The Barenboim/Cassiers Production of Die Walküre at La Scala

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Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre at Teatro alla Scala. Photo Brescia e Amisano – Teatro alla Scala.

Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre at Teatro alla Scala. Photo Brescia e Amisano – Teatro alla Scala.

Teatro alla Scala, 2 January 2011
Die Walküre
by Richard Wagner

Conductor – Daniel Barenboim
Stage Director – Guy Cassiers
Scene Design – Guy Cassiers e Enrico Bagnoli
Costumes – Tim van Steenbergen
Lighting – Enrico Bagnoli
Video design – Arjen Klerkx e Kurt D’Haeseleer
Choreography – Csilla Lakatos

Cast (For the Berlin cast, click here.):
Siegmund – Simon O’Neill
Hunding – John Tomlinson
Wotan – Vitalij Kowaljow
Sieglinde – Waltraud Meier
Brünnhilde – Nina Stemme
Fricka – Ekaterina Gubanova
Gerhilde – Danielle Halbwachs
Ortlinde – Carola Höhn
Waltraute – Ivonne Fuchs
Schwertleite – Anaik Morel
Helmwige – Susan Foster
Siegrune – Leann Sandel-Pantaleo
Gringerde – Nicole Piccolomini
Rossweisse – Simone Schröder
Danzatori – Guro Schia, Vebjørn Sundby

In co-production with the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin and in collaboration with Toneelhuis (Antwerpen)

It is a curiosity of our times that I write this review of La Scala’s sixth and last performance of their new production of Die Walküre several weeks after audiences around the world have seen high definition video projections of earlier performances of the same production. A friend of mine residing in the Midwest has already seen it twice, but questions remain: seeing a broadcast through the eyes of video cameras is not the same as sitting in the house, with the interventions of the television director and the videographers standing between the audience and the event at La Scala. I haven’t seen a La Scala broadcast, and I have no idea of their particular style, which is hopefully more straightforward than the extremely mannered — no, gimmicky — Met broadcasts.

One has to begin with the extraordinary acoustics of La Scala. No other house, I believe, conveys the human voice in all its individual character as La Scala. The bloom of reverberation supports the tone, but stands discreetly back from the direct sound of the voice, giving the listener a vivid impression of the human voice like no other. The Nationaltheater in Munich is somewhat similar, but it is drier and more merciless in its exposure, and certainly less sensual. If I experienced an exceptional sense of intimacy in this production, it was as much because of the acoustics as the qualities of the production. The orchestra is also present, even close. In contrast to Bayreuth and the Semperoper, there is little acoustical atmosphere, but plenty of warmth: the orchestral sound is direct and sharply etched, with brass and percussion standing out with hair-raising clarity and strength. The Orchestra of La Scala — certainly one of the great opera bands — know how to play most brilliantly in this acoustic, and Barenboim, whose Bayreuth Ring is well known through CDs and video, adjusted his technique accordingly, taking full advantage of the hall’s extraordinary detail, to explore the Wagner’s score at close quarters in his own idiosyncratic, and often revelatory way. This Walküre sounded rather different than what audiences are accustomed to, and this was for the most part all for the better, not least for the gorgeous playing of the La Scala brass and woodwinds, as well as the wonderfully crisp percussion. The orchestral transitions at the end of Act II, scene 1 and Act III scene 3, with Barenboim’s emphasis on winds, were strange and wonderful.

Barenboim pursued extremes of tempo. While the Act I Vorspiel, for example, was exceptionally rapid, starting the performance off at a blazing pace, he favored mostly very slow tempi, some of the slowest I’ve heard. (Although it was officially timed at 225 minutes, ten minutes shorter than Knappertsbusch’s 1957 Bayreuth performance.) Barenboim seemed to have a strong rationale for this, to make the interchanges between the characters as dramatically expressive and as musically beautiful — phrase by phrase — as possible. He seemed deeply absorbed in Wagner’s text, and this theatrical element seemed to be mostly under his tutelage. Guy Cassiers, the stage director, seemed to be more interested in the visual aspects of the production — a startling contrast to the recent productions of Willy Decker and Tankred Dorst. The magnificent playing of the orchestra supported Barenboim’s breadth, but it is undeniable that the shape and momentum of the opera and its individual acts were compromised. This was a performance in which we lived very much in the moment, and it was actually none the worse for that. I also suspect, that if I were to see it a second time, that long-scale structural forms would emerge that would compensate for this impression. Although most tempi were so very slow, the performance had the feeling of passing by very quickly.

