Monday, March 26, 2007

Annie Get Your Speer

Despite my inability to resist that, the DC Walkure did not pick up where Rheingold left off with the insufferable old west stuff. However, I don't know how the WNO or Francesca Zambello's people put together the godawful video projections that are threatening to be a staple of this "American" Ring, but they seriously need to get a handle on this before someone comes up with the money for Siegfried. In a production that otherwise scored some significant improvements over last year's craptastic Rheingold, the video component was terribly ill-concieved.

And it's not just that it's in bad taste to intersperse extremely literal video sequences with metaphorical stage designs. I mean, they look like they were created using a Make-Your-Own-Music-Video booth at the mall from around 1991. During the running through the forest sequences, before the first act and between Act II scenes 1 and 2, we got what was quite clearly the product of some guy running around Rock Creek Park with a video cam vigorously pushing of the sun flare effect button. During the Ride of the Valkyries, there were seriously like silohuettes of bomber planes and parachuting men in different sizes and different shades of lilac and yellow bouncing around the scrim. It looked so dumb I had to close my eyes at one point just to avoid going into Act III all pissed.

This and a few other mis-steps (i.e. a lame device whereby fallen warriors are denoted with big placards imprinted with a multicultural gallery of faces) are really a shame, because as I said, this production has a lot more going for it than the first installment.

The first act is no huge revelation: Hunding's house as suburban prison and Hunding as nightmare asshole husband. But there was something more specific here that made it unique, a sort of Blue Velvet inspired, dark underbelly of hyper-bad 50's decorating taste, cheap looking leather jackets and rifles thing that resonated with story. It did what modern interpretations of the Ring should do: used contemporary motifs to subtly evoke the archetypes in the story. It's not about making it "accessible" to modern audiences or anything so trite, it's about opening the audience's mind to the universe of possibilities contained in these characters. Last year's Rheingold, with its "everyone find a buddy in the AP American History textbook" approach, demonstrated what not to do--try to wed the story to some overly specific historical or social program.

I grew fond of the first scene of Act II, which was a standard Wotan as CEO thing. Kind of a no-brainer, but I thought the set, a board room with a huge picture of turn of the century lower Manhattan peeking through dramatic clouds, was handsome. And again, it's ok for Wotan to be a CEO in that scene as long as the rest of the story isn't forced to conform to it. Scene II had the duel thicket under a highway with a cornfield in the background. I kept thinking a specifically suburban highway embankment, perhaps lit by the glow of big box store neon signs, would have been more clever, but I was basically ok with it.

Act III was the least successful--after the intolerable opening sequence, the concept was a very mushy militaristic thing, with Valkyries in paratrooper outfits and Brunnhilde's rock painted with helicopter landing pad colors. Despite the Nazi and Apocalypse Now associations that everyone seems unable to shake, it never ceases to amaze how little Wagner's brand of bombast seems to fit with the depths of 20th century war and annihalation which no one could have dreamed of in the middle of Europe's peaceful century. Kudos, though, for the big-time fire effect at the end. I do hope Alan Held still has eyebrows by the end of this run.

So that's it for the production. 'Progress' seems like too strong a word, but I didn't leave thinking 'abject failure' like last time.

And now to the small matter of the sangin':

Anna Kampe: Anna Kampe's Sieglinde was surely the breakout highlight of the evening. Between a stunning voice packing cool Mattila style radiance and splendid acting, she was a great match for the Flamingo's Siegmund. I have no idea how big the voice is, since everyone sounds deafening in the Kennedy Center OH, but it's a great sound, and she she is a tremendous singer.

El Domingo: I mean. It's just the goddamndest thing. I feel like singing with him must be almost unnerving, like if your grandpa opened his mouth and out came this super-hot 30-year old voice. The others were good, as I'll get to, but the Act I closer between him and Kampe probably produced the most unmitigated vocal excitement of the evening. Not that I know from German really, but if I had to give an opinion, this seemed like a less on night for Domingo's Deustch abilities. Not that I gave a rat's ass, of course.

Alan Held: Really a first-rate Wotan from Alan Held, vocally and dramatically, and especially appropriate to this size production. He turned the Act II monologue from an obligatory retread into something really exciting and engrossing, and honestly had me seeing it a whole new light. Likewise some of the more repetitive stretches in the the Act III convo. Now, it's true he doesn't have that special dark chocoloate resonance you want in your really top-tier Wotan. And it showed especially in "Der Augen Leuschtendes Paar" which lacked the glue necessary to really hold things together. But overall it was a terribly effective performance.

