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The Ring in Berlin, part 3: Mysteries of the Forest

Jesse Simon
martes, 12 de julio de 2016
Berlin, miércoles, 15 de junio de 2016. Schiller Theater. Wagner: Siegfried (Der Ring des Nibelungen: 2. Abend). Guy Cassiers, director. Andreas Schager (Siegfried), Stephan Rügamer (Mime), Iain Paterson (Wanderer), Jochen Schmeckenbecher (Alberich), Falk Struckmann (Fafner), Anna Larsson (Erda), Iréne Theorin (Brünnhilde) and Christina Gansch (Voice of a Bird). Staatskapelle Berlin. Daniel Barenboim, conductor
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The qualities and limitations of Guy Cassiers’ Ring cycle were illustrated nowhere more clearly than in Siegfried. During the first two acts, and even into the third, one remained conscious of the impressive stagecraft employed to create memorable images: the transformation of Mime’s dwelling into a forge, or the glittering forest where Siegfried is taken to learn fear. But something happened in the final scene: one found oneself immersed not in images but emotions, in the sadness of Brünnhilde as she comes to accept her humanity and Siegfried’s frustrations at having awoken such a reluctant mistress. This sudden intrusion of character drama served mostly to highlight its absence from the earlier acts, an absence which the glossy artifice of the production had only partially concealed.

The success of this final scene was due in part to the singers: Andreas Schager, whose strident voice had for much of the evening been coupled with a tendency toward mild overacting, became more natural and vulnerable at the awakening of Brünnhilde; and Iréne Theorin brought a rush of sensitivity to an evening which, to that point, had involved a lot of sword. Visually, the scene was one of the least obviously compelling: there were no dancers, no set transformations, even the video projections were muted. In place of visuals was a simple human drama which to that point had surfaced only in brief flashes, once during Fafner’s death scene and again with the appearance of Erda. It was a drama that required no directorial intervention.

Having said that, Mr Cassiers’ abstract approach to the Ring was realised most successfully in Siegfried. The set of the first act was framed by a construction of sharp branches suggesting the dark forest but, when overlaid with fiery red video projections, also came to resemble the sparks from Siegfried’s fashioning of Notung. It looked impressive enough that one was willing to forgive the stilted, largely undeveloped interactions between Siegfried and Mime. The second act was, if anything, even more striking: the tall trees of the forest were made of chain and, when Siegfried claimed the Nibelung horde, they collapsed into what appeared to be piles of gold.

Wagner: Siegfried. Daniel Barenboim, conductor. Guy Cassiers, director.  Berlin, Staatsoper im Schiller Theater, June 2016 Wagner: Siegfried. Daniel Barenboim, conductor. Guy Cassiers, director. Berlin, Staatsoper im Schiller Theater, June 2016 © Monika Rittershaus, 2016

The evening’s most notable misstep was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Fafner scene. While the task of making a stage dragon terrifying or even vaguely evocative seems to lay beyond the ability of many directors, Mr Cassiers didn’t even try, rendering the erstwhile giant as a large diaphanous sheet controlled by a group of five dancers. It was marginally less terrifying than The Blob, and the scene was rescued mostly by the appearance of Falk Struckmann – Fafner returned to his original form after being wounded by Siegfried – whose nobility of tone conveyed a palpable sense of regret at the way things had turned out for the race of giants.

As with the previous evenings, the singing and playing was of the highest quality. In the title role, Andreas Schager possessed almost an excess of vocal power; during the forging of Notung the full orchestra came nowhere close to drowning him out. Yet even at his heartiest, his voice maintained a rich, woody tone, and there was an ease to his delivery which suggested that the demands of the role cost him little effort. Mr Schager, who was an extraordinary sullen teenager in the Staatsoper’s recent production of Parsifal [review], seemed overly mannered – or perhaps under-directed – as Siegfried; and while he was convincingly cocky in his dealings with Fafner, Mime and the Wanderer, one may have longed for greater sensitivity of phrasing in his forest scene and his arrival at the mountain top. But as soon as he had Brünnhilde to play against, he seemed to grow more ardent, lyrical and subtle.

