Bayreuth Festival 2022 Review: Die Walküre

Irene Theorin, Lise Davidsen Soar in Increasingly Incoherent Production

By Mauricio Villa
(Credit: Enrico Nawrath)

Following a truly disappointing “Das Rheingold,” the August 11 “Die Walküre” proved the polar opposite.

Schwarz’s realistic human approach seemed a little bit more appropriate in this title where human characters appeared for the first time (all characters from the previous opera are mythological). The Austrian director knew how to develop the feelings of the characters and their relationships, creating moments of great emotional impact. Among those were Hunding throwing his heavily pregnant wife Sieglinde violently to the floor; the despair and frustration of Wotan during his long monologue in Act two; Brünnhilde’s outburst of fury as she is unable to accept his father’s change of orders or the depth; and the final Wotan and Brünnhilde duet that leaves Wotan kneeling against a wall with his arms wide open, only to fall later into fetal position as he realizes that he has lost his son and favorite daughter on the very same day against his will.

Continuing to Muck up Wagner’s Libretto

That said, Schwarz’s concept keeps distancing itself from its original sources as some ideas seemed rather inadequate and bizarre. To begin with, he presents Sieglinde as heavily pregnant from the very beginning. In Wagner’s epic poem Sieglinde is married to the old Hunding and gets pregnant by Siegmund when they run away together after having fallen in love at first sight. Brünnhilde reveals to Sieglinde, in Act three, that she is carrying Siegmund’s child who is to become the famous hero Siegfried; and Siegliende, who up to this point wished to die besides Siegmund, changes by finding purpose in raising their child. Taking all this information into consideration, it makes no sense at all that Sieglinde is pregnant from her abusive husband Hunding: how is she going to be able to give birth to the hero Siegfried who is supposed to have been conceived by the two siblings, who are Wotan’s descendants? Siegfried is supposed to be Wotan’s grandson and therefore has some magical qualities: immense strength and no fear.

Furthermore, Brünnhilde tells Sieglinde about Siegmund’s child growing inside Sieglinde’s womb in Act three, which leads Siegliend to abandon her suicidal ideas. However, in this production Brünnhilde enters the scene carrying the newly born baby in her arms. How can this scene be sustained and justify Sieglinde’s sudden flee if the child has already been born?

The sword Nothung is crucial not only to the plot but as an essential symbol from this opera onwards. Everything in the story revolves around the sword. The climax of Act two revolves around Wotan breaking the Nothung, thus leaving his son vulnerable to attack. It symbolizes Wotan taking a side. But beyond that, the sword is pivotal to the plot of “Siegfried;” there’s an entire section in which Siegfried reforges it as a symbol of his maturity and adulthood. But there’s no sword in this production.  At all. As a result, all the musical references to the sword mean nothing. This is where modern directors completely ignoring their source material moves BEYOND just the stagecraft; it strips the music of its significance as well. Instead, at the very end of Act one, Siegmund finds a gun inside a cube which contains an illuminated pyramid. And at the climactic moment of Siegmund’s death, Brünnhilde holds Hunding’s armed arm to prevent him from killing Siegmund while Wotan magically turns Sigmund’s gun towards himself has him shoot himself.

The idea of presenting the Valkyries as rich women who have just had aesthetic operations, with their noses and heads in bandages and touching their recently operated breasts seemed rather ridiculous and farcical. Another shocking idea from Schwarz was an unscripted r*pe attempt by Wotan on an unconscious Sieglinde. And this goes on and on.

All of this leads me to one question: why does the plot have to be reinvented? Why are the characters singing constantly about actions and things that they are not doing or happening? I have no answers to these questions. This way of staging operas does not add any additional meaning to the opera besides turning it into a complete confusing mess.  The job of a stage director should not be to do “original things” but to be expressive and meaningful. To find meaning and interpret what is already there. Otherwise the message is – these are outdated works that we shouldn’t present in their outdated form. The only reason we do it is because the music is popular and people will only come see it because it is a recognizable title. In this context, what directors and theaters are doing is exploiting the original works rather than honoring them. That isn’t to say that there is no leeway for interpretation or questioning of what is presented in the original material, but this production is, in its execution, decidedly NOT Wagner’s “Die Walküre.”

Masters of the Night

Swedish soprano Irene Theorin sang the role of Brünnhilde. She debuted this part back in 2005 and has sang many Ring productions at major opera houses around the world. Safe to say, very few sopranos in the history of opera have managed to keep Brünnhilde in their repertoire for 17 years. It is a role usually sung by sopranos during the last years of their careers due to its extreme difficulties that demand vocal maturity, an extensive vocal range, and a volume and stamina out of the ordinary.

Theorin proved in her performance that she keeps the voice fresh throughout her whole range, with astonishing volume and projection to boot. She displayed vocal flexibility and ringing high notes during her devilish entrance ”Hohotojo, Hohotojo…” with precise and ringing one octave jumps to high B naturals and high Cs. It is really hard for a heavy dramatic voice to sing such a showcase of vocal display and high notes, but Theorin nailed every single note.

After this section of vocal fireworks, the tessitura of the role becomes extremely central and low for the long scene with Wotan. Theorin sang this scene easily, switching from high to low comfortably while keeping her projection and dark, warm voice. She was very moving at the end of the scene as she stayed on the sofa moaning and crying, frustrated by Wotan’s change of opinion about helping Siegmund in battle. She sang the “Annunciation of Death” scene with pathos and depth.

