Wednesday 19 July 2023

Tony Cooper relishes Sofia Opera's brand-new Ring which has been an all-round exercise in good artistic management coupled with cooperative staff teamwork.

Wagner: Die Walküre - Sofia Summer Wagner Festival - Sofia Opera
Wagner: Die Walküre - Sofia Summer Wagner Festival - Sofia Opera

Wagner: The Ring of the Nibelungen; director: Professor Plamen Kartaloff, Orchestra of Sofia Opera, conductor: Constantin Trinks; Sofia Opera, Bulgaria.
Reviewed by Tony Cooper, 14 July 2023

I think Kartaloff's Ring would give as much pleasure to traditional Wagnerites as to those on the opposite benches! 

As part of this year's Sofia Summer Wagner Festival, under the artistic directorship of Professor Plamen Kartaloff, Generaldirektor of Sofia Opera and Ballet, a brand-new Ring cycle took pride of place sitting comfortably alongside past productions of Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal while Der fliegende Holländer received an open-air performance on the Pancharevo Lake, an artificial lake about seven miles from Sofia, locally dubbed ‘Bulgaria's Bregenz'. Wagner's Ring Cycle was performed at Sofia Opera (8, 9, 11 and 13 July 2023) in a production by Plamen Kartaloff, conducted by Constantin Trinks.

The first fully staged Ring in Sofia directed by Plamen Kartaloff fell in 2010 and since that ground-breaking year he has been heavily engaged with Wagner producing seven of his works in the Bulgarian capital which be boldly defines as the 'Bayreuth of the Balkans'.  

To all intents and purposes, Kartaloff's productions remain as close as possible to the composer's strict instructions within the framework of 'Gesamtkunstwerk' ('total work of art') in which artwork, design and the creative process combine to create a single cohesive whole. Therefore, Wagner's ability to unite music and drama lies at the very heart and thinking of Kartaloff and his realization of the Ring, I feel, truly reflects the composer's edict. 

Interestingly, the phrase 'Gesamtkunstwerk' was created by the German writer and philosopher, K F E Trahndorff, in his 1827 essay Ästhetik oder Lehre von Weltanschauung und Kunst (Aesthetics or the Theory of Philosophy of Art) and quoted on a couple of occasions by Wagner in his 1849 essays Art and Revolution and The Art-Work of the Future. Here he speaks of his ideal of unifying all works of art via the theatre.  

He felt, too, that the Greek tragedies of Aeschylus had been the finest examples so far of total artistic synthesis but subsequently corrupted by Euripides. He also felt that the arts had drifted further and further apart around the time of the late 19th century resulting in such monstrosities as Grand Opera featuring bravura singing, sensational stage effects and meaningless plots.  

In Art and Revolution, Wagner applies 'Gesamtkunstwerk' in the context of ancient Greek dramas while in The Art-Work of the Future he uses it to apply to his own, unrealized, ideal. And in his extensive book of 1851, Opera and Drama, Wagner takes this conception a step further describing in full detail his idea of the union of opera and drama - later termed 'music drama' - in which the individual arts are subordinated to a common purpose. Therefore, governed by using 'leitmotifs' associated with characters, objects, themes or emotions, the Ring, modelled after ancient Greek dramas, is in Wagner's terminology a complete 'music drama'.  

The actual cycle, though, begins with Die Walküre and ends with Götterdämmerung while Wagner stated Das Rheingold as a 'Vorabend', a preliminary evening, while calling the other three works of the cycle a 'Bühnenfestspiel' (a stage festival play) with Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung subtitled First Day, Second Day and Third Day, respectively.  

Not only is this Ring punctuating the 210th anniversary of Wagner's birth but Kartaloff thought it fit and proper to pay his respects to the German-born music scholar and pianist, Richard Trimborn, who passed away in October 2017. An invaluable pedagogue and Wagner scholar, he contributed so much time and energy in coaching the Bulgarian singers for this Ring cycle.  

In fact, the whole cycle was performed by singers on the books of Sofia Opera apart from guest American baritone, Thomas Hall (Wotan: Die Walkure) and Hungarian bass, Krisztián Cser (Der Wanderer: Siegfried) while the role of Brünnhilde was shared by a trio of singers, too, common practice nowadays. 

