Sunday, September 23, 2012

Basking in the Glory of Wagner

Readers of this blog know that I was looking forward to a great week of Wagner listening (and watching), since Sirius XM was rebroadcasting two classic Wagner performances from the Met and I finally had time to sit down to enjoy the PBS broadcast of the Met's new Rheingold. How pleasing it is to report that each experience was satisfying, enthralling, and fulfilling.

Watching the Met production in HD complete with the visual effects made me realize what could save opera (if it does in fact need to be saved) and how younger, tech-savy individuals could be attracted.  While the visual effects were spectacular, the costumes were appropriate if a bit stylized, and the voices were far more than acceptable, I found the staging reminiscent of Elizabethan, Shakespearean performances at the Globe, almost minimized.  Nice costumes, fine acting, but the setting was up to the performers to make the audience visualize the scenes. Wagner's lyrics certainly make that possible, which is why many modern productions seem ridiculous to any one listening to what the singers are saying. 

I must watch carefully during the other three Ring performances to confirm an observation--only when the singers were firmly on the stage or on a portion of the "machine" that was horizontal, did the they sing with assurance, clarity, and confidence.  Look at the picture above.  Only Loge is off the horizontal.  He is singing his heart out, but I suspect trying to "moonwalk" backwards at what is obviously more than a 45 degree angle up the machine while being pulled by those distracting wires or cables attached to the back of his costume required concentration--concentration that should have been given to his acting and singing.  Of all the performers, however, Loge gave the most subtle and vocally vibrant performance.  
The other problem I had with the performance and the staging is this: for those of us who are visually and spatially oriented, the production was very disorienting.  Since I had to depend on the lyrics to see everything (that is a synesthesia--ears to see), I struggled with direction--characters went up to go down (see above as Wotan and Loge ascend the machine to go down to Niebelheim), down to go up (the rainbow bridge requires the performers to go down before they are projected ascending the machine--in pursuit of the Rheindaughters?, and everyone points or gazes above the audience at Valhalla but then walks the other direction across the rainbow bridge.  
As far as the performances, special praise must fall on Bryn Terfel for his insights and vocalizing after being awakened by Fricka at the very beginning of the opera.  His voice was fresh, pliable, and full as he shifted registers and made jumps across the scale that I have only heard Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau make in this opera.  I know this is sacrilege, but in this scene Terfel outdoes the great Hotter.  Later in the opera, Terfel was still full-voiced, but seemed more concerned with emphasis than vocal subtleties.  Eric Owens with his dark, menacing voice was a perfect Alberich except when he had to sing on the uneven machine. 

All in all, I enjoyed this performance as much as the older Otto Schenk production with James Morris and Siegfried Jerusalem.  I would willingly watch either one at any time, at any place.

The two other great experiences of the week more than met my heightened expectations.  The 1954 performance of Tannhauser was a true treat.  Dr. Szell was the master of the performance bringing out elements in the score that I either had never heard before or had forgotten. The overture was so intense, vibrant, and exhilarating that the 1954 audience gave it a three minute ovation.  This became a bit of a distraction as it went on and went on.  I am not sure whether Dr. Szell did not attempt to stop it because he was basking in some sort of egotistical glory or if he knew that it was so enthusiastic that he could not have stopped it.

As the performance began in earnest, the lower tones of Vinay's voice matched the heavier tones of Ms. Varnay's Venus to produce a very "sexy" introduction to the Venusburg.  Once again, Szell unobtrusively dominated the performance, as the entrances of the singers were always on cue with no hesitations, missteps, or unrhythmic patches.  Even with George London's mumbling, stumbling, and smearing much of Wolfram's part, Szell kept things in hand.  In addition, the contrast of the opening duet between Vinay's dark heldentenor and Ms. Varnay's heavy-voiced Venus with the scenes with Elizabeth Harwood as Elizabeth made a perfect dichotomy for the choice that Tannhauser has to make.  Ms. Harwood's angelic voice reinforced the character's sacrifice for her loved one.

The rebroadcast of the 1957 Siegfried was equally mesmerizing.  While there are those who, I think, misjudge Wolfgang Windgassen as a heldentenor based on the criticism of 50 years ago, I find him superior to almost everyone who has assumed those roles since.  Siegfried Jerusalem sang with the same abandon, but sometimes was called upon to force things.  James King approached the roles with power and vigor, but sometimes seemed pinched at the highest notes. Peter Hofman was certainly a pretty boy, but his voice, to my ear, often sounds as if he needed to have his adenoids removed--he always seems pinched and forced. I will not mention the current crop.  Windgassen as Seigfried in the production is perfect--the voice sounds like that of a teenager, which is what Seigfried is.   It sounds fresh, young, vibrant, and flexible.  The give and take with Mime was entertaining and precise.  And despite the contemporary criticism of Windgassen as small-voiced, at the end of this performance he sings note for note with the fresh Martha Modl.  Their awakening duet was spellbinding--we heard Siegfried grow up, we heard Brunhilde flower as a woman.
I did not want it to end.

If only we could have more weeks such as this one.

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