Review: A Polished Vienna Ring, 2009

By Jan Bowen
Given the current global financial crisis, Wotan’s difficulties in coming up with the ready to pay for Valhalla almost certainly struck a chord with many modern day cash- strapped members of the audience. The enduring relevance of Wagner’s magnum opus was strikingly evident in the Vienna Staatsoper’s recent Ring Cycle if for no other reason than its timing.

The joy of this [new] production was that director, Sven-Eric Bechtolf didn’t even try to turn it into an excuse for ideological axe-grinding or pseudo-political aggrandising. There were no Nazi stormtroopers, no white shoe brigade, no scenes from Abu Graib. But nor were there outmoded sylvan glades and bearskins, and there was plenty that was thought-provoking for a contemporary audience. Bechtolf’s striking achievement was to illuminate the work rather than institute a takeover.

A few jarring touches notwithstanding [most of us could have done without the wolf carcass in Walküre, although that might have been undue squeamishness since the reference to the Volsungs was clear enough], this was a Ring that was timeless in approach with restrained staging and simple costumes that suggested both tradition and contemporary fashion.

The heroes dashing around the stage trying to dodge the Valkyries also generated some audience ‘anti’ sentiment, although personally I enjoyed the humour - their heroism didn’t quite extend to being dragged off to the afterlife by a mob of bullying sheilas! Other touches were unequivocally brilliant. Encasing Brünnhilde in a gauzy cocoon to be reborn when an impatient Siegfried tears and finally uses Nothung to cut it away as the music builds to a frenzied climax, was one.

The vocal star of this Ring was unquestionably the American tenor Stephen Gould as Siegfried. In a role that is regarded by many present day tenors as unsingable, Gould not only looked good, he acted intelligently and convincingly and he sang with a rich, pliant voice, finishing as strongly as he started. It can often be hard to feel much sympathy for Siegfried, boorish youth that for the most part he is, but Gould left no doubt as to his heroic status.

Eva Johannsen could perhaps best be described as a satisfactory Brünnhilde although she is unlikely to go down as one of that role’s great exponents. On the plus side, she had plenty of power and, with her long blonde hair and swashbuckling gait she was every inch a Valkyrie. On the downside there was often an uncomfortably hard edge to the voice and she never really got inside the persona, was never really able to convey the wisdom and warmth and passion that makes Brünnhilde the greatest female character in all opera, never, in other words, set the stage alight. Still, she did a great line in fury, spitting out her anger at her betrayal by Siegfried and the Gibichungs with vituperative venom. Vocally, however, she was well and truly upstaged by Nina Stemme, whose luscious-voiced Brünnhilde, when she took that role in Siegfried, followed an exquisitely melting Sieglinde. It augurs well for her scheduled full Brünnhilde in Los Angeles next year.

Excellent at his best, but less consistently so was the Wotan of Finnish bass baritone, Juha Uusitalo. It will be interesting to see if the hopes that are held for him as a new Ring star are realised, in particular whether he develops the necessary stamina to last the distance. Having had to be replaced half-way through opening night in the 2007 run-up performance of Walküre, in this production he noticeably tired at the end of Rheingold. However, by the next night he had recovered and his great Walküre Act 2 monologue, Was keinem in ich künde, had all the power and presence it needed to make it unforgettable.

In this star cast, Johan Botha as Siegmund, remained problematic. Liquid-toned as he is, the days of “the opera isn’t over til the fat lady [man, in this case] sings” are well and truly over; Botha’s girth and total lack of acting ability put paid to any hope of even simulated passion with Sieglinde.

In other roles, humorously swaggering, general wise-guy Adrian Eroed as Loge, stole the show whenever he was on stage, Tomasz Konieczny was a powerful Alberich and American bass, Eric Halfvarson, a rich-voiced and malevolent Hagen. I had seen Mihoko Fujimura as an impressive Fricka in Bayreuth a few years ago and this time she was a stand out Waltraute.

The real star of the show though was Franz Welser Möst conducting the Vienna Philharmonic like a man possessed. Occasionally his enthusiasm got the upper hand and the singers struggled to be heard, but we were sitting six rows from the front and I suspect there would have been a more even blending of sound in seats further back. In any event, for me, an occasional lapse into volume overdrive was more than compensated for by the almost visceral passion. The Vienna band is sometimes accused of being a bit on the cool side. Not under this leader.

We were part of Renaissance Tours’ most recent ‘Ring trip’. Most of us had seen many previous productions. All in all, a few gripes and flaws notwithstanding, vocally, visually and above all, musically, this was a Ring to relish and to remember – for a lifetime!