Friday, February 27, 2015

Thought-provokingly minimalist Das Rheingold at Bavarian State Opera


Nadine Weissmann, Hanna-Elisabeth Müller and Jennifer Johnston

In this Bavarian State Opera revival production of Das Rheingold, which premiered in 2012, director Andreas Kriegenburg highlights the vastness of the world's third largest stage for the introduction or ante-evening (Vorabend) to opera's unparalleled 4-part epic, Der Ring der Nibelungen. Clad in light, unstained timber and cut with minimal openings, it gives the impression of a large, modern Scandinavian-inspired hall, congregated by a mass of skin-fit-dressed 'nudists'. These inhabitants daub themselves with blue paint and wander to the fore-stage, taking up their position in couples to form what becomes the sensually choreographed waters of the Rhine. It is an extraordinary start to Kriegenburg's thought-provokingly minimalist and highly symbolist production, one sign-posted with many details and sung with combined strength.

The Rhinemaidens protect the gold of the gods which takes the form of human treasure. Wotan, ruler of the gods, waves his spear.  Loge, messenger of the gods, entertains magically with a cane and Alberich, renouncer of love and absconder of the golden treasure, rules his race of slaves with a whip. The giants, Fasolt and Fafner enter on cubes of crushed corpses and Erda, the earth goddess wafts in on a bed of dancers who crawl about her with choreographed beauty.

                              Günther Groissböck, Thomas. J. Mayer and Christof Fischesser
Interpretations and critique of Der Ring der Nibelungen are exhaustive but themes associated with the abuse of power and the elevation of love are most evident, played out via the struggles between gods, heroes, villains and those caught in between. With Kriegenburg's touch, this world of unsettling dark fantasy is seemingly steeped in one where racial cleansing long ago produced the "master race" of bleached-hair, fair-skinned gods and their offspring - an Aryan, Nordic, supreme race suggesting the possible outcomes of Nazi racial policy under which the human race was placed in a hierarchy.

All other parasitic or dark-haired sub-humans are seen devoid of enlightened human emotion. Alberich, the grotesque, low-life, subterranean dweller is representative, along with his race of Nibelung. The giants Fasolt and Fafner, under contract to build a new palace for the gods, are base, brutish, darker-skinned and long-haired. But as events unfold, this supreme race ruled by Wotan, faces challenges and their future is uncertain. Here, the connection to Adolf Hitler's known esteem of Wagner collides powerfully with Kriegenburg's reference to Hitler's racial agenda, one which is doomed to fail.

Set designer Harald B. Thor's voluminous hall undergoes monumental transformation to differentiate the world we see. For the world of the Nibelung, stage surfaces tilt sharply to create a claustrophobic, suffocating space where Alberich, having stolen the gold from the Rhinemaidens, is master of his race of slaves as well as his brother, Mime.

Zenta Haerter's choreography is instrumental in both adding visual detail and symbolic weight. Andrea Schraad's costumes dutifully differentiate the species. Her Aryan gods are cocktail party attired sophisticates, her Nibelungs unkempt and poorly clothed and her giants are formidably trench-coated. Without Stefan Bolliger's cocktail of evocative lighting these worlds and their inhabitants would simply be bland surfaces. The combined artistic team achieves a wondrous setting.

Musically, the expansive swells and contractions of Wagner's score was rendered with pragmatic sensibility by conductor Kirill Petrenko. The tempo pulsated, the sound was shaped and textured, and the musicians of the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra played with clarity. Additionally, Petrenko achieved in bringing the music and vocal performances together without distraction.

Thomas J. Mayer's Wotan displayed both threatening force and suggested vulnerability, but seemed to struggle in finding hoped-for projection. This ruler of the gods was overpowered  by Tomasz Konieczny's magnetic performance in the role of Alberich, meeting the vocal demands with stamina and embodying his character with heaps of conviction.

           L. Molnar, B. Ulrich , E. Kulman and D. Power
Burkhard Ulrich's light, ringing tenor complimented his dandyish Loge. Günther Groissböck's dark bass and Christof Fischesser's warmer bass-baritone impressed as the giants Fasolt and Fafner. Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Kulman showed authority as Wotan's wife Fricka and Golda Schultz presented a delightful playfulness in the clutches of danger as Freia, holder of youth and sister to Fricka. Okka von der Damerau appeared and sang with heavenly and matronly comfort as Erda and the Rhinemaidens, Hanna-Elisabeth Müller (Woglinde), Jennifer Johnston (Wellgunde) and Nadine Weissmann ((Flosshilde) each developed appealing singularity of character despite lacking a purity of tone as a trio.

Kriegenburg's Das Rheingold forms an inviting piece of theatre to continue the journey through Der Ring der Nibelungen. There are odd moments of clumsily-felt direction, the breadth of the stage sometimes distracts from the more intimately protected scenes and the final choreographed crescendo as the gods approach Valhalla (their new Fasolt & Fafner built home) is disappointingly weak in comparison to the works prelude, but this is an overall thoughtfully packaged and powerful production.

Production photos by Wilfried Hösl

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