Sofia Opera & Ballet 2023 Review: Götterdämmerung
Derilova & Buchkov’s Standout Performances in Excellent CastBy Alan Neilson
(Photo: Sofia Opera & Ballet)
Having successfully staged strong productions of “Das Rheingold” and “Die Walküre,” followed by a slightly less convincing presentation of “Siegfried,” Sofia Opera & Ballet concluded its new production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle with a splendid performance of “Götterdämmerung.”
Not only was it musically, dramatically and visually gripping, but it also successfully brought together the threads of the narrative that had weaved their way through the three previous operas to a satisfying conclusion. The gods had succumbed to their inevitable doom, thanks to Wotan’s wanton disregard for his own contracts. Valhalla had been destroyed, and a trail of death lay in the ring’s wake. Fasolt, Fafner, Hunding, Gunther, Mime and even the unaware Siegfried, along with Brünnhilde, had all perished. The message was clearly made. The pursuit of power at the expense of love only leads to destruction.
As the final curtain is about to fall, and the Ring has safely been returned to the waters of the Rhine, Hagen plunges in. But, rather than being carried down to his death, he is seen chasing after the Rheinmaidens. They are, in their usual manner, tormenting him. All of this takes place while Alberich watches on from the sidelines. Nothing has changed. No lessons were learned, and the circle of existence is again already in the process of repeating itself.
Kartaloff’s Vision Continues To Impress
As in the previous three parts of the cycle, the director Plamen Kartaloff favored a balanced, aesthetically strong and visually pleasing staging. This allowed the narrative to be clearly expounded, without allowing dramatic confrontations to descend into emotional histrionics. Likewise, he employed the same basic set of three versatile ring-like circles, designed by Hans Kudlich, that could be used as scenery or platforms. The visual impact of Andrej Hadjdinjak’s strong lighting designs and Ivan Lipchev’s largely abstract video imagery were again brilliantly used to generate the changing atmospheres of the drama. Hristiyana Mihaleva-Zorbalieva’s costumes were nicely designed to complement the overall aesthetic, and although Froh and Donner once again appeared as if they were American comic book super-heroes, her menacing black uniforms for the Gibichung chorus were excellent.
In one respect, however, the staging differed slightly from the previous operas. In Act one, a little more detail was used than had been the case up to this point. There was a large black and white chess board with some of the pieces placed inside one of the rings, which Hagen eventually threw aside in an outburst of rage. On the front, right-hand side of the stage, there was a large and evil-looking sculpture. It appeared to be a horned animal skull, bathed in a blood-red glow, emanating a malevolent presence over the stage. Everything worked splendidly well. It conjured the pervasive evil that now lay in the home of the Gibichungs.
Kartaloff also displayed a keen eye in constructing the relationship between the characters. In particular, his handling of the relationship between Hagen and Gunther was expertly brought to life. Gunter, as the king, had authority. But, it was Hagen, through his manipulation of the monarch, who had the power and used this for his own base purposes. Kartaloff portrayed Gunther as weak and reliant on Hagen. His movements were often unsure, and he frequently casted glances towards his half-brother for support. Even when making decisions, he was only superficially assertive. Also, when possible he was positioned close to his sister. This added to the impression that both were constantly seeking support from each other. On the other hand, Hagen was strong and confident, albeit obviously resentful. He treated Gunther with barely concealed contempt. Mihaleva-Zorbalieva’s costumes clearly reinforced this relationship. Gunther was dressed in an attractive, regal burgundy-colored robe. Hagen wore a black aggressive costume.
Two Standout Performances
Although the cast was strong throughout, there were two standout performances.
Soprano Iordanka Derilova as Bünnhilde was superb. From the prologue until the opera’s concluding scene, she dominated every scene in which she appeared. She was everything one would expect of a Valkyrie. She was energetic, forceful and spirited. Her performance of the finale, which lasts approximately 19 minutes and starts with the aria “Starke Scheite schichtet mir dort,” was absolutely stunning. She fully absorbed herself in the drama. Her voice captured the full emotional power of the scene as she imbued the vocal line with detailed expressive inflections and emphases. As she sang into her upper register with increased volume, her voice held firm and bloomed into a hair-tingling crescendi. Her voice has an attractive lyrical quality that allowed her to beautifully craft sounding lines, which she did not allow to intrude on their dramatic quality. She also possessed the necessary presence to carryout the scene. She was aided in no small degree by Kudlich’s brilliant scenography. While sitting proudly astride Grane, with the entire stage ablaze and covered in a red and yellow light, her voice rang out powerfully over the orchestra as Valhalla collapsed to the ground behind her.
