazing amount of current Wagner news around the world for everyone’s benefit. Do check it out. Individual members of Wagner societies may sign up for this newsletter (with choice of language): https://www.richard-wagner.org/rwvi/en/news/newsletter/. We are able
    to add our Society’s information directly through a specific login. We need a volunteer to do this for WSNY. Please let us know if you would like to do this by writing to wagnerring@aol.com.

  • Exclusive Review: The Return of La Machine!
  • It’s back! For the  second  time  the  Metropolitan Opera has revived Robert Lepage’s much loathed production   of   Wagner’s epic tetralogy,   which is famously dominated by a vast mechanical contraption (“the  machine”)  with  twenty-four moving planks. Alas, after nearly ten years in the Met’s repertoire, this massive effort, which cost tens of millions of dollars to create and millions more to accommodate on the Met stage, is unlikely ever to escape its alliterative condemnation by New Yorker critic Alex Ross as “witless and wasteful.” Rumors fueled by open-ended statements from the Met’s management suggest that the next time the company presents a full Ring Cycle, it may be in a new production. This may well underscore the sheer folly of the house’s decade-long infatuation with Lepage’s Ring, which the Met’s administration has assiduously declared “visionary” despite almost unanimous critical and popular comment to the contrary. Still more rumors, widely welcomed in many corners, hold that the sets of the beloved old Schenk production are still tucked away somewhere, like a sleeping Brünnhilde resting up to save our aesthetic sensibilities.Bayrueth, after all, stages a new Ring every six or seven years regardless of how the previous production was received (poorly, the last four times). The Paris Opera just announced a new production to replace Günter Krämer’s dismal effort, which is roughly the same age as the Met’s. Many of the defects in Lepage’s production persist. The machine’s creaks are less intrusive than they were when the individual operas premiered, but they remain too audible to be excused. Mechanical problems are still in evidence. In Cycle II’s Das Rheingold,  the  music  stopped  for  nearly  a  minute when a stage elevator failed to deliver Erda on time for  her  dramatically vital  admonition  of  Wotan to give up the ring. Apart from a couple of showy transformations  ̶  the   descent   into Nibelheim and Brünnhilde’s fading  into  her  magic sleep come to mind  ̶  the  machine’s  best  uses  arrived  when  it was perfectly   stationery and delivered    reasonable  background scenery via projection. Act I of Die Walküre and most of Siegfried went   forward successfully for this reason, but only because this was when the machine moved the least. Stage direction   has also improved. Characters emerged in greater relief, and the human conflicts that drive the work were less cartoonish than I recall from the individual premieres.Sometimes, however, the direction was simplified to address safety concerns, which had visibly marred the production in previous outings. Brünnhilde’s entrance in Act II of Walküre, which literally tripped up Deborah Voigt at the installment’s premiere in 2011, is now a much safer but far less dramatic walk along machine’s flat top. The changes in dramaturgy are welcome and generally improved the experience, but nothing can mask the production’s utter lack of any interpretive theme; even Schenk;\’s production, which was criticized for being too picturesque in its traditionalism, concluded with a slow fade out of the gods’ divine light as the mortals contemplated the beginning of their age. In Lepage’s production, Rhine overflows its banks, with its waters undulating at the surface like nothing had happened and nothing had mattered. Nearly ten years on, it remains what the Germans derisively call “ideelos”  ̶  “idea-less, ” or “free of ideas.”The Cycle’s vocal event was the emergence of Christine Goerke as the leading Wagnerian dramatic soprano before the public today. This was her first Met Brünnhilde, and the first time she performed all three Brünnhilde roles in a composite cycle; her earlier performances in Canada and Houston unrolled incrementally over successive seasons without culminating in full cycle performances. Her Chicago Brünnhildes have also unfolded season-by-season, but will end with full cycle performances in the spring of 2020. Traditionally, we have judged Brünnhildes by their ability to reach the glorious high notes  ̶  the C’s, of course, but also the B’s and G’s that the right throat can cast gleamingly alongside Wotan’s vicissitudes and Siegfried’s raptures. Goerke floated these notes in fine form atop the superstructure of a superb technique, but her real uniqueness came in her exploration of the role’s earthy qualities. Brünnhilde, as she matures, must experience the darker and more complex side of human feelings and develop empathy for frailty both human and divine. In this her low notes, especially in Götterdämmerung, were extraordinarily paired with the exuberant upper register, which vaulted above the orchestra.

