Sunday, November 08, 2009

Götterdämmerung: Two nights only...

Well, as we all know, the cost of this infernal recession now stands at 10.2% unemployment and exactly one complete Ring Cycle. Watching the first installment of WNO's very enjoyable "Götterdämmerung - IN CONCERT" last night, though, I preferred to think of more romantic reasons for the spare presentation--perhaps they had a full production in the bag, but on the eve of the big show, the mean ol' Republicans in Congress heard about the new and improved and topless Pocahontas-Rhinemaidens in FZ's production and decided to padlock the warehouse, but then Irene Theorin and Alan Held and the rest of the WNO gang got together and decided they didn't need any fussy old sets to tell the timeless story of Götterdämmerung, and decided to just go ahead and do the show in their street clothes on a bare stage and it was a big success and they all learned the true meaning of Christmas. Or something.

In any event, musically this installment held its own, and surpassed in some areas, the previous WNO Ring installments. I continue to go back and forth about Irene Theorin, but its mostly forth at this point. She's a convincing actress, of course, and when she hits her mark, the soaring lines are definitely more rich than strident and a cut above other work-a-day Brunnhildes who have the stamina and accuracy but not a crumb of the vocal splendor one so desperately wants. Some local observers were complaining about her too-quiet middle and lower register in the recent Ariadne here (which I really loved, despite some faults) and I think one must conclude that a) she really doesn't have much juice down there, but b) the woman appreciates, and knows how to work, a good piano. The low-key portions of the immolation scene, for instance, were quiet and lovely and quite surprising. But then again, I imagine the Theorin nay-sayers on Ariadne probably don't care too much about her lower register here.

So, not sure when this happened, but seems the tenor troubles made plain during the Ariadne run with the previously engaged Siegfried(s) may have been too much, and they called in Jon Frederic West. Now, I can see how at the Met, with the full Wall of Sound in effect, West's voice may come off a tad small, but in the Kennedy Center its just the right size and sounds great. He's extremely lyrical and precise, and except for an occasional back-of-the-throat thing he does to keep big notes in check it is a sweet, winning tone with none of the strained hootiness one is used to suffering at Siegfried's hands. He is also a total goofball. While using the score a lot more than the rest of the cast due to shorter preparation time (I imagine), he also chose to mime the shit out of everything, "Our Town" style--he even tried to hold onto the Speer for Theorin to grab in the oath section, only to be left hanging--cold, Irene, just cold. Oh, and when Brunnhilde finally turned to notice him in Act II, he did this amazing big dumb "how ya doin'" grin that elicited a huge laugh from the audience. I suppose in a full production, one might label this "bad acting", but in the context of the scrappy quasi-concert setup, it was awfully enjoyable.

Gidon Saks made quite an impression as Hagen, with a large, booming sound in the middle-lying passages and an irrepressible portrayal which came off despite the obvious limitations. This Hagen was inviting and masterful, sinister but not repellent, manipulating the other characters through the force of his personality and intelligence rather than simply taking advantage of their stupidity and blindness. It must be said, though, that the lower register was a reach for him, and one missed the basso splendor of the Hagen who can go deep and sound like he could hang out there all day.

The rich Waltraute of Elizabeth Bishop also deserves a mention. It's a hit or miss scene, I think, and she made it quite compelling, both in her sad portrait of Wotan and in the fiery scolding of Brunnhilde, where Bishop expertly captured the haughty superiority coloring Waltraute's desperation. Another great half-staging moment: when Brunnhilde finally tells her to get off her rock, Theorin pointed off stage, Waltraute picked up her score and stalked offstage in her concert gown and heels with ATTITUDE.

As for the Gibich kids, I think we can all imagine what a great Gunther Alan Held makes, so I will leave it at that. As for Gutrune, let me just say that this Bernadette Flaitz totally nails everything that is funny and ludicrous about Gutrune, i.e., everytime she comes onstage its the operatic equivalent of a Stacy alert. People, can we start agreeing that Gutrune should actually be played as a character part, like Mime? It's all there in her music, you just need to have the courage to not make her a lame romantic side character but rather the ur-hose beast.

