Friday, July 02, 2010

Resounding Ring

Der Ring des Nibelungen - Second Cycle

8-13 June 2010

Of the four Ring operas, Siegfried is my least favorite. In fact, I dread it, because it’s a five-hour torture test for the tenor taking on the title role. If the tenor sounds tortured, as some recent performances in New York have shown, woe to those who must hear his pain!

Once in many blue moons, though, a miracle happens. Such was the case at the Cologne Opera several weeks ago (11 June), when Stefan Vinke steam-rolled his way through the part, never misplacing a note, and more significantly, never tiring throughout the rigors of the final scene. Vinke’s characterization of Siegfried leans toward neo-Neanderthal rather than neo-lyric, but the voice is interesting enough to sustain his beefy approach. In its upper register, it is simply thrilling. Only twice before have I heard a Wagner tenor live, whose top is so loud and freely produced.

Vinke trumped his triumph two days later, when, at the start of the third act in Götterdämmerung, he batted out a high C forte that diminished into pianissimo, only to boomerang back into forte before hang-gliding down to a solid F#. So literally stunning was the sound, that it was impossible to tell whether its source was the head or chest. You may think this is showing off, but I say: gimme sum more!

And more he gave. While punctuating accents appropriately, Vinke resolutely eschewed barking, keeping the vocal line bouncing on a resonant air bed. This was masterful singing that was, above all, musical. Best of all, Vinke’s voice sounds like it’s still "in the works." He must take care to nurture a God-given instrument that nature has so richly endowed.

To top it off retroactively, Vinke also took on Siegmund in Walküre as a warm up. Here, Vinke needs to work on dramatic puissance, especially in the second act, where Siegmund shows he has as much persuasive power as brute strength. At this point in his development, Vinke is still addressing Brünnhilde rather than moving her.

Speaking of Brünnhilde, Vinke was well-nigh perfectly partnered by Evelyn Herlitzius. Note for note, scene after scene, Herlitzius showed that she continues to grow as a Wagner artist. While her voice occasionally spreads under extreme pressure, she articulates the vast palette of Brünnhilde’s emotions with seeming ease. She reportedly trained as a dancer in her youth and carries herself with a dancer’s bearing. While Vinke dominated this Ring vocally, Herlitzius commanded the stage visually whenever she appeared.

Towering above both Vinke and Herlitzius, at least physically, the super-tall American bass-baritone Greer Grimsley was in every respect a lordly Wotan. Apart from purveying a steel-girded voice that turns warm and cool by turns, he has Uhde’s poise, the stamina of early Morris and McIntyre, and Hotter’s riveting stage presence. His rage-to-regret exchange with Herlitzius’ Brünnhilde was heart-breaking. Now at the zenith of his career, however, Grimsley has yet to become a regular at the world’s major opera houses. This, despite a reportedly sizable cult following and a fan page on Facebook: “He keeps getting cast in roles where he makes out with Jane Eaglen. So that's fun.” Jane Eaglen? Golly, get me tickets!

Astrid Weber did double-duty as Sieglinde and Gutrune. It’s always a pleasure to hear a real soprano (instead of a front-loaded mezzo) taking on these roles. She was barely formative when I first heard her in Chemnitz several years ago, and she sounds like she’s fulfilling the promise she showed back then. But she would serve her career interests better by having an ear kept on her sustained outbursts: an incipient beat is beginning to show. This was also evident in her appearances in Cologne some months ago as Eva. Weber has a worthy vocal instrument that could hold its own at the so-called big houses. Don’t let it go to waste, Trudy!

Dalia Schechter one-upped Weber by doing triple-duty as Fricka, the Third Norn and Waltraute. Looking frumpy-glam and sounding delectably bitchy, she was at her best as Fricka. Her Norn sounded preoccupied with matters more urgent than the End of the World, namely: how am I going to get through Waltraute’s Narrative an hour from now? But when the hour was at hand, she delivered her implicit messages from Daddy W to her errant sister with tearful urgency.

The Cologne Opera’s cash-poor management managed to muster a grade-A line-up to fill out the supporting roles. At the apex of this tier was the miraculous Matti Salminen as Hagen. I found it astonishing to hear him acquitting himself with every bit as much fire and passion as in his youth.

For the first time since I’ve heard him more than ten years ago, Kurt Rydl as Fasolt eschewed barking. When he actually sings the notes, he is really quite good.

Oliver Zwarg was a delightfully mean-spirited Alberich. Gerhard Siegel proved himself an admirably wretched Mime. Ante Jerkunica was effectively world-weary as Fafner.

The yeomen of this Ring when all was sung and done was the Gürzenich Orchestra in the pit under the baton of its Music Director Markus Stentz. I’ve said often that there’s little to compare with hearing a classy German orchestra playing Wagner with a German conductor. While quibbles over flexibility could be raised, Stentz elicited a lean stream of sound from his colleagues that was as consistently exciting as it was, at times, deeply moving.

The staging by Robert Carsen and Patrick Kinmonth who also did the serviceable costumes, was non-conceptual, although they appear to have set it in some kind of military state. There’s real-looking fire, and the military costumes pay tribute to Hugo Boss (the Elder). That said, the singers were left free to do their jobs.

Which brings me to a point about all the hoo-ha that’s surrounded the recent presentation of Los Angeles’ first-ever Ring Cycle (which, by the way, I did not hear). The management of the L.A. Opera made a shrewd artistic decision by producing a Ring that was sure to elicit headlines. Hiring a director (Achim Freyer) with no visible connections in Hollywood was a plus. The Opera’s press office also bagged a big publicity bonus from two sources: Jewish groups protesting all the attention being paid to an anti-semitic composer, and two of the lead singers publicly lambasting the production, costumes and sets. But were these outbursts from the star singers really spontaneous? Why didn’t they just quit? Or cop an I-got-da-vapors plea?

Anyway, all that noise failed to jazz the box office. Spreading out a cycle over more than seven days proved too expensive for this Ring’s biggest audience: out-of-towners and foreign Wagner nuts, who were looking at four- and five-figure hotel tabs on top of up-ticked ticket prices.

Is Los Angeles really ready for an epic about what Los Angeles is all about -- greed, incest and unhappy endings?

Which brings me back to a happy start next season for the Cologne Opera. The company has been invited to mount its Ring at the Shanghai Expo. That’s something to write home about.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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