Nikolaus Harnoncourt has long been one of my favourite conductors, particularly for pieces that require a strong sense of period. The same goes for the wonderful Zürich Opera House Orchestra who, uniquely as far as I know, can change up their instruments to suit the piece. For Weber’s Der Freischütz, recorded in 1999, they use valveless brass but, as best I can tell, modern woodwinds and it all sounds great especially in the many hunting scenes.
The second instalment of Patrice Chéreau’s 1980 Bayreuth Ring cycle is set, like Das Rheingold, in a sort of industrial bourgeois late 19th century. One would almost say steampunk if that were not an anachronism. Actually the “industrial” side is much less evident than in the earlier work. There’s a sort of astrolabe/pendulum thing in Valhalla but that’s about it. Setting aside, the story telling is very straightforward; so much so that it takes a real effort of the imagination to get into a mindset where this production could ever have been considered controversial. It’s quite literal; Brünnhilde has a helmet and breast and back plates (worn over a rather severe grey dress), Wotan has a spear, Siegmund has a sword. There’s not an assault rifle or light sabre to be seen. It is though dramatically effective.
So much has been written about Patrice Chéreau’s centenary production of the Ring cycle at Bayreuth that I approached reviewing it with some trepidation. I have decided to write about it “as is”; i.e. to write about what I see on the DVD and leave the undoubted historical significance, perhaps even revolutionary impact of the production, to others. Also, it’s apparent that what’s on the DVD, filmed in an empty house as was contemporary Bayreuth practice, must differ from what was seen on the Green Hill in certain key ways. This is a review of what;s seen and heard on the DVD.
J-P Ponnelle’s 1979 film of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea with Zürich forces conducted by a young Nikolaus Harnoncourt is like his Orfeo only more so. Sets and costumes are that rather odd “ancient baroque” that Ponnelle is so fond of. The acting is stylized and hyperkinetic and so is the camera work with close ups from weird angles all over the place. So far, so Ponnelle.
I’ve been looking really hard for a video recording of Tristan und Isolde that I felt I could recommend because, frankly, nothing is worse than a badly executed Tristan as those who suffered through the Met HD broadcast a few years ago will know. In the 2007 La Scala recording I have found one I feel confident about. Is it perfect? No. A perfect Tristan is probably beyond mere mortals. I’m never sure whether I find it more astonishing that anyone can sing this music or that a composer might have imagined that he could find people who could. That said, the La Scala recording is very close to an ideal Gesamtkunstwerk.
I was really impressed when I first watched the DVD version of Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer recorded at Bayreuth in 1985. It’s been some time since I last watched it so another look seemed in order. The production, directed by Harry Kupfer debuted in 1978 to both applause and brickbats. The concept is that the Dutchman exists only in Senta’s imagination. She is fixated on the Dutchman as her route out of the repressed bourgeois environment she is trapped. It’s a tormented, even hysterical, version of Senta that finds a fine interpreter in Lisbeth Baltslev. Kupfer reinforces this idea of Senta by having her on stage all the time. During the overture she retreats to a sort of cage at the top of a staircase with her precious picture of the Dutchman which she will hang onto throughout the drama. She will remain in this cage high to one side of the stage watching the action below her throughout the first act.
It’s a very strong first act musically and visually The Dutchman’s ship makes a spectacular entrance and the finger like timbers of the bow open up to show the Dutchman chained in a crucifixion pose. Simon Estes as the Dutchman is suitably elemental. His singing and acting have a frightening intensity without ever becoming unmusical. Matti Salminen’s Dahland is perfectly adequate and conveys the grasping bourgeois rather well.
Act 2, of course, opens in the Spinning Hall. Anny Schlemm’s Mary exemplifies the dull conventionality of the place. We are in the world of Strindberg or maybe Babette’s Feast. The intensity of Balslev’s performance cuts right through this. Johohoe! Truft ihr das Schiff im Meere an is as eerie as it is powerful. Against this obsession the rather dull Erik of Robert Schunk is doomed from the start. Things warm up with the arrival of Dahland and the Dutchman. Salminen is in very good voice with Mögst du mein Kind, den fremden Mann willkommen heißen. Senta is pinched looking or frightened almost throughout this scene. There is great ambiguity while the Dutchman sings Wie aus der Ferne längst versangner Zeiten. The Dutchman of Senta’s imagination sings from the gorgeous fantasy hold of his ship while the shadowy figure who arrived with Dahland is still on stage. Senta is slow to buy into what is happening but she finally dissolves into a state that is more madness than delight.
Act 3 opens with Senta watching her own wedding feast from the cage. The townspeople and Dahland’s crew are almost as unnatural as the Dutchman’s. It’s quite chilling and sinister all through until the Dutchman’s crew drive everyone off stage leaving Senta alone for her confrontation with Erik. Then we get the big scene where the Dutchman, chained up again in the infernal version of his ship, thinks that Senta has betrayed him and leaves her.
This is, obviously, crucial to the plot but it has never really made much sense to me in a normal interpretation. Here it does. This obsessed Senta needs to be “faithful unto death” not to have a happy ending. It’s equally apt that her suicide is just that. There is no hint of redemption for her or the Dutchman. It’s the end. The people turn their backs on her corpse leaving only Erik, in despair, still with her.
So dramatically it works as a piece held together by really intense performances by Balslev and Estes and, lest I forget, Woldemar Nelsson conducts and keeps things moving along briskly. At times the orchestral playing is quite thrilling and the chorus is excellent too.
A couple of other things about the production are worth pointing out. Although the booklet sets the scenes out in the conventional three acts it is actually played through (as I understand Wagner intended and as it was played at the COC a couple of years ago). Scene changes are dynamic and slick. There’s some real stage craft here. It’s also very dark, as I recall most 1970s productions being. This makes on stage detail hard to pick up and, I’m sure, affected the video direction.
This production was directed for video by Brian Large (surprise!) and it seems to have gone straight to video with no TV broadcast. That said it looks like it was directed for the “small screen” which one might expect in 1985. This is problematic given the crucial role of the spectating Senta, as most of the time she is out of shot. Large tries to compensate for this with superpositions, fades and dissolves and is fairly successful. All in all, I think he gives us as good a picture of what Kupfer put on stage as one could reasonably expect.
Picture quality is a bit soft grained as you might expect for the time and it’s 4:3. Sound options are PCM stereo or DTS 5.1 which is a post process of the original stereo capture. It’s very good indeed. There are English, French, German, Spanish and Chinese subtitle options. There’s nothing much in the way of bonus material but the booklet has a full track listing and an informative essay by Erich Rappl.
All in all I think this disc can be highly recommended. It’s a landmark production, well executed on stage and captured for DVD remarkably well for its era.
If you want a preview the whole thing is available in ten minute chunks on Youtube but the quality is a bit off putting.