Twilight in Hamburg

A rather sudden trip to Hamburg this weekend, for a family event, provided an opportunity to drop in to the Hamburgischer Staatsoper for the last instalment of Wagner’s Ring in the emerging production by Klaus Guth. A kitchen-sink drama of generally consistent quality, in spite of a few hiccups here and there.

The Prologue…

But, before the opera, a note about Schleswig-Holstein.  [Or skip straight to the opera write-up, below!] The north-German state runs from the area around the city of Hamburg up to the Danish border. The family event was sadly a funeral, but it provided (as they always do) an opportunity for family that has not seen each other for a long while to catch up, and as the ‘in-law’ I was made wonderfully welcome. The service and the ‘wake’ took place in the ‘Rosenstadt” of Eutin, a bit south of Kiel. A beautiful town, which in common with the surrounding countryside, gives the general impression of gentle, intensely comfortable living. Our last visit there took place in the summer months, and we caught a performance of Der Freishutz in the gardens of the Residenz, a regular fixture of the Eutiner Sommerspiele that used to always honour the town’s major musical son, Carl Maria von Weber. I say ‘used to’ because, sadly, it seems the Sommerspiele is likely to be no more, having gone registered insolvency in October (though their website is still optimistic for 2011: “Freuen Sie sich auf die die Eutiner Festspiele 2011!“. It feels like a real loss, an erosion of that sense you get that any German town can mount a respectable opera festival, or maintain a reasonable performing company, and often from within its own resources. My partner’s mother once sang in the festpiele chorus.

Fissau, just outside Eutin, in the fresh Autumn sunlight

Fissau, just outside Eutin, in the fresh Autumn sunlight

We took a train through some stunning scenery up to Kiel for a further catch-up lunch, sliding sedately past spa-towns of the Holsteinische Schweiz such as the wonderfully-named Bad Malente-Gremsmühlen, and fabulous lakeside woodlands around Plön. Kiel itself is as industrial as Hamburg’s harbour area, but again the areas we saw as we were whizzed up from the station had smart modern squares and new buildings in the ubiquitous shiny post-modern style.

For Hamburg itself we had an evening and a day, and most of the day was Götterdämmerung! A great Wienerschnitzel and beer in a Brauhaus set us up for the evening before, and the next day offered a wander around the harbour area in the crisp, cool sunshine, along with a rare opportunity for a spot of ‘Shopping am Sonntag’. I love the place. Hamburg definitely exudes smart, wealthy comfort (whatever is going on beneath the surface), and the surrounding countryside of Schleswig-Holstein seems to benefit from the most wonderful light. I remember from our summer visit, and saw again on this autumn visit, just how vivid and full of contrast the light seems to render the landscape. Fabulous photography to be had, for sure.

The Opera…

Anyway, so on to the opera. The cast was certainly respectable, including Deborah Polaski as Brünnhilde, Christian Franz as Siegfried, and John Tomlinson as Hagen, the other parts being cast from more local talent. Simone Young led the Philharmoniker Hamburg, having quite a following in the town: the publicity display for the new Elbphilharmonie building described her in glowing terms, as a driving force for musical Hamburg.

I have always had a sense of the Hamburg State Opera as being rather a hothouse of Regietheater. This production was not excessively outlandish, but there was a definite interventionist streak in Claus Guth’s approach. The basic set was an enormous revolving white building, looking like a pavilion in the moderne style, of two stories and which rotated to display a wide range of different spaces and combinations, including double-height areas, open-fronted rooms and others with windows. As it rotated, scenes changed: Brünnhilde’s rock was a dowdy 1970s German flat complete with striplighting, and a bed in the white-tiled bathroom.  The Gibichung house was a crisp white-walled multi-room affair. As the opera progressed, logs began to pile up in the rooms as the slowly rotated past. We had vignettes of gods awaiting their fate, Alberich plotting and Wotan appearing silently at various points.

All quite clever, and interesting.  Some of the vignettes did add to the dramatic flow, reinforcing what we know to have gone before.  The set was a little omnipresent, though, and if this is the basis of the foregoing operas of the cycle, I think I would be heartily sick of it by now.  The couple of scenes where it didn’t appear were replaced by a replica of the flat that rose from below the stage during prologue and closing scene.  Oh, and there was a rather stupid scene for the Rhinemaidens where they played in their paddling pools and pulled out their inflatable toys, etc.  Ugh.

