In 2020, a new production of Richard Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung, should have taken place at the Bayreuth Festival. However, the Covid-19 global pandemic prevented it, so the Festspielhaus had to close for the first time in 69 years. Then, at the 2021 re-opening Festival, such an enterprise was considered risky, as the different Coronavirus waves still caused lockdowns in several countries, so it was postponed for the following year. Finally, in 2022 the cycle for whose performances this theatre was built, returned after a 5-year pause. In fact, Götterdämmerung was world-wide streamed by BR on August 5. But Deutsche Grammophon announced for last Fall a streaming of the complete cycle on their "Stage +" platform, letting the largely awaited production to be seen worldwide. There was a great surprise when it was announced that the young Austrian stage director Valentin Schwarz, only 33 years old, was to direct this Ring. Schwarz, a young man of his time, stated that he conceived this Ring as a Netflix TV-series. Certainly, the long duration of this cycle would fit into one or two seasons of the famous pay-per-view TV platform.
As a result, this staging wasn't not only too much of controversial -as usual in Bayreuth-, but also so disturbing that it has become one of the most booed in the Festival history. Schwarz not only strips the work of its Norse mythological essence, taking it to the present-day era, but also leaves it only with the character's psychological conflicts and intrigues, setting the story into an American mafia family TV-series or an Latin American narconovela. In addition, for the first time, it strips a Ring Bayreuth production for most of its visual impact, something always present in some way: the 1976 Chéreau production with its industrial machinery or its working class masses, the 1988 Kupfer production with its post-apocaliptic sets of lighting and futuristic sets, or the 2013 Castorf production with its Communist Mount Rushmore or the Alexanderplatz recreation. Here, only the family conflicts, emotions, jealousy, envies, rivalries and how evil is passing from generation and generation, count. The rotating stage platform depicting an elegant hall, a dilapidated patio, a glazed room and a furnished room, the staging reinforces this concept.
The staging focuses on how the different generations are involved in a spiral of ambition, violence, child abuse and alcoholism. Each generation bequeaths its wickedness and ambition to the next one. Good and evil remain within the same family, making Wotan and Alberich twin brothers. There is no ring, there is no gold, there is no magic helmet, and not many swords either.
During the Rheingold prelude, two fetuses are shown still inside their mother's womb, with their umbilical cords attached. Suddenly, one of the babies hits the other one making it bleed, and leaving it one-eyed. It is Wotan, who in this version leaves Alberich one-eyed. The original sin, the brutal competition between these two brothers takes place even before being born. The one who will bear the weight of this tragedy on their shoulders is neither Siegfried nor Brunhilda, but Hagen. He is the true victim, the true main protagonist and not the usually brutal supervillain we are used to see.
In Rheingold, the action begins in a sunny day. Close to a radiant pool, some blond children play around it while three maids, the Rhinemaidens, take care of them and play cheerfully around the pool. Suddenly Alberich appears, who in his attempt to be noticed and to flirt with the maids, is humiliated by the children. Isolated from everyone, there is a dark-haired, Asian-like boy with a yellow shirt. Nobody pays attention to him, he could even be autistic. It is Hagen, whom Alberich kidnaps. He is the stolen gold from the Rhine, the potential instrument of revenge, since Alberich will pass on all his violence to him. The second scene takes place in a modern and luxurious house, where the Gods, here members of a rich and powerful criminal family, have fun. The giants are other gangsters, perhaps the architects of the house, coming to get their payment with the young and beautiful Freia. Erda is present throughout the second scene even if she doesn't say anything, as she is the housekeeper, who will later burst in in the fourth scene. The Nibelheim is a glazed kindergarten room, where eight girls draw while little Hagen torments them. Mime is suspiciously affectionate with girls, and as will be seen later in Götterdämmerung, this Ring brings to the Bayreuth stage the terrible problem of child abuse and violence against children. Violence in childhood is a breeding ground for criminality, and proof of this is how the child Hagen is allowed to use guns against Mime and the gods. In the end, the exchange will be between the giants, who take Hagen, and Erda, who takes one of the Nibelheim girls. In the end, Wotan celebrates his triumph.
