Archive for October 2006

The Mariinsky-Costa Mesa “Ring”: “Die Walküre,” “Siegfried” & “Götterdämmerung”

Review by Welton Jones:  October 11, 2006

Having drifted now through the middle half of Wagner’s Ring cycle in the Kirov Opera production presently receiving its American premiere at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, one discovers the shape of the whole is all too apparent.

What we have here is a mainstream masterpiece in the secure grip of a traditional European repertory house. The major difference is that the production’s Daddy – Valery Gergiev, artistic and general director of the parent Mariinsky Theatre – is the conductor, not the
stage director.

There is … um … NO stage director. Gergiev and set designer George Tsypin are credited with “production concept.”

That explains some things.

The orchestra, imported with the rest of the opera company and the Kirov Ballet for Orange County’s very impressive 17-day Mariinsky residency, sounds terrific, all but flawless under Gergiev’s sensitive control.

Except for stellar guest Placido Domingo, who contributed to Die Walküre a most rewarding Siegmund, the singers are competent and disciplined company professionals, some nearer the peak of their careers than others.

The decor? Only fond parents could love it.

“Abstract” is the kind term. “Arbitrarily abstruse” is more accurate. The “production concept” probably means something to Gergiev and Tsypin but it seems to have left the large and attentive Orange County audience (certainly including me) somewhere between
irritation and indifference.

The basic scenic units – fashioned crudely as if by children working with earthy clay – are four giant effigies which, in various combinations, float over the stage or surround it; a score or more stubby fire-hydrants on wheels; and assorted lumps ranging from spools used as steps to what resembled a giant dill pickle.

All of these have the capacity to light up inside, usually red, blue or green lights, and they end to do so in unison. Sometimes they throb. Key properties are either awkward – the papier-mâché sword, Notung – or non-existent – no spears for the Walkure maidens.

Tatiana Noginova’s costumes are pretty standard stuff except for the platoons of followers assigned to certain key principals. (With all those ballet girls on the payroll, why not?) Thus Erda, for example, gets statue-like girls carrying basins. Hunding gets a pack of hounds. And Loge, the fire-god, has leotard legions with orange plastic squiggles on their heads.

Scenes, then, form around those big mummies, which look flimsy and perilous when singers have to walk on them. The fire-hydrants tend to sit still in rows upstage, though sometimes a few can be found downstage on their sides.

For Die Walküre the mummies get giant horse skulls. (Get it? Walkure steeds?) In the Magic Fire scenes, the standing mummies have white plastic corkscrews turning and long antenna twitching. Throw lots of Gleb Filshtinsky’s thick sheen of oily lighting over
all this and voila! Decor

What’s missing is some of the most beloved effects in all opera. No horses. No dragon. No split anvil. No magic fire (unless you count ballet girls). Just a lot of lumps and an arrogant sense of, “Use your imagination.”

There’s nothing wrong with a stripped-down “Ring.” It was the mainstream practice in mid-20th Century. But that clean symmetry and austere minimalism was a world apart from all this loopy junk and bumpkin movement.

Any grace in the staging appears to have been the work of individual performers. Group movement – like the Valkyries in their black leathers and flexible shields doing crude cheer-leader drills – was hopeless. (Except, of course, for the ballet girls’ swanning about.) And conversational scenes either stayed static or involved singers gingerly edging past each other through the scenery.

Walküre fared better than Siegfried if for no other reason than Placido Domingo’s ardent Siegmund, full-throated and vigorous over his whole range and exquisitely paced. His Sieglinde, Mlada Khudoley, glowed with erotic passion, sang with an abandon unusual in this production and, upon learning she’s pregnant, provided the musical climax of this Act III. (If Wagner from the grave offered to write a fifth opera for the cycle, I would nominate “Sieglinde’s Pregnancy.”)

Leonid Zakhozhaev was the tireless Siegfried, carrying his padded shoulders gracefully, posing quite effectively with his sword and making up with enthusiasm for a voice lacking in color and ping.

The Brunnhilde in both operas, tall, trim and dominating, was Olga Sergeyeva. The edge she lacked in Walküre finally emerged in Siegfried and she finished strongly. Her Wotan in the former opera was again Mikhail Kit, in slightly better voice than he had been for Das Rheingold but still missing the lower register and the majestic presence so essential.

