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Der Ring des Nibelungen

Opéra National de Paris

In Review Rheingold hdl 813
Stinging attack: Krämer's staging of Das Rheingold at the Paris Opera
© Opéra National de Paris/Charles Duprat 2013

Much of the past season at the Paris Opera has been given over to the preparation of Wagner's Ring, presented in its entirety over the past few months and set to finish the season with a "festival" cycle performed over a week — the first time in more than sixty years that the company has presented a full Ring. Günter Krämer reworked his much criticized productions, with Philippe Jordan stamping his authority on his musical directorship of the house.

Das Rheingold is the most successful evening in Krämer's Ring, and the stinging attack on capitalism has lost none of its relevance. If the symbolism of the giant "Germania" letters remains heavy, the ascent of the Gods into Valhalla is a spectacular moment of designer theater. Acting was tighter than in 2010, and the evening was dominated by the clownish and cunning Loge of tenor Kim Begley, opposite Peter Sidhom's Alberich, which depended on sharply projected diction rather more than on his dry baritone. Sophie Koch's Fricka has grown in stature and presence but is vocally strident when genuine mezzo weight is required. New to the production were soprano Edith Haller's glowing Freia and tenor Bernard Richter as a sappy-toned Froh — positive contributions to set beside Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke's experienced Mime, the impressive Donner of Samuel Youn, and Qiu Lin Zhang's Erda, who has gained in clarity of diction. Bass-baritone Egils Silins's Wotan was a straight-voiced, unyielding god who needed to find more poetry for the final scene. Jordan's well-paced conducting found the orchestra in slightly less sure-footed form than for the initial run, with a few moments of ragged ensemble.

Die Walküre was the opera in which Krämer's concept had begun to register as a serious disappointment on first viewing. Fortunately, his reworking tightened the production, removing some of the tired imagery and refining the acting. Gone was the distracting Act I set design, and even the nurses repairing the naked dead warriors during the ride of the Valkyries were less embarrassing. The production depended to a greater measure on individual performances, simplifying and underplaying the producer's war-guilt approach to Wagner. The new Sieglinde and Siegmund both made positive contributions to the success of the evening. Soprano Martina Serafin was a remarkable Sieglinde, sharp of diction, beguiling of appearance, rising to a glorious rendition of the redemption-through-love theme. Stuart Skelton has a forceful, baritonal tenor, which helped bring authority to Siegmund's low Act II music. The fallible mortal pair outclassed the gods on this occasion. Alwyn Mellor's Brünnhilde, replacing an ailing Janice Baird, started well, with confident full-voiced war cries, but at mid-range she lacked incisive volume. Much the same could be said of Thomas Johannes Mayer's musically refined Wotan, who sounded in poor voice and faded disappointingly toward the end of the evening. Koch's Fricka had the right nagging presence but allowed too much petulant bitterness into her tone for her lyrical Act II proclamations. Jordan's orchestra remained attentive and smooth, but the sexual tension and impetus of Act I seem alien to his nature, and it was not until the grandeur of the final act that he found his marks.

Siegfried also marked a considerable improvement over the original performances, again not so much in what Krämer added but in the elements that he toned down. Torsten Kerl's Siegfried was better costumed and found more truth in the director's view of Siegfried as a childish adolescent. Vocally, the tenor remains impressive — Act I still lacks steel, but his projection was superior to what he achieved two years ago, and reaching the Act III finale with untiringly beautiful tone and impeccable musicianship is in itself a major accomplishment. The higher tessitura of the Siegfried Brünnhilde suited Mellor's soprano better than that of Die Walküre, and she nailed her top Cs with thrilling precision, which brought the evening to a triumphant conclusion. Peter Lobert's Fafner did not mark an improvement over the original bass, Stephen Milling, but the arms-dealer aspect of the character was mercifully played down. A constant element was Ablinger-Sperrhacke's excellently sung high-camp Mime, set among the leafy cannabis and garden gnomes of Act I. Sidhom's Alberich made his points well, and Zhang's Erda has gained in urgency but lost some tonal stability. The Wanderer saw the return of Silins, in an authoritative performance sung with bronzed baritone tone and phrased with poised nobility, in contrast to his perfunctory Rheingold Wotan. The "scherzo" of the Ring suits Jordan's conducting particularly well; here, less violent dramatic propulsion is needed, and the beauty of the forest murmurs is prime. 

Götterdämmerung was the weakest link in Krämer's Ring cycle, and its revival on May 21 did not refine the production in the same way that the director achieved in the rest of the cycle. Petra Lang's house-proud Brünnhilde, glorying in her new china tea set as Sophie Koch's urgent Waltraute told of troubled times at home, and the final serial killing by pistol of the Valkyries are still wrong-headed ideas, while the final act's video conflagration remains stubbornly unspectacular. New to this production was baritone Evgeny Nikitin, who made such a strong and willful-sounding Gunther that the character's weakness stretched credibility opposite Torsten Kerl's Siegfried, who was not in his most penetrating voice. Not so Hans Peter König, who brought his thunderous, rolling bass to his wheelchair-bound Hagen, which remains one of the strongest performances in this Ring. The other great vocal triumph of this final episode was the Brünnhilde of Lang. A question mark hung over whether this remarkable Kundry and Ortrud would have the soprano qualities required for the role. Any doubts were answered by her effortlessly soaring top, the Mödl-like mezzo quality of her mid-range and her alert diction — all of which made this Brünnhilde a particularly welcome bicentenary contribution to the composer's memory. Lang's magnificent immolation scene brought the cycle to a thrilling conclusion, accompanied by Jordan's transparent orchestral reading, which despite its dramatic placidity remains the towering achievement of Nicolas Joël's tenure at the Opéra. spacer


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