Wednesday 30 August 2023

Tony Cooper revisits Valentin Schwarz’ Ring cycle at Bayreuth and relishes it second time around.

Wagner: Die Walkure - Claire Barnett-Jones, Elisabeth Teige, Catherine Foster, Christa Mayer, Stephanie Houtzeel - Bayreuth Festival 2023 (Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner: Die Walkure - Act Three - Claire Barnett-Jones, Elisabeth Teige, Catherine Foster, Christa Mayer, Stephanie Houtzeel - Bayreuth Festival 2023
(Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen; Aile Asszonyi, Hailey Clark, Okka von der Damerau, Markus Eiche, Catherine Foster, Mika Kares, Daniel Kirch, Daniela Köhler, Tomasz Konieczny, Christa Mayer, Andreas Schager, Olafur Sigurdarson, Elisabeth Teige,  Klaus Florian Vogt, Georg Zeppenfeld, dir: Valentin Schwarz; cond: Pietari Inkinen; Bayreuth Festival.
Reviewed by Tony Cooper, 28 August 2023

Finnish-born conductor, Pietari Inkinen, proudly walked the Grüner Hügel this year to conduct the complete Ring following his 2021 festival début with Die Walküre. 

Austrian stage director, Valentin Schwarz - who came to prominence in tandem with set designer Andrea Cozzi after winning the 2017 Ring Award - made his Bayreuth Festival début with this Ring cycle last year which received a mixed reception although it’s faring much better this year, conducted by Pietari Inkinen. An interesting, thoughtful and innovative production, hopefully it will probably be viewed in a better light as time go by. 

An international competition for stage direction and stage design in musical theatre held on a triennial basis in the Austrian city of Graz, the Ring Award enables and encourages a critical reflection of current trends and developments in musical theatre offering a platform to young artists in getting international resonance for their ideas of what contemporary musical theatre should be like. 

Therefore, a director going places, Schwarz has worked in some prestigious houses over the past few years. For instance, he directed Mozart’s Cosí fan tutte at Theater an der Wien, Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera at Staatstheater Darmstadt, Donizetti’s Don Pasquale at Opéra National de Montpellier and York Holler’s Der Meister und Margarita at Oper Köln. 

Without question, directing Wagner, especially the Ring, poses a tremendous artistic challenge for any director but Schwarz took that task head on conjuring up a good and interesting (but bizarre) production. However, I like directors who push boundaries and as with Frank Castorf’s controversial Ring at Bayreuth staged for Wagner’s bicentennial in 2013, Schwarz surely follows in his wake. 

Change is necessary, I feel, at Bayreuth to ensure a healthy future for the festival and, indeed, elsewhere, too. And change certainly came with Wieland Wagner who ushered in a new dawn on the Grüner Hügel when he dumped the elaborate naturalistic sets and grand productions common in his grandfather’s day replacing them by minimalist affairs - all against forceful opposition. 

For instance, his Brechtian-influenced Parsifal in 1951 (the first Bayreuth Festival after the Second World War) was booed to bits while Patrice Chéreau’s politically motivated centenary Ring in 1976 received the same kind of reception. Surprisingly, today, they’re now hailed as masterpieces.  

Wagner: Das Rheingold - Evelin Nowak, Olafur Sigurdarason, Simone Schroder, Stephanie Houtzeel - Bayreuth Festival 2023 (Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner: Das Rheingold - Evelin Nowak, Olafur Sigurdarason, Simone Schroder, Stephanie Houtzeel - Bayreuth Festival 2023
(Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)

However, the opening scene of Schwarz’ realization of Das Rheingold really sparked my imagination punctuated by an absorbing video sequence conjured up by Luis August Krawen encompassing a faint ripple of water representing the Rhine seen against gargantuan images dominating the entire stage focusing on an umbilical cord slowly unfolding against those deep, disturbing and penetrating opening chords of the Prelude.  

Eventually, the umbilical cord reveals embryonic twins in the womb - one being Wotan, the other Alberich. Brothers? How strange? However, the warring deuce soon found themselves at odds with one another as Alberich is seen throwing a punch to Wotan’s eye while the dwarf got it fair and square in the groin. There was more ambiguity like this to come from Schwarz that kept you fully alert and focused on his absorbing production. 

