Monday, March 21, 2011

Siegfried in Paris on weed

Siegfried, Opéra Bastille in Paris, March 6 2011

Günter Krämer ..... Director
Philippe Jordan ..... Conductor

Torsten Kerl, Christian Voigt ..... Siegfried
Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke ..... Mime
Juha Uusitalo, Egil Silins  ..... Der Wanderer
Peter Sidhom ..... Alberich
Stephen Milling ..... Fafner
Qiu Lin Zhang ..... Erda
Elena Tsallagova ..... Waldvogel
Brigitte Pinter, Katarina Dalayman ..... Brünnhilde

Paris Opera Orchestra

I saw the final dress rehearsal of the new Paris production of Siegfried, but since I was behind in keeping this blog up to date I decided to keep the comments on the show aside until I saw the regular show to kinda combine into one post. With that in mind, I obviously could not anticipate that the final dress rehearsal would be so different from the regular show. That partly delayed this post, in addition to me being much too busy for regular updates... But hey, given the circumstances, I'm doing fine!

Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Mime) and Torsten Kerl (Siegfried)

I guess I shouldn't remind you that Siegfried is the second opera of the Ring des Nibelungen [if you count the Rheingold as prologue] and this production is a continuation of the Paris Ring directed by Günter Krämer, that started bravely about a year ago. Philippe Jordan --a very good young conductor, also music director of the Paris Opera-- was supposed to use this Ring to make his presence in Paris very special, and so everyone expected him to deliver something extraordinary. That only added extra pressure on him which probably explains why his reading of Rheingold --while being good overall-- sounded a tad too apprehensive. That trend then continued in Die Walküre where he seemed lacking energy in the first shows but then, as if liberated from pressure, conducted magnificently the last dhow in the run. This time, for Siegfried, nobody expected him to particularly shine, but that's what actually happened: the best conducting from Jordan so far.  Let us be perfectly honest to admit that the first act was again a bit off the mark: it was too loud (I wonder if by this he wanted to respond the criticisms of his Rheingold?) and impersonal, very scholarly. But then a click happened and the orchestra took off in Act 2, with a brilliantly sculpted storyline, with all the moods and dramatical shadings that go with it. The best was to yet to come: Act 3 was spellbinding -- the network of superbly superposed leitmotives was flying while keeping the musical texture clear and the dramatic impact on us wonderful.

Scenic-wise, the progression slope was the opposite: it started good, it ended a bit less good. But before I get to the specifics let me make a few comments.

Günter Krämer proposes a rather straightforward story in this Ring, the references of which got completely over the heads of almost all the  critics and of a good majority of avid Wagnerites in France [particularly shocking was the general reaction after the Rheingold: disliking something is totally fine with me, but if the trashing entails a mixture of arrogance with ignorance then it is really really bad.]

So, the underlying idea of Günter Krämer's production of The Ring is not original but comes in the right moment in time. In his Ring he recounts selected/crucial chapters from the 20th century history of Germany. Importantly, and with slight modifications, it can be applied to any other European nation, and --by extension-- to Europe as a whole. When I say the time is right for this kind of The Ring I mean the following: the 20th century is over, many things have changed, we are ready to move on, and a director who was born in Germany right after the WW2, and grew up with a feeling of guilt for something he did not do nor witness, can soberly draw a few lines that are compatible with the libretto of The Ring and maybe make the young generation think about the lessons this history can teach us.

To remind you in a few lines, Das Rheingold referred to the beginning of the 20th century: the great depression that fractured the society in two sides, both fueled by ideologies that further polarized nations to extremes: the idea of communism on the left, and ultra-nationalism that evolved to fascism on the right. Both sides, however, initially pretended to fight for social justice and order, and Krämer recognized them as Fasolt and Fafner respectively. We know how it ended... Die Walküre then started with Hunding --embodying Fafner (and sung by the same singer)-- murdering a group of helpless civilians to spread terror, which clearly linked the action to WW2 (but in very subtle ways). Die Walküre themselves were magically healing the dead soldiers to send them back to war and feed the war machine. It's a gory opera, and with this background it worked very well.

