Bayreuth Festival 2023 Review: Der Ring des Nibelungen

By Christina Waters
(Photo: © Enrico Nawrath)

As the final cycle of Bayreuth’s 2023 “Ring des Nibelungen” came to a close, the air remained electric with the sounds of Wagner’s apocalyptic horns and the swirling raptures of the Rhine. Camps came away divided into those either outraged or captivated by director Valentin Schwarz‘s reinvention of the Walsung’s messy journey into oblivion. To be fair, there was much for the purists at heart who come to worship at the shrine built by Wagner. In settings that cross-referenced reality TV with darker strains of Freudian family feuds, Schwarz’s imagining of “Das Rheingold” is a downward spiral of superficial desires and twisted repercussions. And in my opinion, it is both brilliant and prescient.

That said, much remains to be fully resolved, tweaked, and workshopped in both the opening “Das Rheingold” and especially “Götterdämmerung,” the final opera of the tetralogy. These two opening and closing dramas of Wagner’s epic struggle were so stained with visual non-sequiturs that they practically obliterated the splendor of the score. The ongoing dissonances that wove throughout Schwarz’s conceptualization of the Ring were both its power and its disenchantment. A prime example was in the shimmering declaration of love and ardor, “Winterstürme,” Siegfried’s matchless love song to his sister/bride Sieglinde. Perfectly matched by emerging star Elisabeth Teige as Sieglinde, the golden-toned Klaus Florian Vogt gave full actualization to the role of Siegmund. Yet as the music and Vogt’s voice were soaring through some of the most beautiful love music ever written, the concept was busy tinkering with Elisabeth’s pregnancy, which shows up even before Sigmund does. Splayed awkwardly across a staircase, Teige endured possible sexual probing. Or was it the desire to abort the future hero, Siegfried, she is carrying by Wotan? Even as Vogt lifts his voice toward a perfect world in which the twin lovers will live happily ever after.

Firm Control

The majestic music, lifting and purring securely under the firm control of maestro Pietari Inkinen, never faltered. But the visuals had the audience squirming.

And this is key to Schwarz’s vision, for better and worse. Unlike many of the high fashion Wagner productions, such as Herheim‘s “Parsifal” or Castorf‘s “Ring,” Schwarz doesn’t seem to be interested in simply updating imagery and characterizations in order to shock, provoke, or show off for its own sake. He has an obvious and—at its best—illuminating vision of a world devolving thanks to the moral bankruptcy of the older generation. In his lecture remarks, the 34-year-old Schwarz maintained that he wanted not only to update the Ring, but to make it accessible to today’s audiences. In stage directions he asked his cast to sing what the 19th century composer wrote, but to act with their own 21st century gestures and attitudes. As a result this “Ring” is a literal refresh of Wagner’s grand motifs. Far from grandstanding designed to arbitrarily interrupt the text, Schwarz gives us a dysfunctional family drama within the post-capitalist rubble of a disintegrating natural world. Certainly the real world as we know it!

All of which means there is no ring, no Tarnhelm, no gold-hoarding Nibelungen, and no horseback Valkyries ho-yo-to-hoing down from the skies. At once mesmerizing yet utterly bizarre, where the formidable Valkyries galloped down from the heavens to carry off fallen warriors, they are now Beverly Hills housewives recovering from various plastic surgeries and costumed “à la Barbie.” Schwarz has a sense of humor as well as a concept. The over-the-top Instagram groupies costumed in pink, orange, and red. Wotan’s offspring laughed, preened and compared breast enhancements, a giggling hell for their profligate father to regret. From the daycare lockdown of Rheingold’s Nibelheim filled with little girls in pigtails and pink dresses—save for one rebellious boychild, the young Hagen. To the final moments where the daughter of Brünnhilde and Siegfried escapes the cycle of eternal recurrence into an as yet-to-be determined future, this “Ring” is a tale of bad faith with benefits. And there’s not a boring moment in it.

Tinkering With Our Expectations

Wagner’s leitmotifs are shaken up to serve a contemporary reality, and how those motifs shape individual character’s desires also shapeshifts along the way. Instead of a Tarnhelm, Freia’s shawl is a fetish carried forward by various characters as a security blanket throughout the four operas. The same for a persistent rocking horse, which symbolizes Grane, occupies the mis-en-scène throughout. What Schwarz’s recurring symbols mean is not in any way tangible or defined. But, how they have meaning is as clear as the subconscious itself. Moving throughout the four operas is an illuminated pyramid lit from within. The various characters hold this pyramid, or bring it with them, into the arenas of family feuding. Clearly a cherished object, the pyramid maintains our interest and curiosity. No small accomplishment throughout 17 hours of opera!

