Valentin Schwarz’s new production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, which premiered this summer at the composer’s purpose-built festival theater in Bayreuth, got off to a promising start. Instead of relying on the all-powerful ring of the tetralogy’s title, the young director transformed the object of everyone’s obsessive ambitions into youth, which is just as malleable, elusive, and futile to lust after as precious metal.
Accordingly, the Nibelung dwarf Alberich does not steal the gold of the Rhine to forge a literal ring but rather abducts a child whom he raises to carry out his evil plans. This abstraction works for as long as the immediacy of Schwarz’s vision develops through Das Rheingold, the cycle’s “preliminary evening.” Neither does it strain too much credulity in the second opera, Die Walküre, in which the ring, now a boy, is only ever mentioned and not seen.
In the third and fourth installments, however, the conceit dies a slow, strange death, leaving us with no message to imbibe, few effects to weigh, and a great deal of confusion to sort through. After a moving Walküre, Siegfried starts conventionally enough. As in most Bayreuth Ring productions over the previous half century, the young hero, Siegfried, has been raised in frowzy postmodern surroundings by Alberich’s abused brother Mime. Siegfried’s sole purpose is to gain the ring from the giant Fafner, to whom the chief god Wotan has given it as payment for building his fortress of Valhalla. Mime’s secret long-term plan is to kill Siegfried and take the ring and its powers for himself.
Schwarz’s visuals for Siegfried’s first act earn few points for originality. In a puzzling reversal, the director even has Siegfried reforge the tetralogy’s actual sword, whereas in Walküre Schwarz had replaced it (and all other weapons) with an automatic pistol. The loss of continuity was keenly felt on both a literal and symbolic level and could easily have been avoided.
The fate of the ring suggests an even greater dearth in creativity. Having switched out the literal ring for youth as represented by a child, the natural question is what should happen when that child grows up. In Siegfried, the boy figures as a young adult who has no lines and awkwardly acts as a servant for whichever singing character possesses the figurative ring in the story’s narrative. Here his first master is Fafner, who is depicted as an old man bound to a hospital bed. When Fafner dies, the servant’s mute loyalties are transferred as he helps the hero dispatch Mime and then win Brünnhilde. But then in Götterdämmerung, we meet him as Alberich’s middle-aged son, Hagen, whose existence has shadowed the action since he was first mentioned by Wotan in Act II of Walküre. We know Brünnhilde has received the ring as a pledge of love from Siegfried, but the servant character is nowhere to be seen until we surmise that he has become Hagen, albeit without any transfer of ownership in the intervening time. Siegfried and Brünnhilde, however, seem to have a child who takes Hagen’s place at the end. Whence their child came, and what its relationship to the stolen treasure might be, go unexplained. The reinterpretation for youth can thus only be shoehorned into a plot that cannot possibly accommodate it. The effect is not provocative, shocking, or even interesting, but rather confusing, limited, and ultimately meaningless.
Götterdämmerung brings the action down from gods and mythology to humankind and its dilemmas. This helps Schwarz somewhat, for it is hard to obscure that opera’s more conventional drama between mortals and near-mortals. Sent out into the world to accomplish new deeds, Siegfried encounters the degenerate Gibichungs, who in this production inhabit a palace where a life-size photo of themselves on one of those big-game hunting safaris that get people into trouble on social media hangs on the wall. The Gibichung vassals, however, appear refreshingly traditional in black capes and masks. Gunther, their king, wears a self-mocking glam t-shirt with the words “Who the F*** is Grane?,” referring to Brünnhilde’s horse. In Schwarz’s imagination, the steed is another mute manservant character who follows her around and tries to protect her. Gunther’s sister Gutrune is as brazenly seductive as the plot calls for her to be, though she succeeds in winning over Siegfried with remarkably little effort—no sign of the amnesia potion we expect.
The grand finale exposed a final exhaustion of Schwarz’s creative force. Rather than taking place on the banks of the Rhine, Siegfried’s murder occurs while he is fishing in a disused swimming pool. Hagen kills him in it, but then the action largely stops as Brünnhilde mourns him in her famous Immolation Scene, a self-sacrifice meant to return the gold to the Rhine and redeem the world. But in Schwarz’s odd, nihilistic view, nothing happens. There is no fire or flood, no destruction or redemption, no lessons to learn or teach. All ends as it was, with Siegfried dead and the other characters left alive. What message does Schwarz impart other than that the Ring has neither meaning nor importance? And if he feels that way, why did he waste his time staging it and our time sitting through his trite interpretation of it?
Fortunately, there was the music. Cornelius Meister’s conducting continued to set new standards for the Bayreuth orchestra, which is drawn mainly from section principals of other leading orchestras specially selected for the annual festival. The chorus, composed of the very best of major German opera companies, also resounded with splendor in Götterdämmerung, the only Ring opera that has one.
Siegfried’s appearances in these final installments of the Ring were shared by two of the top exponents of the role singing today. Andreas Schager’s rougher demeanor was well suited for the character’s young incarnation in Siegfried. The American tenor Stephen Gould was more restrained in Götterdämmerung, adding a patina of greater maturity and personal insight while commanding the part without flaw.
Olafur Sigurdarson’s Alberich brought pain to the character’s fleeting appearances in both operas. Arnold Bezuyen’s desperate Mime sounded the right notes in Siegfried. Albert Dohmen continued his storied Wagnerian career in the bass-baritone range, delivering excellent Wotans and Alberichs, but his casting as Hagen sounded like a late-career overreach, with many of the part’s frightening low notes eluding him in power. Michael Kupfer-Radecky and Elisabeth Teige married dramatic tension to vocal opulence as Gunther and Gutrune. Although Tomasz Konieczny’s Wotan was consistently superb, Okka von der Damerau’s Erda stole the scene in Act III of Siegfried. Christa Mayer’s earnest Waltraute recalled her accomplished Frickas in Das Rheingold and Walküre.
Brünnhilde’s part was also shared by two singers. Daniela Köhler took it on in Siegfried, in which the character only appears in the final scene of Act III. She lacked the vocal heft of a true high dramatic soprano and did not quite succeed with the high Cs. The effort felt like a stand-in for the accomplished Iréne Theorin, a veteran in the role who sang Brünnhilde in Walküre and Götterdämmerung. Indulging in her voice’s rich middle register and delivering an utterly affecting Immolation Scene, anyone could forgive her for sharping some of the high notes. Well, not quite everyone. One spectator who booed her—while virtually everyone else only booed the production—suffered a taste of Brünnhilde’s vengeance when Theorin riposted with her middle finger during her solo curtain call. Not everyone appreciated her monodactyllic salute, but the message exhibited more clarity and vigor than any of the directorial decisions over the previous four evenings.