By James Paulk
LEIPZIG — This year’s Wagner-Festtage at Oper Leipzig, in the composer’s home town, presented the first three installments of its new Ring production (full cycles will be performed next year), as well as three non-Ring Wagner operas.
So far, at least, Rosamund Gilmore’s productions of Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, and Siegfried, seen May 28-30, have their lively moments and more than a few art-house touches, but are basically a safe, straightforward presentation of the Ring events, with little of the German Regietheater that so terrifies American audiences.
The main innovation is the addition of an androgynously costumed corps of 12 dancers present through most of the cycle, which serves multiple functions. Sometimes, the ensemble works together to offer expressive “interpretive dance.” Often, individual dancers become doppelgangers for the singers: a pair of rams for Fricka or ravens for Wotan, for example. And then there is Grane, Brünnhilde’s horse, who, in addition to the usual horse functions, is her servant, gun-bearer, and acolyte.
Given the ubiquitous dancers, the production becomes something of a dance-opera. “Sometimes they’re nice to look at, but they become distracting,” observed a friend. In Die Walküre, for example, the dancers occupy the roof of the hut — here a modernist bunker — staying out of the way most of the time, but impossible not to watch. The choreography, by Gilmore, is generally fine.
With the arrival of Siegfried, unveiled this season, the role of the dancers took on more importance and Gilmore’s concept became more focused. Siegfried here is truly a “wild child,” with a special connection to the wilderness and its magic, but immature and lacking in all else. The wilderness is represented by a densely planted box populated by creatures (the dancers) whose role includes the forging of the sword, which they then hand to Siegfried.
Gilmore’s handling of the dragon scene was her strongest touch in the cycle to date. Fafner and Fasolt had originally appeared as clumsy giant men wearing too-tight, bold-patterned suits and absurd top hats. As the dragon, Fafner wears the same outfit over a fat suit and is seated on a red sofa surrounded by smaller “Mini-Me” Fafners (the dancers), who go through death throes along with the giant. As Fafner dies, Siegfried clings to his body, desperate for a father figure. But then the Forest Bird(s) appear: a quartet of dancers in white miming the singing, which comes from the pit. The sets, by Carl Friedrich Oberle, varied from abstract to modernist to “Italian villa.” Like Nicola Reichert’s costumes, which ranged from period to modern dress, they served more as backdrops than as part of any specific statement.
The orchestra for Leipzig Opera is the fabled Gewandhaus, led since its inception in 1743 by luminaries such as Felix Mendelssohn, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Bruno Walter, and Kurt Masur. Its reputation was difficult to reconcile with the cacophony that frequently emerged from the pit. Much of the blame for this must be placed on Ulf Schirmer, the opera’s music director. Schirmer’s approach to the Ring is one of bombast: his mezzo-fortes were fortes and his fortes were absurd. Beyond the problems this created for singers, it exposed a coarse sound from much of the orchestra. Drums thwacked like artillery. I have never heard so many brass errors in a Ring performance. Winds misbehaved. At times it was possible to hear the orchestra’s signature dark, burnished string tone. But coordination was problematic, both within the orchestra and with the stage, and intonation issues were not uncommon. At curtain calls for the first two operas, Schirmer was greeted with sustained booing.
Things improved overall for Siegfried, which, as the new production, probably got more rehearsal time. The three Ring operas were presented on consecutive nights with no break. The role of Wotan was triple cast, all with younger singers, all rather good. The best was clearly John Lundgren, who appeared as The Hiker (Wanderer) in Siegfried, displaying a big, attractive bass-baritone sound and powerful charisma. Tuomas Pursio, the Wotan in Das Rheingold, was convincing and had adequate power and showed great potential for the future, as did Iain Paterson in Die Walküre.
As Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, Iréne Theorin, an established singer, delivered her usual strong performance. But perhaps the most important musical event of this festival was the role debut of Elisabet Strid, who sang Brünnhilde in Siegfried. I have never heard such a lyric, almost coloratura approach to this role, with all the notes in place, fine coloring, and significant power, even over the thundering orchestra. She’s also glamorous and knows how to act. Whether she really should be singing this role with her voice type is another question; the career could be a short one. And I don’t believe she is ready for Götterdämmerung. But to my ear, she is the finest and freshest Siegfried Brünnhilde now singing, and one of the most distinctive ever. What a discovery!