The visual aspect was satisfying to the nth degree and the mood of any one scene was highlighted by a modest and ever-changing light scenario created by Andrej Hajdinjak while Ivan Liptchev conjured up a host of brilliant video sequences that more than fuelled, fired and gripped one's imagination ranging from the lovely inviting dawn scene of Das Rheingold to the raging fire power of Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung

Wagner: Das Rheingold - Sofia Summer Wagner Festival - Sofia Opera
Wagner: Das Rheingold - Sofia Summer Wagner Festival - Sofia Opera

However, the well-loved opening scene of Das Rheingold, hauntingly beginning with the breaking of dawn unfolding over that mesmerising low E-flat major chord heralding the Rhinemaidens coming from the depths of the Rhine to greet the day, was sensitively played by the Orchestra of Sofia Opera under the baton of German-born conductor, Constantin Trinks, thereby providing a grand and opulent start.  

A raised and uneven geometrical-designed circular-based set by Hans Kudlich was utilised in a practical and stylish way throughout the cycle and proved just the ticket for what I can only describe as an adventurous, delightful and straightforward production that would, I think, give as much pleasure to traditional Wagnerites as to those on the opposite benches! 

The famed and spirited trio of Rhinemaidens - Floßhilde (Alexandrina Stoyanova-Andreeva), Wellgunde (Ina Kalinova) and Woglinde (Ayla Dobreva) - performed brilliantly looking delicate and fairy-like in their appearance and not too dissimilar to those lovely-sketched fairies created by the well-respected Victorian artist, Richard Dadd.  

Not only were they strong in voice but strong in physical energy, too, inasmuch as adding to their frolicking about the rocky shore of the Rhine teasing and provoking Alberich with their seductive charms they took to trampoline action, suitably positioned in three distinctive cavernous settings, thus adding a bit of extra bounce to their provocative actions. 

I must say that they were very effective in their newfound sporting skills and, I understand, had to undergo special training combined with extra coaching to perfect their breathing and singing techniques to cope with the extra physical demand put upon their bodies. 

No messing about, though, in Kartaloff's production, gold was most definitely 'gold' (no other fanciful and high-value commodities!) and when the twisted and unprincipled Nibelung dwarf (the role so magnificently sung and acted by Plamen Dimitrov) made off with his ill-gotten gains it was the biggest slab of gold that I've ever encountered in a Ring production - enough to make the Governor of the Bank of England look up! And the dragon was equally spectacular, too, snaking round the stage with a six-member team operating and controlling its wild and restless motions while the toad was just a puppet - with Wotan his master! 

Always in the thick of it, poor old Mime (gallantly sung by Krasimir Dinev) was getting the boot and soaking up all the pressure from his bullish and abusive brother to forge the Tarnhelm at lightning speed turning him into a nervous wreck while offering Alberich riches beyond the dream of avarice! And a nice touch came by utilising a well-drilled team of youngsters, led by Dimitar Kostancaliev, as the Nibelheim workforce. Suitably equipped with miners' hard hats, they were here, there and everywhere doing Alberich's bidding. 

The role of Wotan fell to Nikolay Petrov who put in a reasonable performance flashing his decorative silver-tipped spear at whim while Mariana Zvetkova (Fricka) played her part to the full reproaching her wayward husband for offering her sister, Freia, goddess of youth, to the giants Fasolt and Fafner in return for their building Valhalla. Both characters were elegantly attired in matching long-flowing Teutonic-style garments thus showing off their regal status while Freia (Silvana Pravcheva) looked dressed as if for a hen night out! 

In fact, costume designer, Hristiyana Mihaleva-Zorbalieva, delivered a wide-ranging wardrobe of varying styles that well suited all the odd bunch of characters that one finds in the Ring. For instance, hammer-throwing Donner (Svetozar Rangelov) looked slightly menacing kitted out in a strikingly bold Darth Vader-type outfit constantly wielding his over-sized hammer for amusement; on the other hand, his tender-loving brother, Froh (Hrisimir Damyanov), looked quite dapper sporting a dainty rainbow-coloured hat that helped guide Wotan and his godly entourage to Valhalla. 

The greedy, intimidating and hostile deuce, Fasolt and Fafner, sung with clarity and conviction by Stefan Vladimirov and Petar Buchkov, found themselves holed up within the framework of a gargantuan carnival-type puppet (the sort that's paraded at Notting Hill) offering them limited movement but suitably designed as to allow them strong and clear vocal diction and delivery. 

