Parsifal’s long, weary road

How’s this for a schedule:

  • Saturday, 31 March 2012 –  Parsifal (Cardiff);
  • Sunday, 1 April 2012 – Mahler Symphony No 8 (Cardiff);
  • Tuesday 3 April 2012 – Parsifal (London);
  • Wednesday 4 April 2012 – Verdi Requiem (London);
  • Friday 6 April 2012 – Parsifal (Birmingham)?

Despite being used, presumably, to thundering away in the Mariinksy pit night after night, by the end of Parsifal at the Barbican a number of our little group were remarking on how exhausted the orchestra looked.  I was exhausted just watching it, and I’d only had a short day’s work and the Circle line to precede it.  They presumably needed some Good Friday magic for that last performance… (more…)

Mariinsky Ring: a summary shorter and sharper than the original

This time last week Act 3 of Siegfried was still resolutely underway, and my generally upbeat feelings were being battered by Brunnhilde’s considerable vibrato.  A little distance has been achieved, so a summary follows…

Production dire.  Gergiev vanity project about which someone should have a stern word.  Speaking of stern words, someone should talk to him about rehearsal, of which there appeared to have been a minimum for some of the most complex music and drama in the established repertory.  Further stern words should be had, if they haven’t already, with the cynical Hochhausers who didn’t permit Gergiev to bring his Shostakovich programme to Covent Garden but allowed him to take this undoubtedly ambitious, but indupitably flawed, project into an opera house whose Friends supported a complete Ring about a year previously and were expected to rush and gush about this later opportunity.  Mention of the Friends also brings up the stern words which I do hope that someone has had with Tony Hall who allowed one of the world’s great opera houses to be given over to a project which did not have the attention lavished upon it that greatness needs in order to succeed.  The Mariinsky may be great, but they are also flawed:  and the time put into this project transparently did not allow them to deal with, and resolve, what flaws it would have been within their gift to resolve.  The fact that the Hochhausers were granted access to a ready market of willing buyers – in the form of the Friends of Covent Garden – is what makes the ROH complicit in this endeavour: it was advertised to the members, and promoted as an integral part of the House’s schedule so was emphatically more than simply renting out the performance space to a visiting company.  Souls must be searched; I feel used…

The prices were on a par (at top whack) with the Covent Garden Ring, were less than it in the Upper Slips where I sat, and were drastically more in those sections of the House which are the ‘next up’ in line after standing.  The quality was a fraction, overall, of the Covent Garden performances and this was in no way reflected in price.  I can’t complain, having paid £40 – even with the complaints, this was a bargain – but I would be incandescent if I had paid £240 for a Lower Slips seat, and many many people have the absolute right to complain.  The English National Opera – frequently considered our second house, but still on occasion turning out performances that rival or surpass Covent Garden – delivered a better, and better value, Ring than this presentation.

There were upsides:  Siegfried in its entirety (Brunnhilde notwithstanding) and Siegfried himself.  Hagen, Gunther, Alberich and Gutrune.  One Brunnhilde (Walkure) and a Wanderer;  a momentary flash of good lighting and (finally!) some interesting spaces in Gotterdammerung.  But on balance this entire endeavour gets less than 5 out of 10 – and 15 hours of performance, with the rehearsals that did go into it, and the effort of schlepping the sets, etc. (for what they were worth) and orchestra (worth quite a lot) the distance they travelled is a lot of effort for less than 5 out of 10. 

My suggestion?  Concert performance.  ENO proved that it can be more powerful than a poor staging (even though theirs was streets ahead of this one).  Time could have been spent on rehearsing singers, setup would have been cheaper, and Gergiev would have been centre-stage as conductor, rather than in the back of people’s minds as the over-weening conductor-cum-impresario-cum-director who inspired a project which didn’t inspire us.