And smartly turned out with pleated knee-length skirts, the Rhinemaidens are seen having a bit of fun kicking about large-coloured beach balls in a swimming pool (representing the Rhine) in the company of the poisonous dwarf Alberich along with a bunch of eight young girls (future Valkyries?) all dressed as look-alikes joining in what seems like harmless fun. 

The young charges (chaperoned by the Rhinemaidens) certainly gave Alberich (sung by Olafur Sigurdarson with gusto and flair) a good run for his money while the well-loved trio comprised Evelin Novak (Woglinde), Stephanie Houtzeel (Wellgunde) and Simone Schröder (Floßhilde). 

When the attention turns to Wotan, often threatening his foes with a revolver, he’s not seen in this production as a God as the libretto clearly states but acts more in keeping of, say, a company director or head of a family. However, in this pivotal role, Polish bass-baritone, Tomasz Konieczny, delivered the goods in no uncertain terms not only by his vocal prowess but also by his acting ability as well parading round his custom-built and richly furnished house dishing out orders here, there and everywhere as befitting his important status in life.  

But not content with his lot he’s often seen looking out of his office window dreaming of Valhalla with his sidekick, Loge (sung suavely and played so insincerely by Daniel Kirch) at his beckon call egging him on as befitting his scheming character. 

According to Schwarz, the Ring is mainly about one big family with the story running through generations therefore he employs and puts children at the heart of his production. A theory I harbour in this respect is to the fact that he may be simply trying to portray the importance of the pure innocence of children against the overall dark and sinister side of the story of the Ring depicting as it does so vividly greed, power, corruption and practically everything else in between including rape and incest. 

And, of course, the Ring’s all about power with somebody lording it over someone else. Take Alberich’s treatment of Mime, for example and, indeed, Wotan’s treatment of Fricka. Everyone wants the upper hand whatever the consequences. The Giants are the first to dive in dispensing the dirt to get their hands on the ransom money for building Valhalla. 

Looking like Hollywood B movie gangsters with revolvers at the ready (a hint to Frank Castorf) they arrive in style to collect their loot in a black-painted vintage Porsche. And it’s beside the car where Fafner (Tobias Kehrer) delivers the killing blow taking out his brother Fasolt (Jens-Erik Aasbø) to grab the golden bounty (and power) for himself.  

A major twist to the overall plot, though, centres upon the ‘gold’ with Schwarz wildly drifting from the libretto by kitting out a young schoolboy in a black-and-yellow baseball hat and shirt wearing black shorts. He becomes the Golden Boy. And in the Nibelheim scene, his behaviour equates to that of a juvenile delinquent. He found it hard going trying to deactivate the school’s CCTV camera though surefooted when it came to bossing about eight young girls - future Nibelungs? 

And that familiar and well-loved scene in which Wotan and Loge trick Alberich over the powers of the Tarnhelm egging him on to turn himself into a dragon or a toad floundered a bit. There was no dragon and, indeed, no toad apart from the kids’ drawings of big fiery creatures. Imagination was greatly needed here. Wagner, however, is quoted as saying that imagination creates reality. Well, not quite, I’m afraid, Richard! 

A well-cast show, an exemplary performance came from Christa Mayer as Fricka, seen at the end of the opera nervously cradling a white neon-lit square box harbouring a flickering triangular image of Valhalla which regularly pops up throughout the cycle but flickers out entirely at the end of Götterdämmerung. Nervously playing her sister, Freia, Hailey Clark, busy shining her golden apples, delivered a sensitive and engaging performance while Okka von der Damerau’s portrayal of Erda was sublime. The two minor roles of Donner and Froh - which I always associate with those two minor characters in Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern - were extremely well portrayed by Raimund Nolte and Attilio Glaser. 

Wagner: Die Walkure - Tomasz Konieczny, Georg Zeppenfeld, Christa Mayer - Bayreuth Festival 2023 (Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner: Die Walkure - Tomasz Konieczny, Georg Zeppenfeld, Christa Mayer - Bayreuth Festival 2023 (Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)

Really, I’ve never giving much thought as to what happens to Freia after Rheingold when her life is spared after Wotan throws the cursed ring on to the Giants’ hoard of gold in exchange for her. But when the curtain went up on Die Walküre I found out. One of the first things I spied on stage was a decorative white coffin adorned with white stargazer lilies. The occupant: Freia. How bizarre! 

