Monday, February 28, 2011

Fallen Masks on the Rhine: David McVicar completes his Ring in Strasbourg

Götterdämmerung, Opéra National du Rhin (ONR) in Strasbourg, February 25 2011

The Mask of Erda -- in front of the ONR in Strasbourg

Director ..... David McVicar
Conductor ..... Marko Letonja

Siegfried ..... Lance Ryan
Hagen ..... Daniel Sumegi
Gunther ..... Robert Bork
Alberich ..... Oleg Bryjak
Brünnhilde ..... Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet
Gutrune ..... Nancy Weissbach
Waltraute ..... Hanne Fischer
First Norn ..... Sara Fulgoni
Second Norn ..... Hanne Fischer
Third Norn ..... Nancy Weissbach
Woglinde ..... Anaïs Mahikian
Wellgunde ..... Kimy McLaren
Flosshilde ..... Carolina Bruck-Santos

Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg
Chorus of l'Opéra national du Rhin

Well, well, well... Here is your very example to understand the magic formula held by David McVicar. Instead of trying to throw some ground ideas to stage the Ring, he decided to dethrone Otto Schenk as the best reference for the classically staged Ring des Nibelungen, and he succeeded in doing so. Big Time, I should add!

This show illustrates why McVicar is usually praised across the board, by traditionalists and modernists alike. He gives the traditionalists what they want -- a clear narrative action that closely follows the libretto. On the other end, if you prefer to see more theatrical dynamics on the stage, then you cannot not be impressed after seeing the non-trivial acting in this show, a constant action on the stage, together with a few ideas to distinct this Ring from anything else you've seen before. The action is vibrant, and when the singers cannot sing and run around the stage at the same time, David sends in a few extras to keep the drama in motion, without ever hindering the limpidity of the narrative action.

I remember to have read Intermezzo several times complaining about the revivals of McVicar's shows at the ROH mounted without David supervising. If you see this show you can understand why. This production would be much less interesting if the direction of actors was not so brilliantly constructed. That's his talent and he deserves all the praise for that.

The Strasbourg Ring that started 4 years ago, and it was an instant success. Many people found it fascinating, and the shows were praised by pretty much everyone. The Götterdämmerung is maybe the best of four, as everything seemed to work well. No weak point/link at all!

I should first start with the Orchestra that I found amazingly well conducted by Marko Letonja. He was apparently invited to conduct Die Walküre in this Ring and seduced everyone: the orchestra, the critics and the public. Not surprisingly we learn that starting from the Fall 2012 he will become the musical director of this Orchestra [he will take the position from the current director, Marc Albrecht].  One important reason of why this music made so strong impression on all of us in the auditorium of ONR on the night of the premiere is that it was so marvelously executed, and the theater is of the human size, the balance between the sound of the orchestra and the volume of the singers was impeccable, and Marko Letonja was really pulling the strings during the whole show. He would perfectly swing from the lyrical moments into dramatic climaxes, emphasizing almost all the leitmotives with equal care.  Great GREAT Wagnerian conductor!

Second asset in this production are definitely the singers. Lance Ryan is a phenomenal Siegfried. First of all, his looks help a lot the credibility of his incarnation [of Siegfried]. Vocally he steam-rolls through the show with an astonishing ease in the upper register (which is perhaps what distinguishes him the most from other helden-tenors today), and with an impressive endurance. I would like to see him sing in a larger venue before jumping on the bandwagon, but boy was he impressive at the Strasbourg premiere!
Jeanne Michèle Charbonnet has it all for a fantastically engaging Brünnhilde. She only missed her first high note, but all the rest was done with a fascinating intensity, with a refined sense for gradually guiding her voice through lyric and dramatic moments of the 5 & a half hours long show, and with a highly climactic Immolation scene. Brava!
I very much liked Daniel Sumegi's Hagen, a singer that I've listened to for the first time and who has  that irresistible rich but dark and very powerful voice. I believe he was giving an extra punch to his vocal volume on the premiere -- I don't believe he can sustain this level of intensity for the entire series of shows. His excellent incarnation of the villain character is emphasized by his vocal authority on the scene, and David McVicar's guidance completed his perfect portrayal.
Robert Bork at first seemed less interested in taking part in what seemed like a contest of big voices, but then in Act-Two he switched to power-5 and he did what always amazes each one of us attending one of these long Wagner operas -- that ease and stamina to deal with tough passages in the later parts of the show, to eventually beam through orchestra when you're supposed to run out of gas. Bravo!
The cast completed equally excellent Nancy Weissbach and Hanne Fischer, both bringing by their presence and their voices extra-life  and extra-intensity to the stage action.
Props are also due to Alberich, Norns, Rhienmädchen, and of course the chorus