Thank you Mariinsky for providing something I may well never see again – a Ring in four successive days – and thank you for giving me a shove towards appreciating Siegfried more fully – and thank you for the effort generally on the night(s) which really did come across.  But you should reflect:  more rehearsal, don’t be led by the Hochhausers on price, play to your strengths and leave the direction to the directors.  What a wonderful experience, for all its ups and even – or maybe perhaps especially – for its the downs.  And could it be that I have a greater insight into the Ring for all the flaws in this performance…?  Thoughts?

Mariinsky Ring Part 4: the ups and downs continue to the end

The one consistent thing that you can say about this ring is that it is inconsistent, and that inconsistency continued to the very end.  Were any threads tied together?  Nope.  Did the production come together, in the way that Keith Warner’s Covent Garden Ring did?  Nope.  Did we expect it to?  Not really.

So, starting at the beginning:  the Norns were dressed Woodbird-style with beaded head-dresses and meadered around with those dancer-types rolling around their feet connecting what looked like garden hose with some funny-shaped implements threaded on to it.  The timings when the rope snapped were miserably handled.  “Es ris!”  Indeed it did.  Then we come to the new Brunnhilde and Siegfried, and again a mixed picture.  Larisa Gogolevskaya’s mezzo-ish vocal qualities, interesting and not unattractive in quieter and lower-lying passages, became horribly unwieldy and sounded worryingly strained in more declamatory moments.  Whilst she was an improvement on yesterday’s Brunnhilde, by the time she’d sent Siegfried on his travels I couldn’t help wondering if she would make it to the end.  Siegfried (Viktor Lutsyuk) was on a par with yesterday’s, which was a pleasant diversion from some of the other things going on around him.  What he lacked (comparatively) in acting commitment, he made up for with a slightly easier voice for the higher-lying passages, sounding more fully the Heldentenor.

Waltraute was Thursday’s Brunnhilde (!) and the comparisons between the two in their great confrontation scene were unfortunate.  Olga Savova’s narration of Wotan’s preparation for the end of Walhalla was dramatically intense and finally it felt like something was catching fire.  That sense of growing drama was built upon in the Gunther/Gutrune/Hagen scene that follows.  All three singers – Evgeny Nikitin, Elena Nebera, Mikhail Petrenko respectively – were vocally and dramatically up to the standards that the Covent Garden stage has come to expect and it made for an unexpected highpoint in what can sometimes be a rather dragging domestic drama.  And speaking of dragging, they had to put up with some quite bizarre costumes.  Basically, Hagen, Gunther and their menfolk appeared to be wearing autumnal Laura Ashley dresses [see below].  But even that couldn’t detract from some good singing and acting. 

The Nibelung's Son has something to tell his father...Brunnhilde rose reasonably well to her altercation with Siegfried in Gunther disguise (although confusingly looking just like Siegfried so maybe the Tarnhelm’s powers are fading).  In fact, she was an energetic performer which got round some of the vocal shortcomings.  As we emerged from the interval, the disappointments of the Prologue were behind us and things were set fair for a positive experience.

Nikolai Putilin has been a consistent performer throughout and got a much-deserved rousing cheer from the audience, and his scene with Hagen was indeed very effective, leading into the return of Siegfried and the summoning of the vassals.  It would be too much to expect any detailed acting or characterisation from the chorus, and sure enough they milled about, formed lines across the front of the stage to face Gergiev and sang in a lusty but not particularly accurate way.  The act continued with a tense and effectively played oath and plot to kill Siegfried, with Brunnhilde finding a dramatic thrust to compensate for some rather wild pitching and some growling declamations.  We left for the long interval in reasonably buoyant spirits.

