Halle Ring Cycle: Review

Posted on 10, Jun, 2015 in Uncategorized

The Ring in Halle

Review by David Penton

Last February I saw the Götterdammerung of the co-production between the opera companies of Halle and Ludwigshafen just before they put on two Ring cycles in Halle. I was intrigued by the production, much of which I could not understand and, above all, struck by Andreas Schager’s Siegfried. He looked the part, acted it better than most I have seen and, most importantly, sang it superbly. I saw they were to do another cycle this February and booked to go. Halle, in the former GDR boasts one of the oldest universities in Germany and is a delightful city with much to see and perhaps best known to us as the birthplace of Handel. The old opera house has been renovated comparatively recently and is an attractive building with a fairly small auditorium seating perhaps 400 people with stage and orchestra pit to match thus necessitating a reduced orchestra. The most expensive seats cost €58.

The director of the production was Hansgünther Heyme and it was, in the current fashion, full on regietheater with all kinds of distractions and many of the references obscure. This starts with the curtain which is a mixture of small children’s drawings, some bearing messages such as “We are family” and “Make Cookies not War” in English while there were large statements in German such as “Dahinter die Tagtraumwelt,” ”Moeglishkeit,” and “Arbiet”, some of them highlighted and changing with each opera and even during the operas as the curtain was lowered, sometimes between scenes. My German companion said afterwards that the word sequences made little sense in German and were pretty well impossible to translate into English. This was not the only use made of curtains. There were solid ones sometimes covering part of the stage, such as one with large gold bars on it at the entrance to Fafner’s cave followed by ones with huge furry eyes just before and after Fafner was killed and then a huge eye on a triangular drop above Brünnhilde’s bed which had blood seeping from it in Götterdammerung. We had painted ones with trees to signify the forest. And during parts of Die Walküre there was a huge black one front of stage with a small door through which no one went or emerged. Then there were frequently gauzy narrow curtains hanging from the flies. Brünnhilde would wrap herself in them, Siegfried would run in and out of them and Donner used an electric fan to make them swirl when he conjured up his storm. In Götterdammerung we had full length thin curtains with photos of the Gods on them which Hagen would pull forward, each in turn, as he referred to those portrayed.

But back to the beginning. With the curtain down a young girl and boy with spiky hair emerged one from each side of the stage, wearing what looked like school uniforms. At centre stage they picked up a large book and proceeded to read from it. My companion made similar comments to those about the words on the curtain, adding:” It’s typically German to make people not understand: most people think it’s clever and admire that but I resent it and refuse to think about what it could mean. If someone wants to tell me something they’ll need to make it clear.” When they finished reading, the overture started. And my heart sank as the orchestra, conducted by Andreas Henning did not sound at all mystical and it did not produce beautiful music emerging as if from the depths of the Rhine. There were fluffed entries and the balance between brass and strings was wrong with the former far too dominant. It did not bode well. However, it seemed that we had a different orchestra for Die Walküre and it improved from then on with some sublime sounds, especially during the third acts of Die Walküre and Siegfried. When the curtain rose for Rheingold it revealed a raised metal trough across the front of the stage full of water which the Rhinemaidens splashed over Alberich and pushed him into. The maidens were fairly substantial middle aged German hausfraus with ugly large red wigs. If that was what was on offer, I would have spent much less time than Alberich chasing after them. Their voices were hardly seductive either. On the other hand Gerd Vogel’s Alberich was very convincing with a good presence, and with a strong voice. While one of the Rhinemaidens tempted the dwarf by allowing close physical contact, the other two performed lesbian acts at the side of the stage. This motif was repeated in act two of Die Walküre when two tarty bar girls snogged each other while Wotan and Fricka had their long dialogue. 