Wagner: Siegfried. Daniel Barenboim, conductor. Guy Cassiers, director.  Berlin, Staatsoper im Schiller Theater, June 2016Wagner: Siegfried. Daniel Barenboim, conductor. Guy Cassiers, director. Berlin, Staatsoper im Schiller Theater, June 2016 © Monika Rittershaus, 2016

Although Iréne Theorin’s appearance was reasonably brief, her Brünnhilde elevated the third act, adding an emotional complexity to the evening which had often lacked subtlety. In addition to the gentle shaping of lines – the introspection and uncertainty in her ‘Ewig war ich, ewig bin ich’ were captivating – and a dynamic range that, for the first time in the evening, included genuine pianissimo, her tentative behaviour around Siegfried, never sure whether to reach out or pull away, brought a degree of humanity to a story which had relied mostly on bold gestures.

Iain Paterson, who had been exceptional in Walküre, continued in a similar vein as the Wanderer, transforming the dialogue with Mime into a first act highlight; his contempt for Mime was palpable – he all but spat out the final word of ‘Was fragst du, Zwerg?’ – but his description of the gods (‘Auf wolkigen Höh’n wohnen die Götter’) was suitably lofty, and his later scenes, especially the meeting with Erda, were suffused with resignation. He did, however, keep some strength in reserve for a thrilling final confrontation with Siegfried. As Mime, Stephan Rügamer toned down the nervy and ingratiating aspects of the character in favour of cold calculation and, in the case of his brief but memorable ‘Verfluchte Licht’ scene, genuine fear.

Wagner: Siegfried. Daniel Barenboim, conductor. Guy Cassiers, director.  Berlin, Staatsoper im Schiller Theater, June 2016Wagner: Siegfried. Daniel Barenboim, conductor. Guy Cassiers, director. Berlin, Staatsoper im Schiller Theater, June 2016 © Monika Rittershaus, 2016

Anna Larsson, as Erda, looked and sounded genuinely nonplussed to have been woken from her sleep, and replied to Wotan’s questions in a deep luxurious voice both languid and haunted. No longer bound to a hydraulic platform, as she had been in Rheingold, she was an altogether more compelling presence. Alberich’s appearances in the second act were given a strong, unfussy performance from Jochen Schmeckenbecher (also reprising his role from days earlier) and Christina Gansch was an elegant woodbird.

The considerable vocal riches of the evening were fully supported and often enhanced by another exceptional performance from the Staatskapelle and Daniel Barenboim. In the darkness of the theatre, the breathtaking opening preludes of the first and second acts told the audience everything it needed to know about the sinister forest in which the action would unfold. While Mr Barenboim had used slower pacing to great effect in Rheingold and Walküre, the first act of Siegfried was refreshingly brisk, imparting dramatic shape to Siegfried’s frustrations and Mime’s encounter with the Wanderer.

Wagner: Siegfried. Daniel Barenboim, conductor. Guy Cassiers, director.  Berlin, Staatsoper im Schiller Theater, June 2016 Wagner: Siegfried. Daniel Barenboim, conductor. Guy Cassiers, director. Berlin, Staatsoper im Schiller Theater, June 2016 © Monika Rittershaus, 2016

The individual sections of the orchestra provided the evening with countless wonderful moments, from the murmuring strings which accompanied Siegfried’s appreciation of the forest, to the harps which announced Brünnhilde’s awakening. But, perhaps even more than in the previous evenings, one was left with a sense of the orchestra as a single body, bringing the action of the opera to life with little apparent effort and plenty of enthusiasm. Siegfried may lack the stirring tragedy of Walküre and Götterdämmerung, but on this evening the orchestra made a strong case for it containing some of Wagner’s most inspired, and most quietly evocative music.

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