A singer of great prominence and strength, though, came with Vesela Yaneva who sang the role of Erda in a dignified, compelling and forthright way warning Wotan at the end of Rhinegold of the evil and the menace of ownership of the cursed ring. She made a wonderful appearance, too, looking grand in an all-white outfit summing up in my wild imagination the character of the Snow Queen in Hans Christian Andersen's well-loved fairy story of the same name. 

Daniel Ostretsov as Wotan's running mate, Loge, flamboyantly sporting a flaming red cloak and waistcoat to match, looked the part, too - a picture of sartorial elegance! A likeable trickster, he delivered a striking, colourful and amusing account of what I feel is a gift of a part which he explored and played to the full. 

Following Wotan and his lot being upbeat, sprightly and in high spirits on entering Valhalla, one arrives in Die Walküre to an altogether different environment presided over by the hostile and moody character of Hunding, sung by Angel Hristov, who encountered a few vocal difficulties that slightly impaired his performance. However, nasty and mean as befitting his role, he offered no peace or solace to his long-suffering wife, Sieglinde, tenderly and convincingly sung by Tsvetana Bandalovska. 

And playing her long-lost Wälsung twin brother, Siegmund, Martin Iliev equally matched her performance. A fine deuce, they proved a rewarding partnership, too, culminating with their impassioned love duet at the end of act one speaking volumes about their innermost feelings to each other. 

Wagner: Die Walküre - Sofia Summer Wagner Festival - Sofia Opera
Wagner: Die Walküre - Sofia Summer Wagner Festival - Sofia Opera

The second act of Die Walküre proved electric and found Thomas Hall more than comfortable in the role of Wotan while Gergana Rusekova delivered a good reading of Brünnhilde. And Wotan's tête-à-tête with his long-suffering wife, Fricka, ironically the goddess of marriage, produced a riveting scene with Mariana Zvetkova landing into him right, left and centre over his adulterous and incestuous affairs while jumping down his throat over his forbearance of the incestuous relationship between the Wälsung twins.  

Following Wotan's feisty confrontation with Fricka he turned his attentions to Brünnhilde, his favourite Valkyrie, offering her a long explanation of his foolish behaviour by committing himself paying for the building of Valhalla with Alberich's ring instead of returning it to the Rhinemaidens. A deeply moving scene it's one of my favourites in the whole of the cycle along with Waltraute reaching out to Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung pleading with her to return the ring to the Rhinemaidens for the sake of mankind and to end the dreaded curse. Annoyingly, though, I found this particular encounter slightly off-putting as Kartaloff utilised members of the dance team to re-enact pertinent points of Wotan's back-story in tableaux format which often distracted my attention away from the main stage action. 

Not distracting, however, was the point in which the Rhinemaidens descend upon Wotan in protest of his banishment of their heavenly sister Brünnhilde for disobeying his order of offering victory to Hunding over his fight with Siegfried.  

Gallantly, they arrive saddled on flaming red horses individually sculpted mind you and made, by the looks of it, from glass-reinforced plastic. Resting on mobile platforms they were skilfully operated by a well-drilled stage team in a tight framework of carefully choreographed movement that was visually pleasing and entertaining at the same time. This was a major nod to Wagner as his instructions firmly states that the Valkyries 'must' be on horseback. They were - and to great effect. 

With girl power at the fore, the Valkyries scream out to him to forcibly change his mind but Wotan, stubborn-minded, arrogant and dismissive as ever, was having none of it and, calling it a day, the Warrior Maidens furiously and abruptly ride off as gallantly as they arrived. The audience enjoyed every moment of this highly-charged scene that they simply exploded in a big round of applause. Unheard of in Wagner - until now! The 'locals' were loving every minute. Good for them! 

The final scene of Die Walküre in which Brünnhilde pleads with Wotan to keep her godly status was passionately sung and acted by Thomas Hall and Gergana Rusekova while Brünnhilde's burning rock was superbly crafted by the strategic use of traditional lighting complemented by a wild series of video sequences that enveloped and flooded the entire stage in a luminescent, abstract and glorious landscape topped by a flaming circle flickering brightly on the stage's backcloth offering cracking firepower like no other! Who needs real fire, eh? 

And the closing pages to the score were upliftingly and graciously played while Brünnhilde, asleep, covered by her protective shield and donned by her winged helmet, another generous nod to Wagner, awaits her fearless and all-conquering hero to fight through her protective flaming circle to claim her as his bride. 