The Rhinemaiden/Siegfried scene was efficiently done, and then the real highpoint was Siegfried’s death.  Some really classy singing, I thought, and real dramatic pathos, most particularly immediately following the stabbing.  So far, then, so good(ish).  But hereafter it all went a bit wrong.  Siegfried’s Funeral March started atmospherically and that real sense of the significance of what has happened in dramatic terms began to build.  Two things then slightly marred the experience:  Gergiev’s approach to the music became hurried and lost the sense of majesty that is needed.  All the while, there was the most flaccid meandering about going on on the stage, with bodies unceremoniously cleared off stage and Siegfried paraded around, then put into a pointy boat and paraded around again before being put in the middle for the immolation scene.  Slightly frustrating, but nothing compared to what was about to happen.  The Gutrune/Gunther/Hagen squabble was well-realised, but Brunnhilde managed to come onto the stage about two lines too late, so projected surtitles heralded that something was supposed to be being said, she arrived up the steps at the back of the stage just as the surtitles said “I’ve heard children crying over spilt milk but no laments for a hero”, the prompter audibly shouted “Kinder!” and the line was duly delivered…  oh blimey.

Whether it was out of nervousness for this mishap or she was genuinely in vocal difficulty, what followed was some of the most-wildly ill-pitched, discomfiting singing I’ve ever heard.  It was really quite disturbing.  She gathered her composure for “Flieg’ heim, ihr Raben!” and found some reserves to deliver what was actually a reasonably effective Immolation.  But to some extent the damage was done, and whether justified or not, I couldn’t shake the sense of worry and discomfort about whether she’d survive.  The conducting of the Immolation scene and close of the opera was also problematic.  I’ve previously remarked on how well played it was, and a few horn fluffs aside, playing was indeed on a consistently good level.  However, the close of Gotterdammerung exposed the conducting’s flaws.  Gergiev seems to confuse majesty and awe with sheer loudness, and this became the coarsest close to this opera that I’ve ever heard.  There was, for example, no fleeting pause between the dramatic destruction of all on stage and the theme that heralds the new beginning, so the contrast and the sense of resolution that it should deliver passed for nought. 
As for what went on on stage, don’t get me started.  This opera had actually had a bit more going for it staging-wise, with a more dramatic set of scenery and relatively effective use of levels and lighting effects.  In particular, after swearing blood brotherhood a really quite exciting lighting effect converted the rocky plinth for Brunnhilde into a red-and-white veiny surface: quite eery.  At the end though, everything was ballsed up.   Red light, then Siegfried’s coffin raised to the ceiling, then writhing men in the giant net (see Rheingold) roll clumsily on, Brunnhilde strolls off across the net, then blue light, then Hagen doesn’t appear (just his line on the surtitle board to remind us what we’re missing), then Norn-types in fluorescent dreadlocks process on to the back.  I may have missed out some different colours of lighting that we cycled through.  Dismal.
And so it all closes.  I’ll do a round-up in a separate post:  I’m still trying to process the whole thing…  Good Siegfrieds though…

Mariinsky Ring Part 3: Surprise!

An enjoyable evening.  Much more on the level of acts 2 and 3 yesterday, rather than of the dire Walkure act 1 or the troubled Rheingold.  And for me to call Siegfried enjoyable is quite something, so what did the trick?

Mostly, Siegfried himself.  John Treleaven’s galumphing, squally Siegfried has been the bugbear of the Covent Garden Ring from its inception, for both me and my partner.  This Siegfried, Leonid Zakhozhaev, had an easier stage presence and more secure voice.  Alright, so he didn’t exactly look like a callow, strapping youth, but that’s Wagner’s problem not Zakhozhaev’s: if he’d really wanted a callow, strapping youth on stage, he should have thought twice about what he was writing.  And, noted, he didn’t quite have a ‘ring’ at the top of his voice, but otherwise it all just came across as more secure, more ‘right’ than Treleaven or, for that matter, Richard Berkeley-Steele at ENO.  If this Mariinsky endeavour has provided nothing else (and ‘nothing’ would be a harsh judgment, even of something this troubled), it may well have provided the best Siegfried I’ve ever seen!

