Friday, July 10, 2009

Gotterdammerung at La Fenice

I saw the world end twice in two months, which is a lot. But each time was radically different.

The Zubin Mehta-Fura dels Baus-Maggio Musicale Cirque du Soleil / Star Wars version of Wagner's Gotterdammerung was higher on spectacle but lower on psychologtical depth, while the Jeffrey Tate-Robert Carsten-Fenice production was lower on spectacle and profoundly moving psychologically.

I only saw the Florence Gotterdammerg, so I don't know how the first three operas of their cycle were handled. But I have watched the Fenice Ring grow and develop, stumbling through cast changes and delays and still without a production of Rheingold, the first part, which they skipped. But the vision has been consistent, both musically, in the hands of Maestro Tate, and dramatically, in the hands of Robert Carsten.

The sets and costumes are realistic, a war-torn mis-en-scene in which Valhalla was a fabulous penthouse and the Hall of the Gibichungs a monolithic fascist-style office, a totalitarian nightmare 1950's style.

As the opera opens the Norns, three blind sisters who weave the fabric of destiny, find that the rope has snapped and the future of their universe has ended. In Florence they were suspended, floating above the stage, eerie and magical. At Fenice, they were caretakers in the basement of the universe in which Valhalla was the penthouse, arranging the detritus of the world, wrapping the rope of fate on on picture frames and furniture and bundled slabs of the World Ash Tree as they lament "the eternal knowing is ended."

As the scene changes to the Valkyrie rock, Siegfried, Stefan Vinke, and Brunnhilde, Jayne Casselman, are still entangled in passionate sex as the sun rises. You get the feeling nothing could stop them, that they are so happy that the world could end without their noticing. Unfortunately, it doesn't let them.

Siegfried resembles a buzz-cut Marine bear in fatiques, chunky and frisky. Brunnhilde is a blonde vixen, part biker girl, part earth mother, cut from the Jessica Lange mold. Once a demigod, she retains some of her former grandeur, but for the moment she is all human, a woman passionately in love. They cannot keep their hands off each other. And when she gives him her beloved steed, he reacts as if he had just been given the keys to a magnificent new Harley, every boy's dream come true: the woman he loves and the ride to match.

Nothing this Siegfried did matched Lance Ryan's singing suspended upside down, or the astonishingly soaring ease of his final scene after four hours of singing, in Florence. But Stefan Vinke was splendid, always convincing, agile and impetuous and passionate. His energy never faltered and he sang his final scenes with the same gripping intensity as the first act duet.

La Fenice loved their voices; at the climax of their duet, they rang true and clear over the orchestra. The size of the space did not extend beyond the effective range of their instruments. They could sing more naturally, less pushed. And Jeffrey Tate is a considerate conductor, always scaling the orchestra so that the voices can be heard. If I were a singer, I would love him. You only realize, at the peak non-vocal moments, just how loud the orchestra can play with the governor off. At the great orchestral-vocal climaxes the voices could be heard as the final layer of a complex sound, but did not dominate, as they could and, sometimes, should.

In Florence's Teatro Communale the orchestra did overwhelm the voices at times, but Zubin Mehta has grown as a conductor since his earlier days when I considered him something of a lightweight. He shaped the music beautifully, and the brutal chords of the Funeral March were shattering. Tate's reading was less cataclysmic, but beautifully and deeply musical. The orchestra expressed the emotional subtext as the singers acted out the wrenching human drama. Tate and the orchestra got the biggest ovations of the night, a nose ahead of Brunnhilde who was loudly adored.

Jayne Casselman's transitions from ecstatic bride to abject victim of brutal betrayals were filled with physical detail and musical nuance. By the time she reaches bottom and betrays Siegfried, who has betrayed her, she is Blanche DuBois. Siegfried, drugged with a magic potion, honestly does not remember her; and she just can't believe it. The horror grows as she realizes that everyone in the room is on the same page as Siegfried and she stands alone, completely and utterly betrayed. Is that not the essence of madness, perceiving the world in a way that everyone says is fantasy? To Siegfried's fierce oath that he has never seen her before, she swears even more fiercely that she is his bride and he has betrayed her, even though no one believes her and everyone thinks she is crazy.

But it is only drugged Siegfried who doesn't believe her; the other main characters all know exactly what is going on, which makes Brunnhilde's apparent paranoia even more siniser. There is, first and foremost, Hagen, who gave Siegfried the potion and conceived the plot against Brunnhilde. In Florence, Hans Peter Konig as Hagen had an amazing barrel-organ bass that was capable of lifting you right off your seat. He was gripping and compelling and his voice is a force of nature. The Fenice Hagen, GIdon Saks, was suave and insinuating, both sly and ominous, handsome and fearsome, but his singing did not surpass the memory of Konig.

The Fenice production did not need gimmicks, laser lights, bungee cords or floating aquaria in which the Rhine Maidens sang, actually submerged, in Florence. This was a fourth wall production and what we watched was taken seriously, literally, and was starkly real.

So how, in that framework, do you handle the end of the world? The stage directions are impossible-- as Brunnhilde rides her horse into Siegfried's funeral pyre the fire rises up, the Gibichung Hall collapses, on high Valhalla burns, and then the Rhine overflows its banks, everything dissolving in primal chaos. In Florence it was a 60's-ish son et lumiere affaire, with a magical constellation of bodies writhing in mid-air.

But Carsten did something I have never seen before.

Brunnhilde stepped forward to the front of the stage and a wall slid down behind her. She stood alone in the spotlight, and delivered Brunnhilde's Immolation Scene as if it were a Shakespearean monolog, a confidence between her and us. It is a mad proposition; everything rides on how convincing the performance is. Nothing is more exposed than standing alone on the stage bearing the entire weight of the drama, stripped of the usual theatrical shenannigans. The miracle is that it worked.

Casselman took us along with her every step of the way, and when the singing ended the curtain rose on an empty stage swathed in mist. Brunnhilde walked stage center, raising her arms as a purifying rain fell. The orchestra told the rest of the story, how love is the ultimate redemption of the world. In Florence at that point they pushed two massive blocks onto the stage upon which "L'amour" was written when they met in the center. You didn't need that reminder at La Fenice. You felt it in Brunnhilde's exaltatation, as she, along with the music, disappeared.

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