Philipe Augin turned in a thoughtful and exacting performance from the pit, in the Wagner-as-chamber music vein (in keeping with the WNO's modest forces). Augin rarely let a motif get by with rushed or perfunctory phrasing--the opening and dawn transitions in the first and second acts were masterfully built from their constituent parts with many beautiful details revealed. His Funeral March needs to be highlighted for special praise, instead of going for the savagery (not that that's a bad thing) he put together a mesmerizing essay on the microdynamics of the passage. Were I to quibble, I'd say at times he failed to capture the appropriate momentum--for instance, the meat of the Act II confrontation scene plodded and the Act II chorus lacked some of the rollicking bravura drive it can achieve.

The WNO orchestra played with great distinction and responsiveness, save for some occasional messiness in the exposed brass lines, and really, what are you gonna do? One does note that the wall-shaking one wants in parts of Götterdämmerung just isn't possible here, but that doesn't make it any less credible a performance.

As for the "production", WNO did a good job with a tricky situation. Keeping the orchestra in the pit and only the relevant singers on stage (against some of the cloud backdrops from previous installments and minimal lighting) did a lot to focus one's attention on the story, despite the lack of, you know, sets. And while there were some silly (but delicious) moments, as described above, there were also a couple of inspired choices. For instance, instead of having Siegfried do his death section with the vassals et al. standing around, the front scrim came down and Jon Frederic West sang it alone, sitting in a chair illuminated by a single spotlight. The effect of having this exquisite moment--usually accompanied with the tenor sprawled in some godforsaken position, covered in sweat, making excessive death gurgles, and about an inch from expiring himself--done perfectly straight brought it an intimacy that was quite haunting and emotionally affecting. Likewise with two of Brunnhilde's moments: the section before the trio at the end of Act II and the entire immolation--both done with Irene Theorin standing alone at the center of the stage. I have to imagine this setup would be a bit of a chore for someone coming to Götterdämmerung fresh, but for someone reasonably familiar with the proceedings, there were lots of interesting opportunities to meditate on the piece without the constant grinding of scenery and rustling of bearskins. One wonders what else might benefit from the recession treatment...

UPDATE: Hmmm...Charles Downey of Ionarts differs with my assessment of the comedic gifts of last night's Gutrune:
The supporting cast was equally strong, with the exception of the flimsy Gutrune of Bernadette Flaitz, who seemed ill.
In hindsight, I suppose one should tread carefully with one's conclusions about a singer who appears to be mining their company debut in Götterdämmerung for maximum laffs, but something about it was working for me...

UPDATE II: Some other positive and thoughtful reviews in from WaPo, WaTi, and There seems to be general consensus that Jon Frederic West was straining by the end, but I honestly didn't hear it. His death scene was subdued but hardly inaudible, and as described above, this was an arresting choice. Maybe I'm just used to "straining" in this part meaning "blowing vocal cords and making ungodly screech noises" and I can't tell the gradations anymore.

At any rate, with this kind of coverage, next week's encore is going to be a hot ticket. Pretty nice coup for a plan B...


Sadie Salome said...

Jon Frederic West was a total goofball at the Met last season, too. I never realized Siegfried could be so funny, but it was irritating in Gotterdammerung.

Yet another David said...

As a first-timer to this site, I'm impressed with the smartness and the freshness.

Gutrune is chronically undercast. I know you think the role is a joke, but hear me out. She has beautiful, lyric lines associated with her character (e.g., "Willkommen, Gast, in Gibichs Haus"). Technically speaking, it's a "wagnerienne blonde" role (insert joke here), so it would be sung by someone who enchants as Elsa or Elisabeth or Eva. Instead, it's usually a "who the hell is she" singer. Or, god help us, a mezzo.

But give yourself a treat and find the 1957 Bayreuth live performance that has Elisabeth Grümmer as Gutrune and give it a listen. (Don't miss Birgit Nilsson's endearingly sharp First Norn.) Or even Claire Watson, for Solti.

If you had any idea how little rehearsal time was allotted for the orchestra for this production...

Alex said...

Thanks, YAD.

Grummer as Gutrune sounds nice and potentially eye-opening, will have to rustle that up...i have that Knappertsbutsch set from '56 with Gre Brouwenstijn, who doesn't do Gutrune (or anyone else) any favors. Bleah.

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