Review: Ring Cycle in Riga, Latvia, June 2013

Riga Opera Festival 2013


By Roger Cruickshank
Das Rheingold, director Stefan Herheim. Premier of this production 21 April 2006, performed at the Riga Opera Festival on 4 June 2013; Die Walküre, director Viesturs Kairišs. Premier of this production 2 March 2007, performed at the Riga Opera Festival on 5 June 2013; Siegfried, director Viesturs Kairišs. Premier of this production 6 June 2008, performed at the Riga Opera Festival on 7 June 2013; Götterdämmerung, director Viesturs Kairišs. Premier of this production 2 March 2007, performed at the Riga Opera Festival on 9 June 2013.

Richard Wagner lived in Riga between June 1837 and July 1839, working as music director of the Stadttheater. It was here that he began work on Rienzi, and to commemorate this brush with fame the Riga Summer Opera Festival staged a single cycle of Der Ring des Nibelungen, between 4 and 9 June 2013. Riga’s unknown unknowns (a phrase for which we thank Donald Rumsfeld) made it irresistible for two friends and me, especially with the chance to see its Stefan Herheim Rheingold. We had to go.

First, the singers were outstanding. Drawn from the Latvian National Opera with stars from opera companies in Scandinavia, Russia and Germany, they sang with the strength and subtlety that comes from mastery of familiar material. Crowd favourite was the Mariinsky’s Liubov Sokolova, who sang Erda (Rheingold, Siegfried), Rossweisse (Walküre), First Norn and Waltraute (Götterdämmerung). Ralf Lukas, the Rheingold Wotan, was born in Bayreuth, where he appeared in the recent Ring conducted by Christian Thielemann, and was a superb actor-singer, much appreciated by the audience. There were three Brünnhildes – German sopranos Katrin Gerstenberger (Walküre) and Sabine Passow (Siegfried), with English soprano Catherine Foster (Götterdämmerung), who sang all three roles in Bayreuth this year, to some acclaim. There was only one other Wotan–Wanderer, Latvian bass-baritone Egils Silinš, but amazingly he looked and sounded so different in Walküre and Siegfried that I took some convincing that the programs were right, and that they were both the same singer. His Wanderer was breathtaking. It’s embarrassing to listen to such vocal riches having never heard of the singers before, and being unable to pronounce many of their names, let alone commit them to memory.

The Riga opera house auditorium is small, and therefore singers can fill the hall without strain, which may explain some of the streams of glorious unforced sound that seemed to come from all of the major roles.

The orchestra, on the other hand, often sounded under- rehearsed, and there were two major disasters in the big set-pieces. At the very outset, they failed to bring the Rheingoldoverture together. There were no surging waves, no creation of the world. Miraculously, there was so much happening on stage that this almost didn’t matter, and once the singers entered everything seemed to come together. Hearing the worst Rheingold opening of your life doesn’t fill you with confidence about the next 15 hours of playing, but remarkably while the bad was dire, the good was often very good indeed.

The second set-piece disaster was Forest Murmurs, which never really came together either. It was more like the Belanglo Forest Murders. Everyone has a bad day, muffs an entrance or hits a wrong note or phrase of wrong notes, but generally it’s only one or two players who lose it, and such completely human mistakes are solved fairly quickly when everyone gets back in the groove. This mess lasted most of the set-piece, but as soon as Siegfried began to sing and fashion his reed into a pipe, everything came together and we were back on our journey.

The orchestra played right through each opera, without having relief players to take over after 2 or 3 hours as many orchestras do, and the strain of playing for long periods in an opera house pit without air conditioning wouldn’t have helped.

This appears to have been the first complete Ring cycle for 33-year-old German-born conductor Cornelius Meister, and overall despite some glitches, it was an outstanding musical success. The orchestral playing for Götterdämmerung, the most recently produced of the cycle, was the stand-out, which suggested that the rehearsals and performances in 2011 were still fresh in the players’ minds (and lips and fingers). I don’t know who conducted that premier season.

The productions can be viewed as two separate groups – Rheingold, directed at its opening in 2006 by Stefan Herheim; and everything else directed at their openings in 2007, 8 and 11 by Latvian Viesturs Kairišs.

