By Robert Mitchell
For those who read some of the press reviews for the first cycle of this production, initially I should report that the booing following the second performance of part one was not as vociferous as expected. It was mainly aimed at the production and, to this listener undeservedly, Cornelius Meister, the conductor. My Bayreuth companion and I cheekily canvassed one- or two-word opinions from overdressed diners in local hostelries following the performance. None of them leapt to the production’s defence yet they did not condemn it outright. ‘Interesting’, ‘sometimes good’; ‘disrespectful’ of both Wagner and the audience. Banal is the first word that came to my mind. These articles were written the morning after each performance.
Das Rheingold, August 10
In a theatre that can grant a director his/her most outrageous request, this Rheingold lacks any semblance of theatrical magic. As the musical journey begins, projected on a scrim are two foetuses that are obviously rivals, each attacking the other. One loses an eye. Is that Wotan? Once the images dissolve, the Rhine is revealed as a children’s ankle-deep paddling pool; Wotan and Fricka’s home modern bourgeois with a garage door opening directly into the living room; Nibelheim an open stage area in front of a glass-walled kindergarten room; and Walhalla apparently a second level extension of Wotan’s current home.
Wotan (Egils Silins) appeared in gym gear in which he did a few desultory curls with a single weight. Later he donned a casual suit for the encounter with Alberich. Silins sang the role efficiently but with little tonal variation and, according to one of my interviewees, poor German diction. His most embarrassing moment came when, during the rainbow bridge music, he had to perform a kind of half-hearted Zorba the Greek dance on the new second level of his home, which he accessed by walking upstairs and removing the yellow ‘danger, no entrance’ cordon. Fricka and the others started up but change their minds. There is no attempt at a rainbow, just interest from the others in an illuminated pyramid in a Perspex box.
The nasty little brat (boy) wearing a yellow tee shirt, who, it seems, symbolises the gold, also wears an over-sized hoodie which helps facilitate the Tarnhelm scene. Later, so that Fasolt and Fafner notice Wotan’s ring when piling up the gold, the little boy jumps up to show off the fact that he has successfully completed the Rubik’s Cube puzzle he was given to amuse himself while the adults bicker. As the inexplicable goings on piled into each scene I decided not to concentrate on trying to work out why the director, Valentin Schwarz, made the choices he did. I was there to enjoy Wagner’s glorious score in the ideal acoustic created by the master himself.
The singing was mostly excellent, although there were some lapses in pitch from a couple of the men. The Rhein Maidens blended well, without being outstanding. Fricka (Christa Mayer) and Erda (Okka von der Damerau) triumphed over the unnecessary actions given them. The overall impression was that Schwarz’s interpretation of Wagner’s Nibelung tetralogy is as deep as the Rhein he depicts in this first evening.
Die Walküre, August 11
The subheading ‘It is getting worse’ above Mark Berry’s www. wagneropera.net review of the first outing of Die Walküre is, like all generalisations, not necessarily accurate. To be fair, the unnecessary additions to the narrative keep piling on but they are no longer as distracting.
At this point we have seen two rings: the first, a child’s inflatable pool toy that was used by one of the Rhein Maidens to ‘capture’ Alberich while she taunts him (ho-hum) in Rheingold; the second, Wotan’s (Tomasz Konieczny) wedding ring, which he drops into the glass offered him by Fricka (Christa Mayer) to toast their (her) ‘success’ during the final bars of Act 3. The marriage is over, full stop. He walks off stage right, picking up Brünnhilde’s discarded hat as he leaves. Fricka exits stage left. (Powerful drama through simple theatre action, at last!)
Act 1 was greeted with thunderous applause and cheering at the first curtain. Not a boo to be heard. We forgave the fact that Hunding (Georg Zeppenfeld) is on stage during the storm, dealing with the blackout it has caused, and giving a bucket to the heavily pregnant Sieglinde (Lise Davidsen), presumably to catch drips from the leaking roof. (You understand how all this unnecessary ‘play’ can distract from the wonderful music.) Hunding leaves presumably to get some fuse wire before Siegmund (Klaus Florian Vogt) arrives. The three-bar radiator seems to be on (during a blackout?) because he heads straight to it to warm himself. Later there is an attempt to make it look as if it is truly working, yet it is sat on, leant on with hands and is used as a resting place for Siegmund’s jacket. (Would you do any of those things?) In a production that appears to have set out to de-deify the gods and make them relatable as real, flawed humans, to my mind anachronisms like that undercut Schwarz’s aim.
Yes, there is a tree (fallen) but no sword. Instead, there is a box under a suspended mosquito net on the bed upstairs. After the usual drinking, eating – Hunding can’t stand his wife’s cooking – and drugging, Sieglinde retrieves the box and Siegmund manages to unlock the pyramid (remember the pyramid?) from its base to find a gun.
During the duet the house set retreats and Spring flies in SLOWLY in the form of two connected bedrooms in which two blond children in spangled leotards play (see Mark Berry for possible explanations). The slowness of the transformation cannot match the rapid change in the music. No theatrical magic here. The audience’s reaction was thanks to the brilliant singing and acting of Davidsen, Vogt and Zeppenfeld; and the orchestra, again under Cornelius Meister, which gripped us with the opening storm and thrilled us with the rapture of the incestuous lovers well over an hour later. This writer’s eyes were filled with the tears that were absent the night before.
