Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Needy the Sword : live La Scala Die Walküre Milan

"If Wagner had been a butcher, he would have made ideal hamburgers, 20gr beef, 30gr pork, 50 gr....." said Daniel Barenboim in the live broadcast from La Scala of Wagner Die Walküre. Wagner, he explained, blended his ingredients well. But that wasn't the big news of the evening. Outside the grand Teatro alla Scala, protestors demonstrated against cutbacks. As the President of Italy and his entourage sat in a royal box decorated with several thousand roses, Barenboim, never one to be shy of facing controversy, stood up to say how he worried about the future of culture in this current economic chaos.Perhaps Wagner might have chuckled though he very nearly caused Bavaria to collapse with his own demands. On the other hand, Barenboim is right. Culture is very much part of a nation's economy. Money spent on the arts enriches everyone long-term.
The cast certainly were grand luxe. Rene Pape was due to sing Wotan, but pulled out. John Tomlinson didn't sing Wotan, which was probably just as well. He sang Hunding, a short part and far less demanding. Tomlinson's Hunding wasn't a brutish old bandit but genial, like an addled old rock star, complete with ponytail. Still, everyone loves John Tom, so it hardly mattered. Pape's replacement was Vitalij Kowaljow, a young Ukranian bass who held up the male side adequately. Simon O'Neill, however should have pulled out as Siegmund. "Schwester!" he screeched, and from there he went downhill. Perhaps he's 'pushing himself too far too soon. He's also not visually expressive, so he can't fall back on acting when his singing goes haywire.

O'Neill's Siegmund could not be by any stretch of the imagination a twin to Waltraud Meier's Sieglinde. Even though Meier isn't in the first flush of youth she's phenomenal. What she emphasizes is Sieglinde's fundamental goodness - a Wagner role which isn't after something, as Meier said. Sieglinde's suffered too many traumas in her past to be an ingénue. Instead, Meier makes her blossom from within the moment she sees her brother. The years seem to melt from her voice as it warms and opens out. Meier is experienced enough to understand the undercurrents in the opera better than any director, even most conductors, for that matter. O'Neill's Winterstürme wichen is dry and barren.  Meier's Du bist der Lenz unfurls like a parched plant given water. He cries Ein Quell, his thirst quenched by a drink, like Hunding's nightcap. Sieglinde's needs are deeper. In this production the disparity between Siegmund and Sieglinde is so extreme as to make one wonder if they might be mother and son, adding another twist to these dysfunctional family relationships.

But even Waltraud Meier is outclassed by Nina Stemme's Brünnhilde. She, too, has the ability to glow from within, her voice a wonder of colour and brightness. Historic Brünnhilde probably relied more on volume than subtlety. Stemme's voice is far too lively and supple to fall into the wings and horned helmet cliché. She gives Brünnhilde personality, which seems to stem from intelligent interpretation. One of the reasons Die Walküre is fascinating is that it's an example of generation conflict: teenage rebellion Valhalla-style. Brünnhilde's her father's favourite because she's so like him. Yet because she's principled and idealistic, she fights back. And she's female, too. The 19th century wasn't nearly as stuffy as it's assumed today. Stemme's feisty, even sexy, helped by a wonderful costume, part bombazine and lace, part bondage Goth. All the Valkyries are stuningly dressed in outfits with bustles that resemble wings - another witty take on 19th century style. Opera singers don't always have supermodel figures but the designer (Tim van Steenbergen) makes each one look kinkily glamorous and individual. It seems to show in their singing, too. 

Ekaterina Gubanova's Fricka is another twist on convention. Fricka may be the goddess of marriage, implying formality and convention, because she upholds Hunding. Yet Gubanova portrays her as young and passionate, the "good" side of marriage often overlooked because our sympathies lie with Sieglinde. Wotan moans because he prefers fooling around scattering offspring round the realm with disastrous effects. Maybe Fricka has a point. Gubanova's spirited perrformance inspires all kinds of new perspectives on the Ring.

Director Guy Cassiers speaks about ideas like "metal and water",  paranoid gated communities and the European Union but these aren't followed through. Hunding's house is well conceived because it's a mirror walled box of light surrounded by menace. One might argue that it's a suburban Valhalla since Hunding is a bandit and cheat, like Wotan, Alberich and most everyone else. But the idea isn't followed through so its impact fizzles out. The vertical tubes of light which portray the forest in Act 2 are decorative but add no meaning and the idea of Valkyries flying off a video collage with images of the fountains of Milan is cute rather than profound. Alas, the magic fire in Act 3 is just plain silly. Cassiers is right in saying that it's up to the listener to turn images into meaning but if there's no clear point of view behind the images, there's nothing to build on. Still, this set is much cheaper that Lepage's Das Rheingold at the Met, and Cassiers does seem to have thought through relationships and motivation. This cast isn't cardboard and most of them can sing.

Last but certainly not least: "Needy the Sword". Nothung!  The name is almost impossible to translate but what it means is "What you need", "Needy" means the opposite, because it's demanding and selfish. No-one in the Ring is "needy" except possibly Mime and Gutrune. They all scam but they don't whine. But the mistranslation in the subtitles was hysterically funny. The translators don't have anything to worry about, not even howlers like "blackguard wooer" It lightens the mood and makes us think. It's an unexpected bonus !

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