Vadim Kravets, singing the disguised Wotan in Siegfried, also isn’t the answer for the role, suggesting company problems in the leading baritone ranks. What’s more, he took his hat disguise so seriously that, in his long black coat, he looked like a frontier rabbi in a spaghetti western.

Larisa Diadkova, a mahogany mezzo Fricka worthy of her arrogant assurance, and Gennady Bezzubenkov, a Hunding of unrelieved menace, completed the Walküre cast, the strongest so far.

Some nice singing in Siegfried – Anastasia Kalagina as a Woodbird of pure trills and Mikhail Petrenko as a resonant Fafner – fell victim to criminal costuming. Viktor Chernomortsev was a gloomy, brooding Alberich, while Vasily Gorshkov, an acclaimed Loge in Rheingold, came closer to stealing the show from his Siegfried than he did the Rheingold.

There’s no doubt that this Ring is holding the attention of the Ringheads and we tourists alike. Quibbling aside, the music is there. But the success is more despite the staging and the decor than because of it.

So, as the light cues brightened to destroy Valhalla and the old gods, the Rhinemaidens settled themselves on the giant water-ski ramp to repossess the Zircon of the Nibelungs and the four giant effigies were winched sllooooowly toward the stage floor revealing, triumphant upon their backs, the fire hydrants glowing green and…

You had to have been there, in the Orange County Performing Arts Center’s Segerstrom Hall, through the first three of the four operas in Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelungs, to appreciate the mixed experience of Götterdämmerunng’s last moments.

Because all the cheesy properties, the grab-bag costumes, the baffling scenery and the vague staging just didn’t matter any more, as Valery Gergiev led his superb Kirov Orchestra in some of the most sublime music known to mankind.

The Kirov “Ring,” centerpiece of an ambitious 17-day Mariinsky Festival, ended amidst clouds of musical bliss already crowding out the bizarre production in the memories of Orange County “Ring” fans, veteran or rookie.

The essential Brunnhilde was there in the tall, slim, commanding presence of Olga Sergeyeva, who seemed to grow with each opera from Die Walkure through Siegfried to Götterdämmerunng. By the time she was dominating the immolation scene, she had worked her way into a vocal groove that anchored the drama with something like the solidarity the orchestra brought to the score.

She was a Brunnhilde capable of turning a tenor’s hair yellow, as became apparent when Viktor Lutsyuk showed up with a distinctively different look from the darkly robust Leonid Zakhozhaev of the previous opera. Lutsyuk’s Siegfried was similar vocally but his
acting tended to Borscht-Belt broadness. Reminded that he was the greatest hero the world has known, Lutsyuk was wont to shrug and simper.

The bad guys were a mixed bag. Alexey Spekhov, the increasingly perplexed Lord Gunther of the Gibichungs, was strictly park and bark. Mikhail Petrenko, earlier an excellent Fafner, played brother Hagen, the brains of the Gibichungs, with a startling dramatic intensity and
a thrilling, resonate bass, posing like Nijinsky in his absurd square-dance skirt and conehead. Valeria Stenkina was a dignified and even poignant Gutrune, really not right for Siegfried.

Larisa Diadkova was pint-sized mezzo meat-and-potatoes as Waltraute, one of Brunnhilde’s erstwhile fellow Valkyrie; Viktor Chernomortsev once again did his revolting but fascinating Alberich (the only survivor of all this, remember); and the Rhinemaidens sounded more ragged with Liya Shevtsova replacing Irina Vasilieva in the middle of the harmony. Lyudmila Kanunnikova, Svetlana Volkova and Tatiana Kravtsova sang well through their veils as the Norns.

Speaking of wigs, the long, yellow, black-light jobs were back, evoking the bottom of the Rhine for Gergiev and set-designer George Tsypin, credited with the “production concept” here.

Nothing left to say about all that. The visuals for Götterdämmerunng were about the same as before, with Gleb Filshtinsky’s lighting design expected to carry the load. There was more specific magic fire this time and, when the four giant effigies were stood up around the flattened ski ramp as a raised platform, some of the production’s best stage pictures were displayed.

A rousing men’s chorus of 32, with that dark Russian sound, was a definite plus, bringing out the best in costumer Tatiana Noginova. Added to 17 women singers and the usual squads of dancers, the middle act of the final opera hit a theatrical peak which made that finale even more anticlimactic.

As Wagner was a pains to point out, however, this is not a perfect world. The drama may have faltered and the mise en scene disappointed but the music was enough.

By Welton Jones