A week in Tokyo: Day 7

James JollySun 21st February 2010
A week in JapanA week in Japan

The Big One at Opera Palace

My trip to Tokyo ended with my third opera in three days – and it was the Big One! Keith Warner unveiled his cycle of Wagner’s Ring over four successive seasons (2001-04); and last year saw revivals of Rheingold and Die Walküre, and this one of Siegfried and Götterdämmering – I caught the Siegfried and I’m very glad I did! Asking me to go to a Wagner opera isn’t quite like asking a vegetarian for his opinion of a piece of prime rib, but it’s almost there! I resent the time Wagner spends explaining what other composers would do in a fraction of the time (and the First Act of Siegfried is always something of a trial because very little actually happens. Thereafter things look up considerably!). But when he is engaging our emotions though his characters' emotions he rarely puts a step wrong.

The “Tokyo Ring”, as it now seems to be called, pre-dated Warner’s Covent Garden Ring, one which was rather dustily received by the critics. It brings together, it seems to me, a genuinely touching focus on the human relations in the opera, but sets them into a visually often jaw-dropping stage picture, with more than a nod to the Japanese fondness for kitsch! The stage machinery at the New National Theatre’s Opera Palace is a thing of wonder – the entire set for the First Act rose before our eyes after the brief prelude, and come the Wanderer’s visit to Erda at the start of the Third Act, an entire set glided forward to fill the stage.

The cast was largely European with a couple of Japanese singers (Tsumaya Hidekazu a sepulchral Fafner and Yasui Yoko an enchanting Woodbird with an evident strong stomach for heights as she soared above the set in a costume that would not have been out of place on Sesame Street). The Siegfried was the seemingly tireless Christian Franz, a singer who has rather cornered the market in this role! His transition from loutish yob to proto-hero was nicely traced.

Mime (Wolfgang Schmidt) lives in a psychadelic, kitschy pad with lots of retro gadgetry (deep freeze, microwave, old-fashioned cooker and more TVs than is good for a growing lad like Siegfried), and an astounding taste in wallpaper. While he usually wore a kind of slaughter-house apron, he had an evident taste for more recherché garments (at one point, he donned a yellow academic gown and mortar board, at another a pinny and a pair of red fluffy mules). The forging of Nothung required the use of an electric blender, the microwave and a rather flashy home barbecue – but it was all done within a consistent mis en scène rather than being grafted on for effect. Jukka Rasilainen was a splendidly firm-voiced, resonant Wanderer, authoritative and with just a touch of (understandable) arrogance.

The central act – the encounter with and despatching of Fafner – was astoundingly conceived. The Wanderer and Alberich (Jürgen Linn) were staying in adjacent rooms in another strikingly decorated set – a motel. And Fafner assumed a number of potent identities: two huge dragon’s eyes peering through the windows, then as the hanged men, who fell from their ropes and attacked Siegfried, a huge dominating tree (which split into two) and finally in human form as a kind of inflated Oliver Hardy. The woodbird, a fluffy blue tweetie pie, struck a rather cute note with her big yellow feet!

Simone Schröder, as Erda (rather unflatteringly clad in a shiny silver outfit) was sleeping in a huge James Bond-esque hanger, rotating on a large jigsaw puzzle piece and tended by three mad-haired functionaries who were sifting through yards of celluloid film stock. I wondered how Warner and his designer David Fielding could possibly top this visual conceit for Brünnhilde’s sleeping place. But they just about did with a huge metal bedstead strewn with Valkyrian paraphernalia (breast plates, helmets and so one) as well as a large alarm clock. At the climax the glass squared mattress lit up, Saturday Night Fever-like!

It always strikes me as a very neat idea to introduce a new character for the last half hour as the poor Siegfried (having stepped onto the stage some five and half hours earlier) must be beginning to flag a little. And the Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin (familiar from the “Copenhagen Ring”) made a terrific impression, even if she did look like a masseuse from the starship Enterprise. It’s always a moving scene as she comes to terms with her predicament: her loss of her godly status and her surrendering to her heroic savour. No doubt there were conflicting thoughts going though her mind: high on the list of which must have been “Well, we can lose the Superman sweatshirt, find a good tailor, get him a haircut and chuck the trainers… He’s got potential”. Or maybe “He’s been on stage for the past five and half hours and is still singing like this – he must have quite some energy! And I’ve been asleep for goodness knows how long…” It was a scene handled with great skill and warmth.

The New National Theatre opera company doesn’t have a resident orchestra (rather like Netherlands Opera) and so the young Israeli conductor Dan Ettinger had the luxury of his own orchestra, the Tokyo Philharmonic, in the pit. This huge ensemble (four harps for goodness sake!) played their hearts out – it was a magnificent contribution to a performance that was, not surprisingly, greeted by loud cheers from this traditionally polite and reticent audience.

I came away energised and, as is often the case, bowled over by the power and beauty of Wagner’s music. I hadn't expected to travel halfway round the world for this Wagnerian Damascus moment!

James Jolly

James Jolly is Gramophone's Editor-in-Chief. His blogs explore live and recorded music, as well as downloading and digital delivery.

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