Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen was last seen in Florence in 2008 in a highly and justly acclaimed production by La Fura dels Baus, an avant-garde Catalan theatrical group now famous all over the world, a team of visionaries and provocateurs that have been standing out for their ingeniousness as well as technological talent. Their approach to the Ring, co-produced by the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and the Palau de les Arts of Valencia, is one of respect, admiration and provocation; they start with the literal sense of the libretto, using machines on which the singers literally fly, dart, go up and down in the air, but above all working with an extremely sophisticated video technology. Carlus Padrissa, their leader, is not concerned with the problem of whether or not to update the action, and even less to historicize it; the accent falls heavily on the metaphor and visionary element, emphasizing the fairy-tale aspect and the technological game that exploits the possibilities of photography and digital projection, without forgetting the acrobatics of those bodies hanging in astonishing scenic compositions which are the essence of this group’s language.
As a nod to the Wagner 2013 celebrations, the Maggio Musicale has inaugurated the current season re-proposing the most beloved opera of the Ring, Die Walküre. At the centre of the action stand two twins, half human and half wolves; this hybrid nature is immediately evident in the character of Sieglinde, here portrayed without that usual Romantic patina that conceals most of her asperities. Crawling on all fours, terrified and suspicious of everything, she wears a rope around her neck, just like a chained dog. Degraded by a violent and primitive husband, worn out by years of domestic abuse and imprisonment, Sieglinde does not even dream of setting herself free, until the arrival of Siegmund, in whom she recognizes herself just as if in a mirror. Siegmund brings her back to life and to the use of her own free will, removes her leash, and teaches her how to walk erect: redemption arrives together with love and the explosion of the spring. Suddenly the screen is lifted up, and the heroic path of this woman, who will sacrifice everything for the survival of love, personified by her own son, can begin.
In the second act the protagonists are the gods, the atmosphere becomes space-like, somehow reminiscent of a cross between Star Wars and Star Trek. Wotan and Fricka move around on cranes operated in full sight by supernumeraries/technicians shrouded in black, who make them fly back and forth, up and down, even hanging them above the orchestra, as if suspended between the sky and the earth and belonging in neither, thus grafting the Wagnerian myth into our modern culture and sensitivity in a most original and imaginative manner. Act III opens and closes with two superb images: a huge oscillating sphere filled with tangled bodies, and the flames surrounding Brünnhilde, one of the most touching inventions of this production.
Zubin Mehta conducted the marvellous orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino with rare expressive intensity, without emphasizing the titanic nature of the music, but on the contrary underlining the intrinsic dramatic quality of the dialogues as well as the most lyric and intimate aspects of the score, with an attention and sensitivity that lead to the production of luminous and crystal-like sounds. The human measure found by Mehta in this stupendous performance is beyond comment: the absorbed concentration of the rests between the clear-cut chords of the horns and trombones in the encounter between Brünnhilde and Siegmund was breathtaking. A simple detail, such as the portamento of Juha Uusitalo (Wotan) on the semibreve with pause of “Das Ende” reveal the whole extent the conductor has understood the Wagnerian poetic cosmos: the frailty, the illusoriness of its thwarted heroism, into which the gloomy omen of the final twilight is already insinuating.
The cast, with a major glaring exception, was on a generally high level. With a special mention to Bernadette Flaitz as Gerhild, the Valkyries (Jacqueline Wagner as Ortlinde, Pilar Vazquez as Waltraute, Maria Radner as Schwertleite, Eugenia Bethencourt as Helmwige, Julia Rutigliano as Siegrune, Patrizia Scivoletto as Grimgerde and Stefanie Iranyi as Rossweisse) were all exquisite.
Stephen Milling with his dark bass was an imposing and aptly threatening Hunding, but the honours of the evening were bestowed upon the pair of unlucky twins/lovers. Elena Pankratova (Sieglinde) excelled for a perfectly produced homogeneous focused soprano, at ease in the role’s generally low tessitura as well as in the higher lyric expansions. Vocally she did many admirable things, including some long phrasing in “Der Männer Sippe” that Wagner clearly wanted but was impractical to expect. Torsten Kerl may partially lack the tonnage and volume of some of his most historical colleagues, but thanks to a remarkable technique, stamina and detailed and clear phrasing he proved a first-class Siegmund, magnetic and convincing in combination with his sincerity and musicianship.
Things did not go so smoothly in the Valhalla. Jennifer Wilson in the title role confirmed the impression I had of her when I recently heard her as Turandot for the same opera company. I defined her voice as “conical”: from a weaker low-middle register that has some problems in piercing through the orchestra, her soprano progressively opens up, acquires volume, power, shine and thrust as it ascends to the top. Her entrance with the famous war cry made a splashing effect, but the low tessitura of so much of her role forced her to allow too many lines to pass uneventful. Despite this limitation, her Brünnhilde was persuasive and ultimately successful. If the Fricka of Daniela Denschlag sounded rather weak and did not project strong will and authority, the real fly in the ointment was Juha Uusitalo, clearly in vocal distress and showing more and more fatigue (the absence of the traditional cuts in Act II did not help) and pitch instability as the performance progressed.
Despite some isolated dissents addressed at Uusitalo, the audience granted a tremendous, enthusiastic ovation to the production, the conductor and the cast, justly singling out Ms. Pankratova and Torsten Kerl.
Photographs © Teatre del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino