Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Die Walküre ride in Paris: supreme singing in a wonderful production by Günter Krämer

Die Walküre, Opéra National de Paris - Opéra Bastille, May 31

Philippe Jordan Conductor
Günter Krämer Director

Robert Dean Smith Siegmund
Günther Groissböck Hunding
Falk Struckmann Thomas Johannes Mayer Wotan
Ricarda Merbeth Sieglinde
Katarina Dalayman Brünnhilde
Yvonne Naef Fricka
Marjorie Owens Gerhilde
Gertrud Wittinger Ortlinde
Silvia Hablowetz Waltraute
Wiebke Lehmkuhl Schwertleite
Barbara Morihien Helmwige
Helene Ranada Siegrune
Nicole Piccolomini Grimgerde
Atala Schöck Rossweisse 
Gertrud Wittinger Ortlinde

The premiere of Die Walküre in Paris was a long memorable night of absolutely wonderful singing. The performance started at 6 p.m. and went on to after 11 p.m. For your information: Act 1 lasts 65mins, and it is followed by a 45min long intermission, Act 2 then takes 90mins, and after the second break of 30 minutes, the final Act-3 last a bit more than 70 minutes.

Since I started with singers, let me first especially emphasize a ginormous performance by Katarina Dalayman. She showed her true colors and delivered a smashing Brunnhilde. As you most probably know, Opera Bastille is a bi*ch place to sing in: it's so vast, it's filled with marble where you'd expect wood and the acoustic is at best difficult. To bring a smashing Brunnhilde you have to sing out of your mind. And Katarina was nothing short of extraordinary last night: she was loud and ferocious when necessary, but also tender and endearing when it was suitable. Scenically she was totally in -- polary opposite to what she did in the Gotterdammerung in Aix en Provence last year (now it becomes clear that she's simply followed the instruction from Braunschweig in that mediocre production in Aix).

Katarina awesome Dalayman 

Wotan was excellent too. I like Falk Struckmann and was a bit disappointed he was announced indisposed for the opening night.  Thomas Johannes Mayer jumped in [never heard of him before!], and that was a mighty performance. He sang with stamina, his voice was perfectly tuned and the man sings huge. This role is known to be one of the hardest to sing all categories combined and this man never recoiled from the tough moments. What a courage, what a sensational Wotan he is! [see his Wotan on YT from some other production]  So we have our surprise: a huge new Wotan!

Ricarda Merbeth cleverly decided to sing her Sieglinde now. I thought the current state of her voice was to heavy for Elsa, but for Sieglinde she was extraordinary. Her voice is huge, yet beautifully colored to depict all the nuances of the character of Sieglinde, her fears, her fire, her passion. Ricarda  threw herself totally into the character and gave a memorable performance of Sieglinde.

Robert Dean-Smith  impressed a lot because I did not expect him to be this good. I listened to his Tristan in Bayreuth and although it sounds well on DVD, I remember to have been pretty disappointed in Bayreuth. Next was his Paul in Die tote Stadt  in Paris last winter [with all my respect, that is a lousy opera!] where he was on the ropes all the time. His Siegmund instead was excellent. A few strains started to creep in towards the end of his part, but overall this was the best Dean-Smith I've seen so far.

Günther Groissböck is a young fella but the maturity of his voice is stunning -- it's dark dark dark but with an astonishing musicality that you rarely see in this format of voice. Scenically he's very convincing which together with his dark voice made a superb portrait of Hunding. He was good in the Rheingold too, but here I felt he was less apprehensive, he really went for it and gave his all. Bravo!

Yvonne Naef is at her best in the role of Fricka. She has all it takes to be a perfect match for this role. Her voice is tuned for this role. She sings it plainly and her harmonics will the huge hall of Bastille. It's her scenic presence that makes the role ever more remarkable. Really excellent!

The orchestra was totally amazing last night. I don't remember to have heard them perform at such a level. If they were somewhat toned down during the Rheingold, here Philippe Jordan knew perfectly well when he could turn on the engine and make them play like never before. It was well nuanced, perfectly shaped and I hope to come back for more of this glorious music. Jordan was visibly happy and the crowd went nuts congratulating the conductor and orchestra for a great performance.