A nice touch to this production overall has been the simplicity and naturalness of the staging and, therefore, in the first act of Siegfried, Mime's smithy comprised just a couple of anvils seen against an expansive forest background while a fusion of the primary colours red, green and blue highlighted the location of Fafner's den with Der Wanderer (this time played by Krisztián Cser) snooping around the cave with Alberich and Mime shadowing his movements every inch of the way hoping for their chance. 

Wagner: Siegfried - Sofia Summer Wagner Festival - Sofia Opera
Wagner: Siegfried - Sofia Summer Wagner Festival - Sofia Opera

Sitting comfortably with his character, Krasimir Dinev delivered a fine and nervously-charged reading of Mime working in tandem with Kostadin Andreev - who, incidentally, made his début in 1992 singing Rudolf in Puccini's La Bohème at Burgas Opera becoming a soloist at Sofia Opera a year later - in the title-role. Graced with an extravagant silver-coloured collar it noticeably became crimson red after the slaying of Fafner thereby representing victory over adversity. 

However, the deuce crazily sparked off one another as befitting a knockabout comedy act but not reducing their performance to pantomime level apart from the fun, maybe, they enjoyed bouncing around on a giant inflatable globe of the world with Mime dreaming (wishfully thinking!) of the power and riches in his grasp.  

Energetically and skilfully working from a trapeze, Ayla Dobreva as The Woodbird, guiding Siegfried to his bride-to-be, proved a winner! Flying all over the show, peppered with a few somersaults here and there (what an athlete!), her sweet-sounding voice was heard to extremely good effect in a scene that was lovingly and delicately portrayed. 

And that well-loved and all-important scene witnessing Siegfried passing through the ring of fire to claim Brünnhilde as his bride needed beefing up a bit. Although Radostina Nikolaeva delivered an agreeable performance upon Brünnhilde's awakening with a tender rendering of 'Heil dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht!' Kostadin Andreev, I'm afraid, suffered a few intonation problems which slightly impaired and affected the ravishing beauty of that jubilant, telling and ecstatic love duet 'Leuchtende Liebe, Lachender Tod!' which brings the opera to a close with Siegfried and Brünnhilde locked into a loving embrace. 

However, when the curtain goes up on Götterdämmerung, the Norms (Tsveta Sarambelieva, Ina Kalinova and Lyubov Metodieva) are going about their daily business spinning the rope of destiny knowing that their infinite wisdom and the world of the Gods is coming to an end while following an ecstatic and joyous night together, Siegfried, this time round sung by Martin Iliev, who also sung Siegmund in Die Walküre, is seen presenting Brünnhilde with the all-important ring as a firm token of his love before setting off towards the Rhine seeking new adventures. 

At Gibichungs' Hall, manipulative Hagen is tricking Gunther and Gutrune into a bogus marriage to Brünnhilde and Siegfried with these brother-sister roles admirably (and nervously) sung by Atanas Mladenov and Tsvetana Bandalovska who felt the heat, intimidation and brute force of Hagen who simply chilled the air by his presence, the role so effortlessly sung by Petar Buchkov, whose deep, raw voice, hit the mark!  

And hitting the mark, too, was Kamelia Kader as Waltraute who arrives at Brünnhilde's rock on her loyal steed pleading with the Warrior Maiden to return the ring to the Rhinemaidens to end its curse but, of course, to no avail. Harbouring a richly-textured mezzo-soprano voice, Kader brought so much drama and sensitivity to this minor (but important) role that it manifested itself in a cherished, well-driven and enjoyable performance. 

But the shining star of this well-directed and splendid production of Götterdämmerung, Yordanka Derilova, delivered a brilliant account of Brünnhilde. A rich-sounding soprano, she commanded the stage at every conceivable turn especially in the opera's famous and well-loved Immolation scene in which she pours her heart out over the evilness of Hagen's killing of her Siegfried.  

Therefore, while mourning the death of her hero and with angst and anger etched into a revengeful face, she bundles Hagen aside with one sweep of her arm and then in a dramatic gesture and swirl of emotive energy she fires up the shining waters of the Rhine in which to wash away the vestiges of the ring.  

In the distance, however, one witnesses Valhalla and the Gods engulfed in flames thus cleansing mankind of the curse of the ring and offering hope for the future in an awakening of a brand-new dawn. Following the aftermath, the Rhinemaidens are seen happy and contented rejoicing in the Rhine's golden bounty now secure and safely in their hands while Hagen, lying in their shadow, a broken man. 

