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by Joel Kasow

PARIS, 3 June 1999 - The operas of Wagner's Ring are in the air this year, but to see an entire cycle in French-speaking Europe required a certain amount of travelling. My week began Monday, 3 May, with Das Rheingold at the Grand Théâtre de Genève.

In making the classic choice of starting a new cycle in chronological order. Renée Auphan called on the services of one of her favourite teams, directors Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser along with their habitual collaborators, designer Christian Fenouillat and costumier Agostino Cavalca. This looks as if it will be a tetralogy focussing on the bourgeois drama, with many juxtaposed elements, including a spear-carrying Wotan.

Albert Dohmen's Wotan has the physical but not vocal solidity of a Bruno Ganz, puffing up his voice at certain moments so that it was not always easy to understand what he was saying. Donner (Detlev Roth) and Froh (Christer Bladin) are perhaps his bodyguards. Fricka (Sally Burgess) is a tippling housewife who also smokes, repairing her makeup during Wotan's major oration. The Rhine Maidens (Jeannette Fischer, Christine Labadens, Sybil Zanganelli) look like 40s chorines in their green outfits and blonde wigs, while Freia (Ursula Füri-Bernhard), equally blonde, seems to be a slightly more senior version of the same concept. Erda (Jadwiga Rappé) courageously turns up in more-than-half-open négligée. Peter Kazaras is Loge, played as a lounge lizard, definitely a character rather than a heroic tenor. Franz-Josef Kappellmann seems to be making a specialty of the role of Alberich, which he does very well, while Thomas Harper made the most of his one appearance as Mime. Zelotes Edmond Tolliver and Vidar Gunarsson (Fafner and Fasolt) were well differentiated giants, easily negotiating their stilts.

Fenouillat's sets were a marvel for the depths of the Rhine, while the second and fourth scenes seemed to be situated in the palace that the Wotans were vacating, and the third scene in the depths of a factory where the ovens must be kept burning. The ascent to Valhalla occurred when Donner swung his hammer against a huge packing case that opened up to reveal an elegantly set dinner table at which the gods sat down, laughing hysterically as the Rhine Maidens lamented the loss of the gold. Whether this concept holds up through the remaining operas we will see over the next three years, but if you like a very detailed and specific approach, this may be for you. Armin Jordan led a careful performance, with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in good form, if perhaps a bit too present: I missed the impalpable start which was here rather abrupt.

Das Rheingold - Grand Théâtre de Genève

The following evening I was in Toulouse, where all five performances of Walküre sold out, so that the new Ring Cycle at the Théâtre du Capitole is off to a good start. Producer Nicholas Joël is no stranger to the Ring: he assisted Patrice Chéreau for the Bayreuth centennial version and has himself produced two complete cycles. With designer Ezio Frigerio, he has opted this time for a dark, heavy and decadent look, occasionally reminiscent of Bismarck's Berlin. Franca Squarciapina's costumes were also 19th century, with Fricka resembling a minor monarch and Sieglinde distinctly matronly.

Joël's production was sensible, culminating in a moving final scene. There were the obligatory novel touches, such as Sieglinde wandering around the house prior to Siegmund's arrival or Hunding's henchmen holding Sieglinde captive when Hunding is chasing the hero at the end of Act 2. Fricka even arrived with a pair of rams! Conductor Pinchas Steinberg keeps everything moving along smartly, yet knows when to let the excellent Toulouse orchestra sing out. Attention was focussed on Karen Huffstodt's first Brunnhilde, and excellent she was, singing with a wide dynamic and expressive range. Unfortunately, Margaret Jane Wray's one-dimensional Sieglinde offered a loud voice that tended to lose focus as well as go off pitch at the top of the stave. Kim Begley's suavely sung Siegmund emphasized the lyric aspect of the role, something we have not heard for many years, yet with more than sufficient power for his cries of "Wälse'. With James Morris leaving after two performances, the third (which I attended) and fourth were sung by Simon Estes, with John Wegner coming in for the final matinée. Estes took some time to settle in, forgivable considering his late arrival, but the last act was one of the best performances I have ever heard from him. Nadine Denize is still an impressive Fricka, while the Korean bass Attila Jun is already a formidable Hunding.

Walküre - Théâtre du Capitole, Toulouse

Two seasons after presenting the first half of the Ring, Marseilles held good on its promise to give us the remainder. Even further budgetary constraints were in evidence for Siegfried (7 May), as the proceedings are now termed "version concert mise en scène", with Charles Roubaud as director. The concept translates as the absence of sets and properties: Katia Duflot's costumes and Fabrice Kebour's lighting were, however, evocative, even though the latter may not always have allowed us to see the faces of the singers. A new conductor, Claude Schnitzler, brought enormous enthusiasm to his work to which the orchestra responded, only occasionally showing signs of fatigue.

Timothy Mussard in the title role is not yet the heldentenor of one's dreams, but if he does not rush headlong into the heavier repertory and allows his voice to acquire the requisite density, he may be the answer to many prayers. The voice is agreeable and accurate, though there is no great individuality of expression. John Duykers as Mime is the opposite, an almost oppressive presence and a voice often resorting to a sort of sprechstimme. Far greater pleasure was offered by the Wanderer of James Johnson, more distinguished than two years earlier and easily the best Wotan I heard in the course of my Wagnerian week. Daniel Lewis Williams offered a sonorous Fafner, Cornelia Götz an intelligible Waldvogel and Patricia Spence an unforced Erda. Janis Martin had the ungrateful task of waiting until almost midnight for her appearance as Brünnhilde with not entirely successful results, clearly an off night for this otherwise dependable artist.

There will be four performances of Gotterdämmerung in Marseilles between 10 and 18 June with Mussard and Martin, among others.

Centre : Das Rheingold - Grand Théâtre de Genève
Credit : GTG / Carole Parodi

Above : Die Walküre - Théâtre du Capitole, Toulouse
Crédit : Gilles Bouquillon

Further reviews available in Joel Kasow's
Opera Diary for April / May 1999

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