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S & H International Opera Review

Richard Wagner: Die Walküre (performed in German with Russian surtitles)
The Mariinsky Opera Company on tour at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow
conducted by Valery Gergiev, 4th March 2002 (NM)

A Wagner opera has at last been staged in Moscow – for the first time since World War Two clouded Russo-German cultural relations so thoroughly. The production is not new in Russia, however – this is the Mariinsky production (sponsored by Daimler-Benz) first seen in St Petersburg in the summer of 2001. The capital has been slower at warming to Wagner, although the enterprising Virtuosi of Moscow under Spivakov’s baton delivered an apparently excellent "Liebestod" last summer to those Nouveau-Russes who could afford the $200+ asking price to hear Jessye Norman. Unlike other countries who have singled-out composers whose music was forced into the service of the Third Reich, Russia has until now had a more general aversion to German music overall – even Fidelio, with its potent rejection of tyranny, doesn’t currently feature in the repertoire of any of Moscow’s six houses.

As is so often the case with new Ring cycles, the projected Gergiev Ring has been kicked into touch with Die Walküre - presumably because a stage-sword that falls to pieces and a curtain (ehem) of "fire" present fewer technical challenges than Bass-Baritones who turn into toads, roaming dwarves, bears, giants or hydraulic dragons, or the End Of The World As We Know It. Over and above that, it’s the only one of the tetralogy to deal in non-oblique terms with emotions like love, sorrow, grief, separation, and empathy, and Opera Managements believe that audiences find such feelings a more persuasive reason to stay cooped-up for five hours in a seat that makes Economy Class Syndrome seem like Valhalla by comparison.

But if these were the reasons for breaking Mary Poppins’ rule of starting at the very beginning, they were well and truly scuppered by the emotionally detached and uninvolved production of Gottfried Pilz. Herr Pilz commenced his career as a set-designer, a long-term collaborator of his controversial countryman Joachim Herz. The experience of working with the famed iconoclast has presumably sparked a contrary desire to introduce no elements of interpretation or concept into his productions at all. Herr Pilz is not only the "producer" of Walküre. Oh no, he’s the set-designer, costume-designer and lighting-designer too. Gergiev seems to fall into this trap repeatedly and learn nothing from it - he invites famous international collaborators and then encourages them to extend vastly beyond their capabilities. Infamously in 2001 he invited the famous Russian émigré artist Shemyakin (he is, at any rate, highly-regarded by a few in Russia, even if his fame hasn’t got beyond Brighton Beach elsewhere) to design a Nutcracker to be choreographed by enfant-terrible and star-pupil of Plisetskaya, Alexei Ratmansky (now with the Danish Royal Ballet). Ratmansky arrived on schedule for rehearsals, to find them already in progress under another choreographer. This choreographer was being briefed on what to teach the dancers by, errr, Shemyakin – who knows nothing about ballet at all. The result was a Nutcracker that was so critically panned from all sides that it’s been withdrawn. This Pilz Walküre is more of the same – characters stalk the stage like human props in some "great design", devoid of motive or emotion, like mechanised singing-machines. Minimalist and Feng-Shui as the designs may be, they add nothing to our understanding of this piece that we couldn’t have gained from merely hearing a concert performance. Yet a "neutral" staged performance is in some ways worse than a concert performance, because our expectations of drama and emotional involvement are frustrated – sometimes in very negative ways.

The costumes of this Walküre are horrible, and appear to have come from a jumblesale. Sieglinde is a waitress in a black skirt and a white blouse – they might have at least got one to fit her? The Valkyries have white party-frocks with navy-blue blazers (presumably sourced from the Russian Navy – since none of them fitted properly). Fricka has come as Jemima Puddle-Duck, and worst of all, the Lord and Master of the Upper World has a pastel blue shirt and tweedy paunch-hugging waistcoat that turns him into Laughing Uncle Albert in Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang. And now everyone has a costume, then please come into Hunding’s Parlour – where it gets worse.

To call Gottfried Pilz a set-designer is rather stretching things in this production – unless arranging four standard hotel-type conference-tables into a square pattern and surrounding them with rehearsal-room chairs constitutes a "design". The optimists amongst you may be hoping that this simply makes an easily strikable first scene to enable quick-changes into Valhalla, and some spectacular special effects for the Ride Of The Valkyries. So did I, but unlike you, I then had to sit and watch the same four tables for five hours – that’s more than one hour per table – and they didn’t move, although as a concession for the Ride Of The Valkyries they were covered with a white sheet. The rest of the set remains bare black throughout, although it must be said that there are some spiffy lighting effects, and more dry ice than The Hound Of The Baskervilles. Indeed there was so much dry ice in the immolation that the brass and woodwind sections disappeared entirely from view.

