Review: Four days in Budapest, June 2019

Budapest Ring

By Terry Clarke

Why do musical directors perform the Ring in four consecutive days? Is it because Wagner did it in 1876 and Cosima and successive directors slavishly followed his lead? There seems to me to be no good reason for doing so and many disadvantages. It is hard on the orchestra; the major roles are frequently doubled thus losing continuity. Even the redoubtable Stefan Vinke said he was daunted by doing the two Siegfrieds on successive nights. It is also hard on the audience, especially when the upholstery on the seats is losing its resilience.

Nonetheless this is how Adam Fischer likes to do it in Budapest and we attended this year’s production in June, where there were many members of the NSW Wagner Society.

The production takes place, not in the bijou Budapest Opera House but in the larger, modern, Palace of Arts which stands at the Pest side of the Rákóczi Bridge over the Danube. This was a semi-staged performance with the cast in evening clothes in front of a set of screens upon which could be displayed a variety of effects from see through glass to shadow play and projected images.

The shallow stage and the excellent acoustic of the hall made the orchestral sound and the singing particularly impressive and we were treated to some of the finest exponents of these roles particularly Catherine Foster, fresh from Bayreuth, who totally masters the role of Brünnhilde and Stefan Vinke as Siegfried. Johan Reuter was a commanding Wotan and Gerhard Siegel is, reputedly, the best Mime at present. Camilla Nylund and Stuart Skelton as the Walsung twins were particularly moving.

There was a certain amount of disquiet in the audience regarding the production. Although Wotan carried a spear for much of the time there was no sword and if Stefan Vinke hadn’t provided his own wedding ring there would have been no ring either. There were also a group of dancers dressed as flies or ants who writhed around the stage from time to time for no reason one could ascertain.

The main criticism, however, was directed at the screen projections. Occasionally they were relevant to the action but frequently they were unhelpful. The Rhinemaidens had a backdrop of dirty water into which, at one point, a dead dog was dropped followed by half clad females with bad eczema swimming. Presumably to draw our attention to the pollution of the world’s rivers. Screen projection is a great resource, but infelicities were multiple and opportunities were squandered.

Surtitles were in Hungarian and German so first timers could be forgiven for finding some of the action incomprehensible.

Of great interest to the Australian Wagnerians was the appearance of Alison Oakes as the Brünnhilde in Siegfried as she is currently cast in Brisbane in 2020. This was her first attempt and it must be hard to shine in this comparatively short role against the strength of Catherine Foster. We look forward to seeing her next year.

Musically this Ring could not be bettered, however, I do not think we will go to a four-day Ring again.