CDs / DVDs, 28. October 2006
The Amsterdam Ring
reviewed by Katerina Haka-Ikse

The 1999 Ring at the Muziektheater was the first full cycle produced in Amsterdam after 50 or so years. Das Rheingold was presented in 1997 and Die Walküre the year after, in preparation for the four cycles staged last June.

The production was an exuberant sometimes audacious exercise subject as such to excesses and pitfalls. The production team was more than usually multinational with Director Lebanese Pierre Audi, Stage Designer Russian George Tsypin, Lighting Director German Wolfgang Göbbel, Costume Designer Japanese Eiko Ishioka and Choreographer Iranian Amir Hosseinpour.

The (Non) Concept:?The team's manifesto was the move away from "concept" productions and back into the mythical context of the tetralogy. The message was conveyed in several ways: the stage was made expansively vast to evoke impressions of cosmic creation. It was at all times open with just a reminder of the curtain, a metallic rectangle covering only a miniscule fraction of the open space. To gain the additional stage space the proscenium was extended at the sacrifice of the pit and the first 2-3 seat rows. By necessity if not by design, the orchestra was positioned in full view on the stage. There were no boundaries between the performers, the musicians and the audience, neither between the stage and the amphitheater. Strangely enough this blending did not appear incongruous even when cavemen and people in tails were next to each other on the stage or Alberich descended into the audience. Primal elements--water, wood, metal and stone--were brought in as well to create the theme for each successive music drama. Reminders of animal origins were added here and there: Alberich's maleness display to the Rhinemaidens; Mime's disguise into a hairy, waspy insect with spidery fingers and his performing a bodily act of dominance over dead Fafner's body; Hagen's sniffing Siegfried upon his arrival at the Gibichung's Hall.
To symbolize adversity as a central theme of the Ring the orchestra's positioning on stage rotated from one drama to the next in a counterclockwise direction. Another reminder of the Ring's doomed destiny was the gradual elimination of exits from the stage until in Götterdämmerung there was but one left. The steep stage surfaces upon which the action took place were to represent the precarious, life--on the edge fate of the protagonists. The cleverly but perilously suspended on each side of the stage "Adventure Seats" reserved for the intrepid rock climbing crowd who watched the events from Olympian heights, contributed to impart a sense of imminent danger.
Regrettably, the grandiose background led eventually to audience fatigue if not alienation. As the setting was not always matched with equal grandiosity from the performers it detracted from the intensity of the drama and yes, sometimes from the music.

The Orchestras:?Hartmut Haenchen had the difficult task to direct three orchestras: the Residentie Orkest in Rheingold, the Netherlands Philarmonic in Walküre and Götterdämmerung, the Rotterdams Philarmonic in Siegfried. He did so with ease and firm control, managing to convey unity and articulate clearly the motives. The cavernous stage and the rotating positioning of the orchestra presented acoustical problems partly resolved by the use of overhanging panels which doubled on occasion as, scenery parts. There were great moments, particularly by the Rotterdams strings. There were also disappointments such as the almost inaudible hammering at the Nibelheim, the lack of lustre at the conclusion of Götterdämmerung.
Das Rheingold had a flowing, seamless quality, having been revised after earlier presentations. It was the most polished of the four Ring parts.
The Rhinemaidens, clad in red, garrish, curve exaggerating snorkeling outfits, swam on a steep, transparent platform representing the Rhine. Cudos are due to Alberich (Henk Smit) for his velvety baritone and his perfect rendering of the anti-hero's role. He filled the gamut of frustrated lust at the Rhinemaidens' cruel teasing to spasms of rage at his humiliation and victimization by Wotan. The struggle between the two when in the second act they played tug pulling on the rope with which Alberich was tied up, created electric tension. The curse was chilling, vocally and dramatically. In comparison, John Bröcheler was a pale Wotan, lacking majesty, consumed by greediness and his own anxieties. Loge (Chris Merritt) sported the Nibelungs' flattened cranium to insinuate that-- according to the readers of the Scriptures--he was himself half-Nibelung. He was tepid, tying and untying knots on his scarf to symbolize his machinations. Loge's name deriving from the Greek word logos (reason) should suggest a nobler interpretation of the role.