The Rheingold was a visual feast despite having little to do with Wagner’s locations, text and plot. It was set on an over-stage, perhaps a metre above the real stage, built of planks running away from the audience, with fairly large gaps between some of them. During the overture, a Wagner body-double in silk jacket and large floppy green beret organises the three little maids from school, who are in dodgem cars with seats and school desks, running up and down the stage towards and away from the audience, spinning round and round, and having a great time without the possibility of collision. When these school girls settle down with their seats and desks at the front of the stage, facing towards a second curtained stage at the rear, Wagner writes in the air with his quill pen the words “Es war einmal...” (“Once upon a time...”) which appear on the scrim curtain in front of the set, and as the girls are about to sing, Wagner leaves the stage.

The Alberich-Rheinmaiden scene is a schoolroom, with Alberich the school teacher, and how could you have a school without the teacher molesting the children? After Alberich has tried fiddling with the first two sisters and been rebuffed, he sets his heart on Flosshilde, and during their exchange I experienced my first X-rated Wagner Moment. While teacher- Alberich has his hand up school-girl-Flosshilde’s skirt, and she has her hand down the front of his pants, Alberich is singing about the difficulty he has clambering over the moss-covered rocks at the bottom of the Rhein in his lust-filled pursuit, and in Latvian and English the surtitles proclaim something about “slithering and slimy”. It nearly brought the house down. The three little maids then undress and morph into blue-sequined aquatic cabaret Andrews Sisters, who stand on the teacher’s desk and admonish Alberich. But what of the gold; and what is the gold? The curtains hiding the stage at the rear of the set then open to reveal a model of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. The roof opens, and out pops Alberich, who steals this “gold” by climbing back inside and closing the roof behind him, after which the model trundles back behind the curtains. Scene one is over, and you, gentle reader, are hoping that someone takes a sharp editing knife to the rest of this review, or else it will take longer to read than it would have taken to watch the whole production.

What of Scene 2 on the Grassy Knoll? Well, this opens with Wagner (or rather Wotan-Wagner) back on stage with his silk jacket and large floppy green beret. Yes, it wasn’t Wagner who was organising the Rheinmaidens during the overture, it was Wotan. How we laughed. With him on stage are the usual Gods, and 20 or so of his closest friends – Liszt, Nietzsche, Goethe, King Ludwig and swan, Freud, Schopenhauer, Bismarck, the Kaiser, blah blah blah. All blokes. There’s a grand piano on stage, and it bursts into flame when a portly Donner dressed as a Brown-Shirt leaps on top to sing his entrance. Froh is Goebbels, and Fricka is Cosima, so that, when everyone tries to steal the gold religious icons with which the Gods ransom Freia, Cos takes a gigantic gold cross and tries to lug it Golgotha-wards across the stage, good little Catholic that she is. There’s also a couch on-stage, on which Freud and Nietzsche force poor Ludwig and his fake swan to lie down so they can pull out their notebooks and question him. Never an idle moment. Generally, these meaningless extras act out their parts without interfering with the text or music, although when they’re particularly impressed with something, they clap.

Then we descend into Nibelheim, and discover that Alberich is – you’ve guessed this already - Adolf Hitler. Nibelheim is like a concentration camp out of an Art Spiegelman Maus comic, with a giant swastika revolving like a windmill. And here we have one of the genuinely moving moments; the Nibelung hordes prostrate themselves on the stage, stretching out their arms, pleading with Wotan-Wagner and Loge to free them from Alberich’s accursed tyranny. It happened again when, after the Ring is stolen from Alberich, the horde was brought on stage to ransom Freia. Like the prisoners’ chorus fromFidelio but silent, this was so moving that it almost made the previous hour worth watching.

One unscheduled bonus occurred two hours into the performance, when in time to the music part of the vast glass chandelier that hovered above the patrons in the stalls exploded, showering glass on half-a-dozen or so surprised watchers. None of them left the auditorium, and instead remained in their chairs, nervously glancing upwards, holding tissues and handkerchiefs to their wounded heads and faces to stop the blood from interrupting their viewing pleasure.

There are a thousand other vignettes and moments involving the Rheingold cast you know, and the 20 extras you don’t, who became 40 when they changed into evening attire and returned accompanied by their wives. Without his beloved swan and out of uniform, King Ludwig was alas just another unrecognisable extra. I believe that this fashion for covering the stage with meaningless extras has taken off in Europe, and common gossip has it that we will have up to a hundred meaningless extras on-stage in the Neil Armfield Ring in Melbourne. How lucky are we? Some of them will probably be in Speedos and called Tony. Or is that the lead float at the next Mardi Gras? And is there a difference? Cornelius Meister took this Rheingold at quite a clip, and although it was over in 2 hours and 15 minutes, the after-match discussions carried on much longer; but we must move on.

