Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre
Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre, Bayreuth Festival, Germany, Saturday 18th August 2018, directed by Frank Castorf, conducted by Plácido Domingo, reviewed by TONY COOPER
In the second part of Wagner’s Ring cycle, Die Walküre (in repertoire from 2013 to 2017 as part of the complete cycle to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Richard Wagner’s birth), Berlin-based, avant-garde theatre director Frank Castorf dumped the opera’s traditional romantic Rhineland setting for the rough-and-tumble world of oil prospecting, transporting the scenario to the city of Baku on the Caspian Sea in pre-Revolutionary Russia. ‘Black Gold’, a political tool like no other, became the treasured Nibelung hoard. Oil, of course, was a big influence on Soviet foreign policy during the Cold War, the era in which Castorf grew up and it remains high on the agenda in Putin’s Russia.
Wotan, played by Swedish bass-baritone John Lundgren, has travelled to the Baku oil-field to assume his new position as boss. Lundgren proved to be an excellent choice for the role delivering a strong and authoritative performance in an interesting and detailed production that employed and merged stagecraft and video work skilfully created by Andreas Deinert and Jens Crull.
One example came in the scene in which Sieglinde is caught on camera preparing a sleeping-draught for her husband Hunding, so she that she could slip off for a secret rendezvous with her long-lost Wälsung brother, Siegmund. Scenes like this, combining ‘live’ and ‘video’ action, worked well most of the time but, occasionally, confused the overall stage picture.
Legendary opera star Plácido Domingo was in the pit of the famed Festspielhaus for the first time and this caused a furore in certain quarters because of his limited experience of conducting Wagner.
However, apart from one or two inconsequential issues he conducted well enough and Die Walküre, after all, is a work he knows well as he has sung the role of Siegmund and, indeed, other such important Wagnerian roles as Lohengrin and Parsifal and also recorded Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Tannhäuser. He also conducted Tosca at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, having made his ROH début in the principal role of Cavaradossi nearly a half-a-century ago. There were a few boos at curtain-call but the Bayreuth booing mafia were soon sent packing.
Overall, the orchestra was on good form and in the opening bars of the first act, a test for any conductor, Domingo captured the essence and urgency of Wagner’s rich and powerful score by extracting from his charges some invigorating and forceful playing vividly portraying the stormy and unsettled weather in which the exhausted young warrior, Siegmund, is fleeing from his enemies looking for shelter. In the opera’s big number – The Ride of the Valkyries – Domingo gradually built the piece up to a thrilling and exciting climax.
The brother and sister roles of Siegmund and Sieglinde (the long-lost Wälsung twins) fell to this critic’s favourite choice of singers: American tenor, Stephen Gould (this season’s Tristan) and German soprano, Anja Kampe. Within their tempting and incestuous world, they delivered a sci ntillating and exciting performance that brought the curtain down on the first act.
Tobias Kehrer as Hunding portrayed his role in the usual mean and nasty way. His deep bass voice was perfect for the part, while Catherine Foster’s portrayal of Brünnhilde (she is the first English-born soprano to sing the role at Bayreuth) was quite brilliant. Blessed with a strong and wide-ranging voice, her tonal colour was heard to dazzling effect in the opening of the famous (and popular) third act, in which Brünnhilde and her Warrior Maidens navigate some tricky stage movement on a variety of uneven surfaces of the Baku oil-rig platform. Here, they gathered the Fallen Heroes – in this instance, workers overcome by toxic fumes following the Soviet’s decision to dynamite the oil-rig to stop the great German advance of 1942.
Castorf’s offbeat style of production often involves garbage-littered stages or, in this instance, discarded tabloid pages spread across the set of the second act. However, the overall stage picture was complemented by Rainer Casper’s stunning lighting capturing the mood of the opera’s ever-changing scenario, while Adriana Braga Peretzki’s costumes were as attractive as ever.
Historical note: The Ring cycle (modelled after ancient Greek dramas) was originally presented as three tragedies and one satyr play. Therefore the Ring proper actually begins with Die Walküre and ends with Götterdämmerung with Das Rheingold acting as a Prelude. Wagner termed this a ‘Vorabend’ (Preliminary Evening) to the three operas while Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung were subtitled First Day, Second Day and Third Day respectively.
Tony Cooper is QR‘s Opera Critic
The opening of Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony reminds me of the unsettling, agitated beginning to Die Walkure. My own favourite Wagner opening is that of Das Rheingold – the hypnotic passage of the Rhine, the gentle build-up across the orchestral strings of that marvellous, noble theme – and the low brass chord underpinning it all (with mystery and some menace) in the background.
So many of these touches translated into the soundscape of Mahler and Bruckner – listen to the still passages in the opening and toward the end of the first movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1.