Yet Pilz’s worst fault of all is directing credible dramatic action. I’ve never ever seen a Walküre before where Wotan didn’t look at Brunnhilde at all during his Farewell to her, and instead of hugging her during "Leb’ wohl..." was striding somewhere the other side of the stage whilst poor Larissa Gogolevskaya as Brunnhilde stood like "Exhibit A" on the set of tables. She finally got a hug out of Vladimir Vaneev’s Wotan by falling forwards off the table into his arms, although even then it seemed only 50-50 whether this unbothered Wotan would actually catch her. Frankly it would be churlish to blame the performers – either they were not given proper direction, or perhaps they were even instructed to behave in this absurd fashion. Gogolevskaya is not a natural actress, and her gait hardly suggests a winged avenger. However, the full Wagnerian tessitura is there, and if she could be encouraged to use it a little more lyrically and not chop the vocal line up, this could develop into a reliable Brunnhilde for the full cycle. In no need of any such assistance was Mlada Khudolei as Sieglinde – who combined superlative vocal technique with the only acting of the evening that went beyond the level of cornflake commercials. "O heilge Wonne" suddenly showed how fantastic it can be when a great voice, great acting and superb musical performance meet as equals. Sadly such moments were too rare in this production.

Gennadi Bezzubenkov produced the best of the male vocal performances as Hunding – an obvious for Fafner once the cycle gets going. His retinue of eight black-hooded joggers - who run in perpetual circles around Sieglinde - made him hard to take seriously. Equally undermined by his producer is Vaneev as Wotan – a stupid costume that doesn’t even fit him created a credibility gap which he failed to bridge, especially as he’d obviously had little or no direction. The voice is lyrical and warm, but he comes across as too avuncular, and a little under-powered for the role – it’s hard to imagine him sustaining a Rheingold too, although he would shine as Hans Sachs. Viktor Lutsiuk faced the unpleasant task of singing a role which was, according to the program, being sung by Placido Domingo. It even said so in upper-case letters of thanks to sponsors Daimler-Benz. However, these were reprinted programs from last summer’s performances in St Petersburg, and a cast-list in Russian-only corrected the error. Lutsiuk is not a natural for the high-lying role of Siegmund – he seems better fitted to Siegfried, and would probably make a good job of the part. However, he covered the role intelligently and made a noble, if brooding hero. Svetlana Volkova made the best of the unrewarding role of Fricka, despite staging directions designed to cure chronic insomnia (sitting facing Wotan without either one moving for ten full minutes).

This poor direction descended into lamentable farce for the arrival of the Valkyries themselves. With a breathtaking pace set by Gergiev for the Ride, expectation ran high. Enter nine fat ladies in white tutu’s stage right, scampering in highly self-conscious circles around four conference tables, now covered with a sheet. The scene is mysteriously set in the Arctic. All peaks and shock-chords in the orchestra are, of course, ignored, although obviously something is clearly intended to happen. The only special effect is that three Valkyries climb onto the tables to form two lines with the five below, at which point it stepped up from the Accounts Dept Christmas Panto to an amateur performance of The Gondoliers. Worse still, once Brunnhilde had been cursed, they performed a silent fly-past in memoriam, by running in two opposite-movement chubby lines, waving their hands as children do to simulate flying - when they are about six or seven, that is. Low-level tittering and murmurs of "gospodi!" and "yolki-palki!" ("gawd!" and "jeepers!") filled the auditorium.

It’s almost unbelievable that such first-rate codswallop on-stage was accompanied in the pit by some of the most stunning Wagnerian conducting to be heard in the world – rather as though the wrong band had turned-up for the gig. It was probably doubly galling for the Bolshoi Theatre, since this performance was a "qualifier" for the Golden Mask Awards – in which the Bolshoi don’t have a single nominated opera production, yet they were obliged to let-out their theatre to other nominees like the Mariinsky. Gergiev takes a very non-traditionalist view of Wagner, and rolls it out with a light touch that highlights indebtedness to Weber and Beethoven – no stodgy academic hunt-the-leitmotif here. Amazingly, the hopeless Bolshoi pit (which is no such thing in reality, merely a railed-off part of the stalls) did not create the balance problems which might have been expected, and if we’d been wearing hats, they would have come off to the brass section, for subtle flawless delivery and gorgeous warm supporting chording. It was, in fact, an object lesson in what has gone wrong at the Bolshoi itself – to hear an orchestra which has been trained by and works regularly with a permanent Musical Director who is in control of his own operations. As this Ring develops and the singers bed into their roles, there is every chance of this becoming a "greatest ever" reading of the tetralogy that you might want to have on disk. And at least on disk you would be spared actually having to look at the stage.

Neil McGowan

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