Sunday, October 21, 2007

Alfred Kirchner's Götterdämmerung

Deutsche Grammophon, along with Unitel, brought out something like three video recordings from Bayreuth. We got Horst Stein leading Wolfgang Wagner's Parsifal, Daniel Barenboim in some production of Tristan und Isolde, and James Levine conducting Alfred Kirchner's Götterdämmerung. Wagner's Parsifal is a known quantity, and it is probably one of the better productions out there of the work. Modern, but it still makes sense. Kirchner's Götterdämmerung makes more sense to discuss, as it is more interesting on balance. A sticker, on the otherwise sleek and simple cover, informs me that this is "The only filmed opera [sic] from Alfred Kirchner's Bayreuth Ring, [sic] designed by Rosalie." Der Ring des Nibelungen is italicized in English, since it is the name of a major work of art, and it is made up of four music-dramas. Wagner himself called it a "stage-festival play," and if you wanted to be exceedingly reductive, you could say "The only filmed play..." I digress, but I also wonder how a company that has established itself as one of the most respected major classical labels could let the PR flacks get away with that.

Well, then, on to the production. This is, apparently, a rather famous and controversial staging. Time's Martha Duffy put it like this:
Kirchner and Rosalie set out to present a Ring that ignored the political -- mostly Marxist -- approach that has been popular in Europe over the past two decades. Reacting especially to Patrice Chéreau's influential 1976 production, set in the Industrial Revolution, the team rejected polemics in favor of a more classical approach. But they failed to come up with an alternative vision. The modest strength of this Ring is that it leaves the audience with scope to listen and think; the weakness is that the stage is empty of ideas or inspiration.
She went on to say, with a gloriously barbed tone,
Instead, Kirchner and Rosalie offer what is basically a high-tech light show -- perhaps the trendiest and most threadbare gambit now popular in Europe. Some of the stage pictures are inspired, like the glassy, green, undulating * plates that suggest the forest in Siegfried, but too often the choices seem arbitrary. In addition, Kirchner's stage maneuvers are inept. Time and again the cast is left singing directly to the audience -- just like the bad old days when operas were turned into stiff pageants. Some awkward direction will be corrected next year. Bayreuth stages no new productions of Wagner's other operas during the second year of any Ring cycle, wisely using time and money to make improvements, which can be extensive.
And, getting a mite personal,
For now, Rosalie overshadows the direction and even the music with stunningly ugly and capricious costumes. At a press conference she explained that since no one has seen a god or a giant or a dragon, she had to create them from her imagination. In fact the sources are painfully clear. Some influences are evidently classical -- warriors all wear plastic breastplates. Unfortunately they suggest Jean-Paul Gaultier's Paris more readily than ancient Athens. More striking are the costumes containing Oriental references. They make the wearers appear larger -- read fatter -- than they are, a particular pity with a fit and youthful-looking cast. The inspiration seems to have come from Issey Miyake, a master at making small figures look grand. Rosalie received her curtain-call boos in an outfit by the Japanese designer, but his magic touch turned out to be untransferable.
Would I that major magazines covered the arts as closely as this all the time, but I doubt that it's in the cards. Not with Britney Spears now ohne Schatten, so to speak. Getting to the production, though. It seems as though Kirchner and his mononymous colleague took the worst of Harry Kupfer's 1988 production and melded with the best theoretical aspects of Wieland Wagner's Neu Bayreuth style.

That is to say, it is aggressively abstract and futuristic, but it adopts a reserved, minimalist approach. At times, the images can be striking to the point of obsession. The Act II summoning of the Gibichsmannen has one scene in particular that sticks with me: Eric Halfvarson walking around the exultant vassals, every bit the man-in-command and every bit the scheming genius. While I would stop short of Ms. Duffy's critique, I would say that the Kirchner Ring is a collection of very striking, very powerful images. It's not necessarily a coherent staging, in the same way Chéreau's production was, or - even - Kupfer's (and it certainly falls short of the cohesiveness seen in Wieland Wagner's productions). It seems as though Kirchner and Rosalie attempted to use Stanley Kubrick's sweeping and powerful visual sensibility, without the broader narrative themes and directions that Kubrick always had. Even in Barry Lyndon. Especially in Barry Lyndon.

The costumes are distracting and, probably, too abstract for their own good. Chéreau presented the gods as wastrel aristocrats to the end of his own Konzept. Kupfer presented them as scifi-1930s socialites, but the abstraction of Kupfer helped distance him from this sort of comparison. Hips and chests are overemphasized in Rosalie's designs. It is as though she took the theoretical abstractions of various body parts and the purpose of various articles of clothing and just rendered those in material format. Frankly, the designs for Wieland's productions, while weird and stylized (his Heerrufer from Lohengrin is a good example) are seemingly rough antecedents for her work, but she took it too far by half. I like stylized, abstract designs - but there should be some modicum of sense to be found.

Levine's conducting and the cast cannot be faulted. They even look the parts. Wolfgang Schmidt is probably not going to be quite as heroic as he could be, but no tenor, no matter how fit and heroic-looking, is going to live up to the part of Siegfried. Deborah Polaski's Brünnhilde, on the other hand, is suitably godlike and powerful. Indeed, she was the imposing presence on stage that Gwyneth Jones most assuredly was not for Boulez. Falk Struckmann is a solid Gunther, but I am still partial to Franz Mazura's dim, stuffy plutocrat from Chéreau's Götterdämmerung. He was a bit past his prime voice, but his bearing and appearance fit the role to a "T." Eric Halfvarson managed to steal the show as Hagen. He was suitably menacing, without a countenance like Fritz Hübner's sweaty, unshorn, and sloppy performance for Chéreau. One could see Halfvarson inflicting some serious harm, one way or the other.

Anne Schwanewilms, though, deserves some special note. Her first soprano role was Gutrune, at the 1996 Bayreuther Festspiele, and she certainly pulls this one off, despite the staging and costuming issues. Her tall and, frankly, suitable appearance makes Gutrune somewhat more of a presence than in other productions. Rosalie made her look, equally frankly, a bit like Brigitte Nielsen in any of those really bad 1980s movies. There was possibility there for such an elegant and poised presence. While I don't know if her voice could stand up to the pressure, but she would make a fine Empress appearance-wise in Die Frau ohne Schatten.

James Levine turns in a very slow reading, but it is one that does service to the text. In other words, he's not dragging along: he's giving the score breathing room. Deutsche Grammophon would do well to release the whole 1997 Ring, and, barring that, just this Götterdämmerung on CD. Indeed, such a release would probably negate any need for his earlier set with the Metropolitan Opera, and would be a solid contender for the Ring of the 1990s (a title currently held, musically, by Daniel Barenboim). Deutsche Grammophon, however, is not paying me for strategy.

All in all, this is a very solid - musically speaking - set, with a "devilishly confused" (though, almost there, so to speak) staging Konzept.