    Cycle II subscribers had the good fortune of hearing the German Heldentenor Andreas Schager’s Siegfried. After a long career in operetta, Schager has catapulted into leading Wagnerian roles in Europe over the past few years. With an utterly clarion tone and effortlessly expansive top voice, he has mastered Parsifal and Tristan. His Met Siegfried performances (which included his house debut in the matinee Cycle’s Göterdämmerung) proved a stunning success, arguably the best the house has heard since the days of Lauritz Melchior. Some observers objected to his puerile and insouciant stage antics, but that is who Siegfried really is and, for better or worse, the person Wagner wrote  that he wanted us all to become.

    Michael Volle, now a Met stalwart in the Wagnerian repertoire, was a tower of vocal and dramatic force as Wotan. He brought a deeply human interpretation of the role that reminded one of James Morris’s best nights. His performance never faltered in either musical or dramatic power.

    Most of the rest of the casting was equally luxurious. Stuart Skelton and Eva-Maria Westbroek delivered a gorgeously sung Act I of Die Walküre, though Skelton is not the most compelling actor in the operatic firmament. Gunther Groissböck matched them with a malevolent Hagen and also contributed a suitably menacing Fafner. Tomasz Konieczny’s Alberich resounded with stentorian force and the astute diction that this moving role greatly needs to be the focal point of evil ill will. Jamie Barton’s Fricka was lighter than Stephanie Blythe’s had been in the first installments, but still carried the day in another triumph for her promising career. It was a bit too odd to see Eric Owens cast as Alberich’s evil son Hagen. After enjoying a solid success as Alberich in earlier years and mixed reviews as Chicago’s Wotan, he seemed a bit too glib for the role of a master conspirator. At times he was a bit too charming, even to the point of get­ ting a few laughs with comic gestures that accompany his more deceptive moves. Hagen is written to be purely malevolent, his only pretense to humor expressed in a biting sarcasm. Owens’s portrayal here did not seem quite true.

    The Met Orchestra has sounded better in Wagner, not the least in the horns, which squalled out of tune at some point in each of the four operas in Cycle II. Philippe Jordan approached the sprawling score with an economy of style that recalled Pierre Boulez’s fast but famously engrossing Bayreuth Parsifal performances, and he seems to have risen above the glacially slow and dramatically ponderous renderings he gave in Paris’s Ring a few years ago. Rheingold dragged a bit listlessly, but Jordan’s interpretations improved considerably over the subsequent evenings. Siegfried ranked among the best performances of the opera I have ever heard, while Götterdämmerung ended the Cycle in a truly spellbinding fashion.

    Paul du Quenoy
    Paul du Quenoy is Associate Professor of History at the American University of Beirut and an international music and theater critic.
    © Wagner Notes, July 2019, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York. All rights reserved.