Peter Mikulas and Carsten Stabell as the giants Fasolt and Fafner for the Netherland's Opera (photo: Ruth Walz)
The giants (Peter Mikulas as Fasolt and Carsten Stabbel as Fafner) were vocally authoritative and imposing in gray, foam rubber suits closely emulating all anatomical contours and with high head gear which gave them the necessary mass and placed them in another rank than the elaborately costumed Gods and the E.T.-like earth coloured, head flattened Nibelungs.
This was the only production I know of, where Wotan did not keep dancing around or brandishing the spear which was instead suspended free in mid-stage, touched only in crucial moments, when it was used to slay Fasolt, for example.
Alberich's metamorphosis into a dragon was most effective with projector lights as eyes and long metallic cylinders as tentacles. This was a welcome change from the barely noticeable Nibelung smithy which conveyed little of the dwarfs' anguished toiling. Anne Gjevang's Erda was mesmerizing, entering and exiting in slow majestic motion, not exposed to the usual gimmicky indignities of springing out of the earth or bundles of cloth. But why was she made to wear vampish high heel sandals?
DIe Walküre stage was dominated by a wide, semi-circular wooden ramp climbing up to full height. Many colours of wood were crafted together, emphasizing the sweeping movement of the ramp. In the hollow created by the ramp's sweep lay the orchestra. A large beam horizontally hung over the stage was the ash tree on which the sword and several spear-like projections were attached. Hunding's hut, a mere garden shed, was standing on the beam-ash tree. The performers had to run up and down the ramp which made one feel sympathetic for Jeannine Altmeyer (Sieglinde on that cycle) who, as the gossip goes suffers from fear of heights: she needed special coaching to negotiate the ramp's challenges apart from wearing, as all performers had to, specially treated shoes to grip on the steep, polished surfaces. John Keyes' Siegmund was tormented, movingly sung. Kurt Rydl (Hunding) carried easily Act I with his powerful presence and his effortless, authoritative bass. The doomed twins were not helped by the lighting effect that substituted for the door's opening to spring; this was hardly perceptible and the magic of that moment lost. This was just one example of the unevenness of the lighting throughout the production: it ranged between the unnecessarily explosive (which earned Audi the nickname of pyromaniac by the local press) to the anemic. Gobell saved his pyrotechnics for the end of the first act when Hunding's hut went up in flames as the twins ran away.
Bröcheler as the aging Wotan showed increasing depth and range of emotion in his encounter with Fricka but she was the winner and not only in their dispute. Reinhild Runkel's Fricka was old and incapacitated, moving slowly with the help of two canes. The rams pulling her chariot in the text were now the handles of her canes. As she flashed them under Wotan's eyes, she was really claiming the Wälsungs' heads. Fricka's physical disability in sharp contrast with her strong mezzo and the power of her dialectic was a tremendous dramatic vehicle for the role.
The Valkyries, in black coats, shiny helmets (no horns!) and silvery wings attached to their sleeves danced in circles with no reference to their equestrian nature. Nadine Secunde was an experienced but no exciting Brünnhilde. Altmeyer made a good statement with a resounding Redemption motive.
Wotan's self reproach and self search, also his confrontation with Brünnhilde in Act 2 were quite convincing--he kneeled by dead Siegmund in a moment of utter grief and humility. He was superb in his contemptuous dismissal of Hunding, so god-like as there was no wonder of its fatal consequences. In the last act, Wotan leads Brünnhilde to the magic sleep, which provides a fitting closure. Instead of the fire circle there was a rectangular glass-illuminated wall in the background with an extension of red lighting– not a remarkable solution and not comfortable to the eye either, as many people from the audience complained.
In Siegfried the curse of Alberich seems to become more potent with time. The target now seems to be Siegfried in the person of the heldentenors trying the role with more or less mediocre results. The Siegfried of today is small in stature (in real and figurative terms), oftentimes in voice, invariably attired in whimsical costumes and having very little in common with an heroic character. One suspects that all these have by now become genetic traits. Heinz Kruse who was Siegfried in Amsterdam fits the description of the syndrome to a tee; moreover he lost almost completely his voice as he was wooing Brünnhilde. Covered by a long overcoat he was miniscule next to his huge sword and-- ultimate insult--he was made to carry a child's backpack in the form of a furry animal. The curse took an unexpected turn when on the opening night, eagerly running to take his bow Kruse fell and suffered a fracture, had to be replaced in the following Götterdämmerung performance.