The orchestra was loud, but in the first two acts, it was well-balanced by the immediate projection of the voices. The third act, however, got off to a less than felicitous start in what I thought was an excessively raucous Ride of the Valkyries. Both musically and dramatically, the Valkyries lacked individuality in characterization, and the overall impression was rather chaotic. After hearing recently such disciplined and interesting approaches under Conlon and Thielemann, in which the Valkyries were very neatly individualized, and musically even treated as soloists rather than a chorus, I found this disappointing. On the other hand, it later came to me that Barenboim intended this to be precisely a wild, stormy, and chaotic scene — and in that he succeeded most impressively. However, I did get the impression that the orchestra was playing louder in the final act, occasionally covering the valiant singers for a bar or two. In Wotan’s farewell to Brünnhilde, Stemme and Kowaljow had some truly massive orchestral sound to cut through.

The cast was certainly one of the finest anyone is likely to hear today. Waltraud Meier tempered the emotionality and vulnerability of her character with musicianship of the highest order, observing Wagner’s phrasing, rhythms, and rests with meticulous care and refined taste. Her diction was eminently clear and her dramatic delivery eloquent. She, like the rest of the cast, seemed entirely at home in Barenboim’s hands, with his expressive nursing of each phrase. In this production, whether the idea comes from Meier, Barenboim, or Cassiers, Sieglinde is much more intensely excited by her discovery of Siegmund than Siegmund himself. After he has pulled out Nothung, Sieglinde takes it and wields it with expansive gestures. Simon O’Neill’s Siegmund never quite overcomes the weariness of his entry or his downtrodden look — which I assume is intentional, since his singing and his grasp of the part was intelligent and secure. While his voice was a strong as any, it is bright and thinner than that of some who take on Siegmund, showing little, if any, trace of the Heldentenor. With his elegant phrasing, he was a excellent match for Meier, and he, too, entered into Barenboim’s finely modulated dialogues. The great John Tomlinson gave his all for Hunding. His voice was in excellent form, and he portrayed a bitingly acidic Hunding, who was as much a Hausherr of the Gründerjahre as a warlord of mythical antiquity. His tongue was sharper than any sword he might wield against Siegmund.

John Tomlinson as Hundimg in Die Walküre at La Scala. Photo: Brescia e Amisano – Teatro alla Scala.

John Tomlinson as Hundimg in Die Walküre at La Scala. Photo: Brescia e Amisano – Teatro alla Scala.

Nina Stemme’s Brünnhilde, was, both technically and dramatically, at the very highest level. Singing with a full, golden voice worthy of the tradition of Leider and Flagstad, she left no reason to make excuses for inaccurate pitch, shaky production, or lack of control. Her phrasing and sense of the shape of Wagner’s lines was impeccable. Beyond this she brought a resonant humanity to her portrayal, which we rarely experience today. Her response to the doomed Siegmund and the suffering Sieglinde was deeply moving, as was her final dialogue with her father. She also captured the youthful, even tomboyish exuberance of Brünnhilde before she becomes entangled in Wotan’s intrigues.

This was the third time I’ve heard Vitalij Kowaljow’s Wotan this year, and it was unquestionably the finest. Barenboim’s flexible tempi and emotional penetration and the simplicity of the production made it possible for him to achieve a truly great Wotan. In Dresden last spring, the weak support he received from his conductor, John Fiore, compromised his performance. Noticeably fatigued, Kowaljow was surprisingly restrained and even somewhat dry in his final scene with Brünnhilde. In Los Angeles, he was burdened by Achim Freyer’s massive costumes and masks, which totally encased his head and body on stage. Here, in the relatively light costume he wore, he was free to sing and move about the stage, and Barenboim gave him plenty of space to mine his phrases for the deepest expressiveness and meaning. His voice showed a bright, but softly textured top, which enabled him to bring out the lyrical aspect of his lines, as well as Wotan’s tragic vulnerability and feeling. This was very much in the spirit of Hans Hotter’s great Wotan — and worthy of the comparison, although he would still have a long way to go to approach Hotter’s nuance of interpretation and voice. This does not mean that the tougher Wotans of Albert Dohmen and Greer Grimsley are less valid, but in this case Kowaljow was able to delve exceptionally deeply into the feelings of his tragic character, as he loses those who are dearest to him. Both he and Stemme held up perfectly well in the final scene, although the loudness and aggressiveness of Barenboim’s orchestral direction at this point — in contrast to the sensitive support he had provided in the first two acts — seemed like torture.

Ekaterina Gubanova’s Fricka was beautifully sung and impressively projected, with her large, crystalline voice. On the other hand, her treatment of the character was more a series of imposing attitudes than a real characterization like those of Doris Soffel at the Semperoper or Mihoko Fujimura at Bayreuth. In spite of these limitations Gubanova’s Fricka was powerful in its monolithic way. In her confrontation with Wotan in Act II, she seemed much like a force of nature, upholding the laws of human relations against her husband’s manipulations.

One can hardly complain if the musical component is stronger than the staging — which is the norm today. This production was better than that. In fact there were many beautiful moments in it, along with some serious shortcomings. Its most important virtue, however, was the simplicity of the way in which the principle singers were managed. They stood in straightforward blockings and were allowed a reasonable and convincing amount of mobility on stage. In this way we enjoyed direct, undistracted access to the work of the singers. Guy Cassiers, in fact, seemed deliberately to avoid getting involved in the interpretation of the characters. As I have mentioned, this seemed more the territory of Maestro Barenboim and the individual singers. The unity of music and drama seemed entirely natural of course, and the performance was only the better for it.

I only wish that I had been able to keep my eyes on the singers all the time and had had the fortitude to resist training my eyes on all the flashing colored lights and video animations in the background. These were not offensive or stupid in themselves. If these visual effects were less than successful, it was because of their excess. It was all just too much of a sideshow. Of course this points to more serious problems. By giving us too much to look at Cassiers and his associates show that they lack faith in the ability of Wagner’s music drama to hold our attention for the necessary time, and they must consider 225 minutes a very long time. This group — Stage Director and Scene Designer Guy Cassiers, Scene and Lighting Designer Enrico Bagnoli, Costume Designer Tim van Steenbergen, and Video designers Arjen Klerkx and Kurt D’Haeseleer — are ensconced at the Toneelhuis in Antwerp, where they have worked on a variety of different kinds of productions — all seemingly very interesting from the descriptions on the Toneelhuis site — but this seems to be their first attempt at Wagnerian music drama (Arjen Klerx has worked on a Flying Dutchman), and, from all the visual activity for activity’s sake they create, I have a sense that they do not really understand the genre.

It’s all in the music. La Scala’s luxurious program follows the archaic, but perhaps still useful practice of including a guide to the leitmotifs. Concentrating on the leitmotivs is not the best way to listen to Wagner, but it makes it entirely clear that Wagner wants us to visualize much of his epic through what we hear. Ideas and images meet on a common denominator in the leitmotifs. To make these visible on stage is redundant — unless Wagner has indicated it in a stage direction — distracting, and counterproductive. We don’t really need to see Wotan’s or Siegmund’s face projected on the set during a monologue. The effect is much more powerful if we listen and conjure up the image in the mind’s eye. Consequently, a lot of Messrs. Klerx and D’Haeseleer’s efforts have gone into redundancy.

The fire at the very end of the music drama was one of the strangest and least successful effects. A chandelier of globes resembling sun lamps descended over Brünnhilde’s now sleeping body. This was an intriguing image in itself, but eventually fluid began to drip from them, and steam rose upwards. There was not enough of either to create a meaningful effect, and I began to fear that something was wrong electrically. My companion, who was seated in a different section of the platea, said that a deposit of fluid was being formed around Brünnhilde’s rock, perhaps a kind of Sterno moat to protect her in the next music drama. Vedremo.

The very worst sin of this production was the fact that some of the most important video projections were not really finished. They were also quite possibly misconceived to begin with, showing a common modern vice: the striking image which is impressive for fifteen seconds, but, because of the length and structure of the music, which must linger before the eye for minutes on end, during which time their first impression evaporates, and they become boring, and eventually irritating. But when I say some of the videos are unfinished, I mean the pile of horseflesh in Act II, where a Rubensian Salade Russe of horses and heroes shows a few flashes of striking imagery and effective animation, and then begins to repeat itself over and over again. A rather creepy inchoate horse’s head at the top of it kept bobbing back and forth without really progressing into anything else, as Wagner’s music constantly does. My impression was that the video designers were unable to resolve this complex image into full animation and they left it as is. It is unacceptable that something half-baked like this should be shown in a major opera house: the La Scala management should not have tolerated it. In general, the lighting effects and animations were repetitive — something that would be more at home with the music of Philip Glass than Wagner’s, which is never repetitive. This production is really a sketch for a production, one which needs considerable work in developing what is incomplete, as well as a lot of cutting back.