    Photo: Alberich (Tomasz Konieczny enjoying the gold (briefly).
    Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
  • Exclusive Review: Geneva Der Ring des Nibelungen
  • Principals: Tómas Tómasson, Will Hartmann, Michaela Kaune; Petra Lang , Michael Weinius, Tom Fox, Dan Karlström, Ruxandra Donose, Stephan Rtigamer, Alexey Tikhomiro, Taras Shtonda, Agneta Eichenholz, Wiebke Lehmkuhl, Mark Stone, Jeremy Milner. Orchestre de la Suisse Romande; Georg Fritzsch, cond. Performances of March 12, 13, 15 and 17, 2019.The exquisitely renovated Grand Théâtre de Genève opened its doors to three Ring Cycles in Feb.-March 2019. We were fortunately able to attend the third cycle (March 12-March 17, 2019). The Geneva Ring revived the production by Dieter Dorn and Jurgen Rose (2012-13 and 2013-14). What was true then, as now, was the focus on the words and dramatic action, and the emotive expressions of the actor/singers.
    Gods ascending to Walhalla in a hot air balloon, Das Rheingold, final scene. Photo: Carole Parodi.
  • The Orchestre de la Suisse Romande lived up to its splendid reputation. Georg Fritzsch conducted credibly, although his pacing could be static at times, especially in Rheingold, which was also too muted. However, his approach was entirely consistent with Dom’s emphasis on the words and drama. The orchestra increasingly came into its own as the Ring progressed and the voices and orchestra came more into balance.Tómas Tómasson was clearly and justifiably the audience favorite. While his voice sometimes lacked dramatic range, he sang beautifully and was one of the most persuasive Wotans we have seen. His rendering of the Walküre Act II narrative and Act III “Lebwohl” were subtly inflected and built effectively to their climaxes. While Petra Lang may not be to everyone’s taste, her powerful upper range and fluidity make her one of the great Brünnhildes currently on stage. Her trio with Hagen and Gunther in Act II of Götterdämmerung, sung with dramatic rage, was truly memorable Wagnerian singing. She seemed extremely comfortable in the role, having sung in Geneva’s past Rings, and was more effective than when we had seen her in Dresden last year. Michael Weinius, who sang Siegfried (and who will repeat the role in the upcoming Leipzig Ring), is more of a fresh, lyrical tenor than a true Heldentenor. His interpretation worked in this small, intimate house, but he was overmatched by Lang. While he paced his Siegfried carefully to the end, his Götterdämmerung lacked force and drama, particularly in his Act III narrative. Other standouts were Ruxandra Donose (Fricka), Mark Stone (Gunther), Wiebke Lehmkuhl (Erda), Stephan Rugamer (Loge) and Alexy Tlkhomirov (Fasolt/Hunding).Nina Krauthamer and Charles Blum
    Nina Krauthamer and Charles BlumSociety members, are New York attorneys and avid opera goers. The Geneva Ring was the fourth complete Ring Cycle they had heard within the last year.
    © Wagner Notes, May 2019, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York. All rights reserved.
  • The text of the Ring is so important to this production that supertitles are offered in both English and French and appear both above and to each side of the stage. As a consequence, particularly in Das Rheingold, Wagner’s music often takes a back seat. However, what is gained is a remarkable insight into the psychological dimensions, motivations, and contradictions of the characters. Also striking was the palpable victimization by the male characters of the women in the opera, most interestingly Erda.The sets were dark and gloomy in various shades of grey, black and white, with only a red fluorescent strip surrounding the proscenium. Certain scenes were striking: Nibelheim as a labor camp and simple moving panels as a backdrop for Siegfried’s meeting with Wotan in the third opera. However, most of the scenery seemed curiously dated and somewhat shabby. The use of black-clothed extras moving scenery may have been innovative a few years ago but was not as unusual or impressive as in some newer productions (Munich, for one). While the newly renovated theater clearly has advanced stage machinery, it was only used twice during the entire Ring cycle: in the Nibelheim and Immolation scenes. The stage conception may have been more successful if the machinery had been used more extensively.
    Wotan (Tómas Tómasson) and Brünnhilde (Petra Lang):
    “Lebwohl,” Die Walküre, Act Ill. Photo: Carole Parodi.
  • Exclusive Review: Covent Garden Ring Resounding
  • Principals: J. Lundgren, S. Connolly, L. Davidsen, G. Groissböck, B. Sherratt, G. Siegel, W. Lehmkuhl, S. Skelton, E. Magee, A. Anger, N. Stemme, S. Vinke, J. M. Kränzle, S. Milling, K. Cargill. Royal Opera House. A. Pappano, cond., K. Warner, director; S. Lazaridis, sets; M.-J. Lecca, costumes. Performances: October 16, 18, 21, and 24, 2018.Great singing and convincing acting marked the revival of Keith Warner’s production of the Ring at the Royal Opera House in October. Warner’s conception was generally forceful and intelligent; the production had several points of view, not all consistent. It got a lot right, but it got some things wrong, and a few things very wrong.Strong ideas and images and excellent interaction between characters were what it got right. But Warner—or the associate directors responsible for this revival—may have tried too hard to make connections from opera to opera. There were recurring visual symbols: a suitcase that passed from Alberich to Mime to Hagen; a corpse that may have been that of Hagen’s mother; a gold figurine of a goddess, perhaps Freia; a blue wig; ladders; a model airplane; horse skulls. There were many forms of writing, suggesting a tension between texts and direct encounter, savoir and connaître. Mime (Gerhard Siegel) consulted a book in Das Rheingold. Mathematical formulas (in place of runes) covered the set curtain at the beginning of Siegfried and appeared again in Götterdämmerung. In Siegfried the Wanderer (John Lundgren) extracted a contract from his spear to show to Mime in Act I and fruitlessly consulted books in Act III. Hagen (Stephen Milling) brandished what looked like a pocket diary and the vassals waved similar pocket diaries at Brünnhilde (Nina Stemme).The production conveyed the story fairly efficiently but the sets by Stefanos Lazaridis undermined the sense of continuity. They were alternatively detailed and plain, literal and abstract, divided between realistic sets—an Edwardian parlor with a glass wall at the back, Alberich’s white-tile-lined laboratory, and the Gibichung hall—and a large white rectangle. When it first appeared in Act III of Die Walküre, the rectangle marked a major change in the style of the set and costumes; it reappeared in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. It served as a wall, but it also rose and lowered, tipped at various angles, revolved, and wobbled. Characters (Wotan and Brünnhilde, Siegfried and Brünnhilde, the Norns) passed through a door in the rectangle, or rode on it as it revolved (the Wanderer), or stood on it as they plotted Siegfried’s death (Brünnhilde, Hagen, and Gunther). At key moments, the rectangle hid important plot developments from the audience: Wotan led the sleeping Brünnhilde through the door; the rectangle then rose to reveal her asleep on a chaise lounge. The awakening scene was played behind the rectangle with the sleeping Brünnhilde and the searching Siegfried visible in silhouette. Nor were the costumes by Marie-Jeanne Lecca consistent: gods, Nibelungs, and Gibichungs wore vaguely early- and mid-twentieth-century costumes, but the Valkyries were in filthy, shapeless dresses, their arms covered with blood.