Now we came to Siegfried, that in the Act 1 actually looked very good, even if some details seemed totally unnecessary scenic-wise: too much decor always looks suspicious to me; either the director was panicking that the brainless folks in the crowd might not be unsatisfied by his show and so he gives them something to amuse their eyes, or he lost the thread of his concept and actually lost command of his show. Whatever the case, the action in Act-1 takes us to the late 1960's (early 70's.) Siegfried is a young boy bursting with health, raised by Mime -- a guy who smokes a joint at the opening scene, with tall stalks of the home-grown cannabis behind him. Mime is to Siegfried both father and mother [occasionally cross-dressed.] Siegfried is adolescent with rebellious behavior, increasingly aware of himself, and probes Mime with questions about his mother and his father. He wears dreadlocks, dungarees, and the whole ménage with Mime looks actually funny (not surprisingly Wagner was composing Die Meistersingers while working on Siegfried): with all the weed around, and the bear that gets off the elevator to visit them (LOL) the situation looks as if they were all high (including the encounter Mime-Wanderer).

On to Act-2: From the previous chapters of this Ring we know that Fafner was depicted as a fascist who could not resist the Rheingold temptation, gave up the idea of social justice, and become tyrant. Now, the WW2 is over, but Fafner is not dead: instead, he still owns the Rheingold that his soldiers carry in wooden crates. His soldiers are naked (they lost the war) but even diminished they are still keen to fight for their idea: we see that in one poignant scene in which they open the wooden crates they's carried on to take the guns from them.

Siegfried is a new force, new generation: in Fafner he only recognizes the murderer of his father, and he eventually kills him without experiencing fear. Theatrically it all works well, but scenically I thought it could have been done a bit better. Since Krämer decided not to use video in this Ring, the forest is represented by two printed semi-transparent curtains and the protagonists would go in front or behind the curtains... making the show eventually look occasionally amateurish.

I thought the 3rd act didn't quite live up to the standards defined in the previous two. The action became more static (wrt you'd expect, if based on what happened in the previous two) and the clarity got a bit derailed. When Wotan goes to see Erda, we see again that large mirror in the background and Erda sitting in a library, together with a bunch of norns - each behind her desk. The mirror should again mean the surveillance (any connection to the Stasi controlled knowledge?!) that made her tired and diminished her wisdom. The whole scene did not bear any greater/deeper significance than what I just wrote [unless I missed some hidden and profound meaning]. The final, and a very long scene, visually relates you to the previous two operas as it happens on the large staircase leading to Walhalla. There lies sleepy Brünnhilde who Siegfried will wake up by a spontaneous instinctive kiss. The action gets a bit stuck, but I liked the detail that of all the letters of "Germania" that we saw building up in the previous two operas, now only three remained  "GER" (without "MANIA").  The Gods fears the approaching fire and they are cornered in an upper right corner of the staircase.

As far as the singers are concerned, I must again say that my great pleasure was Katarina Dalayman who again came to energize the show with her fascinating Brünnhilde. This is the role that fits her voice the best, and we're blessed to have her singing this role in our time. She sang in the regular show, while during the final dress rehearsal (FDR) she was replaced by her understudy, Brigitte Pinter, a very good Austrian soprano that might become a great Brünnhilde too. 