Another bizarre situation surfaces with Sieglinde - sung magnificently by Norwegian soprano Elisabeth Teige standing in for Emily Magee and originally sung at the opera’s première by Lisa Davidsen - being pregnant before her usual romantic reunion with her long-lost brother, Siegmund, portrayed by the ‘Prince’ of the Grüner Hügel, Klaus Florian Vogt. The loving couple are simply seen in a romantic embrace while the father of Sieglinde’s child turns out to be Wotan. The baby in the womb, of course, Siegfried.  

However, a great scene unfolds with the Valkyries tarting themselves up to the nines adorned by a bright and sexy array of dresses (courtesy of costume designer, Andy Besuch) as if getting ready for a hen night out. Undergoing beauty therapy treatment with face packs and all that palaver, the Fallen Heroes, odd as it may seem, act as their general factotums serving champagne with a team of smartly dressed maids on hand supervising afternoon tea. 

Earlier in the opera when Fricka demands Wotan supports Hunding in his duel with Siegmund because he has been the victim of incestuous behaviour, another strange twist rears its ugly head inasmuch as Wotan faces Siegmund in what could well be described as a dysfunctional family argument. He shoots him at point-blank range while Hunding stands in a rigid state by his side. 

And when Wotan dismisses Brünnhilde to her rock for disobeying his orders there’s no gracious farewell. No rock. No fire, either. What’s going on here, I thought. Somewhat unexpectedly Fricka turns up with a bottle of champagne and a couple of glasses on a dumb waiter with a lighted candle (a nod by Schwarz to the burning rock) and raises a toast to her success in nagging her husband to get rid of his favourite Valkyrie. After fumbling a bit, Wotan sulks nervously to the ground in what seems to be an act of repentance while Fricka’s utterly gleeful in her moment of glory.  

The role of Brünnhilde was sung by Catherine Foster (Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung) and Daniela Köhler (Siegfried). In fact, this illuminating Wagnerian role actually introduced Catherine Foster to Bayreuth when she appeared in Frank Castorf’s bicentennial Ring performing in every cycle over its five-year tenure on the Grüner Hügel from 2013 to 2017 returning a year later to reprise it in Die Walküre conducted by Plácido Domingo. 

Without doubt this was a marvellous and thought-provoking Ring cycle and one offering an invigorating account of Die Walküre that I thoroughly enjoyed and relished second time around. A brilliant and well-polished team of principals comprised Klaus Florian Vogt (Siegmund), Georg Zeppenfeld (Hunding), Tomasz Konieczny (Wotan), Elisabeth Teige (Sieglinde), Christa Mayer (Fricka) and, of course, Catherine Foster (Brünnhilde) who, by the way, becomes only the third British soprano - but the first English singer, may I add - to have sung Brünnhilde at Bayreuth. She excelled in the role and keeps good company with the likes of Welsh-born singers, Dame Anne Evans and Dame Gwyneth Jones. 

Wagner: Siegfried - Daniela Kohler, Andreas Schager - Bayreuth Festival 2023 (Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner: Siegfried - Daniela Kohler, Andreas Schager - Bayreuth Festival 2023 (Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)

When the curtain lifts on Siegfried one’s greeted by Mime rumbling about in his scruffy den with the greedy, greasy and unprincipled occupant seen as a wizard running a puppet show (a pregnant Sieglinde is one of his puppets!) while Siegfried, barging in from the forest full of high spirits, gets straight down to business of forging Nothung.  

In comparison to Mime’s junkyard den, Fafner spent some of his ill-gotten gains on a swishy ultra-modern, well-designed apartment. As he warms himself in front of a raging dragonish fire from the comfort of a hydraulic-designed hospital bed, Mime steps in, dumps him on the wooden floor and that’s it. He’s gone for good with Der Wanderer and Alberich looking on in disbelief, relaxed and sitting comfy, mind you, by the fireside.  

And proving a good ‘knock-about’ comedy act, the tête-à-tête between Siegfried and Mime is carried out, too, in a relaxed and informal manner on a corner-suite sofa (originally used for Wotan’s flashy residence in Rheingold) with Der Waldvogel, cheerfully sung by Alexandra Steiner, enjoying the show. As quick as lightning, though, Siegfried makes the sofa Mime’s last resting-place. 