Some of this tinkering with our expectations takes a while to gain traction. We meet the Rhinemaidens as waitresses at a swimming pool holiday camp. Alberich, a wolfish Olafur Sigurdarson in jeans and a black leather jacket, is a low-life who steals children. In place of archaic swords and spears, our gods and demigods wield cell phones and handguns. When Wotan and Alberich simultaneously point guns at each other they are sealing their mutual fate as conjoined rivals in the quest for their youth.  And some of the director’s tinkering never gains traction, such as an interminable food fight by an imprisoned child, Hagen, going on upstage during the early encounters between Wotan and Alberich. Describing this as annoying is an understatement. As is the prophetic Norn deconstruction in “Götterdämmerung,” in which the three singers are placed too far back to be intelligible, while grotesquely costumed like sequined underwater monsters in a Hollywood B horror film.

Equal parts Tolstoy and Netflix, Schwarz’s “Ring” underscores the timeless mundane of every human drama. No longer anchored to the horned helmet tradition, it is about a dysfunctional family, its dysfunctional progeny, the incestuous desires just under the surface, and the brief immortality of sexual fulfillment. It is basically as relevant as today’s Dow Jones index.

Schwarz’s premise of the quest for youth as the driving motivation for dramatic action was already contained in Wagner. Freia’s apples keep the gods young, and the deals made to maintain this narcissistic nourishment embroil Wotan and his selfie-consumed offspring in subsequent scenarios. It was all there in the libretto. Schwarz simply tugged on a few fresh narrative threads.

The most successful music/setting episode for me was the last act of “Das Rheingold,” and the beginning of “Walküre.” Wotan, Fricka, and the demigods are bickering about the Freia situation, as if in a lost episode of “Succession,” when up pulls a car carrying two thugs with handguns. These are the giants Tobias Kehrer as Fafner, and Jens-Erik Aasbø as Fasolt. Both deliciously slimy and rich in voice, although as a colleague mentioned after the performance, they were surprisingly small for giants. This Wotan, a lusty Tomasz Konieczny, complains about the Freia mess he is forced to clean up, reaching for another cocktail whenever he can. Equally spoiled is his bling-covered wife Fricka, handsomely accomplished by Christa Mayer, always reminding him of the promises he’s made.

Handguns, bristling with Freudian symbolism in any context, become the tool of accusation for each character, as well as a means of removing unwanted impediments: Siegmund, for one. And ultimately, the non-heroic super hero, Siegfried.

Inspired Choices

One of Schwarz’s most successful staging inspirations is to have characters arranged simultaneously, i.e. poetically,  rather than showing up one after the other in narrative fashion. Servants in Wotan’s estate continuously picking up, cleaning up and offering food and drink. One of the serving women suddenly drops an entire tray of drinks. And at that moment she steps into the role of Erda, whom Wotan pleads for advice. She warns him that he’s going to have to take responsibility for what he’s done, all the women he’s had sex with, all the corners he’s cut in order to get what he wants. And just as suddenly, she re-enters the cocktail party of the gods and to oversee a team of maids clean up the floor. The stagecraft is effective. It both condenses cumbersome scene changes and reminds us that everywhere in Wagner, Time becomes Space.

The device of having characters, and even actions yet to come, placed onstage simultaneously, is most stunningly realized in the second act of Siegfried. This is where Fafner—now a feeble old man on life support—is being cared for in a luxury nursing home. Fafner is already close to death. It doesn’t take a hero to kill him. There are no heroes in Schwarz’s scenario, only ordinary mortals nursing their entitlements. At the back of the set, Alberich and Wotan sip cocktails next to each other. In the front of the set, Siegfried and Mime are fresh from the revelations in Mime’s mancave as they perch on a couch with Hagen, now a teenager, dressed in the same yellow shirt and blue pants as the stolen child in the opening of “Das Rheingold.” A young attendant, weary of feeding the aging Fafner, relaxes on the couch and begins flirting with Siegfried. The music alerts us that she is the Waldvogel who then begins to sing of Mime’s true intentions and Siegfried’s danger. The economy of storytelling by collapsing sequential time into spatial simultaneity pumps energy into an opera that can weary even diehard Wagnerites.

