Wagner, Die Walküre. Wiener Staatsoper, 3/7/2011. Production by Sven-Eric Bechtolf, conducted by Adam Fischer with Juha Uusitalo (Wotan), Eva Johansson (Brünnhilde), Edith Haller (Sieglinde), Christopher Ventris (Siegmund), Michaela Schuster (Fricka), Günther Groissböck (Hunding).Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s Walküre isn’t quite so bare-bones as the Rheingold, with a few more enigmatic symbols scattered about, but it still doesn’t work. The Ring is too complex and epic to reduce to minimal character work, particularly when the direction is as generic and unilluminating as it is here. I’ve seen many productions at the Staatsoper that have been more desperately static than this one--actually, the blocking keeps things moving pretty well. But the determined lack of vision and meaning is fatal. It’s not a political Ring, it’s not a mythic Ring, it’s not even a look-at-this-fancy-stage-tech-shit Ring. It’s not an anything Ring. Seriously, if you’re not going to be ambitious when you put on the Ring, when the hell are you going to be?
The unit set is slightly different from that of Rheingold, this time consisting of looming white art deco-ish walls. These eventually serve as a giant projection screen for the expected leaping flames. Chez Hunding is adorned with a single ash tree trunk going through the simple dining room table; these trees multiply for the second act (which otherwise features the same styrofoam rocks as the mountaintop of Rheingold). For Act Three, we get a lot of horse statues. Dress continues to be vaguely early-twentieth century, but not strong enough to make a point. The Valkyries are wrapped in tinfoil prom dresses as they manhandle various heroes, and Brünnhilde’s glittery taffeta gown--with a drop waist and pleats, words cannot do this dress justice--recalls the faded fashions of Viennese ballgoers. Between this and Anna Bolena, I suspect some fabric baron left a giant bequest of iridescent taffeta to the Staatsoper.
Beyond the looks, there’s not a lot to talk about, staging-wise. A dead wolf is hanging out in Act Two and the scattered golden heads seem to suggest bits of the remaining Rheingold (huh?). The Valkyries’ excited swarming around Sieglinde as soon as her pregnancy was announced (OMG babyz!) really ticked me off. Much of the action is too dimly lit, particularly the end of Act Two, where we can barely see the Todesverkündigung and fight (the latter is also placed awkwardly far upstage). Also, note to Siegmunds who wish to dramatically reach over their heads and behind them to pull swords from trees: it kind of ruins the effect when you look up.
I’m sorry about the shortage of pictures in this post, but the Staatsoper website didn’t provide any others. I assure you that you aren’t missing much.
Adam Fischer again stood in for ill music director Franz Welser-Möst, and his conducting had greater tension and more drama this time around. Unfortunately, a lot of ensemble problems remained, and the clarity was still less than optimal. Putting the two halves of the brass section on the extreme opposite ends of the pit (horns are house left, trumpets and trombone and tuba house right) can produce a great enveloping effect, but they seemed to have issues playing together, particularly in the prelude. But pit-wise it was adequate, if not top rank.
Edith Haller was a bit of a puzzle as Sieglinde. She has a white, old-fashioned sort of sound that is interesting and distinctive, but can turn opaque and seem short on overtones, particularly on her thin high notes. Her production was uneven and nervous at times, but she’s a good and natural actress in this most impassioned of Wagner roles. Christopher Ventris made an alright Siegmund, with consistent, clear tone that while powerful was short on heroic weight. I can imagine why he is better known for singing Parsifal, which he will be doing at the Staatsoper later this month. His performance was also marred by a number of pronunciation mistakes. His first “Wälse!” seemed to acquire an “r” at the end, leading my companion in the peanut gallery to quip, “I was sure he was going to add '-Möst.'”
Among the godly, things were shakier. Eva Johansson’s Brünnhilde suffered from faulty intonation, a giant wobble and screamed high notes. She did seem to be giving it her best, and was physically convincing onstage (though her collapse at the end was cringe-inducing), but the singing was often painful to hear. Juha Uusitalo’s Wotan ran out of gas before the end of some of the long monologues and was often overpowered by the orchestra, and he remains a blank as an interpreter. Yet this was still a more alert and nuanced performance than is his norm.
The supporting singers suggested a higher standard than was sustained by the leads, as can happen at the Staatsoper. The Valkyries were a solid, wobble-free yet loud bunch. Günther Groissböck again stood in for Ain Anger, this time as Hunding, and while healthy of voice he read a bit youthful and vocally compact for the role. Michaela Schuster’s vicious Fricka was again great fun, despite her sometimes blowsy singing.
Without great conducting and a more coherent production, this Ring continues to be less than the sum of its not very impressive parts.