Herr Schwarz, I feel, possesses an ironic sense of humour which comes to the fore in this scene inasmuch as Nothung’s pulled from Mime’s disabled crutch and used as a swordstick. Anyway, it was surplus to requirements. The pupil outstrips the master as always. Siegfried tricks the old trickster for one last time. 

The third act of Siegfried sees Brünnhilde (sung by Daniela Köhler) with Grane, acted by Igor Schwab, approaching Siegfried through Reinhard Traub’s flooded lemon-green stage with a cosmetic surgery bandaged head (a flashback to her Valkyrie days) representing, I guess, the barrier between the couple (usually represented by a ring of fire) and the highlight to the whole of the opera as well as being a magical piece of theatre at the same time. 

When she gets ‘unbandaged’ by her super-charged hero ready to greet the sun and light in that big expressive and telling number ‘Heil dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht!’ the orchestral playing leading up to this pivotal and cherished moment comes into its own with Finnish-born conductor Pietari Inkinen and his players capturing so well the romantic spirit of Wagner’s writing as Siegfried and Brünnhilde jubilantly confess their love and devotion to each other. Without doubt, Daniela Köhler and Andreas Schager delivered a wonderful and gifted performance that more than stamped their credentials on their respective roles.  

Wagner: Gotterdammerung - Act Three - Bayreuth Festival 2023 (Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner: Gotterdammerung - Act Three - Bayreuth Festival 2023 (Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)

For sure, an inventive director, Schwarz in Götterdämmerung conjures up a new character, the child of Siegfried and Brünnhilde, who now embodies the Ring. Inevitably, the child comes between the quarrelling parents and in darkness Gunther decides to turn up, ties it to a dining-chair and then decides to violently bash Brünnhilde against a wall in an insane moment. Grane fares even worse to the extent that Brünnhilde weirdly discovers his head stuffed in a white plastic shopping-bag.  

The scene of Gibiching Hall posed a question, too. The only decorative picture in the hallowed hall shows Hagen, Gunther and Gutrune as Big Game hunters - another bizarre but interesting touch by Schwarz - proudly standing beside a dead zebra, maybe one they bagged on safari in Kenya while a recently killed elephant was dumped on the floor. 

With shoulder-length hair, wearing a baseball hat, Gunther (Markus Eiche) came over as a weak and completely barmy character nervously charging round Gibiching Hall wearing a T-shirt stating: ‘Who the fuck is Grane?’ In stark contrast, his sister, Gutrune, well sung and acted by Estonian dramatic soprano, Aile Asszonyi, who took over the role from Emily Magee while making her Bayreuth début at the same time, was sexy-looking gracefully attired in a long-flowing bright-green dress repeatedly (and boringly) checking her mobile while their half-brother, Hagen, was sung by Finnish bass, Mika Kares, in a mean and convincing manner. 

In the final scene of Götterdämmerung one returns to the very beginning: the swimming-pool where the unruly young schoolboy (Hagen) was kidnapped ‘armed’ with a red-and-white water-pistol. But gone are its glory days. It’s devoid of water and in disrepair echoing the destruction and downfall of Wotan and his acolytes. 

In a small muddy puddle Siegfried’s messing about with his young son fishing before Hagen jumps into action, stabs him in the back, while his henchmen questions him about his actions. Uneasy about things, he’s left alone to his own devices charging madly all over the show trying to justify his cruel and savage act. 

With angst and anger etched into her face, English dramatic soprano, Catherine Foster, delivered a brilliant rendition of the Immolation scene, widely recognised as one of Wagner’s greatest pieces, stamping the ground and dousing herself with a ‘flammable’ liquid in which to sacrifice herself to ensure mankind can be reborn to start afresh while the ending of the cycle mirrors the beginning as one witnesses the Rheingold ‘twins’ shown once more as embryos in the womb but, surprisingly, this time round they’re seen embracing one another. 

At the end, she simply cradles Grane’s severed head on her chest before lying down next to her dead hero, Siegfried. As a substitute to the raging fire, Schwarz swims against the tide and, indeed, against audience expectation, too, by employing strip upon strip of intense white neon lighting slowly unfolding to the opera’s last note.  

However, you needed to keep your eyes wide open and your wits firmly about you in Schwarz’s realization and, just like Castorf, he keeps you guessing at every imaginable turn. Some things you got, some you didn’t - it was that sort of production.  