On the other hand, the production has many fine qualities, and these are not only enjoyable in themselves and dramatically effective, but show that the Toneelhuis team are quite possibly groping their way in the right direction — especially if they leave the real dramatic content up to these great singers and Barenboim. I have already mentioned the simplicity in handling the human elements. Tim van Steenbergen deserves full marks for his discreet and clever costumes, which are flexible and light. The primitivism reflecting Wagner’s mythical time are combined with clothing styles from the third quarter of the nineteenth century. Brünnhilde and her sisters wear dresses which are both warlike and domestic, with a bustle she tucks up out of her way when she needs to move. Fricka wears a Biedermeier ball gown. Hunding’s outfit subtly suggests both the warrior and the tycoon.

I should describe few details of the design and direction. In Act I the protagonists enter and leave the otherwise traditionally primitive dwelling of Hunding through a modern vestibule of translucent glass, which recalls in structure Philip Johnson’s Glass House or some Miesian domicile. This allows the shadows of Siegmund and Hunding, as they enter and leave the stage, to create imposing shadows against the two forward walls, which meet at an angle.

A spinning globe atop a staff appears by Wotan. Projections come and go within it, including faces, which were not easy of identify. Most likely they were Siegmund’s and Wotan’s.

Siegmund’s death was both intelligent and effective, but also perhaps flawed by hyperactivity. Wotan appears before Siegmund, startling him. Wotan walks towards him, forcing him backwards towards Hunding’s weapon, so that he is an easy mark from the back. Siegmund’s death agonies are extended, and after Sieglinde takes her painful leave, Hunding strides over to him and finishes him off with a second skewering. A single red line descends over the scene. Meanwhile Wotan utters his fearsome command for Hunding to go to Fricka. Hunding, startled falls over dead. At the end of Act II, when Hunding kills Siegmund a single red line descends over the scene. Then a second red line descends. When the Valkyries appear at the beginning of Act III a great many red lines cover the scene, for all the dead heroes they have claimed.

Above all the design, which is in general at its most effective in generating a sense of atmosphere, supported the intimacy which seems important in Barenboim’s interpretation. In Act I the music and the design worked together to create an overwhelming feeling of intimacy, in which these three people are isolated together in the vast expanse of the forest and nature, working out their fateful interrelationships. Again, at the end of Act III, there was a poignant sense of Wotan and Brünnhilde’s total isolation in the universe.

I sincerely hope that Guy Cassiers and his colleagues will continue to develop — and prune — the production as the cycle unfolds. If they get it right, this could, stagewise, be one of the better Rings in this very busy period of Ring performance. Musically, it is already close to the top. In any case, I very much look forward to the continuation and completion of this Ring and to exploring the work of the Toneelhuis further.

Vitalij Kowaljow as Wotan and Ekaterina Gubanova as Fricka in Die Walküre at Teatro alla Scala. Photo Brescia e Amisano – Teatro alla Scala.

Vitalij Kowaljow as Wotan and Ekaterina Gubanova as Fricka in Die Walküre at Teatro alla Scala. Photo Brescia e Amisano – Teatro alla Scala.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

Readers Comments (4)

  1. I like the reference to the”friend in the Midwest”.

  2. I am glad to see your review of this production, which I saw via movie theater projection. I was ‘blown away’ by the beauty and excellence of the singing and dramatic portrayals. That was definitely a significant event, made all the more important as redemption and healing of the soul from another recent production (assault?; e.g., LA!).

  3. I have Barenboim’s new T&I at La Scala with Storey & Meier, and the sound (of course digital) is sumptuous. This would be the 3rd Barenboim Tristan I have. They progressively got longer – and the La Scala tips the scale with 3 DVDs and 5 hours of music.

    I think his Wagner tempi have become more perverse over the years (I have his Meistersinger as well), but your comment about being the “moment” is right. His ear for detail is great, and that counts for a lot.

    Structural listening, I think, can be quite projective and subjective. However, by all accounts Barenboim’s timings are straying from what Wagner probably wanted. Levine has a similar tendency, but I like Barenboim’s recordings as a sinful pleasure.

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