Torsten Kerl sang at the FDR, but did not sing in the regular show. While he was acting, the singing part was covered by Christian Voigt who was standing next to the stage and sang --at first tentatively, but then, in the thrid act, gave his best. Voigt is a young tenor whose vocal format is maybe not yet big enough to fill up Bastille, but he can be very good in the years to come (keep an eye on him!) Torsten Kerl instead showed that he's got what it takes to sing this role with undeniable musicality mixed with endurance to keep the adrenalin flow from the beginning to the end. He, however, does not match the vocal authority of Katarina Dalayman or Stephen Milling. Talking of Stephen Milling he almost stole the show. His strong and very powerful voice, dark as anthracite,  impressed equally at the beginning of Act-2 when he sang from the backstage, and later on when he was upfront onstage. Bravo! At the FDR the role of Wanderer was sung by Juha Uusitalo, a guy whose naturally timbred voice for  Wotan I endlessly admire, but his volume is still not up there to match the authority of Stephen Milling. In the regular show Juha was indisposed and the role was sung by Egil Silins while the assistent producer ensured the role scenically. Egil was OK.
But among the male roles the most impressive --as far as the combination vocally-scenically goes-- was Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke. Vocally he's a brilliant Mime, a quality that he marvelously backs by his remarkable scenic presence. I shouldn't forget to mention Waldvogel by Elena Tsallagova who impresses us more with every next role she takes on. Qiulin Zhang and Peter Sidhom only confirmed all the good we thought about them in Das Rheingold.

All in all I did like this show, and I'm enjoying the Paris Ring. I wonder if the Götterdämmerung will be related to our time and to the crash of the financial markets... 

Above - production photos are © : Elisa Haberer except for the last one (mine)

CC-photos below are mine:
Stephen Milling

Juha Uusitalo and Brigitte Pinter

B. Pinter, Torsten Kerl and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke

Philippe Jordan in the middle + Peter Sidhom on the right

Egil Silins, Katarina Dalayman, Christian Voigt, and Torsten Kerl


  1. Thank you for the report! I'll be over in Paris for the final performance in the run; I am also planning to see Akhmatova and Katya Kabanova.

  2. Hi Mark. The way people misunderstand the straightforward messages by Krämer is astonishing. Especially scary is when you read the official critics who in the process manage to highlight their own ignorance. It's like seeing boors commenting on modern fine arts ("anybody can paint like Klée!")
    If only Bastille was better acoustics-wise... sigh!

    I saw Katya too. If you like that opera, AND if you like Marthaler you'll enjoy it -- musically I thought it was irreproachable.


  3. I was at Siegfried last night. I could have done with more drive in that endless final scene, especially in such static staging. I should get it (and Giardiniera in Brussels) written up this weekend.

  4. Hey NPW! I'm not sure this was a particularly static staging. It's Siegfried that is less flying wrt other three Ring operas, and the drama here is more carved in characters. Having said that, I obviously agree that the show fell short in the end, but all in all I enjoyed it as the whole saga becomes quite coherent after this Siegfried [including the scared and vulnerable Gods on the stairs of Walhalla.]


  5. I meant static in the final scene. Not sure being terrified of falling off the stairs helped Dalayman, who was, after all, stingy with the top notes.

  6. From what I heard on the France Musique broadcast of Siegfried today (originating from 1 March) NPW-Paris has kindly given Ms. Dalayman a half-fare discount instead of the full gratis ride so generously bestowed upon her above. This was a euroradio broadcast so whoever wants to check it out for themselves may do at the next rebroadcast of it. I presume there will be a next rebroadcast in consideration of the excellent Philippe Jordan, Torsten Kerl & Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke and the rest of the cast. As far as Ms. Dalayman's Siegfried Brunnhilde goes, I'm going back to the recording made on 16 September 2006 at the Kungliga Operan wherein not only was she able to support all the tones above the staff to their full tempii values, her voice had a beautiful burnished bronze timbre I haven't heard from her in recent years.

  7. Hi Ano! That may depend on the day. Furthermore there is always a big difference between what you hear on the radio and what you perceive in auditorium -- especially when the recording of an opera is made at Bastille (a huge hall with difficult acoustics -- precisely the opposite to Kungliga!) Furthermore, the radio recordings always tend to favor the singers who struggle to make themselves audible in auditorium. Torsten Kerl sings wonderfully the part but his voice is not big enough for Bastille. Katarina instead rocks the house!

    Dalayman was NEVER as good as she is right now. Her Brünnhilde in the Paris Walküre remains one of my greatest operatic moments. Her voice was big, she'd never scream or yell, and she was never overacting nor she'd stand still like Linda Watson. This woman is simply great.
    Her part in Siegfried is short and she just continued the job she started in the Walküre and I loved it!