The Staatsoper Festtage enjoyed a bold opening last weekend with Andrea Breth's new staging of Berg's Wozzeck and the house premiere of Die Walküre, the second installment of Wagner's Ring cycle in a co-production with La Scala in Milan.
True to Berlin tradition, Die Walküre (as seen on April 17) met with a mix of resounding cheers and fervent boos. "Scheisse!" yelled one couple behind me after the stage designers Guy Cassiers and Enrico Bagnoli walked onstage.
Critics were also largely unimpressed with the production, which combined minimalist structures with a complex array of video projections. "The stage resembled Star Trek more than Walhalla," reported the Berliner Morgenpost.
The Tagesspiegel's critic, while acknowledging the value of Cassiers' understated approach, suggested that the director receive a "helping hand" for the second half of the cycle which will be mounted and premiered in Berlin.
That many locals feel slighted at viewing Die Walküre months after it appeared in Milan doesn't help, although no critics have denied that Daniel Barenboim, both principal guest conductor at La Scala and music director of the Staatsoper, conducted his Berlin orchestra masterfully on Sunday.
In contrast to the ethereal world of Das Rheingold, Die Walküre circulates around the mortal realm of Sieglinde and Siegmund, children begotten of the god Wotan and a mortal mother, with extended passages of subdued, meditative orchestration. The drama escalates when Wotan is urged by his wife, Fricka, to prevent Siegmund's rise to power, ultimately causing a permanent rupture between the god and his beloved daughter, Brünnhilde, when she defends the mortal twins.
Despite the somewhat dampened acoustics of the Staatsoper's current home in the Schiller Theater, Barenboim drew forth arching phrases of searing pathos, responding intuitively to the singers' sweeping Wagnerian lines. Elegant solos emerged from the woodwinds, and the brass section was more on point than last fall, easily evoking the urgency of a need to restore world order without resorting to an overly aggressive sound.
Making his debut as Wotan was the famed German baritone René Pape, who commanded the role with vocal stamina and an appropriate combination of arrogance and intransigence, although the chief of the gods seemed resigned from the moment he walked onstage. Pape conveyed moments of paternal affection vividly, singing with crisp diction and audible passion even in hushed passages.
The fiery Irène Thorin provided an ideal counterpart in the role of Brünnhilde, with ripping high notes and an ability to coax her voluminous dramatic soprano into warm, beseeching lyricism. Her chemistry with Pape added a human dimension that is essential to the story.
Anja Kampe brought sharp musical prowess to her performance of Sieglinde, conveying sweetness when needed but also revealing a solid, grounded vocal core. Less appealing was Simon O'Neill as Siegmund who, while convincing in his fervent, bumbling quest, sang with an unpleasantly constricted timbre.
Ekaterina Gubanova captured Fricka's feminine wiles with creamy tones and graceful phrasing, and Mikhail Petrenko's menacing bass was perfectly suited to portray the rascal Hünding. Brünnhilde's sisters, at times underpowered and not quite in unison, created a weaker link in the ensemble, nor were they helped aesthetically by the set of cargo boxes on which they trampled.
Yet in a city where dramatic hyperbole often threatens to overwhelm the music being performed, the production mostly served as a refreshing example of how a stage design can enhance, rather than distract, from an operatic score. Artful lighting projected onto a backdrop of snarled wooden textures served to mirror Siegmund's emotional journey in the opening act. The forest in the third act was evoked through rows of white spears that served as a canvas for subtle video projections from foliage to flickering numbers and letters, evoking the capitalist urge for world domination.
Perhaps most powerful was the transformation of Jef Lambeaux's marble relief Human Passions, featured at the end of Das Rheingold, into a twisting, multi-media pile of bodies, a clear but innovative reference to internet culture and images of violence that surround us today.
Other gestures, such as laser-like red lines that appear to designate warfare and a spinning sphere over Wotan's head that eventually bears his image, bordered on kitsch. Still, one has to give Cassiers' team credit for using symbolism that didn't weigh down the opera in obscurity and allowed the music, which emerged so elegantly from the pit, room to breathe.
Tickets are available for Die Walküre on April 22nd and April 25th.
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