Part of the success of the Siegfried character was down to the interaction with those around him.  No-one in this Ring, so far (he said, tinged with optimism), has reached anywhere near the Karita Mattila/Natalie Dessay/Felicity Palmer levels of dramatic engagement, but Mime (Vasily Gorshkov) and Alberich (Nikolai Putilin) are the nearest we’ve had and played well with Siegfried.  The same can’t be said of Putilin’s Wotan (general consensus in our group: we’d rather have had yesterday’s back, rather than Wednesday’s): his underpowered performance was exacerbated by the duration of the role and he seemed to start distantly and fizzle out further as the thing went on.

And the women?  Well, Erda (Zlata Bulycheva) delivered her pronouncements ably, again coping with the curtain rail but this time denuded of its bead curtain, all but a single dangly bit on the end of the rail.  What the hell was that about?  The Woodbird was draped in beads and shuffled around with a distinctive wavey-up-and-down hand gesture, followed by a troupe of mystical animals formed of a dancer wearing a mask and balancing on another’s shoulders.  Nope, no reason for that either.  She sang well, in a slightly more assertive way than we’re accustomed to our Woodbirds singing, but effectively nonetheless.

And so to Olga Sergeyeva’s Brunnhilde (as distinct from yesterday’s Olga Savova: do keep up).  She got off to an unfortunate start:  the rock on which she was put to sleep was present throughout the preceding scene and the lights failed to go down properly in the scene transition, leaving her to clamber conspicuously into the position from which she could awake from supposedly long slumbers.  Sigh.  And when she awoke she certainly made her presence felt.  Overall it was a harsh voice at times, and with a pronounced vibrato that made me (and the other half) think that Gwyneth Jones was back.  In fact there were moments when all the undulations made me feel quite woozy.  She was, however, effective in quieter passages, such as when telling Siegfried about her life as an ‘eternal’.  In fact, her dramatic engagement with the role was strong, and she moved confidently about the stage and sang to Siegfried, rather than only to the prompter or to Gergiev as some others are wont to do.

Speaking of whom, somehow I think his conducting found something a bit more ‘complete’ in this than in the previous operas.  The first act, with Mime/Siegfried giving way to Mime/Wanderer and then back to Siegfried again, flowed convincingly.  Once again, his reining-in of the volume to accommodate the singers seemed evident.  When noise was demanded, it was duly let free:  the timpanist in particular abused his instrument like a man possessed. 

The staging is still dismal.  Either it intruded less on Siegfried or I’ve just stopped noticing it.  It’s like an acted concert performance with mood lighting, and some clambering.  These statues could be anything, frankly, and when they turn into furnaces, rocks, moody forest scenes, etc. etc. you just have to wonder why?  The story has no dramatic arc whatever.  No matter what you thought of Keith Warner’s clutterbucket production for Covent Garden, it at least gave some sense of relative position to the characters, and atmosphere, with different spaces for different scenes.  This staging is bright to a fault, bland, random, and adds absolutely nothing to proceedings. 

The forging scene was well acted and the staging here provided at least a demarcated space in which people could interact: Mime and Siegfried clanged their own anvil (except Siegfried, who kept missing the metal bar that made the ‘clang’ sound, but the whole thing can’t be easy when singing as well).  The furnace was under one of the statues: why?  The dragon-slaying scene eschewed big effects  in favour of a booming voice from the ceiling and strategic strobe lightning and changes of colour, which wasn’t without some merit.  Which is just as well, because strobes and changes of light seem to be used to hide a multitude of sins.

I’m back to carping again, and I shouldn’t be because this performance was a genuinely enjoyable experience, which is more than can be said for the broad sweep of Rheingold or most of the first act of Walkure.  And, in fact, is more than I’ve said about other performances of Siegfried. 

What will Gotterdammerung bring?  Well, a new Brunnhilde for starters.  Keeping everything crossed…

Mariinsky Ring Part 2: faltering start, glimmers of hope

And so to Die Walküre… 

If I weren’t so easy-going temperamentally, I’d have left after Act 1 and not darkened the door of the opera house again whilst the Mariinsky company were on the premises.  This most glorious section of the Ring was dire.  There were no sparks of anything passionate on stage, big dramatic moments were fluffed and, after a exciting orchestral storm at the start, the conversational early parts of the Act were deadly dull.

