Der Ring des Nibelungen: Die Walküre by the Mariinsky Opera

Die Walkure © N.Razina (12)The Mariinsky Opera’s Der Ring des Nibelungen continued its run at the Birmingham Hippodrome last night with Die Walküre (The Valkyry), the tragic love story of incestuous siblings Siegmund and Sieglinde, and the renegade Valkyrie who disobeys the gods to defend them.

Once again, the show begins with a stunning set of epic proportions, though unlike in Das Rheingold, the prelude is played out before the curtain rises. This time, instead of suspended above the stage, the gigantic statues are integrated into the set, becoming at once the walls of Hunding’s house and the ash tree at its heart, the thick body of one of the figures statue standing in for a trunk. As in the previous show, too, Gleb Filshtinsky’s lighting is magical, with subtle changes in colour and brightness creating shifts in mood and atmosphere that beautifully complement the music.

B1y3rmxIgAAy6UhOnce the story begins, however, things take a little longer to get moving in Die Walküre, with chemistry seriously lacking between lovers Siegmund and Sieglinde. Though their singing was strong, the acting styles of Avgust Amonov and Mlada Khudoley were oddly matched, with the former remaining remarkably restrained even in the face of extreme peril, while the latter went the opposite way, overplaying the drama of her situation, perhaps in part to compensate for the lack of emotional display from her partner.

Act II opens on a glimpse of a far more convincing relationship: Ekaterina Gubanova returns to her role as marriage goddess Fricka, this time performing alongside the excellent Vitaly Kovalyov as the ruling god Wotan. Already strong in Das Rheingold, the Fricka/Wotan dynamic is noticeably improved by this pairing. As the couple bicker over Wotan’s infidelity and determination to undermine his wife’s decrees, their turbulent, troubled marriage feels totally real to us: this is a story we instantly recognise from much more contemporary fare.

Nevertheless, the most engaging of this production’s relationships is not romantic but filial. The mutual love of a father and daughter produces the most moving scenes in the show, and Wotan’s and Brünnhilde’s final farewell must have left barely a dry eye in the audience. Brimming with love and compassion, the mighty yet kind-hearted Brünnhilde is played magnificently by Olga Savova. Between them, Kovalyov and Savova largely carry this production, their spellbinding performances elevating it to heights it’s hard to see it reaching without them.

That said, Savova is certainly in excellent company among her fellow Valkyries: though surrounded by some questionably choreographed fighting, in their dramatic entrance, they command the stage so fully that the heroes they arrive to collect fade to virtual invisibility. With strobe lights flashing out beneath the curtain as it flies upwards, the carriers of the battle-slain appear, clad in black against a blazing red sky (and in case you were wondering, yes, it is impossible to get “Ride of the Valkyries” out of your head after seeing this show).

B1y2y4pIcAE1dgZAct III’s opening scene looks fantastic. Things get a little stranger, however, during the end section of the show, when the giant statues are relocated to the background, peering threateningly down on the action from all sides. This in itself is effective setting, creating a strong sense of foreboding and making even the great god Wotan look tiny as he moves towards his inescapable demise. What is more difficult to make sense of is the bizarre paraphernalia adorning the statues: seashells, tentacles, giant sperm cells and vaguely uterine-shaped animal skulls cling to their bellies and hang in the air around them, sometimes glowing bright red. Once Wotan and Brünnhilde get into full acting swing, it’s easy enough to forget about the weird stuff in the background, but during less emotional moments, they’re a curious and rather distracting presence.

On reflection, I wondered if they might be intended to reflect the themes of love, (in)fidelity and parenthood explored by the drama: there is, after all, something fitting about Wotan referring to his favourite illegitimate daughter as a part of himself while surrounded by such images. However, a quick search online offered a rather stranger explanation.