Schwarz told his performers to sing as Wagner indicates, but to act as they would today in their own everyday lives. As a result these gods, heroes, and villains are relatable as the characters in daytime TV, or in any classroom, or barroom, or talk show discussion. In “Siegfried,” the tedious project of forging a new sword becomes a sleepover in a messy bachelor campsite. Mime, a brilliant and cranky Arnold Bezuyen, fondles a stuffed horse as his personal fetish, surrounded by child-sized dolls. Trying to manufacture a dragon-slaying gun/sword all he can come up with are plastic weapons that Siegfried easily breaks. The antics of the two actors are so fascinating and dynamic that the usually interminable sojourn in Mime’s forge seems to fly by, not least because the astonishing heldentenor Andreas Schager unleashes his full vocal power throughout, building toward a conclusion—in the next act—that leads him off to the next adult adventure in finding adult love and a new life. Bezuyen’s tender and murderous portrayal massages contradictions of the malevolent Nibelung.

Great Singing

Outstanding singing throughout all four operas overcame moments of silly staging dependent upon too many plastic dishes and endless cocktails. Making her Bayreuth debut, Norwegian Elisabeth Tiege as Sieglinde was every bit a match for superstar Klaus Florian Vogt’s Siegmund. Vogt keeps growing as an actor as well as a singer, but the new Sieglinde here made a notable Bayreuth debut. Her performance in the third cycle provided a true star-is-born experience. Passionate and dextrous as an actress, she matched Vogt’s crystalline crescendoes with gleaming colors and persuasive phrasing, especially in the middle of her impressive tessitura. Still messing with time, space and our expectations, Schwarz’s Sieglinde as already pregnant when we meet her. We can’t be sure just who the father is. Does time move backwards? Why not?

Schwarz suggests that his performers bring their own personal attitudes and gestures onto the stage and this works so well that all four operas cohered into a believable and complete world, passionately shared by the players. They believe in their pet squabbles and dynastic baggage, and so do we.

In this production, Wotan is a lout, a self-centered decadent, hellbent on pleasing himself, even if it means peeking up family skirts. Incest themes, already abundant in Wagner, are reinforced at every opportunity. Everyone is Wotan’s offspring or lover, and the ultimate couple are indeed aunt and nephew. Catherine Foster, as Brünnhilde in “Walküre” seemed more at home in her role as the youth-seeking god’s favorite daughter than in productions past. Stomping around in a fringed leather jacket and boots, she both loves and hates her father. Her rebellion against him was antagonized by their fiercely ambiguous embraces and his curling up in her lap. Even though it gives Schager, in the final act, a chance to fully unfurl his seemingly tireless voice. The Walküre was commanded by reigning Wotan, Tomasz Konieczny, a bravura actor capable of fierce vocal power and emotional range.

His voice, especially in the velvety, rounded lower edge of the baritone tessitura, was explosive from start to finish. His bitter denouncing of Alberich, the octave leap in which he declares “das Ende!” attacked the opera house like a bolt of sonic lightning. And the finish of his harrowing “Leb’ wohl” to Brünnhilde, when he finally fully grasps what has happened, was breathtaking. His robust voice now spent—as he made us believe—he crumpled to his knees, and while the entire house grew hushed, he sang-whispered the loss of his dynastic dream. It was sheer magic. The performance of a lifetime.

From his recent triumph as at the Met as the Hollander, to the many Wotans in European halls that have honed his confidence in the role, Konieczny is in the prime of his stardom. His charismatic Wotan in this 2023 “Ring” gave lucky audiences everything they came for. Clad in a Naples yellow suit and sexy platinum haircut longer on one side to suggest the missing eye, Konieczny’s Wotan was a swaggering flawed pater familias, as troubled and petulant as any of his children or siblings. He drinks, he lusts, he bullies, and he drinks some more. Instead of leading his bickering family proudly across the rainbow bridge at Rheingold’s end, Konieczny literally danced his way through the final bolero alone, on a balcony high over the stage. Reveling in his own fantasy, in a moment of electrifying stagecraft.

His tremendous baritone roams a wide emotional frontier, from tenderness to ferocity with equal ease. Reaching down to a velvety, growling bass, he was capable of floating the long vowels at the top of his range before biting off the final consonants. Devouring the role, Konieczny is everything opera should be, certainly Wagner’s operatic vision of the Gesamptkunstwerk. On a stageful of dazzling singers, he is also—and perhaps foremost—an actor. Konieczny’s super power is his ability to inhabit and reveal his character from the inside out.

