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La Scala’s ‘Walkure’ on the high-def big screenBY: Steve Cohen 12.12.2010
The good news: The miracle of high-definition TV saved me the hassle of a plane trip to La Scala’s opening night. The bad news: This new production of Wagner’s Die Walkure was the dullest in my memory, and La Scala made no concessions to the demands of large-screen cinema.
Die Walkure. Opera by Richard Wagner; directed by Guy Cassier; Daniel Barenboim, conductor. New production for the opening night of the La Scala Opera, Milan, Italy. HD telecast December 7, 2010 at Bryn Mawr Film Institute, 824 W. Lancaster Avenue, Bryn Mawr, Pa. (610) 527-9898 or brynmawrfilm.org.
La Scala and Die Walkure:
I sat in an American cinema for its high-definition big-screen transmission of La Scala’s Die Walkure the other night— the first Scala opening night ever transmitted this way.
The Bryn Mawr Film Institute presented the telecast, and it was a treat to see an alternative to the Metropolitan Opera’s HD performances in those big commercial cinemas. The Bryn Mawr theater is cozy and comfortable and plays host, in adjoining rooms, to operas and films. Under the creative leadership of Juliet Goodfriend, the Bryn Mawr presents a lineup of distinguished art films, discussions and operas from several European sources.
This new production of Wagner’s Die Walkure, however, was the dullest in my memory. When seen in close shots, visual details were magnified and their problems became appallingly apparent. (I do tend to lapse into alliteration when attending Wagner’s Ring.)
Director Guy Cassier’s concept was inconsistent, and each act was more obtuse than the one before. Act I at least contained an intriguing staging trick– a transparent cube, similar to that used by Nichole Canuso’s dance company in its production of Takes, although its point was unclear and nothing happened when the doors were thrown open to welcome springtime.
Act II was played in front of a row of trees in a nondescript forest. The tall slender trunks morphed into elongated tubular lava lamps, with bubbles percolating up their length.
Act III was threadbare, with no mountain and no rock. Brünnhilde just curled up on the floor when she was put to sleep. Instead of flames to surround her, infrared heat lamps were lowered from above. The Valkyries didn’t fly in or gallop in, although some surreal video projections accompanied their arrival.
A spinning ball made several appearances, looking like a cross between an eggbeater and a mirrored decoration at a disco or a senior prom.
On horseback in ball gowns
The costuming was atrocious. The Valkyries rode horses while wearing ball gowns with bustles and trains— except Brünnhilde, who modeled some sort of Goth designer dress. Wotan’s mustache, beard and furry jacket reminded me of Orson Welles in his over-the-top film of Macbeth.
Some critics contend that, aside from the brief Ride of the Valkyries, Walkure is an intimate opera. Not quite. True, most of Walkure finds just two or three characters alone onstage, but their conversations are so portentous that the word “intimate” is misleading. Soft singing is all well and good, but the thoughts conveyed require an intensity of expression, matched with significant glances or movements that convey the drama. That was missing here.
Siegmund and Sieglinde showed little passion. And Wotan and Fricka could just as well have been discussing what they read in the morning newspaper.
Daniel Barenboim’s slow and intimate conducting was an asset to his Tristan und Isolde last year, but here it just called attention to the fact that little of import was happening on stage.
Too old for the camera
Nina Stemme proved an excellent Brünnhilde, with beauty, power and projection, although the cameras revealed a maturity that doesn’t fit with the Ring’s story line. She looked her age, which is an attractive 47. But that means she’d be in her mid-60s when Siegfried discovers her on her rock, and even older than that when Günther takes her as his bride in Gotterdämmerung.
Also problematical is the appearance of Waltraud Meier, a distinguished Wagnerian with many great performances of Sieglinde in her resumé. She is now 54 and no longer looks youthful enough for the part, and her singing of it was careful. I’d love to see Meier live in an opera house, but I wouldn’t cast her in a production to be seen by millions in hi-def close-ups.
Please don’t misunderstand. Maturity is a virtue I’ve admired in many of my favorite operatic singers, past and present. I myself am no spring chicken. But with big-screen productions it’s a whole new ball game— one where greater attention must be paid to visual concerns.
Ekaterina Gubanova was a pleasure to see and hear as Fricka, although her strapless prom gown was a puzzlement. Simon O’Neill was a stolid Siegmund, with a strong voice. Vitalij Kovaljov (replacing René Pape) was imposing as Wotan, but between him and his director there was no strong delineation of his character. He did possess enough stamina to make his Farewell memorable. The experienced John Tomlinson was fine as Hunding, who’s supposed to be an elderly husband.
The La Scala production team’s TV techniques were straightforward but unimaginative. No dramatic camera angles enlivened the performance, and the intermission talks were dull— surprisingly, when you consider how Italian directors have been so creative in the world of cinema. No traces of Visconti or Fellini or Zeffirelli (all of whom directed both film and opera) were visible here. And La Scala should consider using a personable host or hostess on its future telecasts, to guide and inform viewers.♦
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