ONP Bastille, Wednesday June 16 2010
Conductor: Philippe Jordan. Production: Günter Krämer. Sets: Jürgen Bäckmann. Costumes: Falk Bauer. Lighting: Diego Leetz. Siegmund: Robert Dean Smith. Hunding: Günther Groissböck. Wotan: Thomas Johannes Mayer. Sieglinde: Ricarda Merbeth. Brünnhilde: Katarina Dalayman. Fricka: Yvonne Naef. Gerhilde: Marjorie Owens. Ortlinde: Gertrud Wittinger. Waltraute: Silvia Hablowetz. Schwertleite: Wiebke Lehmkuhl. Helmwige: Barbara Morihien. Siegrune: Helene Ranada. Grimgerde: Nicole Piccolomini. Rossweisse: Atala Schöck. Ortlinde: Gertrud Wittinger. Orchestra of the Opéra National de Paris.
You’d hardly have guessed this Walküre was in the same series as the Rheingold that went before. For a start, the singing was much better - so I’ve been lucky with Wagner in the last couple of weeks. As for the production, apart from “Germanja” in giant gothic letters (more later), most of the other gimmicks had gone: instead of bulging muscle suits and plastic breasts, Wotan wore a black dinner jacket with his bow-tie hanging loose and Fricka a vast red crinoline and a tight black top. There was no “toy” world for the gods to clamber over, either. There were, however, our old friends, soldiers in all kinds of borrowed battledress (more of that later, too).
Black, red and white were the overall colour scheme, and costumes and hairdos were resolutely WWII Germany/Austria. As the orchestra churned over the opening bars, there was a gory massacre on stage (by those soldiers, with spurts of blood so high it was almost comical): a flashback, I think, to Siegmund’s past and the marauders who burnt down his hut, killed his mother and abducted his sister. The fire was already burning on the left. The dead lay in the background throughout the act. Hunding’s house had two high, narrow, white walls bearing row upon row of little deer trophies, as if its owner had been out shooting goats. At the rear was a wall of glass with water cascading down it, like the window of a Chinese restaurant. It got more Chinese when spring broke out and an orchard appeared in full blossom behind, in the light of a giant moon (or white, watery sun). The ash tree was not a tree, but an ugly painting of one (so ugly I wondered if it was by the same person as the hideous Madonna in the Bastille’s old production of Tosca) that Siegmund and Sieglinde (in a Dirndl and blonde plaits - Sieglinde, that is) slashed open with daggers to reveal the sword behind. Hunding was in a kind of officer’s uniform and his men were the rag, tag and bobtail mercenary army we’d seen at the start.
You may remember Rheingold was a kind of compendium of ideas from other people’s productions. Act two opened with, at the rear, a giant mirror tilted forward, reflecting a flight of stairs, broad as the stage, rising from beneath: Les Troyens at the Châtelet, but in place of the horse’s head, young men in white shorts and singlets (“Jugend” I suppose – ask the Pope) struggled up the steps bearing those giant letters spelling out “Germanja.” This was actually a reference back to the appearance of Valhalla at the end of Rheingold, when everyone climbed up the stepped façade: then we were at the bottom, looking up; now we were at the top, looking down. The Valkyries, all with Andrews Sisters (blonde) hair and white 40s frocks, were frolicking around gaily with kilos of apples rolling about on a long table. Fricka appeared from below, at first reflected majestically (it was a very large crinoline) as she climbed the stairs, a splash of blood red in the overall black and white scheme. When Wotan finally lost his temper with Brunnhilde (in a white tunic, white trousers and little, pale green boots), tables, chairs and letters were strewn, leaving only “manja” standing: geddit? For the second half of the act, Valhalla disappeared (of course) and left little but apples on a black stage while Brunnhilde appeared to Siegmund. As she explained the deal, she started placing the apples mysteriously in a circle (I suppose this was a promise of eternity) while the orchard reappeared in the background, this time beyond a Styx-like chasm, with the Valkyries beckoning hieratically. Siegfried died closely encircled by the soldiers in surplus, and Fricka put in an appearance to make sure all had gone to (her) plan.
The high point of the whole evening was act three, and the high point of the production its opening scene: there were the Valkyries, jolly as Carry On nurses, dragging in the dead in blankets, laying them out stark naked on morgue tables, washing the blood off, wringing their cloths into bowls and bringing the heroes back to life with those hieratic gestures, now explained. Several batches were revived and marched off, still naked, before the girls finished their caterwauling. Brunnhilde and her father were left alone before a plain black curtain, with only a row of black, spoon-back chairs and Siegmund’s body, carried in by Wotan, in a blanket on one table. The fire was at first just a thin red line under the curtain; but the curtain rose at the very end, as a veiled Erda put in a brief, portentous appearance, to reveal a charred, smoking, war-torn landscape and a burning, black moon.
The singing throughout was excellent and, as I implied above, we had a super act three. For various reasons this was very different Wagner from Barenboim’s in Milan. In the Bastille’s acoustics, there’s no way you can sing it as Lieder: it has to be loud, and the whole cast threw themselves into the task. Katerina Dalayman and Ricarda Merbeth, both relatively dark-hued sopranos with a grain, were better-cast here than, respectively, in Ariadne and Die tote Stadt. The only quibble – and it would be a quibble – might be that they weren’t different enough. The FT was right to say the part sits a little low for Robert Dean-Smith, and he was a touch underpowered for the cavernous Bastille, but those are quibbles too. He sang his way through with barely a sign of fatigue. Thomas Johannes Mayer was a more satisfactory Wotan than Falk Struckmann, bright and clear and charismatic with it. Yvonne Naef, described as vulgar by the FT, was fine by me: haughty and with a voice with plenty of edge. Günther Groissböck did what he could with a deep, gruff Hunding. The Valkyries were as noisy as you could have hoped, but musical too, and way, way better than the Rhinemaidens.
The orchestra was different from Barenboim’s too. He managed, somehow, to make the Scala orchestra sound wall-of-sound Germanic (well, for Italians Milan is practically Austria, just as Calabria is "l'Africa") with war-machine brass. He also made the score sound like one single piece from end to end. Philippe Jordan didn’t have quite that mastery of overall architecture; and the Opera orchestra was unmistakeably French, with dry, transparent strings, lovely woodwind and, from where I was sitting, weak brass. But I was in the orchestra stalls, where the acoustics are patchy, and the brass were tucked well into a corner of the pit. I imagine that up on the balconies the sound was more impressive. A pity, that.
Army surplus shops must do a roaring trade with opera houses these days. But audiences are suffering from “fatigues fatigue,” so the only break in the enthusiastic applause and cheering at the end was for the extras as soldiers, booed loudly - much to their amusement.