The giant figures themselves are, apparently, inspired by the myths of the Alan and Scythian cultures of the North Caucasus, where conductor Valery Gergiev was raised. So far, so logical: there are clearly a range of mythic influences involved in the design of this production – not to mention in the creation of the story itself. But set designer Georgy Tsypin had more to say about his work:

“The Ring was written during the Industrial Revolution, when it seemed that humanity would appropriate the secret of nature – the ‘Ring’. Now it seems we are on the verge of discovering the secret of life, so we created a ‘Ring’ that reflects our current preoccupation with cloning, mutations, artificial intelligence, discoveries in genetics and biotechnology.”

Such themes have served as excellent material for tragedy since 1818, and continue to dominate Hollywood sci-fi today. But while stories about scientific over-reachers may hold some parallels with those of their mythic counterparts in Der Ring des Nibelungen, it’s difficult to see what incorporating these concepts really adds to this particular story, or what new perspective it offers us on Wagner’s ideas.

B1y3KbyIUAA7K8KThe most effective use of any of the statues in Die Walküre is perhaps to serve as the mountain where Brünnhilde is imprisoned, put under a sleeping spell and left to await her future husband. Bulky and cumbersome as it is, it takes a little while to get the central statue into place, with black-clad figures flying from the wings to help with the awkward manoeuvrings. Yet the final image is impressive: against such a dramatic set, Brünnhilde’s new-found mortality and relative powerlessness hit home hard. It also serves as a reminder of how the whole thing started, recalling Wotan’s deal with the giants in Das Rheingold. Now, as before, there is an attempt to marry a woman off against her will, and now, as then, Wotan has cause to fear the consequences of his actions.

Just before the curtain falls, Brünnhilde’s resting place is surrounded by flames, a group of dancers emerging with glowing red headpieces in a warped reflection of the Prelude to Das Rheingold, where swaying green and blue lights mimicked the waves of the Rhine. Above them, the statues creak and and begin to tumble forwards, a touch of the ‘Ozymandias’ about them now.

The Mariinksy Opera’s Ring Cycle continues its run at the Birmingham Hippodrome with Siegfried tomorrow evening, and concludes with Götterdämmerung on Sunday. For more information and to book, visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website.

Header image by N. Razina. All other photographs by @JohnVecchio via Twitter.

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Das Rheingold – Wagner, Wages and Women

RichardWagnerAs fantastic a flight of fancy as Wagner’s Ring Cycle may be, the stories contained within it are more than simply entertainment. Like all good stories, they tell also us a little bit about their creators and the contexts in which they emerged, as well as leaving a room for us to add our own interpretations and perhaps to learn something about ourselves. Coming to Das Rheingold for the first time on Wednesday night, the opportunity to comment on more than just the Mariinsky Opera’s particular production was difficult to resist, but as there’s quite a lot to say, I’ve decided to keep it separate from the review below.

Given that Wagner was writing in Europe around the turn of the century, Das Rheingold can be taken as a transparent enough commentary on the rise of industrial capitalism and the greed and materialism it fosters. While Wagner doesn’t necessarily offer us a solution to the problems of modern society, his characters’ unquenchable lust for power and wealth at the expense of love, compassion and justice certainly doesn’t do them any good in the long-run. This is most apparent in Alberich’s subjugation of the Nibelungs, who, according to Mime, used to be happy to work together as equals; as friends, brothers and comrades. Wielding the powerful ring he has forged, Alberich forces his fellow dwarves to sweat for his own gain, sending them crawling into dark and dangerous mine shafts to dig out the gold hidden within. As the ring already gives him the power to satisfy all his material needs, however, Alberich no longer even has any practical use for the horde of gold that is piled up in front of him. Instead, it simply sits there as a display of his affluence until it is stolen away from him by another, equally greedy ruler, whose own story in many ways parallels the dwarf’s: he, too, robs from others in order to possess and inhabit the hall that he will later recognise as empty pomp.

Though Wagner’s anti-Semitism is an undeniable fact, to view the bigotry of Jewishness in Music as a precursor to Nazism is arguably reductive: the fate of the loveless Alberich, along with Erda’s dark warnings to Wotan to resist the temptations of the ring, might easily be read as a kind of prophetic caution against the tyranny of totalitarian regimes. Wagner was a racist, but he was also, at least theoretically, a revolutionary, who advocated a return to nature rather than a military march into the future: this seems like a philosophy that would have sat uncomfortably with the dictatorships that sprang up over the course of the 20th century.

