The thirty-three-year-old Austrian director Valentin Schwarz was handed a golden opportunity, so to speak, to produce Bayreuth’s latest production of Der Ring des Nibelungen. Wagner’s four-part opera cycle tells a psychologically penetrating tale of the creation and destruction of the world, in which limitless power resides in a single golden ring that may only be forged by one who forswears love. The new staging was originally scheduled for 2020, but the pandemic delayed its premiere until this summer. Lingering COVID effects remained in evidence, however. The scheduled conductor, Pietari Inkinen, caught the virus and suffered a recovery so slow that he withdrew from the project. The forty-two-year-old Cornelius Meister, the music director of Stuttgart’s State Opera, was reassigned from this year’s other new production (Tristan und Isolde) to take over.
Little was expected of this new Ring. No traditional production of the cycle has been staged in Bayreuth since before World War II. The Festival’s post-war directors, Wagner’s grandsons Wieland and Wolfgang, consciously sought to remove the work’s Nordic heroism and medieval trappings to avoid conflation with the propagandistic appropriation of these elements by the Nazis. The “new Bayreuth” style that prevailed until Wieland’s premature death in 1966 instead emphasized the internal psychological dimensions of Wagner’s operas, generally through abstract sets and even empty stages. For the Ring’s centennial in 1976, Wolfgang (who ran the Festival until 2008) hired the then-controversial young French director Patrice Chéreau, who staged the cycle as a parable of capitalism’s degradation from the Industrial Revolution to the gritty present.
Objections to the Chéreau Ring were intense. Fights broke out at the premiere. Critical commentary skewered it with invective. Chéreau received death threats. A group of Bayreuth donors offered to raise funds to replace it. Wolfgang’s mother, Winifred Wagner, who had been close to Adolf Hitler and still lived on her family’s property in Bayreuth, refused to attend. The Bayreuth audience’s reputation for furiously booing productions was born. But, over time, Wolfgang’s production was accepted and even came to be loved. Ever since, it has been fashionable to present the Ring—in Bayreuth and elsewhere—in light of the same basic critique of modernity, albeit with variations in staging.
After nearly fifty years, this approach has become stale and less coherent. Bayreuth’s last Ring, staged by the Marxist theater director Frank Castorf for Wagner’s bicentennial in 2013, tried to center its existential struggle around oil. But the effort quickly dissolved into nonsense punctuated by oversized symbols of capitalism that the director evidently thought were provocative yet said remarkably little. Just as the Brothers Wagner had to overcome the baggage of jingoism in the 1950s, Valentin Schwarz’s challenge was to face down a half century of repetitive and increasingly myopic critiques of a society that has remained fundamentally Romantic in sensibility despite postmodern developments.
The young director has made a bold stab at the task. Looking for a fresh angle, he conceived the work’s quest for power as a yearning for youth. In the original plot, the Nibelung dwarf Alberich sets the action in motion in the cycle’s “preliminary evening,” Das Rheingold, by forswearing love to steal the magic gold of the Rhine, which he then fashions into a ring of unlimited power. In Schwarz’s production, Alberich abducts a blond boy in a yellow shirt from a pool party presided over by the Rhine Maidens, whose nominal task is to protect their ward. For Schwarz, Alberich’s purpose is to raise the child to be a source of ultimate power and energy like the ring in the original. Thus it is the child whom dwarves, giants, and gods fight over. And it is the preservation of their youth that they so desire as they take selfies, get plastic surgery, show video projections of themselves partying, and knock back cocktails. Andrea Cozzi’s sets, mainly situated around a luxurious villa, intend to convey contemporary upper-class German life, even if to American eyes the effect makes it look like the gods haven’t renewed their subscription to Architectural Digest since about 1975. Andy Besuch’s costumes also remind us that east of the Rhine, fashion has not evolved much following the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Schwarz’s eternal-youth concept is not without merit. Who could deny that our society is obsessed with youthful vitality, something that fades as inevitably as the earthly power fought over in the Ring? But just as in other Ring productions, such symbolism quickly becomes unworkable. Schwarz has no clear idea of what to do with the boy as he grows up. In Die Walküre, the cycle’s second installment, the ring—the boy, in this production—is only mentioned but never seen. All that Schwarz can do is revert to the Chéreau lineage of productions by flatly counterpoising Wotan, a superordinate but deeply flawed deity, against his illegitimate offspring, who inhabit a cruel world of abandonment and alienation.
