The Levine 1997 Gotterdammerung -A "Holde-Review" -With a Few Comments Pertaining to Same

Many readers got a chuckle out of the Holde-Quiz and the Holde-Interview, so I plan on having those types of essays as occasionally recurring features. Sober and prudent readers should just skip ‘em, as they cause the risk of a specific birth defect.  Also, those with certain types of kidney disease should probably give ‘em a pass as well, just to be on the safe side.   Below is the first Holde-Review.


Wagner’s Gotterdammerung, conducted by James Levine at the 1997 Bayreuth Festival, with  Deborah Polaski as Brunnhilde, Wolfgang Schmidt as Siegfried, Eric Halfarson as Hagen, and Hanna Schwartz as Waltraute.  Staged by Alfred Kirchner, with sets and costume design by Rosalie.  (what the heck is this one name pretentiousness all about? Perhaps it’s an incognito, as the sets were not a factor and the costumes were laughable). On DVD.

(The YouTube video above shows most of the Immolation Scene, and provides a taste of the “Costumes by Rosalie. The subtitles are in Spanish.)

Almost every review I read, in “Opera News”, “BBC Music Magazine”, NY Times, etc. is functionally at least somewhat useful, but deadly boring as literature.  Some critics (Alex Ross, Charles Rosen, Michael Steinberg, the crew at Opera News) know music, and know how to write.  Many do not.  With occasional exceptions, you will learn nothing from customer reviews on Amazon, or from most newspapers, whose reviewers were apparently assigned to the Classical Music beat when they were deemed inadequate to cover seventh grade soccer scrimmages.  Here in Chicago, we have a reasonably intelligent and affable critic who just guesses at what the performance was like.  He has absolutely no clue, so he guesses, and is right every now and then, purely by accident.  Still, he constitutes an improvement on the totally ignorant and vilely venomous Claudia Cassidy, who besmirched the reputation of critics everywhere, and who flaunted a total lack of integrity, and indeed, decency.  You can’t put a trained musician with a professional point of view on the review page nowadays; he might be tempted to tell the truth. (which, actually, much of the time would mean that he is more laudatory then condemnatory; he would sympathise with the special difficulties horn players face, he would understand why singers can’t sing properly when the tempo is too slow, etc.) 

My Solemn Vow: Never will you hear about “silky legato” or “pearly tones” here; I will attempt to write in English, not Newsparperese.

8 Comments on the disc:

1.  The modestly “Regietheatre” orientation of the production neither adds nor detracts from the totality of the experience.  There are no egregious violations of decency standards, but there are no original thoughts about the piece, either.  Apparently Kirchner saw the effectiveness of lighting effects in Wieland Wagner’s productions and the (disputable) effectiveness of totemic symbolic props in Wolfgang Wagner’s productions, and designed a production in which the rich Bavarian beer of the Wagner brothers has been magically transformed into a can of O’Douls.  Close your eyes, keep em’ open, dealer’s choice.

2.  Levine’s conducting turns one of the richest, most complex and dramatic orchestrations in history into a work of absorbing tragedy, and beyond tragedy, of unnerving sadness.  The sounds coming from the pit are acutely poignant. Levine’s knowledge of the score is stupendous; stuff like accent marks in a second clarinet are treated with the respect they deserve.  There is absolutely no playing to the galleries, as some might accuse Solti of doing, so to speak, on his uncommonly dramatic recording, or of disengagement and superficiality, as some might accuse Boulez of purveying.  And the orchestra plays at an inestimably higher level then on the great recordings of Furtwangler, Knappertsbusch, Krauss or Bohm.

3.  Technically the DVD is great, both visually and aurally.  And it’s a steal, retailing for 40 bucks, and easy to find even cheaper.  Opera DVDs are incredible values; for less than the price of a single ticket, you can have the piece forever, in a reasonably reliable format.  

4.  Deborah Polaski underplays (but doesn’t undersing) Brunnhilde.  A real woman, a grown up with her eyes open, caught in the inexorability of a tragedy she cannot control, this portrayal projects an inward awareness that is hugely moving.

5.  Wolfgang Schmidt’s Siegfried is merely adequate.  He certainly doesn’t mar the work like John Treleaven or Reiner Goldberg do, for instance.  But he has neither the power of a Windgassen nor the eloquence of a Siegfried Jerusalem, and he doesn’t have the tonal beauty of a Rene Kollo, either. He is overhadowed by Brunnhilde, which actually makes considerable plot sense.  

6. The Bayreuth Chorus? Do you have to even ask?

7.  The star of the show is Eric Halferson. Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau famously called Gotterdammerung a “family tragedy”; whose family tragedy? Sieg. and Brunn’s, and by extension, Wotan’s, of course.  Gunther and Gutrune’s? Yes, of course.  But how about Alberich and Hagen? It is about time that “Schwarz-Alberich”, the anti-Wotan, and Hagen, the anti-Siegfried get their just due not as the villains of the piece, but as complementary heroes to Siegfried et al.  Hagen’s watch is known to be dark, depressing, and frightening music, as well as beautiful music.  But what kind of beautiful is it? Maybe its beauty has a noble, despairing, piquaint sadness.  Halfvarson and Levine seem to think so. This passage was uncanny.

8.  The greatest single feature of this performance is that while nothing was minimized or attenuated, The work’s tragic grandiosity was complemented by a desperately sad inwardness.

A brief comment on an unrelated topic: Many people have asked me why, as a pianist, none of these essays (so far) has been about piano music, and why there are so many essays on opera.  Firstly, I anticipate that there will be many essays on the piano repertory, but for the most part I write about things that are new discoveries of mine, or about things which are topical for my classes. So for instance, despite learning and performing the large opus Davidsbundlertanze for my Romanticism course, I didn’t write about this magnificent score on these pages.  The reason being that I have little to add to Charles Rosen’s magisterial comments in his The Romantic Generation, except technically. Rosen adequately discusses the structure, rhetoric, and rhythmical profiles of the work.  Of course, I could recapitulate his ideas for these pages, or look in depth at the individual pieces, or compare the work to others.  All of which would have been useful, but I didn’t feel like it.  As for opera? Opera is like golf; those who like it at all are obsessed by it.  Oh my, there will be more essays on opera.