Graham Clarke's Mime or Mime's Graham Clarke (one tends by now to confuse the role with the performer) is still refreshing after this tediousness. Clarke is not really singing anymore but who cares as long as he displays his histrionics? His concoction of the potion is becoming increasingly bizarre: in this particular instance he worked himself into a frenzy, adding to the potion Sieglinde's hair which he kept under his mattress together with the Nothung fragment.
The staging failed again to take advantage of the dramatic fabric. There was nothing fearsome about sleepy, weary Fafner who in his familiar bodysuit allowed himself sheepishly to be killed by his own dagger. Except for some lighting effects there was no notion of Fafner as dragon which removed any reason for anybody--let alone naïve Siegfried--to experience fear at his sight. The Woodbird was sung beautifully in a pure crystalline boy soprano voice. Stephen Pangratz in the role dressed in white satin carried on a pantomime translating for Siegfried's benefit the real meaning of Mime's expression of affection and care.
Erda's and Wotan's encounter was at times poetic, at times sexist (in his attempts to seduce her into responding to his quest) or brutal (as he pushed her in frustration into a pit). Wotan conveyed an appropriate range of reactions as he guided, tested and finally challenged Siegfried.
The delight experienced from the love duet was marred by the constant motion away from each other of the protagonists: it seems that this solution was dictated by their unequal size so that they only came close together when at the very end Brünnhilde knelt by her lover.

At the start of Götterdämmerung the Norns made us take a fresher look at Erda's usually dilapidated daughters. In this Ring they were lissome, dignified, mature women in control despite their wonder about and awe at the premonition of the fateful events to come. They did weave destiny on small looms hanging as collars from their necks. As the huge rope broke and they fell, a red cloth unfolded between them. In retrospect, this device was the same as the one later emulating the fire to engulf Brünnhilde and the Gods. The Nom scene was one of few intensely absorbing sequences of this staging.
Wotan's earlier blessing of Alberich's son was equally potent as the Nibelung's curse. Consequently, Hagen in the person of Kurt Rydl was magnificent. This was not only the revenge of the Nibelungs but also of the basses who redeemed the vocal side of the production. Rydl eclipsed the rest of the cast by his presence, both brutal and magnetic and his stentorian voice.
Gunther and Gutrune were properly understated; also they did not have the choice next to their formidable half brother. The insistence on their incestuous relationship was overblown and a little annoying: Gutrune's girlish motive does not match well her interpretation as temptress.
Some controversy was created about Brünnhilde's rape by Gunther who appeared on her rock dressed in black robes similar to Siegfried's. Whether the rape was real or imagined, who was in fact the perpetrator, whether drawing of the sword symbolized otherwise than it's generally accepted meaning and other such idle musings brought up some discord between the purists who disliked this twist and those who enjoyed a little riddle, however heretic it's subject.

The Vassals in armour and with faces shielded by helmets looked and moved in robot- like fashion, a spineless and amorphous mass which monotony was broken up only by some lighting changes. They managed to dampen even Hagen's dynamism, contributed to the lack of tension when Brünnhilde was paraded at the Gibichung's Hall. The conspiracy scene was powerful, again dominated by Hagen.
After his frolicking with the Rhinemaidens, now in greenish snorkeling gear, Siegfried woke up from his slumber to intone mellifluously his narration and more so the Woodbird motive before his demise.
The denouement was low key with the funeral procession small in size and making only a token appearance. Brünnhilde perished under the same red cloth that engulfed the Norns. It was all quite anticlimactic.
An interesting production? Yes. A great production? I don't think so. The excitement was not there and on the whole there was little integration of the music-drama elements. Are we ever going to enjoy the perfect Ring?