Leaving off debates about the large-scale politics of the piece, however, the thing I found most fascinating about Das Rheingold was actually how the women emerge from the drama. I was surprised that the plot continually directs us towards its female characters and their pleas, seeming to urge both the audience and the men within the story to let them in, take note of their opinions and, most importantly of all, to heed their warnings. It is, after all, the first mother, Erda, who ultimately persuades Wotan to give up the ring, but long before that fatal scene, Fricka is already chastising her husband for his shameful bargain with, and subsequent betrayal of, the giants Fafner and Fasolt. “Had I but known of your contract, I would have resisted your deceit,” she says. “But you men ever ignored the women, deaf to us, that you might deal with the giants alone.” As she fears for the loss of her beloved sister, Freia, we are moved to pity her, still more so when Wotan implicates her in the bargain and she responds with her reasons for wanting the hall to be built: “Sadly, I must consider ways to keep my husband faithful […] I thought that a beautiful home might keep you here.”

Frigg_by_DoeplerThe most pitiable creature in the story is of course Freia herself, who is offered to the giants in exchange for the building of Valhalla, and subsequently relinquished in exchange for a mound of gold, deemed by them to match her value. Even Wotan cannot fail to feel the disgrace of this: it’s clear as day that we’re supposed to condemn his terrible treatment of his sister.

Finally, of course, there are the Rhinemaidens, whose youthful gaiety evaporates after their beautiful treasure is stolen by the bitter, vengeful Alberich, whose lecherous advances they have mocked and spurned. At the end of Das Rheingold, Alberich is stripped of his powers, the giants fairly paid and Freia returned safely home – yet the Rhinemaidens, promised retribution and the return of their gold by the tricksy Loge, are left empty-handed, and their plaintive wailing and lamenting ominously disturbs the peace of the gods as they attempt to settle into their new home. If ever there was a clear sign that we should watch out for the women, it’s here. Of course, we know that the next part of the tetralogy concerns the awesome Valkyries and introduces Brünnhilde, Wagner’s take on perhaps one of literary history’s most interesting female characters. But even without this knowledge, it’s not hard to see where things are going.

All of this is not to anachronistically label Wagner as some sort of feminist: the uncomfortable details of his own messy personal life should be enough to dissuade anyone from that (though it’s possible to see some of the dialogue between Wotan and Fricka as Wagner’s own guilty conscience speaking). But if he considered himself a revolutionary, then judging from his art and his writings, he must have envisioned women as playing an important part in his new world order.

“The true human being is both man and woman, and only in the union of man and woman does the true human being exist. Only through love, therefore, do man and woman become human.”

Thus wrote Wagner, revealing a belief in the transformative power of love that forms an essential part of the story he would tell over the course of his four Ring operas. Alberich’s and the Rhinemaidens’ fatal flaw is to conflate love and lust, thus underestimating both. It is arguably this naïve misunderstanding that sets off the chain of theft, deceit, treachery and murder that ultimately leads to the overthrow of the gods and the end of the world as they know it. It is, however, a mistake that Alberich will never make again: it is only after renouncing love and taking the Rhinegold instead that he realises how dearly bought the latter has been. But, he says, if he can no longer enjoy love, he can still indulge in carnal pleasures. Never does Alberich appear more grotesque to us than when, cruelly presiding over his Nibelung slaves, he boasts to Wotan and Loge about how he plans to sate his lust on the beautiful women of the world above Nibelheim.

All this sets us up nicely for a more in-depth exploration of love and defiance of convention in the story of Siegfried and Brünnhilde that will follow. More on this to come.

The Mariinsky Opera’s Der Ring des Nibelungen continues at the Birmingham Hippodrome on Saturday with Siegfried, and concludes with Götterdämmerung the following day. For more information and to book, visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website.

