Andreas Homoki, the intendant of the Zurich Opera House since 2012, will leave the company in 2025. As a parting gift, he is directing a new production of Wagner’s four-opera saga, Der Ring des Nibelungen. Gianandrea Noseda, the house’s music director, conducts. The production, which is taking shape in installments and will be seen in two complete cycles in the spring of 2024, is the first attempt at Wagner’s epic by either of these experienced practitioners of opera.
The plot of the Ring’s prologue, Das Rheingold, hinges on Wotan using the Rhinegold, which he had stolen, to pay for Valhalla’s construction. The chief god quickly learns that for him to preserve his power and authority, he must make up for his transgression. His attempt to free himself from fetters of his own making is what the Ring is about. Noteworthy is that when Das Rheingold debuted in April, the director broke with the libretto by having the other gods show their dismay by rejecting Wotan’s motion to follow him into Valhalla. He thus walks toward it alone.
With fanciful competition from other new Ring productions—one at the Bayreuth Festival, in which characters obsess over staying young, and a second at the Berlin Staatsoper, where the setting is a Cold War–era research facility—Zurich has also taken an inventive approach, but one rooted in a close reading of the work itself and its characters. Though the pandemic delayed the production, it reportedly left time for extensive strategizing that, on the evidence here, has borne considerable fruit. The second installment, Die Walküre, proved to be a stimulating dramatic experience that allowed the music to thrive.
In Die Walküre, Wotan suffers setbacks from which he never recovers, yet rarely does he emerge in the theater as the genuinely tragic figure of Homoki’s Walküre staging. First, his wife Fricka (a very feminine and coolly determined Patricia Bardon) reveals fatal flaws in his plan to create a hero who will take the restorative action Wotan himself is barred from. Then, his Valkyrie daughter Brünnhilde disobeys him by shielding the hero, Siegmund, in his fight with Hunding, the husband of his twin sister, Sieglinde.
In most renditions, Wotan soldiers on, preserving what authority he retains and sensing (as does the audience) that fate has decreed the gods’ demise. The bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny’s shattering portrayal suggests that the chief god himself is in part to blame. Yes, things look stacked against Wotan, but this time the character reacts to them rashly. He never shows the rational qualities that earned him his power in the first place—power that, in effect, established a rule of law through the negotiation of treaties. Instead, Konieczny’s Wotan is consumed by rage, which impairs his judgment and—spoiler alert—boils over when he kills Siegmund, his own son. (Interestingly, the new production at Bayreuth, directed by Valentin Schwarz, similarly departs from the libretto by having Wotan kill Siegmund.)
Wotan’s punishment of Brünnhilde likewise looks extreme and unjustifiable, an act of vanity instigated simply because she transgressed his will. (You get the impression that the Valkyrie’s real punishment is seeing her beloved father reduced to so low a state.) Konieczny sang with a firm, commanding baritone but sometimes reduced his sound to barely a whisper, which was never lost in the 1,100-seat opera house. Indeed, hearing Wagner’s text clearly projected in these intimate surroundings is a special pleasure. At the performance I attended (on October 9), Camilla Nylund, whose role debut as Brünnhilde earned high praise, canceled and was replaced by the American soprano Lise Lindstrom. She fit into the production smoothly, sang brightly, and radiated an energetic youthfulness most welcome in a Walküre Brünnhilde.
Siegmund and Sieglinde are, of course, the subject of their own plotline, and with Eric Cutler and Daniela Köhler it unfolds movingly. Wotan makes an appearance to facilitate their soon-to-be incestuous relationship, even handing her a drink to serve the parched Siegmund. Her crude husband, Hunding (Christof Fischesser in a dark, malevolent voice), and his clan, needless to say, present an impediment to Wotan’s plans for the twins. Cutler’s experience with the bel canto repertoire may explain the resonant clarity of his singing, even at full cry, as well as his compelling legato phrasing in the Todesverkündigung scene. Köhler, who acted warily at first, blossomed with passion in her rich voice during the fervent close of Act I and later delivered a radiant (if slightly rushed) “O hehrstes Wunder.”
Christian Schmidt’s decor consists primarily of a suite of elegant but unadorned rooms mounted on an active turntable. I’ve seen productions of other operas with a similar look, but here it makes a positive impression, not least when one of them is outfitted as Wotan’s conference room. One puzzling detail concerns the staging of “The Ride of Valkyries,” in which the warrior maidens, amusingly costumed with pseudo–horse heads, torment the slain heroes they have brought to Valhalla.
Finally, there is the glorious performance the conductor Noseda draws from the Philharmonia Zürich. His understanding of the small house’s acoustics is thorough, so that big moments resound with all the full-bodied sonorousness one could want, never turning overbearing or strident. His reading is fully persuasive on the score’s own terms, with astutely set tempos, scrupulous attention to detail, and eloquence in lyrical passages. Wagner composed much of the Ring, including Die Walküre, not far from the Opera House while in exile in Zurich. The house pays tribute to the city’s heritage with a Ring that could well emerge as the best in recent years.