This Ring was truly a creative force and Andrea Cozzi came up trumps creating a host of marvellous sets. For instance, in Rheingold, a free-standing, spartan-designed mobile set (the basis for all the other sets, too) more than highlighted her creativity and ingenuity in her chosen profession. Scene changes moved slowly and effortlessly into place like a jigsaw puzzle coming together ranging from Wotan’s smart and swishy contemporary apartment to Mime’s scruffy homestead. The magic of the stage holds no bounds! 

A wonderful show all round. Therefore, full marks go to those on the stage directed by Valentin Schwarz and to those in the pit directed by Pietari Inkinen. He energised his players (hand-picked from some of the finest musicians to be found in Germany) so well especially in the big production numbers such as Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and the Funeral March from Götterdämmerung thereby underwriting what marvellous acoustic properties the Festspielhaus harbours and most definitely the place to soak up the music of Richard Wagner in all its consummate and radiant glory. 

As an aside, Cornelius Meister, Stuttgart’s General Music Director, took to the pit for the cycle’s première last year while making his Bayreuth début deputising for the Finnish-born conductor, Pietari Inkinen, who went down with Corona. Thankfully, Inkinen proudly walked the Grüner Hügel this year following his festival début with Die Walküre in 2021 

At curtain-call, a packed house roared and roared their approval especially for the members of the extremely large mixed chorus directed by Eberhard Friedrich who excelled themselves in Hagen’s hyperactive moment in act two (The Vassals’ Chorus) hauntingly wearing fiery-red winged helmet face masks but looking more like a skulk of foxes ready for the kill. 

Wagner: Siegfried - Act Two - Andreas Schager, Tomasz Konieczny, Olafur Sigurdarason, Tobias Kehrer, Branko Buchberger- Bayreuth Festival 2023 (Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner: Siegfried - Act Two - Andreas Schager, Tomasz Konieczny, Olafur Sigurdarason, Tobias Kehrer, Branko Buchberger- Bayreuth Festival 2023
(Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)

Creative team

Conductor: Pietari Inkinen
Director: Valentin Schwarz
Stage designer: Andrea Cozzi
Costume designer: Andy Besuch
Lighting designer: Reinhard Traub
Dramaturg: Konrad Kuhn
Chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich

Das Rheingold
Wotan: Tomasz Konieczny
Donner: Raimund Nolte
Froh: Attilio Glaser
Loge: Daniel Kirch
Fricka: Christa Mayer
Freia: Hailey Clark
Erda: Okka von der Damerau
Alberich: Olafur Sigurdarson
Mime: Arnold Bezuyen
Fasolt: Jens-Erik Aasbø
Fafner: Tobias Kehrer
Woglinde: Evelin Novak
Wellgunde: Stephanie Houtzeel
Floßhilde: Simone Schröder

Die Walküre
Siegmund: Klaus Florian Vogt
Hunding: Georg Zeppenfeld
Wotan: Tomasz Konieczny
Sieglinde: Elisabeth Teige
Brünnhilde: Catherine Foster
Fricka: Christa Mayer
Gerhilde: Kelly God
Ortlinde: Brit-Tone Müllertz
Waltraute: Claire Barnett-Jones
Schwertleite: Christa Mayer
Helmwige: Daniela Köhler
Siegrune: Stephanie Houtzeel
Grimgerde: Marie Henriette Reinhold
Rossweisse: Simone Schröder
Grane: Igor Schwab

Siegfried: Andreas Schager
Mime: Arnold Bezuyen
Der Wanderer: Tomasz Konieczny
Alberich: Olafur Sigurdarson
Fafner: Tobias Kehrer
Erda: Okka von der Damerau
Brünnhilde: Daniela Köhler
Der Waldvogel: Alexandra Steiner
Der junge Hagen: Branko Buchberger
Grane: Igor Schwab

Siegfried: Andreas Schager
Gunther: Markus Eiche
Alberich: Olafur Sigurdarson
Hagen: Mika Kares
Brünnhilde: Catherine Foster
Gutrune: Aile Asszonyi
Waltraute: Christa Mayer
First Norn: Okka von der Damerau
Second Norn: Claire Barnett-Jones
Third Norn: Kelly God
Woglinde: Evelyn Novak
Wellgunde: Stephanie Houtzeel
Flosshilde: Simone Schröder
Grane: Igor Schwab

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