But the highlight of her evening was her interpretation of the third act duet with Wotan, where she could navigate through all the emotions while coloring the voice and using a soaring whispering mezza voce during moments like ”War es soschmählich;” here she emitted low As in mezza voce that were still be perfectible audible. Later on, she delivered a crescendo on a sustained central E during “vertraut…”. It is very demanding to sing dynamics in a low tessitura after a long night because it demands strong breath support and great stamina to sustain pianissimo sounds (if the breath support is affected by tiredness, piannisimi lines sound unstable, out of pitch, or they just simply break). But Theorin ended her performance walking calmly towards the rock foundation at the back of the stage with no signs of vocal fatigue at all. She is truly a master of this role.

Bass-baritone Tomas Konieczny gave a powerful and moving performance of Wotan and was warmly received by the audience at the curtain call. He has a bright timbre completely even from low to high coupled with round, secure high notes. His role in this opera is very long and demanding and the tessitura ranges from low F to high G flat. He has to sing his very first F sharp during his entrance line “reite zur Wall;” Konieczny had no trouble sustaining the high note above the forte orchestration.

After this bombastic entrance the singer has to ride a roller coaster of deep emotions in his scenes with Fricka and Brünnhilde. Konieczny displayed all his vocal and dramatic resources throughout these scenes with legato and mezza voce singing; he would couple this with forceful, dramatic outbursts of fury when confronting his wife and giving up to her demands of killing his own son. There was something intoxicating about  his later deep reflection with Brünnhilde and his interpretation of the line “das ende!” was chilling and hair rising due to his use of a whispering, harsh sound.

The third act is as demanding as the preceding one with the addition of the fatigue the singer might already feel. His entrance, full of rage and fury, demands singing in a high tessitura over an forte orchestra. But after this emotional hurricane, Wotan’s mental state changes to tenderness, abandonment, and frustration as he punishes his beloved daughter for disobeying him. His performance was very moving as he sang long, legato lines using his mezza voce and his dramatic harsh sound.

German tenor Klaus Florian Vogt sang the part of Sigmund. He has a lyric instrument with a sweet timbre which has a light quality coupled with a strong projection. Vogt sang without pushing the sound or overdarkening, all while imprinting sweetness and lyricism to this part. He sang “Friedmund darf ich nicht heissen” with perfect German diction and articulation and became passionate and explosive during “Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater,” delivering a bright and sustained G flat and G natural on”Wälse! Wälse!” He kept a light but powerful sound for the ardent love duet. But as it sadly usually happens with most tenors singing this part, his conclusive and single A natural at the end of Act one “so blühe denn Wälsungenblut” sounded hoarse and he could barely hold it, instead opting to resolve it quickly. That said, this is tough for any tenor. It is very hard to sing a maintain a forte high A natural when the tessitura for nearly an hour has been really low. He sounded dramatic and strong in the last scene of the second act, keeping his natural timbre and bright emission in the lower and central tessitura demanded by the score.

Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen has gained great international attention in recent years. She has a dark, warm voice with a seemingly impossible volume and projection in her upper register. From a G upwards the voice increases in volume and the high notes ring in your ears; it seems as if her sound evolves around your head, as if she was singing close to you. Her voice is very rich in harmonics and has a velvety quality in the lower register.

That said, Sieglinde is an ungrateful part as it is not a long role and has no solo interventions, but the role is vocally well-written as it begins being quite central but increases gradually up to a high B flat. Davidsen was lyrical and explosive in her love duet at the end of Act one but neurotic and frightened for the final scene of Act two. But in Act three, she has to sing what might be the most beautiful melody and leitmotiv in the entire tetralogy – the “Redemption by love” motif – with expansive long legato lines, top ringing high A naturals, and immense emotion. She received the greatest ovation of the night.

The bass George Zeppenfeld sang the abusive husband Hunding. In this short role, which has a comfortable bass tessitura from low G to high E flat, Zeppenfeld used his powerful, dark voice to imprint his character with a strong authoritarian attitude and menacing interventions.

Christa Mayer reprised the role of Fricka, displaying legato singing and fluid fraseo in lyrical melodic moments like “”O was klag’ich um ehe und eid.” However, her high register sounded strident during the few G sharps and A flats that the score has. But these uneven high notes did not blur her strong, dramatic performance.

Kelly God, Brit-Tone Müllertz, Stephanie Houtzeel, Christa Mayer, Daniela Köhler, Nana Dzidziguri, Marie Henriette Reimhold, and Katie Stevenson were brilliant as the eight Valkyries in Act three. They offered a bright, heroic interpretation of the famous “Ride of the Valkyries” and sang with musical rigor during the polyphonic sections that Wagner wrote. They were very committed to all the actions that the questionable staging demanded of them by acting with energy and truth.

After a strong disapproval from the audience in “Das Rheingold,” Cornelius Meister was warmly received at the end of this performance. In my opinion, his work in “Walküre” was as good as it was in the preceding opera, but it was pretty clear that part of the audience does not agree with me. The orchestra sounded clean, bright, dramatic and all the leitmotivs had a strong presence. Maybe his success was related to a more traditional reading of the score as he took no risks with tempi in this opera.


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