    Hiding key moments from the audience was not the only misfire. In the confused and confusing final scene of Das Rheingold, Freia (Lise Davidsen) cowered in a pit in the center of the stage as the gods dumped the gold into it to cover her; Erda (Wiebke Lehmkuhl) rose from it (as though Freia was transformed into Erda); Wotan (Lundgren) descended into it as the other gods climbed multicolored ladders to the flies. At the end of two operas, characters sang from opposite sides of the stage, making for slack drama: Wotan and Brünnhilde at the end of Die Walküre and Siegfried and Brünnhilde in the awakening scene in Siegfried, as though they were giving a vocal recital. In Act II of Siegfried, Mime (Johannes Martin Kränzle) stood in a depression in the floor, alternatively putting on and off a wolf or rat mask indicating his true and murderous thoughts as he sang to Siegfried (Stefan Vinke). Most shocking, a frustrated and angered Wotan stabbed Erda at the end of their scene in Act III. At the end of Act II of Götterdämmerung, Vinke sang from a chair at the side of the stage with his back to the audience as Gunther (Markus Butter), not wearing the Tarnhelm (which resembled a large Rubik’s) confronted Brünnhilde. The final scene of Götterdämmerung was set around a large open space surrounded by metal walkways; Brünnhilde lighted fires in the four metal chim- neys and statues of the gods were lowered into them. It was difficult to get much sense of emo- tion given all the activity. Someone threw at least one chair in every opera. There were some traditional elements (traditional, that is, judging by other productions I have seen): men in top hats, characters wearing eyeglasses, a sofa and a bar cart in Act I of Götterdämmerung. If I focus here on the problems, it is because they distracted from an otherwise fine production.

