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Strasburg

 

Rodney Milnes

 

The staging of the Ring at OPERA DU RHIN, five years in the making, reached its conclusion with the first night of Götterdämmerung on February 25. The director throughout has been David McVicar, but there have been three conductors, and here the return of Marko Letonja was more than welcome. As with his Walküre in 2008, he ensured perfect balance with the stage, making every word easily audible in this (for me) almost ideally-sized venue for Wagner. You really feel part of what is happening. Despite an expressive left hand controlling the orchestral volume, Letonja gave the Strasbourg Philharmonic its head when this didn’t affect balance with the stage. They played as well as I have heard them, especially in the Rhine Journey, conducted without that admittedly tempting change of tempo at the modulation (bravo!). Letonja’s pacing was throughout most persuasive, flowing easily and with much expressive shading. He is a Wagner conductor to be reckoned with.

 

There was good news onstage, too. Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet was on far better form than in the 2009 Siegfried, her top steadier and warmer, her lower register more richly coloured. Again, a Brünnhilde to be reckoned with, and she is a fine actor. As is her Siegfried, Lance Ryan, who also has the advantage of heroic looks and a relaxed stage manner. His scene with the Rhinemaidens was most charmingly done, and it was sad that he started to tire soon after. His natural-sounding voice can sound slightly one-dimensional and fragile: is there much to spare? But for so sympathetic and generous a portrayal one can only be grateful.

 

Hanne Fischer’s Waltraute was outstanding, delivering her Narration—most cannily accompanied by Letonja (i.e. he kept it going)—with lovely sound and verbal insight. She doubled as Second Norn, and Nancy Weissbach similarly shared Gutrune and Third Norn. At a first hearing Daniel Sumegi’s bass sounded almost too round and warm for Hagen, when one expects a hard edge, but he lacked nothing in the volume stakes when McVicar sensibly placed him right down at the footlights for the big moments. Hagen can so easily seem just a cardboard villain, but the characterization Sumegi had worked out with McVicar was very interesting. There has to be a tragic dimension to the man, to his being impelled through parentage to be an outsider. In my experience only Karl Ridderbusch has suggested this. There is no black-and-white in Wagner, rather infinite shades of grey. Robert Bork’s Gunther sang relentlessly loudly, surely a misjudgement for so insecure a character.

 

In this final instalment McVicar’s overriding concern was, as before, with clarity of narrative. He is telling a story, and it is Wagner’s story, not anyone else’s. Within it there is much unobtrusive detail—in use of masks, in who goes barefoot and when and why—and there is much visual poetry amid Rae Smith’s simple and mostly abstract decor, so eloquently lit by Paule Constable. The personification of Gold was one of the coups in Rheingold, and he returns at the final curtain—better him than Alberich. And the personification of Grane (David Greeves) is another coup, movingly and excitingly handled—he joins his mistress in a spectacular leap onto a flaming funeral pyre.

 

The audience reception was wildly enthusiastic, and McVicar brought the stage staff on to share the applause. This is a very good Ring. Now for the bad news. The new Intendant, Marc Clémeur, has with a wave of the hand cancelled the planned cycles, which seems to me an absolute outrage, a prodigious waste of talent, communal effort, artistic investment and, for heaven’s sake, money. There should be Questions in the House, though I know not which house or where. I understand that he has undertaken not to junk the sets and costumes for the time being, so any company in need of a Ring could jump in. Someone should.

Wexford Festival 2014
Opera Awards in association with OPERA Magazine