The second standout was bass Petar Buchkov, who admirably acquitted himself as Fafner in “Das Rheingold” and “Siegfried.” Although the role of the giant had offered limited opportunities for him to display his full qualities, Hagen allowed him the possibility to use his dark-colored and finely controlled resonant voice to develop a character with greater depth. In what was a compelling reading of Alberich’s offspring, he was by turn vicious, manipulative and treacherous. He expertly captured these qualities by contorting his voice with resentment and hatred. This also allowed him to show his skills as a first-rate actor.
Throughout the cycle, Alberich was forever appearing on stage, even when he was not singing or mentioned in the libretto. He was often to be found lurking somewhere in the background and keeping an eye on what was happening in attempt to regain the ring. The baritone Plamen Dimitrov, who played the role in all three of the operas in which he appears, produced an energetic performance in which he expertly caught Alberich’s obsessive and malevolent nature. His acting was nuanced and clearly defined. His singing was striking for its level of expressivity.
Baritone Atanas Mladenov possesses a refined and sensitive voice, which suited his position as a king unsure of how to use his authority. His phrasing was beautifully moulded so that his outbursts of anger directed towards Siegfried’s perceived betrayal was more of a cry for help. He came across as basically a decent man of limited intelligence who is totally out of his depth and therefore at the mercy of the unscrupulous who wish to use him for their own ends.
Tenor Martin Iliev is not a natural Siegfried. His voice does not possess the necessary heroic quality. However, he produced a reasonably good performance and was certainly not embarrassed by his vocal portrayal. The only problem to note was his heavy vibrato as he attempted to push the voice forward with force. Otherwise, he sang fairly well, although without the success he achieved as Siegmund in “Die Walküre,” in which he showed off his voice to better effect and for which he was able to develop his character with a greater degree of success.
Building on her excellent performance as Sieglinde in “Die Walküre,” soprano Tsvetana Bandalovska provided another example of exceptional ability with a wonderfully sung and convincingly characterized presentation of Gutrune. She possesses an appealing and expansive voice, which she used with a great deal of sensitivity to successfully capture Gutrune’s vulnerability and timidity. Her easy acceptance of Hagen’s plan to entrap Siegfried, as well as her readiness to recognize her own wrongdoing when faced with the truth, sat comfortably with her characterization.
Mezzo-soprano Camelia Kader made a strong impression in the relatively small role of the Valkyrie Waltraute, in which her expressive phrasing and clear characterization stood out.
The three Norns made a visually strong impact as they wove the ropes of fate that linked the past, the present and the future. Essayed by mezzo-soprano Tsveta Sarambelieva and sopranos Ina Kalinova and Lyubov Metodieva, their singing was nicely weighted to conjure up a sense of dislocation and loss.
The chorus of the Gibichungs was carefully choreographed so as not to interrupt the pleasing aesthetic that had been carefully maintained throughout the whole of the cycle. The men were grouped tightly together inside two of the circles, and dressed in black with spears pointing directly upwards. This gave a static impression of potential violence. The singing, directed by Stefan Arzberger, was vibrant, well-coordinated and full-bodied.
The conductor Constantin Trinks supported the stage with a dramatically strong reading from the Orchestra of the Sofia Opera and Ballet. The orchestra seemed to grow over the course of the cycle. Its performance of “Götterdämmerung” was the most satisfying. It played with a controlled energy, a strong depth of expression and, at times, was emotionally breathtaking.
It was a pleasing coincidence that “Götterdämmerung” proved to be the most successful production in the cycle. This ensured that its stunning finale brought not only the opera, but the entire tetralogy, to a thrilling conclusion, for which the audience showed its appreciation with a long period of thoroughly deserved applause.
The Sofia Opera & Ballet’s Ring Cycle had many positives, especially Kartaloff’s excellent direction. He not only managed to successfully create a strong visual and dramatic presentation for each individual opera, but possessed the necessary vision to deliver a consistent and coherent reading throughout the entire production. The operas were also bound together by a strong aesthetic. His production team proved excellent. The staging was always tightly focused on the dramatic, without diversions into extraneous concerns such as unconscious motivations or allowing the characters’ emotional personalities to overwhelm the narrative.
For sure, there were a few small problems along the way, as any company putting on a full cycle would no doubt experience. The slightly understrengthed orchestra, for example, was unavoidable given the dimensions of the pit. But, this did compromise the lush Wagnerian sound. Nevertheless, they managed to produce a fine reading that captured the dramatic breadth of Wagner’s music, despite a few awkward moments during “Das Rheingold.” In addition, the quality of the singers was in many cases excellent. Derilova, Buchkov, Bandalovska, Hall and Rusekova in particular caught the attention of audience members. However, the role of Siegfried proved problematic and this severely compromised the final scene of “Siegfried.”
Overall, this was very a successful production, one that will live on in memory.