Linda Watson: Hmm. The jury is still out on Linda Watson. I remember really liking her on the Bayreuth bcasts last summer. I acknowledged the pitchiness (ht: Randy Jackson) but I loved the rich upper register and the chrome plated spine running top to bottom through her range. The spine was in evidence in DC, for sure, but I found myself really not liking the sound of her top. Now, I am more than prepared to be indifferent to any given Brunnhilde's upper register and love everything else. A real beloved top in that role seems kind of reserved for the select immortals. But I don't think I can sign on to a sound I actively find abrasive. Now, she's totally a great actress, and, despite the pitch problems (which seemed here mostly a product of exhaustion) I was down with the rest of her voice. And I mean, we could be listening to Jane Eaglen for the love of god, so let's not be flip about a solid Brunnhilde. But I dunno...more data points are called for.

Elena Zaremba: Tommassini I think called her wobbly, and to be sure it was on the big mean pointy voiced side of the Fricka spectrum rather than Christa Ludwig side. But I think I'm into that sort of thing where Fricka is concerned, so brava.

WNO Orchestra and Heinz Fricke: Mixed feelings here. As far as Fricke is concerned, for every moment I thought was really fine, and these were mostly in the gentler portions of the score, there was another moment where I was thinking "man, he really phoned in that passage." Also, the magic fire music was almost bizarrely rushed. Of course, comparing the one live performance I've seen to the myriad classic recordings in my head isn't really a good basis for criticism, so I'll just say that Fricke had some nice moments, but this Walkure reading leaned toward sweat on the brow rather than organic miracle of sound. On the other hand, J and I listened to the Karajan 1951 Act III on the drive home, and I found myself discovering many new ways to appreciate that incredible reading. So thanks for that.

Thankfully, the orchestra has definitely solved the power problems which plagued it during Rheingold--big moments here were duly big and satisfying. But, uh...we need to talk about the horn section. Serious pitch and crispiness issues all over the place. I never realized how important horns are to Walkure until I heard them suck like that. Get it together, people.

Phew. Well, that's probably more than you wanted to hear about a production you probably aren't going to see. But it was my first live Walkure, so there were some things to be said. Barring the little issue of how they are going to pay for it and who the hell they are going to get to play Siegfried, I'm looking forward to Round III...


T. Ambrose Nazianzus said...

Alex, I was also at the Die Walkure you mention. We seem to agree on most things concerning this production. I'm glad that someone else thought the Placido's German was a little...mushy. At the end of Act I, just after he had pulled out the sword, it felt as if he wasn't going to hold the note long enough...did you sense that as well, or was that just me?

Those horns...Jesus. Did you catch the very exposed gaff during Act I (I think on the Sword motif)? That was cringe worthy.

The videos...the way the videos mesh with the rest of the production here reminds me of bad 10th grade transition statements in writing class. It gives me hope that I could be an artistic director.

Anonymous said...

this is a right on review, particularly the comments about the paratrooping nonsense--a total distraction.

But i thought domingo sounded thin in the first act, particularly compared to three years ago. That production, at constitution hall, from the chase through the aisles, to the valkeries in leather bustiers, to the closing strains--sizzled. (yesterday, at the kencen, the audience began applauding before the last measure, stomping over some of the tenderest chords ever composed.)

PD did warm up in the softer moments of act two--his voice regained the fullness and dimension of some of his best recordings, like otello. I suspect the pollen count was a factor in the 1st act...

i couldn't agree more about the horns "phoning it in" -- sounded like they were playing some of the solo stuff ice cold, which obviously can't be the case, as i saw this a week after you did.

The highlight was Anja in the second act; she blew the doors off the hinges behind the 1st tier. Awesome.


Alex said...

'Twas my first live hearing of the PD, so my ear was probably less critical than it might have been. I noted some sloppiness but was otherwise totally bowled over. Ditto about both the stupid audience barging in on the final bars of Act I and Kampe's awesomeness.

If you're still reading...what was the rest of the cast in the 2003 outing?

Yet another David said...

It's late for this, I know, but the only important cast difference between 2003 and 2007 was veteran Kurt Rydl for Hunding in 2003 (replaced by Gidon Saks for the KenCen staging).

Domingo's German is mushy. Oddly enough, his Russian is more disciplined sounding, as if Gergiev had breathed down his neck. (I'd swear that he refreshes it between performances, too, because if he tripped on something at a Queen of Spades performance, it would be right the next time.)

Speaking of which, Zaremba has a Russian accent verging on the comical in German.