“In art there is subjective and objective,” Rolando Villazon recently said in an interview with the magazine “Süddeutsche”. “I can see a production and think very objectively: everyone knows what needs to be done, the idea is well developed, everything is fine – but subjectively I think: it’s terrible, I don’t like it.” The Mexican tenor brings that with it Dilemma to the point in which critics find themselves constantly. They actually only talk about their private feelings, but the texts read as if they were the speakers of everyone who was in the hall that evening.
But Rolando Villazon wouldn’t be the sunniest singer on the classical music scene if he didn’t have the solution to the problem right away: “I think the best thing is to go to the opera and look for the good.” Let’s start so with Señor Villazon: At the start of the new “Ring des Nibelungen” at the Berlin State Opera, he sings the fire god Loge in the “Rheingold”. This cast alone is a real coup, dreamed up by Daniel Barenboim, the music director of the house, who actually wanted to give himself Richard Wagner’s monumental music theater tetralogy for his 80th birthday, but then had to give up the conductorship due to illness.
Barenboim was one of the mentors of the young Villazon, he often brought him to his house and now he has also persuaded him to make his Wagner debut. He looks fantastic in the yellow corduroy suit with bell-bottoms that costume designer Elena Zaytseva gave him. Villazon can wear such a look, which of course also includes seventies glasses, thick sideburns and a white turtleneck underneath.
He does some clown antics that director Dmitri Tcherniakov probably didn’t dream up; and he sounds unmistakably like Villazon, like a tenor who has sung mainly Italian repertoire in his career. Not everyone in the audience likes this, although his pronunciation of Wagner’s alliteration is exemplary.
In general, the texts are sung in an exemplary manner on this two-and-a-half-hour “eve” of the four-part “stage festival”. Which is undoubtedly also due to Christian Thielemann, the stand-in in the orchestra pit. Daniel Barenboim himself called him and persuaded him to abandon his holiday plans in order to save the prestigious Unter den Linden project. Because the whole “Ring” will be re-released here within just one week, in a collective effort that normally only the Bayreuth Festival can expect.
Musically it is an unforgettable evening
Luckily, Thielemann is the most experienced of the major Wagner conductors of our time. Even as a teenager he used the grand piano in his parents’ house in Zehlendorf when he played the piano reduction of the tetralogy. Later, as a répétiteur at the Deutsche Oper, he met Barenboim, who then took him to the Green Hill in Bayreuth as his assistant. Thielemann has meanwhile conducted all ten of Wagner’s main works there, as one of only two maestri in the history of the festival.
His debut at the Berlin State Opera, on the other hand, was only four months ago, and in June he conducted the Staatskapelle for the first time. It was no surprise that he, the declared advocate of traditional Kapellmeister virtues, would get along brilliantly with the proud orchestra founded in 1570. And so it sounds now, at the “Rheingold” premiere, absolutely exhilarating from the ditch.
The musicians are intimately familiar with the score, as is the conductor – but because their collaboration is so fresh, there is a tingling feeling of the new on both sides. This creates a creative spark – and so that little bit of extra energy can ignite on Sunday that turns a good evening into an unforgettable one.
Terrific how the orchestra breathes, how it shimmers and sparkles, remains transparent and yet revels in the most lush timbres. Fantastic brass solos unfold, the strings beguile with velvety density, it’s pure happiness. Christian Thielemann prevails as a virtuoso rhetorician, delaying here, rushing ahead there, repeatedly choosing extreme tempos that challenge his soloists. But at the moment no one can interpret this score in a more multifaceted, more detailed, more fascinating way.
Technology show instead of a guided tour
How bitter that Dmitri Tcherniakov doesn’t have anything adequate to counter this acoustic steep template scenically. A technology show can be seen in which everything that the State Opera’s new stage machinery has to offer is exhausted: new scenarios are constantly being introduced. When the libretto goes down to Nibelheim, two floors stand out from the underground, at the end Valhalla briefly sinks into the basement to show a vision of the future – which, however, only consists of glaring light behind white curtains.
That would be impressive as a performance show at a trade fair, but in terms of content this room-change-you-game comes to nothing. Because in the rooms, laboratories and halls dreary rum sit theater takes place. Wotan, the father of the gods, is the head of a research institute in Tcherniakov’s case, and the plot seems to have taken place a few decades ago, at least that’s what the clothing and interior design suggest. The characters act as dull as it can be among scientists. Above all, they are constantly looking for a chair.
The fact that the director refuses all magical elements of the plot doesn’t exactly make things any more exciting. So there is no Rheingold to be seen, neither in the opening scene nor at the end, when Freia, who was kidnapped by the giants as a bargaining chip, is weighed up in precious metals. And the Tarnhelm doesn’t work either, Alberich neither transforms into the “giant worm” nor into the toad, but is just a crazy laboratory manager who is finally committed to psychiatry. For this, the gods Donner and Froh have to perform stupid magic tricks in the finale, which is a company party here. To shame others.
When it comes to making characters out of their roles, the soloists have to rely entirely on their voices. Of course, this is not a problem for Michael Volle, his Wotan is an acoustic chameleon, can sound serious and sonorous like a Tagesschau announcer, but also rumble, snort, whisper conspiratorially, whine self-pityingly. Claudia Mahnke’s goddess appears as a strong woman, vocally absolutely clear and powerful, far removed from the hysterical frickas that usually haunt the “Ring”. As the giant Fasolt, Mika Kares impresses with his truly gigantic bass-baritone, while Johannes Martin Kränzle sings Alberich in a more multi-faceted way than he is allowed to play.
Is Dmitri Tcherniakov concerned with realism, does he want to tell a farce from the research milieu? But why can Alberich, who is initially a wired test subject in a laboratory, easily understand the Rhinemaidens hanging around in the corridor through the glass panes? Why didn’t any of the scientists watching in the background step in when he – driven by his libido – started rampaging in the laboratory?
For the next three premiere evenings, all that remains is to stick to Rolando Villazon’s wisdom: “If you manage to take only the good, you get beauty, the world gets better for a moment.”
The RBB broadcasts the other “Ring” premieres live on its “RBB Kultur” channel on October 6 and 9 from 4 p.m. Arte will broadcast “Rheingold” on October 29th, and from November 19th the entire State Opera “Ring” will be available at www.arte.tv/concert.
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