The second group of productions was directed by Latvian Viesturs Kairišs – Walküre, Rheingold, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. After the bright lavish and frenetic activity of, these three presented a much darker world, seemingly on a much tighter budget, yet not without occasional humour and much humanity.

The highlights of these productions, a very subjective view, included Act 1 of Götterdämmerung, where the Hall of the Gibichung was replaced with a bedroom, almost completely filled by a giant bed, on which the three siblings romped in skimpy underwear. Gunther was a very large man, and what we all feared as he romped in the skimpiest attire came to pass – for no good reason, we saw him naked. Hagen had a hard time deciding whether he’d sleep with Gunther or Gutrune, but in the end Siegfried’s arrival, crashing through a large painting of trees and water on the wall above the bed-head, gave him something more interesting to think about. This bedroom setting may seem unconventional, but it worked amazingly well.

There were other entrances by crashing through things. When Siegfried, now in the form of Gunther by the magic of the tarnhelm, goes home to Brünnhilde, he arrives in their small one room dwelling by crashing out of a large analogue box TV. When Siegfried is standing in a derelict swimming pool with a washing machine to the side for no good reason, we know that someone will come crashing out of that as well – but I’m giving away the plot.

Siegfried is stabbed and killed by Gunther with a wire barbeque fork (on whose prongs sausages have been sizzling) in a scene set in a sauna, so that all the blokes get to be naked except for their white welcome towels. Few have any modesty left to protect, but we appreciate the gesture.

The Valkyries, who look like stunted bumble-bees, litter the stage of Walküre Act 3 with naked heroes, which provoked much doctrinal disputation; were they polystyrene fake naked men with their heads covered because it cost less to hire faceless bodies, or were they just thin extras with their heads covered out of embarrassment? There were claims that, like one of the male ballet dancers in Antony Ernst’s production of Salome here in Sydney, one of the naked men showed an alarmingly real physical reaction, but I didn’t have my binoculars so this little extra was lost on me.

When Hagen summons the vassals, he stands on a banquet table with a large horse’s head mounted on the tiled wall  behind him, which is the Siegfried swimming pool recycled. The bastards have killed Grane, and the wedding feast was probably horse meat.

Mime in Siegfried seems to follow Alberich’s first vocation as a school-teacher, and the Act 1 setting is a bourgeois room with walls lined with books, which gives Siegfried something to burn to get the furnace hot enough to re-forge Notung. (Get it? Burning books, just like the Nazis. Very subtle.) One of my companions teased the cognoscenti by commenting, a little too loudly, that Mime “wasn’t Jewish enough.” The forging scene like most descended into a sort of mechanical Masterchef, with Siegfried whipping out the sword he’d forged earlier in the day at the crucial point. We weren’t fooled. There was a giant TV screen, across which the same tedious message scrolled on and on for nearly an hour. Occasionally, the TV would burst into life, splutter, and then die, much to our relief. If you have a message, send a telegram.

The Catherine Foster Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde is rendered by the director as a flaxen-haired hippy in an American Indian outfit with tassels, who smokes dope, rolls a joint for Waltraute, fries eggs, and generally is very annoying and out of time and costume with everyone else on stage, until she frocks up in her wedding gown and things really start to go down-hill.

Siegfried’s funeral is a magnificent Brezhnev-era scene, with massive wreaths with the hero’s picture at their center, and the Gibichungs stolidly massed around the pyre. Here Foster takes command and becomes completely believable. By now, of course, the fact that she’s singing about stout logs being piled up and no-one is taking any interest is no surprise, since the production has never followed the text. But somehow in the home stretch it no longer matters.

In spite of the occasional hiccup, and some questionable directorial decisions, the cycle is a triumph, which makes me wonder what it is about the Ring that makes it seemingly impossible to mount a bad cycle. Perhaps it’s because professional artists and musicians will always ensure that the music, singing and staging are the best that they can be, within the constraints of the budget and director. If one of them falls over, most often these days the stage direction, the others will carry the work forward. In the end, two out of three ain’t bad. We were told that this cycle would be repeated, possibly in 2014 or 15, but the English-language websites for events in Latvia don’t mention it. If you’re in the region and have a spare week, you could do far worse than spend it in Riga, sampling the local food and history, and putting another Ring Cycle under your belt. At least you now know some of the delights that await you.