When the curtain rose for scene two of Rheingold we saw a complete mess as if we were looking backstage in a theatre. On the left there were props piled up and stuffed in shelves while on the right was a floor to ceiling stack of what looked like numbered lockers in a lost property room. Dead people – or at least parts of them – ended up in them conveyed by two women who came on stage at each death. Perhaps they were the angels of death which were lowered from time to time over the stage. The lockers appeared throughout the cycle either at the side or back of the stage and were clearly a significant theme of this production – perhaps the most significant.and presumably supposed to be conveying a strong message. Possibly that we all have our number and our lives are predestined. Wotan and Fricka were curled up on camp beds under plastic covers. When they emerged Wotan’s slicked back black hair had nine white stripes going from front to back which was mirrored in the black and white striped pyjamas that Mime had on when we met him. They wore modern dress. Wotan, played by Korean Gerard Kim lacked presence and strength of voice although he was convincing in his duet with Brünnhilde in act three of Die Walküre. One of his main failings was that he did not change at all as the cycle progressed and he was the same as the Wanderer as he was in Rheingold. Fricka (Gundula Hintz) was little more than adequate as were Freia and Froh. In contrast, Ásgeir Páll Ágústsson’s Donner was one of the best I have heard and possessed the appropriate presence. Fasolt and Fafner wore black costumes with strange shoulder extensions, which first reminded me of orthodox Jewish rabbi and then of Japanese samurai. Their singing was impressive with Ulrich Burdack as Fafner especially so. They were each accompanied by a child holding a huge puppet taken from the stack of props which they held behind their giant. At some stage two life size puppets descended from the flies which I assume were angels of death or perhaps their spirits. Loge came on dressed as a businessman and was very keen to demonstrate his fireraising ability, frequently turning flames on and off going right across the stage. Paul McNamara sang the role well but was hardly mercurial and he seemed more like the staid businessman he was dressed as. His voice reminded my companion of Caruso.

Not a lot was made of the descent to Nibelheim nor did there seem to be many nibelungs or a lot of gold. During the entire Nibelheim scene Donner, Froh and Freia were sleeping under black plastic sheets on racks high up in front of the lockers. Mime, sung by Ralph Ertel was strong and acted well and was physically abused by a very dominant Alberich. The latter’s tarnhelm transformations were distinctly unimpressive and not nearly as effective as those of Fulham Opera which I had seen less than a week before. And which was altogether a far more effective production with more convincing acting. Indeed by contrast the Halle production was very static. When Fasolt was killed two women appeared with box number 88 into which they put his shoes and something taken from inside his jacket or perhaps the upper part of his body – possibly his wallet with ID card or something symbolising his soul. They then took the box and climbed the rack to place it in its correct position. This happened with subsequent deaths, though not with Siegfried. As the Gods entered Valhalla, someone unidentified was strewing gold coins around the stage and the rainbow bridge was lengths of coloured material. The Gods ascended to the flies on a flatbed lift, bizarrely after the curtain had come down.

Die Walküre opened with two masked bikers on impressive golden Harley Davidsons with their motors on entering from each side of the stage. After causing a distraction and a racket during the overture, they went. What was that all about? Hunding and Sieglinde’s house was a shabby modern dwelling with Nothung sticking out of a telegraph pole which was presumably meant to be outside rather than in it. Thomas Mohr and Carola Höhr as the twins both looked and sang well. Indeed Mohr had a very strong and even voice and was probably the highlight of Die Walküre. Hunding (Christoff Stegemann) was passable. The curtain went up on the second act to reveal Wotan and Fricka playing flashing fruit machines in a sleazy bar with the legend “Ladies, Dancing, Music” above it and with tarty looking girls behind the bar who came out periodically wearing hot pants to fondle Wotan. At other times they, like the Rhinemaidens, snogged each other. Scene three took place in a deserted departure lounge in an airport with much fussing about where Siegmund and Sieglinde should place their large suitcase. The departure board featured names. numbers and nationalities – possibly a reference to the numbered lockers. The third act started with them right across the back of the stage and the Valkyries marching in each carrying a box with a hero’s remains and wearing truly exotic huge spiky wigs – not the sort of people one would want to meet on a dark night. They remained on stage thoughout the whole of act three After a fairly moving sequence between Wotan and Brünnhilde she was placed on a platform at the back of the stage and the fire spread across in front of her.

