Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Götterdämmerung – The Twilight of the Gods

New York Metropolitan Opera – Simulcast Saturday 11th February 2012

I’d forgotten just how spectacular this opera is musically!  I don’t simply mean the well known sections, like Siegfried’s Funeral March, but the way that Wagner weaves his leitmotifs together to tell the story at a different level from the words being sung; or sometimes to comment on the action, by revealing in the music, the forces at work behind the drama.  I will never again say that the first scene with the Norns is boring!  This time, listening with a more educated ear, Wagner’s genius and hard work just blew me away!  
In this production the whole cast was of the highest quality.  I can criticise none of them for their singing or their musicality.  In fact I’m totally in awe of the principals who are capable of sustaining their concentration and physical resources over such a long period of time.

Deborah Voigt and Waltraud Meier

Deborah Voigt as Brünnhilde, was exceptional.  She was always spot on with timing and intonation, and when she had to deliver her major effort in the immolation scene at the end, she sailed majestically over the orchestra!

Waltraud Meier as Waltraute, in the scene between her and Brünnhilde, piled on the passion as she pleaded with Brünnhilde to give up the ring. Deborah Voigt answered in the same manner. This was a most effective scene between two excellent performers.

Jay Hunter Morris
Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried had no problem depicting the part vocally since he has a natural “heldentenor” tone.  Apparently he stepped in quite late to take the title role in “Siegfried”, for which he was the understudy, and fully justified his opportunity.  He couldn’t look the part better if he’d been specially made for it.  His long fair hair, baby blue eyes and powerful physique looked every inch the hero, but with just a hint of boyish naivety!   In the interval interview, his soft southern drawl, when I was expecting a German accent, was a bit of a shock!
Hans Peter Konig and Wendy Bryn Harmer
Hans Peter König as Hagen has a full resonant bass voice, massive stature and dark looks all of which are well suited to the role, and in the earlier scenes he came through strongly dramatically.   I think, however, that in the later scenes he was not well served by the direction, because, from time to time, there were moments when his evil presence should have been much more prominent, and somehow he just retired into the crowd.

Wendy Bryn Harmer as Gutrune, wasn’t the slight, sad, submissive creature that I’ve seen in other productions.  This Gutrune though naive, was open and smiling.  She didn’t deserve to be manipulated by her half brother Hagen and one felt sorry for her when she learnt of Siegfried’s death. 
Iain Paterson as Gunther is a fine actor with good stage presence, and he created a very believable persona in what is often considered to be a minor part.  
Iain Paterson
He has a strong voice and this supported his interpretation of Gunther as a well renowned, if not heroic, leader who knows his own limitations.  He genuinely likes Siegfried and is serious about swearing a blood oath of brotherhood with him.   Of course, he also lacks moral integrity and is easily manipulated by Hagen. 
I was impressed by Iain Paterson's reading of Gunther and congratulate him on portraying much more depth in the role than I was previously aware of and than most performers reveal.

Eric Owens as Alberich , when he appeared in his short duet with Hagen, easily imposed himself on the scene.  His has a very strong stage presence, which was well supported by his voice and physique.
Eric Owens

The Metropolitan Opera orchestra was very ably directed by Fabio Luisi.  Overall it was an excellent performance and I have just a couple of minor quibbles.  He stated in the interval that he was trying to brush away the accumulated heavy Germanic tradition of Wagner performances.  Occasionally this led him into taking a few tempi rather fast, sometimes pushing the singers to accelerate their phrasing.  At the end the orchestra was, understandably, tired resulting in a few untidy brass chords but it was a long live performance!  

Hagen in the hall of the Gibichungs

So that leaves the production by Robert Lepage.  It’s difficult to describe in words but instead of conventional scenery and flats they used a series of huge triangular shaped segments, pivoting around a horizontal axis and extending right across the stage.  To paint these segments with colour and movement they used video projection.  This is a flexible system and can be very effective, for example, by setting some of the segments vertically one can create the pillars of the Gibichung’s hall.   Or by setting all the segments at a shallow angle, and then projecting water flowing around rocks, one could create the Rhine for the Rhine Maidens, (who, by the way, were all excellent and whose voices blended very well).

Once you have decided to take this route, which unsurprisingly has had its mechanical problems, you’re more or less forced to use it throughout.  So then the quality of the video, or the graphics, becomes supremely important.  This was mixed.  I got tired of the wood grain effect associated with the Gibichung’s hall, and at times I couldn’t see the relevance of moving some of the segments but not others. 
I thought that the ending of the whole opera, when Valhalla burns, was very weak.  The flames were not convincing, and the collapsing of a few plaster gods into dust at an upper level was a very poorly conceived idea, a real damp squib.   
I also really hated Grane, Brünnhilde's mechanical metal horse, which was extremely ponderous and unnecessary.  It should be quickly put out to grass!  Why not have it on video in the distance? That way it could also fly instead of slowly trundling along!
There should also have been much more use of traditional stage lighting as a backdrop to the projected images.  
We are all so used to fantastic CGI effects that there is much more scope for creativity using projection than was demonstrated in this production. But rather than try to compete with movies, I think that for future productions using this system they ought to employ a contemporary artist to design the projected graphics and videos, looking for a more abstract effect.  Perhaps they should use someone like David Hockney, who did such a brilliantly inspired job for the Magic Flute, Tristan and other operas in the seventies and eighties. 
But if you’re lucky enough to have booked tickets to see the whole Ring cycle in the spring don’t let these criticisms put you off.   Based on this simulcast I can assure you that you’ll enjoy it!  The music and images are still going round in my head days later!

Monday, 6 February 2012

Ny Malagasy Orkestra – The National Orchestra of Madagascar

On Saturday, at Prudhomat in the Lot, outside the Salle des Fetes it was minus 8 deg C, but inside it was hot and getting hotter.  The NY Malagasy Orkestra was performing their second set and my friends and acquaintances had the rare treat of seeing me dancing along with the rest of the audience!

These guys are really good musicians.  They come from all parts of Madagascar and play mostly traditional instruments like the strange double necked box guitar, a three string bass and a box harp.  The amplification of their acoustic instruments allowed them to perform and be heard in front of the gloriously indisciplined audience (I’m more used to opera and classical music).  They also use an accordion, a real guitar, violins and of course percussion.  They have excellent performers in all sections. 

Compared to some of the West African all electric bands that I’ve heard, their sound is more delicate and balanced. It was ideal for the smallish room where about 300 people had gathered. 
Justin Vali is a real virtuoso on the valiha, the instrument in the middle of this picture, which is traditionally made from a single piece of bamboo, but now often has steel strings that can be replaced when required.

The group had been in St Céré for a week and had visited the schools and the École de Musique so the kids were all there with their parents.  It was a very good night for the Lieu Commun, a local cultural organisation who promoted the residency, which is part of a winter festival they have called Madagascar en Quercy.
As well as playing African polyrhythms superbly, the members of the Orkestra  can also sing really well in harmony.

And finally, here’s a video of Justin Vali, who presented the evening, looking very cool in his Elvis shades and with his own troupe of dancing girls.  Well if you’ve got it flaunt it!

If they're ever performing near you don’t miss them!