There where the things become more tricky it's staging. As expected, Günter Krämer got booed by the French tad who prefer decorators to theater directors. Paris is gradually becoming a temple of conservatism. I hope that trend will stop sooner rather than later as the open-minded and courteous people still make about a half of theater- and opera-goers in this beautiful city...
Happily among incomprehensible boos there were many bravos too and Krämer took it all like a man - he da man! :) For what it's worth I thought the show was superb. Every detail was meticulously staged and you could tell he started from one cluster of ideas from which he peeled layer by layer to reach the essence and expose it in its most elegant form in front of us. He also kept contact with Das Rheingold that looked particularly efficient in the beginning of Act 2.

The show actually begins with lots of blood, and Siegmund running away from his pursuers. The first act of this opera is the least spectacular piece scenically, but it is the most beautiful theater (OK the finale is too!). It is entirely build on the troublesome, yet very intense relationship between Sieglinde and Siegmund and on the inevitably tragic triangle with Hunding in the game. Hunding is a military leader and with the wars around he's powerful and rich.
On one of the walls/pillars you could see a cover, which will turn out to be the place where a painting is hung on the wall, like what you'd do in your house to cover something behind it. It is there where the "stranger" long time ago plunged a sword that nobody ever was able to pull out.

Sieglinde will tear the canvas and open the way to the sword which Siegmund will eventually pull out.  In the background you could see the rain and cold outside and inside is the fire, warm and cozy place. The fire is distinctly there: it attracted Siegmund on more than one way. Hunding will come with his troops, they will laugh up the Siegmund's defiance, but Hunding will eventually take him seriously. The scene of three characters and the fire in the room looks particularly well coordinated: is Siegmund actually Prometheus in the whole story?

Next we are in Act-2 and there Kramer makes contact with Das Rheingold where in the end the athletes were carrying a huge letters which when combined give "Germania". Here, the Act-2 opens on the top of Valhalla and the athletes put the letters as if they were climbing the stairs from the opposite end. To see that Kramer puts a huge mirror under an angle of about 45 deg above the scene. On the top of Valhalla the Valkyries are around a rich table full of apples, having fun.
Wotan will come, and they will leave but Fricka arrives.

Kramer loves a distinct red, and his red always means blood in some particular way. Fricka will be the origin of the trouble that will trigger the series of tragedies. She comes in a beautiful red dress, all perfect and she --under the pretense or not-- will push Wotan to promise her to give up on protecting Siegmund and let him die.
She indeed represents the moral definition of family values, she imposes her code and wants to dominate Wotan, and she would finally trick him into his own trap. For her honor he must implicitely kill his own ("illegitimate") son.
Later on, when Fricka is gone, and when talking to Brunnhilde he will realize what he's put himself into and will smash a couple of letters announcing the fall of Valhalla...

Next scene is with Siegmund and Sieglinde in the mountains: she's consumed with fear,  afraid but determined to flee with Siegmund; he, instead, loving and protective and particularly fearless with the sword in his hand.
All around them are apples -- food for eternal youth to the Gods but of no significance to these two.

In the background you can see Brunnhilde sitting with her back turned to them -- i.e. before Sieglinde falls asleep. [OK, to you it's probably an irrelevant detail, but I thought it was a very telling theatrical statement! ;) ]

To Brunnhilde the apples are far more important, and her first reaction was to try and collect them,  to put them in a specific order. She's still obedient... In the background you start progressively seeing  Valhalla with the Valkyries in a fairy environment.  Brunnhilde tries to convince Siegmund to follow her...

which he will refuse, as he wants to stay near his beloved one.

Finally Hunding will arrive with his soldiers; Siegmund will resist until Wotan appears to break the magic of the sword and Siegmund will be killed. Later on, filled with rage Wotan will kill  Hunding too...

There appears Fricka to check up the scene to see the satisfactory results for her. Her honor was in the hand of Hunding and his soldiers. With Hunding or without him, her goal has been achieved.

Act-3 is the famous ride of the Valkyries, which here looks like a morgue of a hospital. A pile of death soldiers, and they put them one by one on the tables, bring them to life, they leave, and then they [Vlkyries] bring more soldiers covered in blood on the pile, and the process continues.

Behind them is a transparent screen, behind which you can see a choreographed "dance" that looks military, giving a rhythm to the whole process and underlying the sens of duty. The war is indeed a big scary human-consuming machine.

With such an automatism and life filled with rules and obedience comes Brunnhilde with Sieglinde. They will of course refuse to help Brunnhilde, but the whole scene is full of crossing emotions that are all over the place in this opera: to follow your heart or to do your duty?... or, is your heart telling you what's your duty?!