The staging was a continuation of that described for Rheingold.  I’m not sure how many more configurations of those giant statues we can have, but only time will tell.  I didn’t mention the lighting, which is bright, colourful, ever-changing and omnipresent, and which leads to swift changes of mood for big moments, but also tends to create bright emotion-less spaces for large chunks of the piece. 

Not that emotion is a significant part of the work.  Sieglinde was dramatic – almost hyperactive – but played to a Siegmund about which it would be better to say nothing.  Suffice to say that he failed to achieve dramatic or vocal connection with the role.  If a Siegmund fluffs ‘Siegmund heiss’ ich‘ then you pack up and go home.  A special mention must be made of the withdrawing of the sword, which was inconspicuously stuck in the “tree” for most of the act as though someone had shoved an umbrella into a whole in the statue.  Its withdrawal was preceded by an audible click as Siegmund switched on a light within it.  Maybe having to work with such rudimentary effects contributed to the end of that first act being the single biggest disappointment of this endeavour thus far.  I left for the long interval rehearsing letters of complaint in my mind.

A glass or two of wine later, and we’re into the second act.  Things look up.  This Wotan (Mikhail Kit) looks and behaves more recognisably Wotan.  Brünnhilde launched the act with a very credible and hope-stirring Hojotoho! and on we go from there.  Her costume was the most interesting thing to have been seen on this stage for the last two days: a sort of burlesque goth look, with nods to Morticia Addams.  The confrontation between Fricka (still with vase atop her head) and Wotan was the absolute highpoint thus far.  Diadkova was once again the standout vocal star, acting with both voice and physique.  Kit was slightly underpowered as Wotan, but nonetheless gave a credible, nuanced performace.  Oh, for nuance! 

Sieglinde stood out again in the second act, if anything getting even stronger and integrating acting and singing more effectively for her disturbed scene with Siegmund.  The staging rose reasonably credibly to the challenge of the fight scene – except for Hunding wandering aimlessly about for periods of time – but maybe my views are coloured by the fact that this scene heralded the merciful despatching of Siegmund.

Act 3 started wonderfully.  We seemingly couldn’t find so incisive, vocally bold and individual a set of Valkyries for the Covent Garden Ring, and the staging gave them something more effective to work with than prancing about with horse skulls.  Men, presumably fallen heroes, descended and ascended the height of the stage to be cared for on the ground and then sent off to Valhalla.  This stage picture was only marred by one of them getting stuck at the top, repeatedly being left dangling, before descending again for more ‘caressing’.

The dramatic intensity built through the confrontation between Brunnhilde and her sisters over the question of ‘what to do with Sieglinde’ and we were launched into the Brunnhilde-Wotan scene.  It was at this point that I started realising what is wrong with Gergiev’s approach:  long passages of conversation just sag compared to these fiercely dramatic orchestral outbursts that herald storms and big declamatory moments.  It’s almost as if he gets bored, but the effect for us in the audience is that they seem to start to ramble and become disjointed from the whole.  Nonetheless, Olga Savova as Brunnhilde added some dramatic impetus and Kit made for an effectively insular Wotan, with the cares of the universe on his shoulders. 

The fire-surrounded rock was one of those statues lying up stage with a neat little hollow into which Brunnhilde rested herself, but then the stage just went red as Loge was summoned.  Oddly, most of act 2 had been played on a large square rock that lit up red from within, which would have made a much better fire-surrounded rock in act 3.  Oh well.

Some horn fluffs aside, orchestral playing continued to be the single most impressive aspect of the endeavour (perhaps a concert version next time?).