Following a four day break and a chance to explore more of Halle and the nearby towns on the Strasse der Romanik of Sachsen-Anhalt, we were back in the opera house for Siegfried. Mime’s cave was a modern well-equipped workshop and throughout the first scene there was much noise, flashing lights and explosions. And this included Siegfried who burst in with a man in a very realistic bear suit in tow and continued to display much youthful energy throughout. For the woodbird scene we had Wotan at the side of the stage operating the curtain drop to let down a woodland scene. A good touch I had not seen before was to have Sieglinde bring on a small woodbird which she attached to a device that Wotan then proceeded to move up and down across the stage with another pulley. When the time came for the woodbird to sing she descended from the flies on a trapeze, again controlled by Wotan This whole scene was very successful. After Siegfried’s confrontation with Wotan he came round from the back of the stage to avoid the flames protecting Brünnhilde. Her shape made his “Das ist kein Mann” even more ludicrous than usual (did the audience laugh at the premiere?) and all too obvious that Mime had given him no sex education at all. Sieglinde appeared at the side of the stage when he called out “Mutter” in his confusion. Once he and Brünnhilde got acquainted it was all very jolly with Siegfried playing tag with her and lying down on the floor with his arms outstretched. One feared she might accept the invitation and crush him, thus making Götterdammerung redundant. Apart from her physical presence South African Lisa Livingston’s singing was a disappointment. There were quite a few wobbly notes and she was outsung by Andreas Schager, and even Gundula Hintz’s Waltraute, at every stage. However my judgment was not as harsh as that of one of the friends I went with who said she was the type of parody of a Wagner soprano that got Wagner singing a bad name. And so to Siegfried. Austrian Andreas Schager is simply the best I have seen in the part. He looks and acts right with boundless energy and enthusiasm but a softness at the right times. Above all he has the most wonderful voice, as those of us who were in the Albert Hall to see and hear him in Götterdammerung with Barenboim last August know. And the audience acknowledged this with rapturous applause and stamping of feet at his curtain calls. He is the real deal – see him if you can. He alone more than made the trip worthwhile.

Fortunately Brünnhilde chose to lie down beside him rather than on top as I feared she might at one stage so we did get the fourth night and more glorious singing from Andreas Shager. The scene with the Norns was fairly standard. Hagen (Christoff Stegemann fine but not as impressive as he should have been) was seated at the bottom of a bank of about eight rows of seats for his scene with Alberich which featured heavily during the rest of the opera. It was interesting that the impressive local man Gerd Vogel who sand Alberich so well also made one of the best Gunthers I have seen. Slim, pretty, blonde Anke Berndt was adequate as the sad Gutrune. Possibly the banks of seats reflected the inside of the theatre symbolising how we were all involved. And presumably we were back in the theatre whose backstage we had seen in Rheingold. When the vassals came marching in they took their seats in the stand. They were dressed in a type of Mao suit and cap, a third of them in bright red, a third in bright blue and the remainder in bright green. The ladies, when they arrived, looked like Nazi secretaries with blonde wigs, brown skirts, gold shirts and shoes with square heels, rather reminiscent of the Götterdammerung I saw a few years ago in Bayreuth. For the marriage celebration Hagen supplied them with crates of beer, the type of which I could not make out from where I was sitting, but which I hope was weissbier. There followed a general scene of fondling with the women climbing onto the men’s laps. It subsequently developed into a bit of an orgy with the men all taking off their trousers and throwing them in the air before diving in for some group sex.

Siegfried’s scene with the Rhine Maidens was carried out on a very misty stage with no indication of the Rhine anywhere. Siegfried again spent quite a lot of time on his back with arms outstretched, even simulating a bit of sex from that position when on his own after the Rhine Maidens had left. The blood brother scene between Gunther and Siegfried was enacted by each of them biting the other’s wrist to cause the blood to flow rather than cutting them on Hagen’s sword which I have usually seen. Siegfried’s death scene featured a good range of stuffed birds and rabbits as well as a large bear – I hope it was not the one who came on with him at the start of Siegfried. Instead of ravens flying off, Hagen, after wringing their necks, put one in each of Siegfried’s hands where they stayed until Brünnhilde relieved him of them. After his death it was all very low key like Alberich’s transformation scenes with the tarnhelm. He just lay there and was not borne away for the funeral march which consisted of a procession of the red, blue and green guards slowly winding back and forth across the stage while the music ground out. By now there were two banks of seats facing each other in which the vassals took their place and the banks of lockers were across the back of the stage. They remained there thoughout Brünnhilde’s long solo.At the end, with much fire, Grane (a man wearing a horse’s head but when he held his arms out he looked like an eagle with painted feathers extending down but with a horse’s head) appeared with some unknown people at the back of the stage and Brünnhilde went to join them. A slippery slope appeared centre stage down which the Rhinemaidens dragged Hagen to his death. As the music rose the stage revolved to reveal to us the backs of the stands. The vassals came through the middle and round the sides and stood watching us. The two children who started the whole saga off with their reading pushed their way through and stood at the front centre stage. As the music stopped the house lights went up and those on stage started a slow motion handclap as they stared out at us. People in the audience started clapping but then slowly stopped as they realised the performance had not finished. Was that supposed to happen? The house lights went down, there was silence and then the audience erupted with shouts and clapping – so we were all truly involved.

That is just some of what I saw on stage. It was all very busy, much of it distracting and a lot was incomprehensible. But it was intriguing and much was well done. All in all it was a Ring unlike any other I have seen and my companions and I were very glad we had made the journey to Halle.

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