After delivering a somewhat mixed Das Rheingold, the Mariinsky Opera took things to another level in its performance of Die Walküre. The staging, which was positively disruptive in parts of Rheingold, was at its worst innocuous and at its best quite enjoyable here, while the singing proved strong across the board. One emerged feeling genuinely impressed, and, as a result, very much looking forward to Siegfried and Götterdämmerung.
The monoliths that feature throughout the tetralogy adopted different positions for each act, and although they still did not provide the best backdrop to the drama they did not cause much harm either. In Act I they all leant in to support a rock with the resulting canopied construction creating Hunding’s house. In Act II this same rock provided a good platform upon which Wotan and Brünnhilde could be suitably awe inspiring on their first appearance.
The use of additional actors was kept far more in check than in Rheingold and if it would have been possible to do without many of them, they provided some not inappropriate fun. Hunding was accompanied on his first entrance by six faithful hounds in the form of men with headdresses. These pursued Siegmund and Sieglinde off the stage at the end of Act I as if acting as her husband’s watchful eye, while Siegmund fought his way through the beasts as they provided Hunding’s first line of defence in the battle. Similarly, since it would have been impossible to have arranged four golden rams to pull Fricka’s chariot, there was nothing wrong in alluding to the idea by having two women bearing rams’ heads accompany the ambulatory goddess.
Good use was also made of costume to mark out character. In Rheingold both Wotan and Fricka wore white. Here, however, Fricka sported the same costume, as if to show that her thinking had not moved on at all, while Wotan and Brünnhilde were decked out in black to symbolise the new path they were now taking. Siegmund’s tunic of ‘feathered’ autumnal colours would not have looked out of place on Papageno but worked well enough, while it was a nice touch for Hunding’s helmet to sport, it seemed, the ancient Greek mask of Agamemnon.
Vitaly Kovalyev was a first rate Wotan, with a voice that demonstrated firmness and consistency, but which was really marked out by its brilliant and resonant darkness. He also had enormous presence so that when he appeared in Act III his fury radiated out across the entire auditorium. As in Rheingold Ekaterina Gubanova was superb as Fricka, bringing her rich, rounded and accurate sound to the fore and making the most of the even greater opportunity afforded to stamp out such a strong, haughty character.
Avgust Amonov as Siegmund and Mlada Khudoley as Sieglinde took a little while to warm up and were perhaps less effective in the trickier, less lyrical passages. Both, however, when they opened out provided sounds of immense power, and Amonov brought a considerable degree of sensitivity to his magnificent sound, while Khudoley’s voice proved both resonant and ethereal.
Olga Savova as Brünnhilde revealed a soprano that could be incredibly direct, and the strength and consistency in her performance made her a terrific match for Kovalyov’s Wotan. Mikhail Petrenko, after still proving good as Fafner, was far more in the type of form that we would expect from him as Hunding, rolling those deep bass sounds in his throat and proving strong on enunciation and pronunciation.
The level of interaction between characters seemed perhaps to be a generation behind that to be found in most Western European productions. This may be attributable to the fact that, after initially being enthusiastic about the composer’s works, Russia had no real tradition of performing Wagner for the majority of the twentieth century. As such, it is probably still in the process of developing a suitable voice for the German giant since it could never even start to apply the standard Russian approach to staging, with its emphasis on stylised and choreographed gesture, to his works.
Nevertheless, although Siegmund and Sieglinde, Siegmund and Brünnhilde, and Brünnhilde and Wotan spent relatively long periods apart in their respective encounters they came together when it really mattered, so things never felt overly wooden. When, however, Wotan and Brünnhilde both sang straight out to the audience at the start of Act II it seemed as if there was still room for improvement. The best ‘Hojotohos’ are those delivered with the occasional glance to daddy that says ‘you and I both know that your favourite daughter is doing you proud’.
Act III represented the first occasion so far in this Ring Cycle when the staging could actually be classed as good. The Ritt der Walküren ideally requires something to convey a strong sense of movement and this is not easy for an essentially touring production to provide when it cannot rely on revolving stages. The solution deployed, however, was simple yet ingenious. The Ritt opened with eight mortals swinging their swords in armed combat while the Walküre pointed their shields at certain figures as if to say ‘we’ll have that one when he falls’. Then during the piece they died one by one and were bundled (in practice, rolled) off the stage to Valhalla.
Wotan and Brünnhilde’s farewell was beautifully rendered by two performers who sang at the top of their game, and did ultimately work up a strong chemistry. ‘Der Augen leuchtendes Paar’ was delivered passionately and sensitively, while the fire was portrayed well enough with the monoliths turning, various stage features lighting up, and actors gently swirling their fiery-hatted heads in keeping with the music.
Ironically, whereas in the overall weaker Das Rheingold the Mariinsky Orchestra could hardly be faulted, here there were just a few more flaws. For the most part it maintained the same levels of smoothness and balance, but just occasionally orchestral highlights such as those to be found at the start of each act felt a little too harsh and unsubtle as if Valery Gergiev was pushing things too far. The main difference between the two may have been that because Rheingold has fewer (or briefer) lyrical points overall, it was fine to push those climactic moments it does possess to the limit, whereas doing so here resulted in overkill. Nevertheless, its overall standard of performance remained exceptionally high, and with the orchestra having now proved itself over both of the first two Ring Cycle operas, there is every reason to believe that it will deliver more of the same in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung.
The Mariinsky Ring Cycle continues at the Birmingham Hippodrome until 9 November 2014 with Siegfried on 8 November and Götterdämmerung on 9 November. Tickets are available for the individual operas. For further details and to book visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website.