Siegfried beckons and tends to be (for me) the most difficult bit of the Ring, where it lapses into longeurs periodically.  Wish me luck…

Mariinsky Ring Part 1: Not Promising

Some context needs to be set around what is to follow.  The Mariinsky Theatre, led by Valery Gergiev, have brought their much toured Ring Cycle to Covent Garden.  Ticket prices for the cycle are, in the main, higher than the normal Covent Garden season (a good lower slips for all four was £240, i.e. £60 each night compared to about £35 normally).  We had the cheapest seats, at £40 for all four operas, in the Upper Slips so we were always expecting to be looking down on things quite literally.  On the basis of the first night of the cycle, I can feel myself looking down on it metaphorically as well.

That said, the caveat for what follows is that I do have an admiration for the unflagging energy and sheer bloody-minded courage that it takes to pack up your Ring and shunt it around the world, with your own company artists performing 17 hours of strenuous music drama on the minimum of rehearsal.  None of our companies could get that together in a million years, so we should be a little wary of carping too much.  Nonetheless, I intend to carp…

Two hours and 40 minutes is a long time to be sitting in a restricted view seat whilst people on the stage below you fail to pull something off.  The staging made much use of lighting and giant statues laid on their backs that floated up and down from the flies.  Then there were the dancers in glittery bodystockings that writhed around in taut nets to depict the undulating Rhine and, rather more bizarrely, Alberich as a dragon.

The statues are inspired by some Ossetian folk mythology, apparently, in tribute to Gergiev’s homeland.  Ho-hum.  The same inspiration has provoked some quite bizarre costumes:  Fricka has a sort of vase on her head, Loge some kind of fiery kimono, and Donner and Froh looked a bit like Cavaradossi in a blue painting smock as he daubs his way through the first act of Tosca.  Wotan has a simple white coat and casual slacks, which probably provided the costume department with change for a tenner.

Musically, things were patchy.  Dramatically they were dire.  Gergiev gives the big moments their due weight and thrill, but also reined things in notably so that singers were very rarely having to compete.  The orchestra were on very good form and this was the most completely pleasurable aspect of the evening.  Gergiev’s approach gave fantastic clarity to the different goings-on of the score, but there was little sense of it all hanging together into one grand whole; there was none of the ‘sweep’ that people always talk of in Wagner.  It was moment connected to moment connected to moment…

There were some good, strong voices, first amongst them Larisa Diadkova’s Fricka.  Having seen her in Dvorak’s Rusalka at Glyndebourne last week, she did indeed stand out as the undoubted international star that she is.  Evgeny Nikitin was an underpowered Wotan.  Oleg Balashov pranced around distractingly as Loge.  The Rhinemaidens pierced the river’s murky depths with rather more vocal force than we’re used to, and Erda made her gloomy pronouncements with strong voice, whilst coping with the most preposterous costume seen for a long time on Covent Garden’s stage: she seemed to have a 12ft curtain rail on her head with black trailing strings along it.  Nikolai Putilin’s Alberich was a good characterisation and sang boldly, if unsubtly and with rather choppy delivery.

Oh, the drama!  Or rather, the lack of it.  Rehearsal times mst be very short in an endeavour of this sort, and that comes across loud and clear.  Most people kept within panicking distance of the prompt box, and sang to the room rather than the other characters.  I’m sure I could hear the prompter occasionally.  Fafner killing Fasolt looked for all the world like they forgot who was whom and after a rather feeble clonk to the back of Fasolt’s head and a bit of a shove, they strolled confusedly around the stage and both fell down, then one stayed there and the other crawled back off up stage with the ring.  The Tarnhelm try-out session was dramatically feeble with the dragon portrayed by the writhing-people-in-nets as red ‘tongues’ stretched out from off-stage, which interleaved and then couldn’t work out how to get themselves back off stage again…  oh dear.

So, on to part 2 tonight:  Die Walküre.  New Wotan, same Fricka (phew!) and new singers for Siegmund, Sieglinde and Brünnhilde.  If they can’t manage to drum up some interpersonal dramatic edge in this of all pieces, then the whole enterprise is doomed.  I’ll let you know.