Wotan will come, Sieglinde will be rescued but Brunnhilde will pay the price for her disobedience. That of course is the most thrilling part of the entire opera. Wotan is a prisoner of his image, of his appearance, of his wife, and his social duty. But his heart is broken for Siegmund and especially for Sieglinde. The sets are minimalistic but particularly beautiful there. There is a table with Siegmund covered with a blanket. Beside  you can see 10 chairs for 10 Valkyries -- empty, and only on the one of them is an armor with a helmet. But the acting and singing there was MAGNIFICENT!

You know what happens next so I won't recount the story. Brunnhilde will then take her armor and helmet -- she's ready to be punished and stripped of all the godly features... Wotan will kiss her to sleep and put her on the table next to Siegmund.

The red Earthly sky opens in the background, ravaged by the wars and devastations... Red is blood and a death  -- everything is immersed in blood, and Erda (Brunnhilde's mother) appears, walking on the stage the same way she did when she advised Wotan to give up the Ring in Das Rheingold.

The Sun appears but it burns, the devastation of wars is behind, but all the characters of the story are at the "funeral". But Brunnhilde does not burn -- she's protected by Wotan and falls under the table...

Please do keep in mind that at no instance a video image has been used in this production which these days is a huge rarity. It is a tender, intelligent and cleverly structured theater, only the big and experienced directors know how to do. For that I take my hat off to Günter Krämer.

If you can come and listen-to/see this, do not think twice! RUN

Several cc-pics

Merbeth (superb Sieglinde!), Dalayman (smashing Brunnhilde), Mayer (excellent Wotan), Naef (wonderful Fricka!)

Dean Smith (surprisingly good as Siegmund), Merbeth, Dalayman, Mayer, Naef

Last scene in the background:  chorus  Hunding's soldiers at the CCalls

Visibly happy --and rightfully so!--  Philippe Jordan

Only one (blurry) photo of Günter Krämer - but he's da man! Bravo

15 euros for a program half-cooked from the stuff you can find on Internet


  1. Looking forward to hearing more, especially about the production. I'll be seeing it at the end of June...

  2. I look forward to your further report, as I am going in a couple of weeks time. I am undertaking an ad hoc Ring so this must be beter than the La Scala Rheingold. But a chorus in Walküre?

  3. Je n'ai vu que l'Or du Rhin pour le moment, mais franchement, attribuer les huées contre Krämer au conservatisme parisien (qui est une évidence), ça me paraît difficile à comprendre. Soit cette Walkyrie est meilleure que cet Or du Rhin imbécile et daté, soit il y a sans doute eu aussi beaucoup de huées de gens qui aiment le Regietheater aussi. Krämer est un nul et un ringard !

  4. Mark, hope this will give you a good start, although I should apologize if it kills a bit of the effect of surprise to you. On the other hand it's maybe also good as you could focus on the theatrical details and tension among multiple emotions that are omnipresent in this opera. And there Kramer did a really good job. I hope you'll enjoy that and if you come up with an article do let me know :)
    When will you post you review of the Rheingold?

    John, LOL :) My rubbish of course! I was too tired and too excited.

    Ha Rameau! Non non, je ne suis pas d'accord. Il n'est pas nul ni ringard. Si tu dis qu'il est usé, on aurait de quoi parler -- quoique dans cet opéra il fait du théâtre construit sur les relations humaines. Est-ce que ca aurait pu/du être mieux? Oui, sans doute - mais c'est magnifiquement chanté, orchestré et humainement mis en scène. Ne pas aimer sa vision cruelle et pourtant très humaine -- je comprends bien, mais le huer et en même temps applaudir la Calisto -- je n'ai pas d'autre explication que celle que j'avance plus haut ;)

  5. Looking forward to this production... It will be nice to hear Dalayman as Brünhilde...

  6. Looking forward to this production... It will be nice to hear Dalayman as Brünhilde...

  7. Yes, I'll be writing for 'The Wagner Journal' again on this. (I shall also see The Cunning Little Vixen, the night before.) If I remember correctly, the journal should be out earlyish this month, so I should be able to post the Rheingold review a few weeks after that. I shall let you know - and can in any case send you the Walkuere review privately beforehand.

