Bayreuth Festival 2022 Review: Das Rheingold

Christa Mayer, Okka von der Damerau, Olafin Sigundason Shine in Valentin Schwarz’s Confused Productions

By Mauricio Villa
(Credit: Enrico Nawrath)

Controversy was in full force as the second run of performances of the Bayreuth’s “Ring des Nibelungen” kicked off on August 10.

Conductor Cornelius Meister had to step in on very short notice to replace a sick colleague. Tomas Konieczny, who sang Wotan, fell on the set in the second act of “Die Walküre” and had to be replaced for the third act of that opera. And furthermore, the production, the conductor and some singers received the disapproval of the audience on the opening night. Bayreuth’s audience is very passionate, and they express their approval/disapproval very loudly at the curtain calls. Boos could be heard ringing out during the final curtain for the August 10 “Rheingold,” a clear indication about how they felt about Valentin Schwarz’s new production.

But this isn’t all that surprising. Bayreuth’s audience is very reluctant to accept new interpretations of Wagner’s magnus opus; the now-iconic Boulez-Chereau centennial production from 1976 was a huge failure its first season, before becoming as revered as it is today.

Valentin Schwarz’s production is set in the 21st century, with hyper realistic sets and costumes and a natural acting approach focused on human passions like love, greed and power. The staging is mostly dynamic with the exception of the first scene which turned out to be quite still and slow. But truth be told, the production entertains and the sets are pleasant to look at: a swimming pool for the opening scene, a vintage decorated mansion for the second and fourth scene, cars, guns, CCTV footage. It works as a theatrical show.

BUT, the problem is that such a realistic approach does not tell the story of the opera well, filling Wagner’s original libretto with contradictions to the point that the story being played onstage resembles nothing of the actual text.

Contradicting the Text

The “Rheingold” is personified by a small boy wearing a yellow cap and T-shirt; therefore Alberich kidnaps the boy from the swimming pool instead of stealing pieces of gold. And it is this concept that provides the foundation for the production. It is with this gold that Alberich forges the magic ring after having renounced love and launches the epic battle that lasts four operas. But there is no magic in this production and the fight for the ring in scenes three and four is, to be blunt, ridiculous and confusing. Does Fafner kill his brother Fasolt to keep the boy? What for?. There is no magic helmet either, therefore no invisibility or transformation into giant snakes or small toads. The Nibelungs, a dwarf race, are represented in this production by little blond girls in uniform drawing pictures. There is no Wotan spear at all, an element that plays a crucial importance throughout the whole “Ring cycle.” I understand the idea of focusing in human relationships and setting the action in modern times to make these challenges operas more accessible to modern audiences. But to ignore all the magic and mystical references completely means to tell a whole different story, as these themes are essential in the understanding and development of the original intent. And so it happens that you see the characters acting completely different from what they are singing; there is a complete detachment between their words and their actions.

I’m not implying that the productions should be classical and represent faithfully all the actions of the story. But the tremendously difficult task of a stage director is to find solutions to the scenes, not to ignore them, and create a parallel dramaturgy. If we take into consideration that the theatre at Bayreuth has no subtitles at all, people who are unfamiliar with these operas would be completely lost or get a complete different idea from Wagner’s poem.

The ‘Perfect’ Acoustics

Wagner built the theatre at Bayreuth with shocking innovations at that time. He hid the orchestra under the stage to find a better communion between the audience and the stage without the barrier of the orchestra. He designed a special distribution, in a staircase, of the instruments. And these measures turned out to produce a pure balanced sound where all the textures of his compositions are perfectly audible. The orchestra, even at its loudest, never overpowers a singer’s voice even if the singers are whispering. But these perfect conditions for acoustics leave, on the other hand, the singers completely exposed and every mistake is noticeable.