In Walküre, at Hunding's house patio, a tree falls in the middle of the storm, and while Hunding (apparently a policeman) goes to fix the damage, Siegmund appears as a fugitive burglar, and probably Sieglinde's lover. Sieglinde is already pregnant by Siegfried, which suggests that before the action the Welsungs might already have met. Nothung is not a sword, but a gun. In the second act, Freia has died and the Valkyries attend her funeral. The remaining good, virtue in that family has died. Brünnhilde is a strong-bearing amazon, somewhat taken of a Latino soap opera. In the third act, the Valkyries are mature ladies who appear bandaged, because of the cosmetic surgeries they have just had. They even flirt with the male staff. It is shocking that a waiter starts to dance cheerfully while Brünnhilde asks for help for Sieglinde, who has just given birth to her baby. Here we already see Grane, who is Brünnhilde's partner. The finale is one of the most successful moments of the production, Wotan, with the stage almost empty, appears alone and lying on the ground while singing his final monologue, as if he has decided to change his life. Shortly after, Fricka (present in act two as the scheming stepmother who pulls the strings of the saga) appears and has a toast with Wotan during the magic fire music, but he finally decides to break with her, and as the curtain falls, he deserts her. The god has definitely broken with any link from his former life.
Siegfried is possibly the most successful staging, because it does not deprive the hero of his mischievous, umpleasant nature. The first act begins on Siegfried's birthday, in the same dilapidated house which belonged to Hunding. Mime, dressed as Mickey Mouse in the Disney's film Fantasia, appears playing, again suspiciously with various handmade dolls. Siegfried is an alcoholic, hooligan teen who eats wok and does not renounce his barbarism. In fact, during the Forging scene he is constantly playing and destroying everything in the house, since under the crutch that Mime uses, lies the sword with which he breaks absolutely everything. Wotan appears with two bodyguards during the asking contest, but despite all, he seems to no longer appear what he used to be. Act Two takes place in the great hall, but now Fafner appears as a dying old man, and Hagen, now an adult, is his nurse, just as the Forest Bird. Alberich and Wotan are present throughout the action, and during the Forest Murmurs scene, the hero plays with the nurse-bird. The confrontation with Fafner is a fight in which the giant dies of a heart attack. As in the original, Mime prepares a concoction of alcoholic beverages with which he tries to poison the hero, but he realizes and kills him. In the third act, the most successful of the entire production, Erda appears as a blind beggar, and makes her entrance with her daughter, probably a norn. Wotan confronts her. Siegfried enters the scene not with the bird, but Hagen, and both confront the god, taking his weapon. The music of the magic fire marks the entrance of Brünnhilde, all bandaged, and Grane behind her. Siegfried does show fear when he sees himself before Brünnhilde, while he removes the bandages and discovers that "the warrior" is a woman. She wakes up kissing him. During the love duet one can see the chemistry, the feeling between the characters, the passion and radiant love in the libretto that Schwarz has respected.
Götterdammerung takes place years later, and Siegfried and Brunnhilde, now matured, have had a little girl, while Grane has remained by their side as a major-domo. During the Prologue, the norns appear as nightmarish creatures. The couple split up, thus portraying on stage the drama of a broken marriage with children involved. In Act One, the luxurious mansion is occupied by the Gibichs, a family of vulgar, kinky nouveaux riches. Hagen seems to be between resentful and apathetic. The prelude to act two is an incredible moment as it shows Hagen alone, reflecting on his troubled life. Now, in addition to Hagen, there is a new victim, the daughter of Siegfried and Brünnhilde, who is mistreated by her step family. The Gibichungs choir is a group of sinister hooded people wearing Wotan masks. The final act is the most powerful: at the bottom of a dirty pool, formerly the glittering one in Rheingold, the Daughters of the Rhine, now turned into old prostitutes, Siegfried and his daughter are trying to fish in a puddle. Hagen murders Siegfried with a razor, and after a touching farewell scene to his daughter, the hero dies. Whereupon, Hagen invites his daughter to leave the scene. But death does not stop: the girl dies after being touched by the daughters of the Rhine, Brünnhilde, who has received Grane's beheaded head, kisses it and awaits death, by lying alongside her husband's corpse. Hagen leaves the scene, looking around sadly: his tragedy is over, but of his family he appears to be the only survivor. At the finale, a projection shows the two fetuses from the early beginning, appearing now reunited and embraced. Maybe history will repeat itself, maybe there will be a new opportunity for the next generation, maybe everything returns to the same point where it started...
