Some years ago I stopped attending the opera productions of the Netherlands Opera in their theatre in Amsterdam, because of the staging policy – often following the concept of ‘Regietheater’ – and the abominable sound of the hall, where the architect had completely failed to consider the acoustics. Wooden panneling all around so that the sound can spread and vibrate, and the sonorities of voices and instruments can blend, is a prerequisite of an effective opera building. The concrete shell of the Amsterdam theatre however, dampens all sound, takes away the rich instrumental harmonics, blunts the voices and turns all efforts to create an impressive operatic experience into a pedestrian exercise. Add to this the stage directors who wholeheartedly disagree with the plot of the opera at hand, and no serious opera lover would waste time and money for productions which don’t go beyond well-intended caricatures. I remember a production of Cosi fan Tutte set in a teenage room, a Nozze di Figaro in a Milanese car showroom, and – the worst of all – Don Giovanni in a bed shop (for this last production, two stage directors were needed to come-up with this idea).
But the current Siegfried production of the Netherlands Opera, to which I was taken by a friend, counters and overcomes all those pitfalls with ease. The stage director, Pierre Audi, had chosen for an approach where stylization, abstraction and naturalism form an effective mix. This production is a reprise of the 1998 Siegfried, which I did not attend; of that Ring I saw the Walküre which I did not like much so that I had no interest to see the rest of the operas. To begin with, the Ring is a mine field of mishaps and misunderstandings, most of them created by Wagner himself who had in many respects an excellent dramatic feeling but often unrealistic ideas about stage realisation, which result in clumsy bombast instead of overwhelming visual experience. The Ring is an irregular mix of gripping and unlikely, silly plots, sympathetic and clumsy characters, great drama and puerile inanities, profound psychology and meaning combined with superficial fairytale experiments, unbearable longeurs and compelling drama. The concept of ‘symphonic opera’ means that the stage action is carried by music which both exposes, illustrates, demonstrates and develops the interiority of what happens on stage, while what we see is merely the outside of presented ‘reality’. It is the music which carries the Ring through its various stages of confusion, contradiction and elevated epiphanies. I am always amused to see how musicologists get into knots of theoretical speculation to explain all the different layers of meaning of both plots and music of this immense work, which obviously is the product of a man of genius who bit off more than even he could chew. For that reason, different explanations can be projected upon the Ring, but no single one can cover all the different elements. And then the contradiction of using a very big orchestra which then appears too loud for the singers so that a special theatre had to be built where all this sound potential is hidden under the stage…. while everything can be done, musically, with the size of Mozart’s orchestra which never overwhelms the singers and forms a natural ingredient in a harmonious total effect. All that said: Wagner operas are spectacular, even if only considering the musical side, with all the elaborate figurations, expressive sophistication, and infinite fantasy in terms of sonority and variation of timbre. And when at his best, Wagner equals Sophokles, Shakespeare and Beethoven, just what he always wanted.
The décor (by George Tsypin) and costumes (by Eiko Ishioka) came from totally different worlds: in a wide metallic ring, long and square forms represented a context of complication, contradiction and cold sharpness, while the singers had to circulate in naturalistic costumes from the Germanic underworld. The Netherlands Symphony Orchestra, brilliantly led by Hartmut Haenchen, was put on the stage within the décor, so that an inadequate pit could not reduce the musical flow and volume, which was a bit unfortunate for the singers who now had the full Wagnerian blow right in their back. But Haenchen choose for a rather classicist approach and only pulled the volume stops at moments where great climaxes were required, for the rest highlighting the many clear and expressive details of the elaborate score. Since the orchestra was in full sight during the entire performance, and forming part of the décor, the visual part underlined the stylized character of the production, stimulating the audience’s fantasy to complete the picture. The different styles of décor and costumes thus did not clash but complemented each other: what could not be literally realized on stage was indicated by light effects, and this did not impair the overall impression – maybe except at some unfortunate moments, for instance when Brünhilde was slowly rolled forwards on a brancard on rails, reminiscent of a car crash victim being slided to the operation room. But who cares? The main thing was that Audi has directed this complex and sometimes clumsy plot from the storyline and the music outwards, so that what we saw on stage never clashed with what we heard. This created the unity which Wagner so ardently strove after: the ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’.
The character of Siegfried is, of course, Wagner’s giant miscalculation of the Ring. What he wanted to express through his ‘hero’, only comes across after he killed him off in Götterdämmerung, in the long symphonic oration known as ‘Siegfried’s Funeral March’, attributing to this sorry figure the original vision which he failed to realise convincingly in the Ring proper. In the opera under consideration, the role of Siegfried is almost superhuman, given the immensily long stretches of music and athletic antics; unsurprisingly, at the end the singer began to have difficulties with maintaining momentum and intonation, which be him forgiven. The great third act, which Wagner wrote after an interruption of eleven years in which he completed ‘Meistersinger’, is suffused with an inspired enthusiasm and meaningful profundity lacking to this degree in the first two acts. When he picked-up the great scene between Wotan and Erda at the beginning of the third act, he had been rescued from his creditors by the King of Bavaria and had acquired Cosima, his second wife, from his friend and supporter Hans von Bülow.
In this impressive third act, the staging fell somewhat short of the intensity and greatness of the music, but that can be considered a minor complaint. Haenchen is a classicist conductor, more focussing on clarity and lively tempi than on pathos, but given the unresponsive acoustics of the hall this probably works better than vain attempts to create a Karajan-sound in a building where even a triple-manned orchestra would sound flat. The excellent team, with great singers and inventive stage realisation, produced an admirable performance which would be an instructive example for the Bayreuth Festival, where – according to what I have seen on the internet – the current Wagner ladies in charge struggle to really create a profile of Wagner performances which does justice to Bayreuth’s reputation and history.
The audience at the performance I attended – the full-dress rehearsel – got wild with enthusiasm after each act, and justly so. One would only wish that at some stage, money would become available to rebuild the interior of the hall, covering floor and walls with responsive wood and creating a deeper and narrower orchestra pit, and a narrower stage (this one is really much too wide: the singers’ sound often disappears in the wings). It does not seem likely that ever a plan would emerge to totally rebuild the Amsterdam opera, which is one of the ugliest public objects in town, with a façade reminding of a set of false teeth. But a new (and wooden) interior would greatly increase the chances of really impressive opera productions, of which the staff of the company proves itself being capable. I will not dwell on the often devastating blunders in the choice of new operas in the programming…. that is for a later occasion.
John Borstlap / 2013