  8. Hi Mei! I'm "sure" you'll enjoy it. Still nothing on La Donna del Lago :(

    Thanks in advance Mark. I very much liked your review of Das Rheingold and hope the next one will be as good. ;)

    What disappoints me the most with current reviewers is that laziness (particularly acute in France, but not only). Unwilling to scratch beneath the surface of what they see, they review an opera as if it was a 376'th episode of some TV show. There are notoriously bad reviewers in Germany and in Italy too. It doesn't matter whether I agree or not, but an effort and attempt to dig a bit deeper than commenting a dress the main actress wore on the stage... In the UK you have them too. Try and read what Shirley Apthorp writes for FT. I could swear she posts her kneejerkers as reviews without even checking the most basic facts...

  9. I agree: Ms Apthorp is a particularly bad - or rather good - example. The comparison you drew with the vacuous production at Aix struck me too. (I saw Siegfried and Götterdämmerung there, and reviewed the Walküre DVD, though I haven't seen the Rheingold.) It was all elegantly minimalist in design, almost as if it were trying to appeal to an offensive stereotype of 'French chic', without a coherent, thought-through idea to its name.

    When one thinks of probably the greatest and certainly the most influential Ring production of all time - Chéreau's - it all seems such a waste. When I overheard some audience member proclaim after the Aix Götterdämmerung that this was just what an opera production should be, I was incredulous. Not only did I not agree; I simply could not understand what would lead anyone to say such a thing. Wagner deserves better than to be treated as a branch of interior design...

  10. Hello,
    I saw this production last Saturday and I thought it was really terrible with no sense of drama, brainy (Brunhilde collecting the apples was a purely ridiculous image; forced on the performer who obviously had to deliver the action as a chore and not as something organic to the representation), empty...
    I have a question for you though: During the ride of the valkyries, flyers proclaming the Paris National Opera support of illegal immigrants in France in 4 different languages came down from the ceiling. I was wondering if this was part of the staging on the opening night or a simple eventuality of that day.

  11. Too bad you didn't like it. I thought it was a very good production (although one may complain about Act-1), with a clear contact with Das Rheingold and very cleanly following libretto (too much maybe?!)

    I'll see it again when I'll post more of my impressions.

    As for your question, no - it's not part of the staging. It was some militant who thought it was a good idea to throw the fliers during the show... I guess you couldn't miss the calm protest of illegal immigrants in front of the
    theater before the show?! Looking at it from inside the Bastille, it reminded me of Kusej's production of Der Fliegende Hollaender (which I blogged about earlier this year).

  12. thanks so much for your answer! Since a few days before the Valkyrie, the protest outside was already going on, but nothing happened in the Hoffmann production I saw, I naively thought that it was part of the production. Silly me!

  13. Hello, I saw it tonight (9 June) and didn´t really like it either. As stated earlier, there is absolutely no drama to speak of and the whole psychology between Wotan and Siegmund and also Brünhilde is completely absent. I cannot understand why he is concentrating on the dead Siegmund when he is about to put Brünhilde to sleep? Why wasn´t he emotional when Siegmund got killed? At that point all stood still and the moment´s drama fizzled out.

    I also think the military aspect is well and truly used up for now. It´s in the Copenhagen Ring, the Covent Garden Ring and now here in Paris, too.

    The worst thing is the black curtain in the 3rd act where Brünhilde is separated from her sisters - bye bye to the emotions, let´s get on with the show. Nope, didn´t work fr me at all.

    I will never become a fan of Katarina Dalayman, she is far too mechanical for me. But Robert Dean Smith, Thomas J Mayer and (especially) Ricarda Merbeth were outstanding and worth every cent. During "Wääälse...." you could easily have gone out for a coffee and been back before RDS continued (LOL). Excellent.

    Musically I can appreciate the overall quality of the orchestra - the horns were precise and not so uncertain of themselves as can be heard on the Copenhagen Ring. However, the tempo was drawn out of so many important places that you felt it needed to re-boot before we could go on and the strings were very subdued for most of the first act.

    I was also surprised that there were so many empty seats at the onset - and how they got filled up after the first act. How does it work? It said all sold out at the entrance?

    Thank you for a great and well-balanced blog.

  14. Excellent review Cake. Agree pretty much completely on the singers (not quite as wild about Merbeth but she was very good) and the orchestra. Don't know that I love the production but I am aware of and have seen much worse. (Incidentally, I don't think the Donna Del Lago production was as bade as you say - what little I could see of it from my seat - but the singers delivered. Superb across the board, but even so Joyce absolutely owned the show.