    The performances were well-acted and generally well-sung. John Lundgren was stalwart and a little dull as Wotan. Substituting for an ailing Johannes Martin Kränzle as Alberich in Das Rheingold, James Cleverton acquitted himself admirably, both vocally and dramatically; Kränzle sang Alberich in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung; his voice is warmer than Cleverton’s. Emily Magee as Sieglinde became shrill and metallic when reaching for top notes. Stuart Skelton as Siegmund held the second “Wälse” while I counted slowly to thirteen. In Siegfried, Stefan Vinke paced himself well throughout, still sounding robust at the end.

    Other notable singers were Günther Groissböck as Fasolt, Sarah Connolly as Fricka, and Heather Engebretson as the forest bird. Nina Stemme had some vocal difficulty at the beginning of Act II of Die Walküre, singing with a wide vibrato and carefully preparing before reaching for high notes. The power of her voice became more apparent in the Todesverkündigung scene. She is arguably the best Brünnhilde at present, though I wonder whether she will soon retire this role. The standout performer in three operas—as Freia, as Ortlinde, and as the third Norn—was Lise Davidsen. In the past, I have found Stephen Milling stiff and uninteresting, but in this production, he showed himself capable of great singing and acting, a worthy successor to Matti Salminen.

    Antonio Pappano moved things along efficiently, if not effortlessly; he seemed to lack inspiration. The brass had difficulty at the beginning of Das Rheingold and in Walküre. It was good to see the orchestra on stage to take a bow after Götterdämmerung.

    As this may have been the last revival of this production, I would be sorry not to see it again (I saw it in 2007 and 2012). Despite its oddities and inconsistencies, this was, generally, a thoughtful and thought-provoking Ring.

    Stephen Wagley
    Stephen Wagley, a Society member, has attended 34 Ring cycles, including three of the Royal Opera House Ring Cycle covered here.
    © Wagner Notes, December 2018, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York. All rights reserved.

    Stuart Skelton as Siegmund &
    Emily Magee as Sieglinde in Die Walküre, The Royal Opera ©2018ROH. Photograph by Bill Cooper
    Stefan Vinke as Siegfried in Siegfried, The Royal Opera ©2018 ROH. Photograph by Bill Cooper
  • Exclusive Review: Bayreuth Lohengrin
  • From Rats to Moths — Yuval Sharon’s Lohengrin and the Bayreuth Season
    Yuval Sharon, the first American to stage a new production at Bayreuth, has created a Lohengrin that is gorgeous and introspective yet very accessible, at least by Bayreuth standards. Focused on the fairy-tale aspects of the story but also on contemporary sexual politics, it features an exotic range of visual references, from Van Dyke’s paintings to the Disney movie Frozen to the BBC science fiction television series, Doctor Who, which has a cult following.Many of the references and the look of the production are clearly not Sharon’s. A couple of years ago he replaced Alvis Hermanis as director. The project had a long gestation: the German husband-and-wife team of Neo Rauch (sets) and Rosa Loy (costumes), both famous artists, had been at work on it since 2012. Their well-established visual styles clearly contributed to the overall look, and it is stunning. Nietzsche described the overture as blue in color, and this is surely the bluest Lohengrin in history, with bright orange touches. Van Dyke’s influence shows up in the costumes, inspired by his portraits. Reinhard Traub’s lighting contributes greatly to the otherworldly feel of the whole affair. Sharon’s biggest contribution is to frame the work in stark, modern #MeToo terms, so that Elsa and Ortrud rise up against “corrupt men.” Lohengrin’s demands for blind faith and absolute trust are seen as unacceptably sexist, precluding “real love.”The opera takes place around a cartoonish rendition of an electric power plant and grid, framing the discussion in terms of electricity. In the opening scene, the plant is dormant, and in the program book Sharon explains that Brabant is “a land fallen from grace, without power or electricity,” which Lohengrin must bring, “similar to Lenin’s electrification of Russia.” When Lohengrin arrives, he immediately restarts the electricity, saving Elsa, who was about to be burned at the stake. But when he takes her to his bridal chamber, he uses electric cords to bind her to a giant insulator, becoming her oppressor. Elsa, whose tiny house is a replica of the Tardis—an old-fashioned British phone box painted vivid blue with a sort of antenna on top, which serves as a vehicle for time travel in the Doctor Who television series—is visited by Ortrud, whose normally deceptive warning becomes the catalyst for Elsa’s salvation: her rebellion against blind faith and tradition.Hans Neuenfels’ fascinating Lohengrin production (2010–2017) was a dark inversion of the pious text and dealt with such questions as the post-Christian lack of faith, the destruction this causes and, significantly, whether power destroys love. The chorus was famously costumed as a bunch of laboratory rats. In Sharon’s production, the key figures all wear moth-like wings, and these take on great significance. For example, when Telramund and Lohengrin do battle (suspended on wires), Telramund loses a wing, which his minions then carry in a ceremony. Moths are, of course, drawn to light, but this seems to be more of a fairy-tale conceit that an overarching metaphor.

    When Lohengrin vanishes and Gottfried shows up at the end, costumed to resemble a green monster, everyone else, even the Brabantians, drops dead except for Elsa and Ortrud. If the production has the feel of a tele- vision series, this is its season finale, leaving a mystery to be dealt with next year. Which could well be the case… In “Werkstatt Bayreuth” (Nietzsche’s term, later realized by Wolfgang Wagner), productions are frequently revised and reworked in successive seasons.

    To my ear, Christian Thielemann is the finest Wagner conductor of our generation, and he led a vigorous, authoritative, deeply introspective reading of the score in the August 10 performance. The fabled Bayreuth chorus sang magnificently, as always.

    Roberto Alagna, who had been cast for the title role three years ago, famously cancelled three days before the first rehearsal. Rescue came in the person of Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, whose youthful, bright, liquid tone, stamina, and fine phrasing made him a deeply sympathetic figure, not entirely in sync with Sharon’s darker characterization.

    German soprano Anja Harteros brought power and stamina to her portrayal of Elsa, but her voice is simply too heavy for the role; she sounded more like an Ortrud. For that role, however, we had the great Waltraud Meier, making her first appearance here in 18 years; she has now retired the role. Occasionally she seemed to struggle, especially in “Fahrheim,” but her vivid dramatic portrayal carried the day. Polish bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny was a superb Telramund, ferocious, with torrential power. Georg Zeppenfeld sang the role of King Henry with great dignity and beautiful tone.

    James L. Paulk
    James L. Paulk, a Society member, reviews for a number of opera and music publications.
    [A version of this review appears in the current issue of the American Record Guide.—Ed.]
    © Wagner Notes, October 2018, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York. All rights reserved.

    Lohengrin, Act II: Lohengrin (Piotr Beczala) tying Elsa (Anja Harteros) to an insulator in the bridal chamber.
    All Bayreuth photos: Enrico Nawrath.
  • Exclusive Review: The Ring in San Francisco
  • Principals: I. Theorin, D. Brenna,  G. Grimsley, J. Barton, F. Struckmann, D. Cangelosi, B. Jovanovich, K. Mattila, A. Silvestrelli, R. Aceto, S. Margita, R. Miller, B. Mulligan, J. Adams, S. Tappan, R. Tatum, L. McNeese, M. Citro, S. Cambidge, N. Birkland, L. Krumm, R. Rapier.  San Francisco Opera Orchestra; D. Runnicles, cond.; F. Zambello, director; L. Feldman, assoc. director; M. Yeargan, designer; C. Zuber, costumes; M. McCullough, lighting; J. Hartley, S. Katy Tucker, projections; L. Pech, dance master; D. Maier, fight director; San Francisco Opera Chorus, I. Robertson, chorus master. Performances of June 26, 27, 29, 30, July 1, 2018.Exuberant enthusiasm characterized both the performance and the audience reaction to the third cycle of Francesca Zambello production of the Ring at the San Francisco Opera. The Orchestra under conductor Donald Runnicles filled the venerable War Memorial Opera House with an ocean of music and the audience responded with a tidal wave of applause. During intermission several people told me that they were so enthralled by the beauty of the orchestral sound that they could only concentrate on the music. His interpretation of the score was at times so exuberant that the orchestra overwhelmed the singers. Pacing was brisk throughout, and sometimes rushed, as in Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, but always compelling.On stage an excellent ensemble of singing actors gave life to Zambello’s concept of the Ring as a human/feminist drama set in the contemporary United States. This was the third outing for the complete Zambello Ring (San Francisco Opera 2011, Washington National Opera 2016) and it remains one of the most thought-provoking and effective of all contemporary Ring productions. It is also one of the most accessible, as Zambello turns mythic characters into modern people with modern problems whose story unfolds through grand music.For example, Wotan (Greer Grimsley) was a CEO/Master of the Universe but he could not avoid being ensnared by the vocal virtuosity of his slippery lawyer Loge (Stefan Margita), nor could he resist the large and persuasive voices of his wife Fricka (Jamie Barton), or lover Erda (Ronnita Miller).