What about the show? It is difficult to describe it and make it more interesting than what you can already read in the libretto.  A video excerpt of the show that I found on the Internet (see below) is not showing much. You simply have to go and see it yourselves... to feel the whole atmosphere and appreciate what the director and his team managed to do.

McVicar is not making attempts to give his Ring a social or political character.  He instead gives it a personal touch by connecting it with different civilizations, different cultures -- all belonging to one and  the same humanity. All the Gods are depicted by masks, that will burn out in the end of this show. Hagen is in a samurai costume, African masks are hanging on the walls, Gunther and Gutrune are wearing the golden attires, the Gold of Rhine is actually a dancer whom Brünnhilde will give the golden mask that will fit his face and reestablish the harmony in the depth of the Rhine... On the mountaintop where Brünnhilde is alone, there is a stone-sculpture resembling one of the masks. Erda's mask is the largest and the most important one, and that is the mask that is disintegrating during the whole cycle (and probably the one hanging on the theater.)
Waltraute comes on her horse: like in Die Walküre, the head of the horse is made of wire that is carried by an acrobat who is bouncing on metal stilts all over the stage [c.f. 2nd production pic below].

This is to be contrasted with the Robert Lepage production at the Met where the recent classical narrative staging of Das Rheingold was all about huge decors, elaborated costumes,  terabytes of video images, which however spectacularly failed in theatrical/acting department. McVicar proofs here that with moderately expensive decors and requisites, but with an excellent eye for theatrical dynamics through accurate direction of actors, one can produce a riveting narrative Ring. 

Some friends accuse me to be exclusively favoring the "Regie productions". Do what McVicar did here or in his Zauberflöte and you can see I'm not! Kudos to David & his team, to Letonja & his orchestra, and of course to the brilliant cast too! 5 and a half hours that felt like 2!

All production pics are ©Alain Kaiser[ONR]

My CC pics:

Marko Letonja - EL GRANDE!

Nancy Weissbach and Robert Bork

Daniel Sumegi - Hagen (Hanne Fischer in the back)

Brünnhilde - Jeanne-Michèle Cherbonnet

Lance Ryan, happy between the director and the conductor

Lance Ryan again

McVicar team - happy and triumphant!

No dance à la Herheim after the premiere, but David was visibly happy

McVicar team again: Rae Smith, Jo Van Schuppen, Paule Constable, Andrew George, Vicki Hallam, David Greeves

Lance Ryan


  1. Between yours and this i cannot helpo but think that it is THIS Ring that would make me fall in love with it and maybe sympathise with it too. It's human interaction that David seems to have an unusual and very brilliant talent for! There seems to be a danger for this Ring to dissapear.. let's hope it is not the case. I would love to see it and just by looking at the pictures it makes sense! It's simply beautiful... Lucky you, i am truly envious!!! Let's cross our fingers that this will be videos, revived, etc. And i think he know and understand people and loves music and the singers. I've not seen people act as well as they do for him and with him and many become even better singers with him. I really love him and he has done more for me in opera productions than i can say :-)

  2. Hi Hariclea! I'm sure you'd have liked it. I thought a classically staged Ring wouldn't be for me anymore. I also thought Schenk's Ring at the Met was pretty much the last word in terms of what one can do within this approach. David managed to elevate it on a totally another level. He's a great story-teller and that's what works for him the best.

    I'm sure they will rerun the whole cycle (I doubt it's been recorded), and hope David will supervise the process of mounting the whole Ring. And I sure hope this cast will be available too.