Der Ring Des Nibelungs: Das Rheingold Performed by the Mariinksy Opera

Das Rheingold © N.Razina (16)Last night, Mariinsky Opera’s take on Wagner’s epic masterpiece, Der Ring Des Nibelungen, opened at the Birmingham Hippodrome with Das Rheingold, a mythic prelude to the epic story of Siegfried, Brünnhilde and the ultimate overthrow of the Norse pantheon that occurs across the rest of the tetralogy.

The Mariinsky’s Das Rheingold is a beautiful thing to behold from start to finish. The curtain lifts to reveal a group of performers draped in glowing blue cables, swaying, wave-like, around a series of strange, dwarfish statues in a mesmerising dance sequence that builds slowly along with Wagner’s stunning, ethereal prelude. Beautiful music washes over the audience as lights flicker across the stone figures, like sunlight seen underwater. Thus we are transported to the watery world of the Rhinemaidens who, to our surprise, eventually emerge from the rocks where they have been resting onstage all the while, revealed by light that slowly brightens like day dawning. Once we’ve seen them, we wonder how on earth we could have missed them: dressed in pearly gowns with striking, otherwordly hairstyles, everything about them announces them as magical beings before they ever open their mouths.

047These fantastic – in both senses – costume designs are matched elsewhere: the gods are styled in a brilliantly bold and bonkers fashion, vivid and colourful in every sense. Alexander Timchenko as Froh, for example, manages to pull off flowing, rainbow-coloured locks without losing any of his divine dignity. Wotan and Fricka are magisterially dressed in long, white, Grecian gowns, while Donner shimmers in appropriately silvery robes, a glittering, lightning-blue streak flashing through his hair. When Loge finally emerges, he is a vision in fiery red with a sharply peaked hairline. Freia’s golden dress, meanwhile, matches both golden apples of youth she tends, as well as the mound of Rhinegold she is eventually exchanged for, serving as a constant reminder of how she is valued and the shame of Wotan’s transactions with the giants.

Beyond the characters, the design of the set itself is magnificent and massive in scale: Valhalla glistens gloriously, even as huge, giant-like figures hover ominously in the air above it. The creepy statues present right from the opening are most striking of all in the Nibelungs’ mines, where their faces glow a bright, warning red.

Despite all these impressive constructions, however, the whole thing is played out against a completely plain backdrop, designed to emphasise the show’s complex lighting that in many ways does a better job of setting scenes and immersing us in the story than any flat, painted background ever could. This is one of few productions I’ve seen where it’s impossible not to be constantly aware of the lighting design, which becomes almost as important in creating mood as is the music itself. Through shifts in colour and brightness, we travel from the depths of the Rhine to the shining Valhalla, and away again to the fiery furnaces of the Niebelungs.

097The dwarfs, too, look wonderful, with fat bellies, bulked up shoulders, spindly fingers and inflated heads. For all their exaggerated, inhuman features, however, we still feel for them – especially Mime, who is played by Andrey Popov with a brilliant mix of comic timing and genuine pathos.

Elsewhere, Willard White portrays a complex and commanding Wotan, and Alexander Timchenko is charming as the gentle, soft-hearted Froh. Evgeny Ulanov’s Donner is considerably more powerful and interesting than certain recent interpretations of Norse myth have led us to expect the God of Thunder to be, though the thunderstorm he conjures towards the end could perhaps have been a little more dramatic. Overall though, it’s difficult not to be taken most with the trickster fire god, Loge. Mikhail Vekua makes a deliciously mischievous and cheerfully crafty Loge, swelling with conceit in his own cleverness and guaranteed to disappoint hundreds of teenagers besotted with Marvel’s mopey, misunderstood film version of Loki.

Wagner’s music, imagination and capacity for storytelling offer perhaps the perfect route in to opera for contemporary audiences: as Neil Brand explained in his Ringside talk, it is his musical style, radically different to anything that came before, which has been largely responsible for shaping our understanding of film scoring to this day. The Prelude to Das Rheingold makes it immediately clear that this is unlike anything you might expect from an opera by almost anyone other than Wagner, and the rhythms and dramatic beats of his compositions will be immediately familiar to the modern movie-goer.

