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: Siegfried performed by the Mariinsky Opera

Ziegfried © N.Razina (4)

The third instalment of the Mariinsky Opera’s Ring Cycle at the Birmingham Hippodrome is probably as enjoyable as opera gets. It’s a rare and wonderful thing to see such excellent playing, singing and acting all in one performance, but Siegfried had it all.

Much of the show’s success is down to the unbridled charisma of its leading man, Mikhail Vekua, a true star whose performance throughout is positively effervescent. Having previously stood out in Das Rheingold as the cunning Loge, Vekua takes to this new part with a matchless energy and enthusiasm, transforming a character who can all-too-easily come across as stupid and obnoxious into an endearingly happy child, his naive overconfidence made funny rather than irritating. Laughing and dancing around the stage, this is a Siegfried whose love of life and wonder at the world are irresistibly infectious. Another of his talents is understanding how to fill the gaps between singing, pulling the performance together as one fluid whole, rather than treating it a series of songs strung together.

Act I opens with a dramatic set, where Siegfried is being raised by Mime in isolation.  The jealous and embittered dwarf clinks away in his workshop to produce useless swords that our hero instantly and effortlessly snaps when he arrives on the scene. Andrey Popov returns to his role as Mime, giving a quality comic performance once again. His pantomime villainy stands in sharp contrast to the commanding presence of Vladimir Feliauer, the third in the series to take up the role of the ruling god, Wotan. Feliauer’s rich, powerful voice complements his powerful stage presence when he arrives at Mime’s workshop, blending comedy with a darker, more threatening aspect as he makes a wager with the treacherous dwarf. With Wotan here disguised as the Wanderer, he also gets to wear a fantastic, extra wide-brimmed, western-style hat that I’ll confess to being rather jealous of.

Valery Gergiev photo by Alexander Shapunov 1Popov’s comic timing also makes a great match for Vekua’s earnestness, and the two bounce off each other to hilarious effect throughout the first act, Siegfried bounding onto the stage with a bear in tow, brought to torment his wailing master. The act closes with a return of the dancing flames that surrounded Brünnhilde’s mountain prison in Die Walküre, serving now as the fiery furnace that Siegfried uses to smelt and reforge his father’s sword, Notung. Eagerly taking up the metal and responding to the blowing of Siegfried’s bellows, the dancers are even more effective in this context.

Act II sees the squabbling Nibelung brothers reunited, with Edem Umerov back on top form as the greedy Alberich. In this act, too, the creepy, giant statues that have populated the stage throughout the cycle become a stunning and deeply unsettling dragon, arranged like sections of an enormous, serpentine body that rise and fall in turn. Untroubled by the monster he faces, Siegfried engages in a cheery duet with a passing bird. Dressed in a delicate, feathered costume, Anastasia Kalagina is totally transporting as the Woodbird, her mellifluous voice bringing an ethereal beauty to the gentle, fluting melody. As glorious as the duet is, however, it also makes room for comedy: Siegfried’s early, futile attempts to communicate with the bird using his pipe and horn drew a few giggles from the audience.

Act III introduces a suitably majestic Erda in Zlata Bulycheva, who reels in dismay after Wotan wakes her from a long slumber, only to reveal what a dreadful mess he’s made of things while she’s been sleeping. Next to hers, Wotan’s supposed wisdom falls away, his lofty thoughts appearing little more than childish folly. The interaction between Feliauer and Bulycheva is gripping, and her despair at the news he brings her is visceral. Their scene together begins with a terrible thunderstorm, brilliantly realised by both the orchestra and Gleb Filshtinsky’s lighting.

Following straight after, the exchange between Wotan and his little-knowing descendant is highly entertaining, with Vekua managing to come out well even of the rudeness and insolence he shows to his disguised grandsire, and Feliauer convincing in his struggle to control his temper. More great lighting helps to build up drama as Siegfried snaps the Wanderer’s spear in two, yet Siegfried himself, oblivious to all this, gaily carries on his way to meet his sleeping lover.

Olga Sergeyeva, though quite different from her predecessor, makes an excellent Brünnhilde, rising to the huge challenge of conveying the character’s turbulent emotions upon awakening. Overjoyed to see Siegfried yet still horrified by the shame of her plight, she struggles to get over the (heavily symbolic) damage Siegfried has done to her armour, for all she insists that she loves him. His oblivious, adolescent ardour, meanwhile, makes for some of the show’s best comedy, surpassed only by his terror and confusion upon first discovering her (“This is not a man!” he cries, falling over backwards in shock). But despite a troubled start to their relationship, thanks to the great dynamic between Sergeyeva and Vekua, it’s a romance we could easily believe might have a fighting chance – if we didn’t already know better.

Though the Mariinsky’s Die Walküre has some wonderful moments, its Siegfried is on another level. There’s not a bad word to be said for it.

Look out for my review of the epic final part of the tetralogy, Götterdämmerung, to follow shortly.

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

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.