Busy Heldentenor Christian Franz sang Siegfried. He has ample power, a bright sound, and acts well. And if the voice occasionally isn’t a joy to hear, he meets the requirements of the task. The Siegmund, Guy Mannheim, displayed a youthful, room-filling sound and a nice Heldentenor ring. Christiane Libor, as Sieglinde, struggled with intonation but gave an honorable performance. Of the two Alberichs, Jochen Schmeckenbecher, who sang the role in Siegfried, came out on top. Dan Karlström was a very satisfying Mime, sympathetic dramatically and vocally. And Rúni Brattaberg’s Hunding was one of great force and power.
Roland Aeschlimann’s 2006 production of Parsifal (May 22), like the Ring, was abstract but with little Regie, especially for Germany. The set consisted of a giant tilted screen that could pivot as a sort of door and that functioned as a background for projections. The grail was revealed at the far end of a long artillery-like cylinder, but was called up by way of a magic transparency that, when held to the light, disclosed what seemed to be the image of Christ. Lighting, by Lukas Kaltenbäck, was quite effective. Susanne Raschig’s costumes had a Far East feel. The choreographer was no less than Lucinda Childs.
Parsifal, more than any of the other operas, exposed both the virtues and the flaws of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, again led by Schirmer. Here, organ-like chords had a perfectly rounded texture. The winds had a dark sound all their own. Yet the horns, more exposed than ever, were out of control. As in the Ring, there were problems of coordination and intonation. As Gurnemanz, Brattaberg revealed a large, resonant voice with fine intonation. Mathias Hausmann, the Amfortas, occasionally struggled, his breaking voice adding a fragile dimension to his tortured character. Daniel Kirch sang impressively as Parsifal. He exaggerated the “fool” aspect in the first act, but redeemed himself, so to speak, later on. Was he intentionally made up to resemble Peter Sellars? I couldn’t decide, but if so, it was a delicious little shout-out to the iconic bad-boy director, as Wagner’s self-referential heroes, even Parsifal, often denote the artist challenging the establishment. Jürgen Kurth was an admirable Klingsor and Kathrin Göring a riveting tiger as Kundry.
Oper Leipzig is the only company regularly staging all three of Wagner’s early works. During the Wagner bicentennial, the productions traveled to Bayreuth, where they were performed in a vast sports arena. As part of this year’s Wagner Festtage, Das Liebesverbot (May 23) was revived in a surprisingly straightforward production by Aron Stiehl. The opera is Wagner’s retelling of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, but with a German Viceroy, Friedrich, as the love-suppressing tyrant. In this production, the free-spirited carnival crowds are colorfully costumed as hippies, while the stuffy bourgeoisie and their enforcers are severely dressed in black. As it happened, the opera was performed on the weekend of a huge international Goth festival, which pretty much took over Leipzig. A large delegation showed up at the opera, comprising perhaps a third of the audience, turning it into a scene from a pornographic horror movie and stealing the show from the costumes onstage. The Leipzig audience responded stoically: I didn’t see a single raised eyebrow. Libor was the Isabella, with much power but little subtlety. Swedish soprano Marika Schönberg had more success as Mariana, her counterpart (both are novices in a convent). Pursio, who would sing Wotan the next night, was the Friedrich. The orchestra, under Jeremy Carnall, suffered from coordination problems but performed honorably.
In terms of orchestral performance, the best evening by far was a concert version of Tannhäuser (May 31), led by Matthias Foremny. It was as if the old orchestra had gone away, to be replaced by another. Perhaps something like that did happen. The Gewandhaus Orchestra has 185 members performing at the opera, St. Thomas Church, and across the plaza at the Gewandhaus itself, often at the same time. Playing on a stage, as here for the concert version or at the Gewandhaus under the orchestra’s music director, Riccardo Chailly, is of course more appealing than playing in a pit. Whatever the reason, the horns were tamed, winds sounded fine, and the string tone was sheer bliss.
Once again, we got a major role debut, with Kirch singing Tannhäuser. His dark tenor voice has ample volume and nice colors, and he is dramatically compelling. Libor was the Elizabeth, and that role worked better for her than the others at this festival. Göring was an extraordinary Venus. The Leipzig Opera House, built in 1960 and recently restored, is a true example of “high Soviet” architecture, interesting and distinctive in a strange, almost vulgar way, and the city of Leipzig is even now a window into how differently cities in the East developed from their Western counterparts. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen a queue at a pay telephone.
Two full cycles of the new Ring will be performed in 2016. The first will be on four consecutive nights beginning May 5. Then, beginning June 28, the second cycle will be spread over a traditional six-day period. The season will also feature performances of Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot, and Rienzi, though not on dates convenient for those attending the cycles. Tickets, already scarce, are on sale for everything via the opera’s excellent website here or by calling the box office at 011 49 341 12 61 261.
James L. Paulk is a freelance critic who has written regularly for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.