Due to illness of the announced Pietari Inkinen, the maestro Cornelius Meister, coming from Stuttgart, where he has obtained excellent reviews conducting the Ring, takes his place leading the orchestra. With an orchestra as powerful, brilliant, mesmerising, as the Festival's one, Meister shouldn't have had too much trouble to excel. Instead, the orchestral direction was between the mere accompaniment and some inspired moments as in Siegfried, whose acts 2 and 3 were memorable, and during the latter, the final love duet was exciting and vibrant. But this doesn't compensate the not very enthusiastic conducting for most of the cycle. Indeed, he was strongly booed at the end of Götterdämmerung.
But if what was seen, displeased part of the public, what was heard did not make up for it: the cast could be considered the lightest one ever heard in this epic at a Bayreuth production, despite some exceptions.
Andreas Schager undoubtedly leads the cast, with his incredible Siegfried, full of energy, with the ability show vocal resistance during the show. Despite the fact that he ends somewhat tired at the end, but with his youthful tone and at the same time his acting portrait of the hooligan and immature hero. Clay Hilley, replacing Stephen Gould, played the hero in Götterdämmerung, with his youthful but at the same time baritonal and vigorous voice proving to be a promising star. As Brünnhilde, Iréne Theorin sang for Walküre and Götterdämmerung, and Daniela Köhler for Siegfried. Théorin is no longer at her prime, and her now worn voice and shouted projection requires her experienced stage presence to compensate. Köhler, on the other hand, did stand out, with her lyric voice, and her youthful, clear tone in his brief but intense intervention at the final love duet in Siegfried. Wotan was played in Rheingold by Egilis Silins, whose very mature voice did not match the young god of the Prologue. On the otherjourneys, the role was performed by the leading singer in it today, the Polish bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny, who is better at Siegfried, where he plays a mature man in decline, with a full voice, than in Valkyrie, where the voice it sounds guttural when it transmits the impetus of the god, although the final Farewell monologue was moving. As an actor, he does know how to convey the most human and fragile side of the character. Olafur Sigurdarson as Alberich performs well the acting of this villainous role, but he is vocally light, so his Alberich is neither scary or sinister. On the other hand, Arnold Bezuyen as Mime did sound like a repulsive dwarf, with his spieltenor tone recreating a weak in appearance, but dangerous villain due to his hypocritical nature. Lise Davidsen is an excellent Sieglinde, with her distinctive old-school voice, that , dramatic tone that sets her above many of the lighter-sounding Wagnerians out there today. Also, Davidsen is a great actress. Klaus Florian Vogt as Siegmund sings this role with his bright, youthful voice, but that freshness isn't the most suitable for a fugitive hero, whose Wälse, Wälse from Act one are the most dull in Bayreuth history. Georg Zeppenfeld is an excellent Hunding, although some brutality of the character was missing. Bass-Baritone Albert Dohmen, has been able to prevail as Hagen, with his vocal projection and his dramatic tone, despite not being a dark bass as this role requires, in addition to his performance that fills his character with pessimism. One of the big surprises has undoubtedly been Elisabeth Teige. This Norwegian soprano also has a dramatic voice, which stands out with its beautiful dark tone, which explains why her appearances as Gutrune and Freia were among the best of the complete cast.
Christa Mayer as Fricka and Waltraute has a pleasant tone, but her voice results light compared to other colleagues. The same happens with Okka von der Damerau as Erda, a mezzo-soprano with a rather light tone, which does not fit very well with the mystical voice of the goddess, although the low voice is appreciable in Siegfried, without astonish much. Daniel Kirch is a more comical Loge with his light voice than heroic. Attilio Glaser did sing the brief role of Froh with a beautiful lyrical tenor voice. Alexandra Steiner was a nice-voiced little bird. Wilhelm Schwinghammer as Fafner had a better intervention in Siegfried, but far from the substance of other colleagues. The rest of the gods, giants, norns, valkyries and daughters of the Rhine were at the same correct level but they did not leave an impression on the listener either.
Like any Bayreuth production in its first season, this production has generated a big division of opinions among the audiences, although there have been several negative responses among the critics. Much to the surprise of Schwarz himself, the staging was received with very loud boos and a strong protest. Next season, the conductor Inkinen will return, and we trust that the production will improve and polish details even if they are no longer televised by streaming. Let's also hope that the cast will electrify and move us as it should be in this epic.
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