The end of the Ring except for the curtain call. An act all on its on! The audience roared their approval with a standing ovation but when Maestro Trinks (who by the way is conducting a new production of Parsifal at next year's Munich Festival) arrived on the stage with his players, the audience roared even louder firmly stating that the work done in the pit is just as important as to the work done on the stage. 

Maestro Trinks energised his charges so well and, therefore, the big production numbers such as the Gods' Entrance into Valhalla (Das Rheingold), Siegfried's momentous 'Rhine Journey' and the 'Funeral March' from Götterdämmerung were exciting to hear in the intimacy and comfort of Sofia's well-designed theatre. And boasting as it does good acoustics, it was just the right ambience for enjoying Wagner especially The Ring

Wagner: Siegfried - Sofia Summer Wagner Festival - Sofia Opera
Wagner: Siegfried - Sofia Summer Wagner Festival - Sofia Opera

I should like to add that it would be churlish and grossly unfair for one to gauge Kartaloff's Ring against those mounted by leading houses found in Germany and elsewhere blessed with handsome budgets. However, I feel strongly that this Ring, even with its odd assortment of mishaps - and, really, I must say, I cannot name any Ring cycle that I've attended over the years that has been perfect; Alberich's curse, no doubt! - has been an all-round exercise in good artistic management coupled with cooperative staff teamwork and, therefore, has been a successful undertaking offering Sofia and Bulgaria, locals and visitors alike, a wonderful and complete Wagnerian experience. Professor Kartaloff (please take a bow!) dubs the Bulgarian capital the 'Bayreuth of the Balkans', I can now see why. Bravissimo! 


Director: Plamen Kartaloff 
Assistant director: Yulia Krasteva
Conductor: Constantin Trinks  
Assistant conductor: Alexandra Lubchensky
Set designer: Hans Kudlich  
Costume designer: Hristiyana Mihaleva-Zorbalieva
Lighting designer: Andrej Hajdinjak
Multimedia director: Ivan Liptchev
Chorus master: Violeta Dimitrova  


Woglinde: Ayla Dobreva
Wellgunde: Ina Kalinova
Floßhilde: Alexandrina Stoyanova-Andreeva
Wotan: Nikolay Petrov
Fricka: Mariana Zvetkova
Freia: Silvana Pravcheva
Loge: Daniel Ostretsov
Mime: Krasimir Dinev
Fasolt: Stefan Vladimirov
Fafner: Petar Buchkov
Alberich: Plamen Dimitrov
Donner: Svetozar Rangelov
Froh: Hrisimir Damyanov
Erda: Vesela Yaneva 


Wotan: Thomas Hall  
Fricka: Mariana Zvetkova
Siegmund: Martin Iliev
Hunding: Angel Hristov
Brünnhilde: Gergana Rusekova  
Sieglinde: Tsvetana Bandalovska
Valkyries: Helmwige: Ayla Dobrev; Ortlinde: Silvia Teneva; Gerhilde: Lyubov Metodieva; Waltraute: Ina Kalinova; Siegrune: Elena Mehandzhivska; Roßweiße: Tsveta Sarambelieva; Grimgerde: Alexandrina Stoyanova-Andreeva; Schwertleite: Vesela Yaneva
Dancers: Georgi Banchev, Rumen Bonev, Ivan Georgiev, Zahari Georgiev, Deyan Ivanov, Bogomil Menchise, Radul Roglev, Teodor Vodenicharov, Dario Yovchevski. Chorographer: Riolina Topalova 


Der Wanderer: Krisztián Cser
Alberich: Plamen Dimitrov
Siegfried: Kostadin Andreev
Mime: Krasimir Dinev
Fafner: Petar Buchkov
Brünnhilde: Radostina Nikolaeva  
Erda: Vesela Yaneva 
Ein Waldvogel: Ayla Dobreva 


Alberich: Plamen Dimitrov
Gunther: Atanas Mladenov
Siegfried: Martin Iliev
Hagen: Petar Buchkov
Donner: Svetozar Rangelov 
Brünnhilde: Yordanka Derilova
Gutrune: Tsvetana Bandalovska
Waltraute: Kamelia Kader 
Erste Norn: Tsveta Sarambelieva
Zweite Norn: Ina Kalinova
Dritte Norn: Lyubov Metodieva
Woglinde: Ayla Dobreva
Wellgunde: Ina Kalinova
Floßhilde: Alexandrina Stoyanova-Andreeva  

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