Der Ring des Nibelungen: Götterdämmerung by the Mariinsky Opera

Gotterdammerung © N.Razina (2) (1)The final part of Wagner’s epic masterpiece begins and ends with a group of three sisters, creating a kind of elegant symmetry both within the show itself and across the Ring Cycle as a whole – a satisfying circularity appropriate to its title and themes, that lends the story’s outcome a sense of inevitability.

At the start of the Mariinsky Opera’s Götterdämmerung, the three Norns – daughters of Erda and weavers of fate – appear on a relatively empty stage, with dimmed lighting coloured a warning red. Surrounding them, silent, dreadlocked dancers are arranged in a ring, passing the Norns’ rope around their circle to maintain a delicate status quo until the rope runs out, having broken on the rocks it was tied to. Themselves embodying the broken strands, the dancers separate, and as they exit, their loping gait and contorted poses create the image of fate itself trudging miserably and unwillingly onwards, powerless to prevent the catastrophe that humans, dwarfs and gods alike will bring upon themselves. It’s a powerful opening, setting a dark tone for the rest of the show.

Götterdämmerung features another excellent Siegfried/Brünnhilde pairing in Andreas Schager and Larisa Gogolevskaya. Some time having elapsed between the events of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, the characters that we meet at the start of the show have changed significantly in the interim. Stripped of her armour and dramatic hair and make-up, Brünnhilde immediately seems much meeker and more vulnerable than previously, and Gogolevskaya’s performance reflects this change: initially passive, contained and apparently content with domesticity, it’s difficult to equate this mortal woman with the powerful warrior and demi-goddess we encountered in Die Walküre. Siegfried, meanwhile, though as cheerful and energetic as ever, has lost a little of his callowness, having begun to absorb some of his lover’s wisdom. More important than any knowledge she might have imparted, however, is the fact that he has learned to respect another person.

Meanwhile, in the court of King Gunther, Mikhail Petrenko reappears as the king’s half-brother and closest adviser, Hagen. The son of the ring’s creator, Alberich, Hagen is bitter and twisted, fed on hate and spurred on by jealousy of his more noble, legitimate siblings. Another of Mariinsky’s genuine stars, Petrenko is perfect in the role, conveying the loathing and malice bubbling away beneath a thin exterior of calm and composure. His deep, sonorous voice has apparently designated him the “baddie” of the company – he previously portrayed both Hunding and Fafner in his dragon form – but despite some stand-out acting in the former role, this is the first of his three parts that really gives him space to show off his vocal talents. Mlada Khudoley also makes an excellent Gutrune, in great voice and giving a more nuanced acting performance than in her previous part as Sieglinde.

1Soon after arriving at Gunther’s hall, Siegfried is tricked by Hagen into forgetting all about his beloved, in order that he might marry Gutrune while Brünnhilde is herself claimed by Gunther. Upon his drinking a magic potion brewed by Hagen, all memory of Brünnhilde is washed away, and with it all her teachings: at this point, we see Siegfried revert back to his conceited former self, only this time, he comes off as considerably more dislikeable.

Back on Brünnhilde’s mountain, one of her former fellows risks Wotan’s anger by showing up to warn her sister of the grave danger the gods and the world as a whole are in. This Valkyrie, Waltraute, is played by Olga Savova, who brings the same powerful stage presence, stunning voice and emotional depth to this part that made her so compelling as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre.

Gunther’s court features some of the Cycle’s best set design, with grand pillars supporting a moveable platform that creates a sort of smaller, second stage, allowing action to take place on two levels and adding a sense of depth and scale to the show. This works particularly well when Hagen calls the army to prepare for Brünnhilde’s arrival, bellowing orders at the soldiers from high above them. The soldiers themselves are also excellent: this is the only part of the Ring Cycle to feature a chorus, and as a result, this scene is one of Götterdämmerung‘s most visually and musically striking moments. More gorgeous lighting creates the mood, with a sunset sky burning a bright, blood red in anticipation of the tragedy that will follow.

It’s upon Brünnhilde’s learning of her betrayal by Siegfried that Gogolevskaya really comes into her own acting-wise, balancing disbelief and confusion with horror, humiliation and fury. From this point on, we seem to see another version of Brünnhilde – no longer the mild, passive creature that appeared at the start of the show and allowed herself to be captured for Gunther, but the steely demi-goddess who once collected dying heroes from battlefields. Ultimately Götterdämmerung is Brünnhilde’s story, and Gogolevskaya rises to the emotional challenges of the end of the show: all eyes are upon her as the character makes her final, fatal decision.

It’s a fantastic end to truly incredible series of shows, and an experience I feel very privileged to have had. Next week, I’ll be attending two more operas at the Hippodrome – Carmen and Moses in Egypt – this time performed by the Welsh National Opera. They’ve definitely got a tough act to follow!

Header image by N. Razina. Second photograph by Alexander Shapunov.

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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.

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.