The final two instalments of the 'Weimar Ring', as released on these double-DVD sets from Arthaus, unfortunately do little to answer questions posed in the Rheingold and Die Walküre, reviewed here. At the same time, while the first two operas had the feeling of a modest German house manfully coming to terms with the greatest challenge in the operatic repertoire, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung show its resources being stretched with what seems to have been a challenge too far.
The problems with casting experienced earlier in the cycle, in particular, now seem more acute. This is partly due to the decision – presumably originating with director, Michael Schulz – to cast Alberich, Wotan/Wanderer, Hagen, Gunther from the same pool of three singers, a decision, we are told, which underlines their essential closeness as characters. For one of the great opera houses, with a budget many times that of Weimar's, to pull this off successfully would still be some feat. Sadly, here, the three singers in question, Mario Hoff, Tomas Möwes and Renatus Mészár, are a long way off ideal in all their respective roles.
Hoff, a disappointing Rheingold Wotan, is serviceable in the less demanding role of Gunther. Having been acceptable as Alberich in Rheingold through his acting ability more than his singing, Möwes is simply inadequately equipped for the role of Wanderer, a performance which was something of a trial to sit through. He makes a better stab of being Alberich in Götterdämmerung but is still vocally wayward, to put it mildly. Mészár is probably the strongest of the three, but as a dry-toned bass-baritone is certainly no Hagen; it's a shame Hidekazu Tsumaya – a true bass and a very respectable Hunding and Fafner in the cycle – was denied the role by Schulz's ill-advised decision to try turn an interesting idea into practice without the resources.
In fact, having given Schulz's production the benefit of the doubt in the first two works, I lost patience with the fussiness of an approach that becomes more interventionist as the cycle progressed. Not only is there some rather heavy-handed psychology going on in Siegfried with Frieder Aurich's serviceable Mime dressed in semi-drag and an infantile Siegfried dressing the bear as a kind of ersatz-Mother, but there are too many important effects that just fall by the wayside, more as a result of budgetary restrictions, one suspects, than artistic decisions. Wagner's penchant for pyrotechnics is especially badly served: there's not the slightest glimmer of a spark to reflect the vivid musical descriptions in Siegfried's Act One forging scene; there's more in the way of ablution, on the other hand, at that end of Götterdämmerung than immolation. There a not-quite-dead Siegfried is washed by Brünnhilde and Grane before being walked off, while at the moment of final redemption the women-folk have their ills washed away under a shower of water. I could also have done without Brünnhilde's bizarre conjuring with the ring in the final scene.
One of Schulz's ideas is that of the constant suppression and abuse of these women, enacted with tedious obviousness by their being manhandled and raped by Hagen's vassals in Act Two. Presumably, then, it's the memories of all this that are getting washed away in the final scene. By then, however, I'd become so impatient with the growing discrepancy between Schulz's confused conception and Wagner's own that I'd long given up trying to unravel the significance of so much cluttering up of the action. Suffice it to say, there's not one major scene where the focus isn't taken off the main characters by superfluous details, whether that be a series of youths as the Ravens, or the Valkyries who are all present for the great scene between Brünnhilde and Waltraute. The recasting of Grane as a kindly, put-upon grey-haired confidante to Brünnhilde is just one distraction, and made a mockery of both Brünnhilde and Siegfried's (and Wagner's music's) references to their trusty steed.
The part of Siegfried is split between Johnny van Hall (in Siegfried) and Norbert Schmittberg (Götterdämmerung). Van Hall gets through the role pretty well, but his childish characterization seems to takes youthful innocence a little too far. Schmittberg has several uncomfortable moments and just about gets to the end without any disasters, but there are simply no hints of the hero about his characterization. This is a deliberate decision, perhaps, but seriously impedes the viewer's ability to get drawn into the tragedy. Catherine Foster's Brünnhilde similarly seems a little unsure of her place in the drama; she turns in a reliable performance, vocally, but there's not much pleasure to be had from it. Nadine Weissman is probably the best among the principals, turning in a noble performance as Waltraute. Tsumaya's Fafner is good, too, appearing in Siegfried as a grotesque blob. His is about the only costume that shows any real imagination among what seems like the standard eclectic mixture of worn-out suits, leather and, in the case of Hagen's vassals, modernist, army surplus à la Mad Max.
I was impressed with the orchestral support of the Staatskapelle Weimar in the early instalments and they still sound good much of the time under the directorship of Carl St. Clair. However, there are several losses of tension during these two long scores, particularly towards the end of Götterdämmerung, even if they up their game once more for the Immolation Scene.
As before, no-one could accuse Schulz's production of being short on ideas. The further we go in this cycle, however, the further the balance between the ideas that are effective and thought-provoking and those that are superfluous and distracting swings in the wrong direction. With mediocre vocal performances, the overall effect is disappointment and at the end of it all, I was left unmoved.
By Hugo Shirley