Monday, December 31, 2012

Stuttgart Ring

Some long journeys over the holiday period allowed me finally to catch up with the 2002/2003 Ring Cycle from the Staatsoper Stuttgart, released on DVD by EuroArts in 2004.

This was, to put it mildly a controversial production. Each opera had a different cast and different director, with the only continuity being the Staatsorchester Stuttgart under the baton of Lothar Zagrosek. Many have weighed in on the pros and cons of this attempt "to deconstruct the totalizing narrative of the Ring cycle", as one might put it. There is an insightful article by Andrew Moravscik here (originally published in Opera Quarterly in 2010), and a representative holding up of hands in horror here.

For my money the stagings were by and large thought-provoking. The test of a production is whether it reveals aspects of the drama that one hadn't previously seen and each of the four directors managed to pull the veil back on occasion. There was really only one act that was utterly devoid of merit or point - the first act of Peter Konwitschny's Die Götterdämmerung, featuring an utterly preposterous fur-clothed Siegfried gamboling around with a hobby-horse and the expression of a smirking village idiot before putting on Brunnhilde's amply proportioned feminine breastplate. The second and third acts of that same production showed real imagination, however, as did much of the other three productions. Many familar Wagnerian clichés showed up - the Nazi baby ward with a crib for each Valkyrie, the gods as gangsters, the post-industrial landscapes, barbed wire prison camps, and so on. But each production had a distinctive vision and the singers did a good job of framing their parts accordingly.

One of the strengths of the Stuttgart Ring is that it features an unusual amount of acting (as opposed to standing and singing). Memorable scenes include the last part of Brunnhilde and Siegfried's great duet, as they alternately fight over and swirl a sheet on their soon-to-be marriage bed, and the long dialog between Alberich and Hagen which begins with Hagen asleep and Alberich awake and appears to end with the roles reversed (quis custodiet custodies, I suppose). Unfortunately, some scenes are memorable for all the wrong reasons, and I would very much like to be able to forget Wotan besporting himself with what appear to be nude Grecian garden gnomes in the second act of Siegfried.

An obvious problem with having each role sung by different singers in each opera is that comparisons are easily made. The Wotans in Die Walküre and Siegfried (Jan-Hendrik Rootering and Wolfgang Schöne respectively) are completely overshadowed by Wolfgang Probst singing the same role in Das Rheingold, and Luana DeVol steals the show as Brunnhilde in Die Götterdämmerung (with a wonderfully sung and acted immolation scene). The fact of the matter, though, is that the three principal characters are disappointing, with the two exceptions just noted. Neither Jon Frederic West not Albert Bonnema makes much of a mark as Siegfried. West is a shouter, while Bonnema is erratic when he tries to project (if only they could somehow be combined!). The real highlights are in the more secondary roles. Robert Gambill and Angela Denoke are very moving as the Walsung twins in Die Walküre, and Heinz Göhrig (Mime) and Björn Waag (Alberich) sing and act very effectively in Siegfried. 

I have to say that I got much more out of the Stuttgart Ring than I expected. The singing is certainly not up to par overall, but Lothar Zagrosek's conducting is solid and at times inspiring. The conceptual approach is worth engaging with and frequently sheds genuine light on the drama. It's unlikely that I'll want to sit through it in its entirety again, but there are powerful acts that it would good to revisit.

I have more long flights later in the week. This time I think I'll take the 1957 Rudolf Kempe Ring from Covent Garden.