Schwarz’s other revisions to Die Walküre fail as well. Wotan’s twins Siegmund and Sieglinde spiritedly try to bear a divine child who will fulfill Wotan’s mission, but Schwarz botches this essential plot line by making Sieglinde pregnant by her brutish husband Hunding instead of her brother and true love, Siegmund, who even in his absence determines the rest of the cycle’s drama and musical architecture. As a result, the story loses the sense of sympathy for Sieglinde’s son Siegfried as he goes through the motions of a life that is meant to belong to a superior being. A simple revision of the staging could fix this, but altering Siegmund’s parentage makes Schwarz’s production something other than Der Ring des Nibelungen.
There are, nevertheless, some moving moments. Walküre’s climactic scene, in which Wotan is forced to allow Hunding to kill Siegmund so the deity can please his wife Fricka, is revised to have Wotan kill his son himself, adding a new dimension to Wotan’s character. Consumed by guilt and anguish in Act III, Wotan holds much of the stage alone—literally under a spotlight—to pour out grief for having just put his defiant Valkyrie daughter Brünnhilde to sleep because she tried to intervene to save Siegmund. The second installment ends poignantly with Wotan’s departure from the realm of the gods following his refusal of a conciliatory drink proffered by Fricka.
If the production was too flawed to succeed—and this year’s boos had to be among the heaviest on record—the musical effort gave greater satisfaction. It is common in Europe to divide roles that recur over the Ring operas between different singers. This production thus offered two Wotans, two Brünnhildes, and, in the final two operas (which will be reviewed separately), two Siegfrieds. The approach is considerate of singers’ voices, which must labor to perform these difficult parts, but it also acknowledges that the roles change subtly as the drama unfolds. Egils Silins’s lighter touch captured Wotan’s brash youth in Das Rheingold, in which the part has a higher tessitura, while the darker and more stentorian voice of Tomasz Konieczny proved better suited to the character’s Walküre incarnation, which he brought alive both musically and dramatically.
Wotan’s incestuous children, Siegmund and Sieglinde, were entrusted to the ethereal Wagnerian tenor Klaus Florian Vogt and the sensational Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen, respectively. Vogt is an excellent Lohengrin and excels in similar lighter parts. Here he was in fine form but lacked the darker, growling tones necessary to capture Siegmund’s defiance and bitterness. Davidsen’s Sieglinde was a pure hit. A gorgeous middle register built slowly to the part’s ascents and revealed rather more control than the singer has displayed in other roles. The bass Georg Zeppenfeld captured Hunding’s malevolence with well-formed low notes that were only occasionally muddied. Iréne Theorin is a veteran Brünnhilde and gave her final Bayreuth performances in this production. She has long been an enthralling exponent of the role and summoned a number of gleaming B and G notes during the Walküre incarnation, with only a slight tendency to sharp on some of the higher notes.
Olafur Sigurdarson sang Alberich in all three operas in which he appears, which is sensible since the dwarf’s base character never changes or evolves. He imbued the role with malevolence and villainy, including a spine-chilling pronouncement of the curse that dooms everyone to ruin. As Alberich’s mischievous brother Mime, Arnold Bezuyen sang with frantic excitement in his brief scene in Rheingold. Elisabeth Teige, who also performed this summer as Senta in Der Fliegende Holländer, was a pleasant Freia. Wilhelm Schwinghammer and Jens-Erik Aasbø acquitted themselves well as the giants Fafner and Fasolt. As Fricka, the mezzo-soprano Christa Mayer achieved pathos without becoming shrill (as a wronged wife often can be). Okka von der Damerau’s Erda was grounded and powerful, reaching low into the contralto range without losing power or clarity. Attilio Glaser, Raimond Nolte, and Daniel Kirch rounded out the panoply of gods in the roles of Froh, Donner, and Loge.
Wagner intended his orchestra to be the omniscient narrator of his operas. In the Ring, it is practically its own character. Cornelius Meister knows this all too well, and, having begun his musical life as a horn player, did not waste any strength driving his brass section to smashing crescendos that reverberated through Wagner’s theater. That Meister, despite his placement as a late substitution, could yet make the hall rumble to universal gratification while also capturing the sensitive moments without haste or neglect illustrated his superb musicianship. As an orchestral performance, this was a Ring to remember, even if there was no ring to forge.