The major intervention, however, came at the end, when Brünnhilde moved to stage-front as she delivered the closing scene.  Smoke gradually enveloped the set behind her, illuminated by flickering orange light in the manner of those electric fires you can still get that ‘imitate’ glowing logs with spinning discs over orange lights.  It trundled back into darkness, and then the flat returned into view, containing a bloodied Siegfried looking out of the window.  He had returned there to die as the Funeral March started to unfold, expiring (quite effectively, actually) as the first thunderous chords rang out.  Brünnhilde moved towards him slowly as the redemption theme washed around us, and then collapsed on the table at the close.  Was that her sacrificing herself for him? Was it a final ‘vision’ of Siegfried rather than him in the flesh?  Who knows?  It wasn’t entirely jarring, but it didn’t quite work either.  And I want fire, and the Rhine breaking its banks and… oh, who am I kidding?  I don’t expect those stage directions will ever be followed again in my lifetime.

Performances?  Polaski and Tomlinson were very clearly the ‘senior’ artists, bringing fantastic dramatic conviction to everything and dominating the stage.  Tomlinson was in fine form, his fulsome bass not at all sounding its age, projecting malevolence and insinuation with deft skill.  Polaski was a little more ‘on the edge’.  The closing scene was testing indeed, and there was some snatching for the more forceful, and higher-lying passages.  But overall, over the span of the long evening, the gleam in the middle voice was still there and she was intense in her characterisation.  It was a privilege to see her perform the role.

I didn’t warm to Christian Franz’s Siegfried.  Aurally, it was preferable to the reigning Siegfried of Covent Garden’s Ring, John Treleaven: as in, steadier, more attractive in tone, although it sometimes lacked punch.  Dramatically, it wasn’t really the heroic youth.  This was unfortunately underlined by the Tarnhelm scene for which Siegfried had donned Gunther’s blazer and white trousers, in unflattering contrast to their original owner.

Gunther was effectively played, dramatically and vocally, by Robert Bork; Anna Gabler’s Gutrune struggled to beat the orchestra on a few occasions, but was otherwise a stylish portrayal.  Deborah Humble gave Waltraute her all, to good effect, and Wolfgang Koch delivered Alberich’s gloom well.

Rounding all of this off was the dramatic conducting of Simone Young.  Slightly choppy in places, it was nevertheless a reading of spirit and fire: the effect of the Funeral March was immense.  The Philharmoniker Hamburg didn’t quite rise to the challenge, with some scrappy playing in parts, and a lack of a sense of unity in the sound which occasionally (such as the closing scene) intruded.  Offstage horns were secure as they announced Siegfried, their colleagues in the pit sometimes less so.  Nothing of this particularly spoiled the performance, though, and we went out into the night suitably elated.

Which is probably more than can be said for the pair in the seats next to me who, judging by their fidgeting throughout (bangles!!!) and sotto voce conversation through the (non-)Immolation scene were less than impressed.  My German wasn’t up to joining the debate, so they got a short, sharp, simple sssh!

Epilogue…

Hamburgishe Staatsoper: Down the Side Street, showing the Kartenburo

Hamburgishe Staatsoper: From down the side street where the Ticket Office is located (far left). The main front is up the street on the left.

The theatre itself is not going to set many hearts racing for its outward appearance.  Inside, it has a warm modern feel and, from where we sat about six rows back, a comfortably acoustic, though being quite near the front robbed the orchestra of some of its bloom.  Seats were comfortable and the whole place doesn’t feel over-sized, as Covent Garden, the Met and such houses can.

A note on the seats:  £50 for a stalls seat, especially for Götterdämmerung, is fantastic, but if you’re booking be aware that the front stalls are not so steeply raked so there is an issue of heads in front.  They look better from the middle onwards.  Also, the side stalls are under the side boxes, if that sort of thing bothers you – not intrusively so, but the auditorium is a bit like the Royal Festival Hall, with rows of boxes looking like someone’s pulled all the drawers out and left them there.

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