Hearing Wagner at Bayreuth realigns so many preconceptions and presumptions. I’d not been there since 1996 when I heard Daniel Barenboim conduct Die Meistersinger in Wolfgang Wagner’s last production – theatrically a rather underwhelming experience, so the chance to sample Bayreuth’s current Ring cycle was to be jumped at. First unveiled in 2006, it was entrusted to Tankred Dorst, not generally known as director of opera, and the reviews were generally a little cool – not particularly savage, but rather disappointed. The revival (overseen by Ursula Ehler) has this year been ‘relaunched’. It is, for sure, a rather traditional reading judging by Die Walküre – the only ‘concept’ being Dorst’s vision of the gods living in some kind of parallel universe alongside humanity. So, as the curtain rises on Hunding’s house, a group of kids runs out and a young couple walks out of its darkness into the light – a vision of gently innocent love as a kind of counterpoint to the more potent emotions about to be unleashed. Similarly, in the central act, a man parks his bicycle and reads the newspaper while Wotan engages with his wife and daughter amid a kind of statuary repository in a formal garden: hardly earth-shattering stuff, but nothing to take particular offence at either. And Die Walküre after all is not about earth-shattering effects, but rather about three crucial and intense emotional connections. And these were played out with a gentle intimacy.
Musically, though, things were very strong. The cast has changed a little since last year when Opus Arte recorded it for CD: remaining are Linda Watson as Brünnhilde, Albert Dohmen as Wotan and Kwangchul Youn as Hunding. New were Johan Botha as Siegmund, Edith Haller as Sieglinde and Mihoko Fujimura as Fricka. In the pit, once again, was Christian Thielemann with whom this music is in very safe hands. There was a genuinely symphonic flow to the evening, and he drew some fabulous playing from the orchestra (not for nothing is a good third of the orchestra made up of players from the Staatskapelle Dresden whose musical boss he becomes at the beginning of the 2011 season).
It is one of the wonders of the Bayreuth acoustic that the myriad woodwind solos are lifted gently out of the orchestra, and when they entwine with the voices are crystal clear. The first reaction is the feeling that the sound is a little distant, and without the ‘stereo’ spread you find when the pit is exposed; but the sound is so beautifully blended that there’s a stronger sense of depth than width. And even when the orchestra is playing at full tilt the voices ride the sound with ease.
The singing in Act 1 was superb: I recall the shock at that mid-1990s Meistersinger at the booing – a sound that is distressing enough as an audience member and which must be appalling to be of the receiving end of. But as the curtain fell, the cheers were undiluted. Stand out, by far, was Johan Botha’s Siegmund – truly heroic singing with a real glint of gold in the voice. Kwangchui Youn was a suitably sepulchral Hunding and Edith Haller a fine and suitably vulnerable Sieglinde. Initially reactions to Albert Dohmen’s Wotan was that this was one of those voices in two halves – a deep, slightly ‘gulpy’ bass with an even bass-baritone laid over the top, but by the last act, his singing was even, mellifluous and well capable of conveying the emotional torment that Wotan must face as King of the Gods and as a father. Mihoko Fujimura was a passionate and strong Fricka, her strength of character powerfully contradicted by her lameness (she had to be carried on and off). Linda Watson – whose costume looked like it had come from a particularly cash-strapped early episode of Star Trek – sang with power and stamina, her sparring with her father particularly moving. The deeply tawdry sight of her preparing for her sleep on a couple of rather tatty pallets was only mitigated by the rather beautiful lava-style fire with which Wotan surrounded her. (Her sister Valkyries were similarly attired but somehow looked much better, and their perspex riot-shield wings made for some very striking effects.)
I particularly liked Dorst’s radically different approach to the Ride of the Valkyries which opens the last act. Going directly against the music which surely speaks of energy, dynamism and power, the Valkyries walked slowly among the dead heroes, who were clad in simple gauze (winding sheets?) and gently touching each one with her spear, brought him back to life so he could wander off through a fissure in the hewn rock of what looked like an abandoned quarry.
Opus Arte is returning with its cameras this season so the entire Ring will available for home consumption – and whatever your reaction to Dorst’s vision you’ll not be disappointed by Thielemann’s wonderfully sensitive and flexible conducting, surely the leading German Wagnerian interpreter of our day.
You can watch Die Walküre live on the web courtesy of one of Bayreuth's sponsors Siemanns on Saturday, August 21 at 4pm (CET), and on demand for a fortnight after. Tickets cost Euro 14.90.
[The original posting of this blog mis-spelled Herr Dorst's surname – the price for spell-checking from the web where, unfortunately, he seems to have spawned a whole new existence under this Doppelgängerish wrong name. My thanks to 'Tomrakewell' for pointing out the error - JJ]