A full-bodied singer/actor, he molds his sound to match and stretch the emotions such that every gesture, musical and physical, is seamlessly integrated. Alternately oozing swagger and bitter defeat, Konieczny’s Wotan articulated Schwarz’s concept in a single, human-all-too-human embodiment. The rage of his Wotan filled the entire hall during the final Walküre. A compelling actor, a ferocious singer, who looks every inch the tortured god—he is exactly what Wagner had in mind.

Jarring Shift

In the second act of “Siegfried,” the entire cast from the insistent sniping of Olafur Sigurdarson‘s Alberich, to the restless Siegfried of Andreas Schager, to the scheming but clueless Mime of Arnold Bezuyen, looked and sounded fully engaged. Schwarz’s cast had succeeded in mapping the myth onto the dreams and petty desires of ordinary, flawed people. We meet the still sleeping Brünnhilde not encircled by fire, but cloaked and wrapped in gauze. Slowly, Siegfried unwinds her bandages—a terrific stand-in for armor and helmet—and reveals a new woman, no longer the superhuman Valkyrie, but a fully human individual. As if to reinforce this transformation, Brünnhilde in the last act of “Siegfried,” was performed by a different singer, Daniela Köhler. Of lighter stature and voice, Köhler made a romantic match with Schager. And as they drive off together, Brünnhilde now wearing the Wanderer/Wotan’s signature hat, both the lovers brandish guns. Off to build a new life, and destroy an old world. A post-Valhallan Bonnie and Clyde.

So much works in the first three operas, that the final setting of “Götterdämmerung” proves jarring. The castle of Gunther and his sister Gutrune, along with half-brother Hagan—now fully grown and performed with pungent angst by Mika Kares—is another version of the featureless nouveau rich estate in which Wotan’s Walsung clan swilled their booze and aired their resentments. Action pivoted around a large white couch on which Gunther played with irritating antics by Michael Kupfer-Radecky. He portrayed an over-sexed loser with long blonde hair and tight leather pants, throwing pillows back and forth with Siegfried. Gutrune was realized successfully by Aile Asszonyi as a brainless blonde bimbo, with whom Siegfried quickly becomes sexually intoxicated.

Once the betrayed Brünnhilde makes a deal with Hagan and Gunther to put an end to Siegfried, the last scenes, set in the bottom of a drained swimming pool, added another layer of confusion to Schwarz’s ambitions. Echoing the swimming pool opening in which we first met the Rhine maidens, here even the Rhine has dried up. The now-elderly trio attempting to seduce Siegfried and kidnap his child are aged hags clad in designer suits. Everything is winding down, dying, ending, except the young child who manages to climb up out of the pool. Setting the death of Siegfried and the self-immolation of Brünnhilde in the bottom of an empty swimming pool is a tasty idea that failed to translate into any stage magic. Visually barren, the setting threatened the glorious thunder of the finale. Maestro Inkinen kept the music restrained, although you sensed the strings and horns were primed to be unleashed. I longed for a bit more sturm und drang in the orchestral ascendance, a release into the grand musical gesture that would reunite the entire cycle back into its origins. The failures of each generation to move beyond themselves, to make room for the future are crafted with vision and audacity by Valentin Schwarz. What is needed is a more shapely mis-en-scène equal to the concept.

Schwarz’s key decision was to eradicate the dichotomy of gods and mortals. Wotan’s narcissistic patriarchy is enmired in situations we all know well—Dynasty meets The Apprentice, with shadings of HBO’s Succession and Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” There is no lofty kingdom of the gods. We are plunged into a world already down and dirty, grasping for youth and territory, utterly irresponsible in its actions. Brünnhilde rejects Wotan. Siegfried overpowers him. There will be no Valhalla.

Workshopping can tweak the set designs and staging to give more support to Schwarz’s vision. The director succeeded in plunging the “Ring” characters and their motivations fast forward into our own fears and unvoiced desires. We grasp at any way we can to stave off our end. Living through grandchildren. Acquiring wealth and property. Refusing the ravages of age in all the ways that science and surgery can provide. The fear of the end, and not only the end of the Valhallan dream that Wotan must confront, but the end of our own lives as well. This is the central leitmotif.

Missteps and all, it is a vision worthy of Wagner.


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