    The familiar story achieved new shades of meaning through skillful acting and staging. This was especially true of the two giants: except for their great height and metal hands, they not only looked human, but displayed painfully human emotions. In Das Rheingold,  when Fasolt (Andrea Silvestrelli) sang about love, he was wooing Freia (Julie Adams), and she reciprocated by later showing her reluctance to leave him to go back to the loveless family of gods. In Götterdämmerung, Silvestrelli was a horny Hagen who clumsily pawed his half-sister Gutrune. Was Hagen just an evil man hungry for sex, or was he actually looking for love and a way to escape his father Alberich’s baleful influence? In Das Rheingold, while Fasolt sang of love, Fafner (Raymond Aceto) looked at him with the predatory gaze of a poisonous snake preparing to strike. Fafner soon found an excuse for murder in the dispute over the treasure. In Siegfried, he defeated Fafner appeared in his giant/human form to sing a tender death scene that sounded like an acknowledgment that he had wasted both life and treasure and was now passing his tainted legacy on to Siegfried. Aceto faced an additional vocal and acting challenge when he took on Hunding in Die Walküre, a reprehensible character who exemplified the need for the #MeToo movement.

    The Ring is huge but it is made up of many telling details that great artists may utilize, with small words leading to serious consequences. A few of the highlights: In the first scene of Das Rheingold in order to steal the gold, Alberich (Falk Struckmann) renounces love with a curse: “So verfluch ich die Liebe!” In this phrase the word Liebe consists of only two syllables sung to two musical notes but Struckmann managed to endow it with a universe of meaning, for indeed love, or the lack thereof, was the primary motivation for all that followed.

    In Die Walküre, the father-son relationship between Wotan and Siegmund could be summed up in two words and some heavy breathing. In Act I Siegmund (Brandon Jovanovich) sang “Wälse, Wälse” as a powerful invocation to an absent father who quickly responded with a sword and a lover leading to a glorious duet with Sieglinde (Karita Mattila). In Act II, Wotan (Greer Grimsley) sank into deep despair after he was forced to agree not to protect his son. He punctuated his anguished cry of “das Ende, das Ende!” with the heavy breathing of a dying man. This breath of death was later heard from Siegmund as he died in the arms of his father Wotan.

    At the end of Act II of Siegfried, Siegfried (Daniel Brenna) told the Forest Bird, “ich bin so allein” and sang this simple phrase with such depth of feeling that it illuminated another key concept: loneliness and separation. Siegfried was destined to die with only the memory of Brünnhilde as a farewell song.

    By the final scene of Götterdämmerung, Brünnhilde (Iréne Theorin) was also alone. She had lost everything, including her parents, sisters, and two husbands. She was left with only the magic of her glorious voice to redeem the world through the healing power of music. As the final notes faded, a young girl in a white dress came to the front of the stage and planted a tree, a sign of hope for a new beginning.

    Ellen Scaruffi   
    Ellen Scaruffi, Ph.D., a Society member, is a veteran of several Zambello Ring cycles.© Wagner Notes, August 2018, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York. All rights reserved.

    Die Walküre, Act I: Sieglinde (Karita Mattila) embracing Siegmund (Brandon Jovanovich).Siegfried, Act III: Wanderer (Greer Grimsley) challenged by Siegfried (Daniel Brenna).
    Die Walküre, Act III:  Valkyries watching Sieglinde (Karita Mattila)
    accept Siegmund’s sword from Brünnhilde (IréneTheorin).