Bass-baritone Egils Silins was a weak Wotan. He possesses a lyrical instrument with modest volume but serious difficulties in the higher range (I always take into consideration that the singer might not be at his best on the night of the show) as shown in his opening line ”Vollender das ewige werk.”  Here, he had to take an extra short breath to prepare the high F, breaking the fluidity of the line. The high note sounded strained and unstable. But the tessitura of this role in this opera is mostly central so Silins’ performance was mostly correct. But his voice lost intensity and projection from the middle to the upper range, giving little vocal consistency in a role which has to sound authoritative and powerful. Wotan’s interventions in “Das Rheingold” lack the lyricism that this character has in “Die Walküre.” And even if Silin’s German diction was immaculate, it was noticeable that he was more comfortable on the few lyrical legato lines, like in the fourth act”In des morguens scheine,” than in the rest of the opera where his singing is in the recitative style.

Olafin Sigundason portrayed the wicked Alberich. He has a powerful, metallic voice that expands as he rises in the tessitura, creating great effects of dramatic tension. His timbre is completely even and balanced from low to high, presenting a clear, round sound. His ability to color the vocal line and sing dynamics created memorable moments during such passages as “so verfluch’ich die liebe,” “the horad scene,” or “the curse.” He offered a strong, believable characterization of the tortured, greedy dwarf even if the staging was quite still in the first scene or presented him in his underwear during the first part of the fourth scene. He received one of the greatest ovations of the night.

Tenor Daniel Kirch sang the role of Loge. His voice is bigger and denser comparing to the tenors usually cast for this part. Kirch’s performance was agile, with depurated German diction, and unlimited variety of colors and dynamics. His interpretation of his second scene monologue ”immer ist Undnak” was amusing and emotional at the same time.  He explored the frenzy and cynicism of this role, even while the staging demanded a naturalistic personification of this “Demi-God of fire.”

Jens-ann Dunbar gave a timid interpretation of the giant Fasolt. He does not have the basso-profondo voice that this role requires and therefore he lacked vocal power. He overdarkens and rounds the sound which leads to him losing projection from the C upwards above the stave. The conception of this production of turning the giants into gangsters did not help him in portraying a menacing strong character deeply infatuated with the goddess Freia.

Conversely, Wilhelm Schwinghammer gave a strong interpretation of the short role of Fafner. He imbued his interpretation with power and vocal entity which in this production has to rely on vocal characterization as the staging does not help much.

Raimund Nolte and Attilio Glaser were simply correct as Donner and Froh. It is true that their roles are very short and delegated to a few spare lines, but the baritone lacked the vocal power to sing heroic line like”He da, He da, he do” which turned out to be tedious and uninteresting. Meanwhile, tenor Glaser has a guttural emission with small projection and blurred diction.

Strong Female Presence

Mezzo-soprano Christa Mayer sang the role of Fricka with her powerful dark sound and an astonishing low register. Her performance was rotund and strong, giving an emotional characterization. Okka von der Damerau sang the short but lucid role of Erda. Her intervention is about 10 minutes long but she gained the recognition of the audience with her dark velvety sound, her mesmerizing legato singing, and her unlimited palette of vocal colors. Her interpretation was chilling and full of pathos.

Elisabeth Teige was a strong Freia, giving entity and strength to a role which is usually portrayed as a weak young girl. She just has a few vocal appearances but her clean, strong ascensions to A naturals and B flats shown her vocal power, round sound, and astonishing projection.

Lea-Ann Dunbar, Stephanie Houtzeel and Katie Stevenson portrayed the three Rhinemaidens. They mostly sang in ensemble and their voices melded together beautifully, offering one great moment after another.

Cornelius Meister offered a passionate reading of the score. He opted for some extreme tempi that were quite distant from tradition, and I believe this was the reason for the huge disapproval of the audience. He opted for extremely low and pesante tempi for the prelude and the final scene while choosing fast tempi for the leitmotiv that announces the entry of the giants. Meister created great moments of tension, such as during the crescendo of the prelude, where he kept increasing the depth and density of the sound while keeping an impossibly slow tempo. However,  he could, at the same time switch very easily to beautiful lyrical moments like in Freia’s motives or Erda’s scene. He imprinted a sense of power and vitality to the score. And even with quite a few pesante tempi, he managed to conclude the opera in two hours and 26 minutes, which is the average timing for most performances. The Festspielorchester is probably the greatest orchestra playing Wagner and it really shows. Their sound is precise and has a sense of “perfection,” polish, and passion at the same time.


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