ONP Bastille, Tuesday March 22 2011
Conductor : Philippe Jordan. Production : Günter Krämer. Sets : Jürgen Bäckmann. Costumes : Falk Bauer. Lighting : Diego Leetz. Siegfried : Torsten Kerl. Mime : Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke. Der Wanderer : Juha Uusitalo. Alberich : Peter Sidhom. Fafner : Stephen Milling. Erda : Qiu Lin Zhang. Waldvogel : Elena Tsallagova. Brünnhilde : Katarina Dalayman. Orchestra of the Opéra National de Paris.
Günter Krämer’s version of the Ring is turning out, to me, to be a bit perplexing. The conceptual thread is clear enough (assuming I’ve got it right): vignettes from German (or maybe just Western) history and culture. But visually speaking, you never quite know what the curtain will rise on: apart from one or two repeat elements (“Germania” in Gothic letters, the “Kokkis” inclined mirror over the stage, the terrifying “Valhalla” staircase) I haven’t yet grasped much visual/stylistic consistency in the staging.
Still, the first act was excellent entertainment. It was a good idea to play it as a kind of low-life Cage aux Folles, with Mime as a tacky old queen in a yellow wig, jeans, basketball boots and braces over a too-short yellow Argyle sweater, under a billowing Chinese silk dressing gown with a dragon embroidered in the back. This worked well with the “Is this is all the thanks I get after all I’ve done for you, cooking, cleaning and slaving…?” whingeing in the libretto. Mime’s home was suitably Kitsch: to the left, a giant rubber plant lit green, with a working model windmill and garden gnomes (family portraits?) at its base; rear left, an industrial lift; more or less centre stage, a kitchen table with a flowery cloth, an old-fashioned TV (b & w), some geraniums in window-boxes and a suspended ceiling-light made of antlers with red lampshades; to the right, a large pot plantation under heat lamps behind galvanised crowd barriers. The giant backdrop, evoking a forest, was one of those factory curtains made of broad, vertical bands of translucent plastic, here in varying shades of green.
As I say, this was an entertaining act and there was a certain amount of slapstick: Siegfried, here played as a total (though tubby) teenager in overalls and blond dreadlocks, came down in the lift with a pantomime bear that chased the screaming Mime across the stage, and later overturned his spaghetti on Mime’s head. The Wanderer was a smelly tramp until he cast off his rags to reveal a shining breastplate. He and Mime did their “riddle scene” in front of a black backdrop, chalking the answers up. The whole set rose one storey up to reveal a forge for the forging scene, and here, at the rear, we had some dancers doing jerky, robotic, Metropolis-style, movements that were the first sign that things would go slowly downhill from now on.
The second act opened on a nearly bare stage strewn with autumn leaves and lit with broad bands of light. There was a single railway track running down to the front from the gloom at the rear, bringing to mind the camps, and above, a billowing sheet printed with a gorgeous forest scene, swelling and deflating slowly: the dragon breathing? Naked bearers formed a snaking procession bearing crates marked "Rheingold." When they finally opened them, out came guns: the silliness had started. So Fafner was some sort of warlord or drug baron, and though I thought he might emerge as a flaming, steaming locomotive he was just borne out by his bearers (who by now, for some reason, had shorts on) in army surplus gear and a Burger-King-type crown on a makeshift throne. So when Siegfried slew the dragon, it was a bit as if he wiped out the Farc. Oh, I forgot to mention that the bird was doubled by an annoying kid with a mirror who taught Siegfried sign language.
For Wotan’s visit to Erda – she still in her jet-incrusted black bustle and train - we had the tilting mirror above a gloomy library with green-shaded lamps at multiple tables, the only unlit one being Erda’s. There was some awkward tussling with Wotan and his lance on the library table. And then, for the final scenes, back came that terrifying Valhalla staircase (what must it be like for the soprano, singing on a ledge 30 feet above the boards with the Bastille’s hangar-like space and 3,000 faces looming before her and the orchestra pit glowing busily below?), with "GER" still smouldering bottom left (and "MANIA" still implicitly intact somewhere, or already burnt to a crisp?) and a gaggle of gods in winged helmets huddled top right (and immobile, poor devils, through the whole damned awakening and love scene). Brünnhilde lay about halfway up until awake, though most of the interminably static final scene took place downstairs. Wotan sat with his back to us on the stairs until, at the very end and as a golden sun shone through the stairs, he was helped slowly off by that gaggle of gods who, we now saw, were cross-dressed: a nod at Ludwig II of Bavaria?
The show had, to me, been a gradual decline from that fun first act to the painful dullness of the end. Meanwhile, vocally speaking, the curse was, as Anna Russell used to say, working – in this case, the curse of the Bastille’s size and acoustics, not helped, as is now so often the case, by there being no flat sets to reflect sound into the gaping auditorium. We could vaguely hear that Torsten Kerl was doing a sterling job, singing, not shouting, his role. But, as the critics have tended to note, his voice remained a long way off behind the footlights and neither his sword-waving "Nothung!" moment nor his lovemaking were thrilling, any more than Katarina Dalayman’s awakening: she had some volume and notes, but was stingy with them. And in any case, as I wondered above, what must it be like trying to sing Wagnerian top notes on a ledge above an abyss? In the press Uusitalo has come in for some stick, I don't know why, he seems alright to me. But the stars of this show were the bird, Erda, and above all Mime for his fantastic camp acting and Sprechgesang and Fafner, the excellent and altogether audible Stephen Milling. I'm not sure that a Siegfried in which Fafner is best is a great Siegfried.
I know there are Wagnerian ayatollahs on the web who claim no French orchestra should be let near Wagner, but I think it’s fairly obvious to the more reasonable that the French will bring clarity and transparency to the score and be especially good at rustling and rippling, of which there’s a deal in Siegfried after all. The six harps were lovely. But I do wish Jordan had brought more energy to the undertaking, especially during the fifth hour: the thrill-free end, as I said, seemed interminable.