088Overall then, an exciting start to the series, which promises to be something very special. More thoughts on the story of Das Rheingold to follow, as well as a review of Die Walküre which is showing at 5pm tonight.

For more information and to book tickets for The Ring Cycle, visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website.

Header image by N. Razina. Other images taken from the Birmingham Hippodrome blog.

Ringside: Film, Music and Adventure Inspired by Richard Wagner

ringsideTo celebrate the Mariinsky Opera’s upcoming performance of the Ring Cycle at the Birmingham Hippodrome, a series of special events were held over the weekend, each inspired by Richard Wagner’s iconic work. Across Saturday and Sunday, visitors were invited to enjoy a wide range of free and cheap performances around Birmingham’s Southside area.

Saturday’s Ringside programme kicked off at 11am with One of Our Singers is Missing, an interactive show that took the form of a kind of treasure hunt or murder mystery game, suitable for kids and grown-ups of all ages. Every 15 minutes throughout the day, small teams were sent off to search for a purportedly missing Mariinsky Opera singer named Albert. All was not what it first seemed, however: a simple walk round Southside soon turned into an epic adventure, that saw participants encounter a range of otherworldly beings who assisted them in the discovery of an all-powerful ring. A fun, free way to pass a Saturday afternoon with friends and family, One of Our Singers is Missing also offered a great opportunity to get to know Southside and perhaps to visit somewhere new.

DSCF3348[1]At 4pm, dramatist, author, musician and composer Neil Brand discussed the impact of Wagnerian opera on film music through the ages in the theatre’s Patrick Centre. His engaging two-part talk, Film Music and the Ghost of Wagner, explored explored the emotional and psychological effects of soundtracks on audiences, and how styles and dramatic structures first used by Wagner have always played an important part in making the movies what they are. Using examples ranging from early silent films to contemporary superhero blockbusters, Brand offered a fascinating and enlightening insight into the relationship between sound and pictures. In addition to examining the work of some of his favourite film composers, Brand also demonstrated how subtle changes in music can completely alter our perception of a story by playing two different versions of an accompanying score alongside silent footage of a shipwreck.

Neil Brand (credit TOM CATCHESIDES)The talk was immediately followed by a free concert in the theatre foyer, with students and former students of the Birmingham Conservatoire performing the “Siegfried Idyll”, a beautiful melody based on one of Brunnhilde’s songs from Der Ring des Nibelungen, thought to have been composed by Wagner as a sort of love letter to his wife. The Conservatoire played the piece perfectly: it was magnificent to listen to, and a great taster for the Ring Cycle itself, which will be staged from Wednesday through to Sunday this week. The evening then rounded off with cabaret from Kit and McConnel, who performed their opera-inspired comedy show The Fat Lady Sings.

Conservatoire SIEGFRIEDOn Sunday afternoon, The Electric Cinema played host to a special screening of Fritz Lang’s Siegfried, widely acknowledged as a masterpiece of the silent era. The film was accompanied by a live piano score from Neil Brand, who played throughout the film (over two hours) with an unflagging energy. The movie itself is a really interesting take on the myth that makes some significant changes to the story, notably that Brunhild is actively scorned by Siegfried rather than him being tricked into forgetting her. It also features an amazingly impressive dragon that actually breathes fire and smoke, which must have been some feat of engineering!

788px-Nibelungen_film1Ringside continues on Saturday 8th November with Brunch with the Brunnhildes: a brunch discussion with sopranos Susan Bullock and Catherine Foster who will discuss their experiences of performing in the Ring Cycle with Front Row‘s Matthew D’Ancona. For more information, click here.

Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen begins on Wednesday 5th November with Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold), and concludes on Sunday 9th November with Götterdämmerung (Ragnarök). For more information and to book, visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website.

Neil Brand photo by Tom Catchesides.