Unfortunately Act 2 seemed to flag somewhat, despite the many added distractions. Brünnhilde’s (Iréne Theorin) initial ‘hoi-o-to-hos’ were brilliant but later her mid-range and mid-volume singing revealed an unfocussed and sometimes unsteady tone and unclear diction. Why we witness Freia’s coffin viewing while Fricka and Wotan argue and he briefly plays with a Rubik’s Cube; why Hunding is silently present for part of that argument; why a couple of maids are polishing the family silver within earshot of Brünnhilde’s encounter with Siegmund in the garden just outside Walhalla’s living room, are all distractions that do not add to our depth of understanding.
As for the post-plastic surgery clinic scene where bandaged, entitled, rich-bitches squabble during the famous Act 3 Ride, is totally unfathomable and demeaning to women. Having just given birth, before she leaves with the baby, escorted by Grane, Brünnhilde’s personal assistant, Sieglinde has unbelievably extraordinary pelvic floor muscle control to support the first statement of the glorious love theme that Brünnhilde will repeat in her immolation scene several hours into the future.
The great farewell scene between father and daughter is mercifully simple. The set recedes, Brünnhilde and Grane walk upstage and a wall of frosted Perspex flies in. Wotan is visibly shattered by his own decision, lying in a foetal position in front of the wall. The stage is his and Konieczny made the most of it with beautifully nuanced singing. Loge is called but does not appear in any form, not even the slightest red glow from behind the Perspex. Fricka and a flunky arrive with a tray-mobile on which there is a single lit candle. The flunky uncorks the bottle, pours two glasses and hands them to Fricka. She offers one to Wotan who takes it and, after toasting, he slowly pours his wine out while she drinks. Then the moment comes when he drops his wedding ring in her glass and exits. All that during the Magic Fire Music. With barely any help from the director, the cast and Wagner triumphed.
Siegfried, August 13
If I were to give this review a title, it would be ‘From Rage to Rapture’. When the curtain rises on Act 1, it is evident that director Cornelius Schwarz and his three designers have forgotten the notion that ‘less is more’. We are transported back to Hunding’s hut with some modifications and a great deal of ‘stuff ’. There’s an extra staircase whose only purpose seems to be to access a puppet theatre stage behind red curtains installed above the glowing radiator; a sewing machine upstairs in the bedroom; a chair lift for the disabled Mime who doesn’t appear to need it; a pitched tent near where the tree had fallen; a fish tank, and several puppet dolls on miniature stools. Strung across the doorway to the kitchen is a ‘Happy Birthday’ banner (in English) but there is no evidence of an anvil. Fireworks let off in the kitchen is the only concession to sharpening a sword on an electric grinding stone.
The sword is delivered by Wotan in a gift-wrapped box and is disguised in a new medical style walking stick for Mime. Consequently, the first section of anvil tapping in the score is completely ignored. Siegfried’s forging scene is farcical and although he bangs the sword on the walls and a curtain, the action is not in time with the anvil music in the score. So ineffective is the sword that it can’t even sever the papier- mâché head of a puppet.
To this writer, the stage goings-on were shambolic and meaningless. Rage welled up from the depths of me and ‘rubbish!!’ emanated from my throat.
Act 2 returns us to the sparsely but expensively furnished Walhalla living room. Nurses attend a patient whose hospital bed faces upstage. The little boy in the yellow tee shirt from Rheingold is now a Man in a Yellow tee shirt (MiY) sitting by what turns out to be Fafner’s sick bed. (The night’s cast list names the silent character ‘Der junge Hagen’ – see below.)
The act unfolds as expected, with a few exceptions. After the scene between Wotan and Alberich, they sit upstage having
a scotch in front of the fire during the following scene. One of the nurses turns out to be the Woodbird. Siegfried makes no attempt to play an instrument but just awkwardly attempts to fondle the Woodbird, who at first gives him short shrift. Fafner, having been moved onto a walking frame, is knocked to the floor by Siegfried, whereupon no one runs to the aid of the giant who is clearly dying from a heart attack. Finally, Siegfried retrieves what from row 17 appears to be a sparkling crystal – a ‘ring’ at last? – which he then passes to the MiY, (Siegfried obviously hasn’t seen the listed cast of characters! Presumably, then, the crystal is not the ring.) and after he understands Mime’s intent, runs him through with the sword. The MiY finishes him off by smothering him with a cushion. Siegfried and the MiY head off while the Woodbird removes her nurse’s smock and goes her own way. At last, there has been some kind of attempt at story telling based on the text. My rage is now somewhat assuaged.
The set for Act 3 is that for Act 2 but looking in the other direction and including the courtyard garden. There is a body lying upstage, presumably Fafner’s. All the staff have resigned. Wotan (The Wanderer) enters wearing Brünnhilde’s hat from scene 1 of Walküre. Erda enters from the other side with an unknown woman. Is this the now grown child she left with during the Rainbow Bridge music at the end of Rheingold? (It doesn’t matter. This is another of Schwarz’s unexplained additions.) After his unsatisfactory encounters with both Erda (no questions answered) and Siegfried (sword/gun shattered), Wotan retreats and the devoted Grane leads Brünnhilde into the garden. She wears an elegantly pleated shift, her head is swathed in post- plastic surgery bandages and sun glasses. The bandages and sunglasses removed, Schwarz undercuts Siegfried’s first feelings of fear, having had Mime show him pictures of naked women in Walküre and having had him flirt with the Woodbird. Brünnhilde is delighted to see her old hat again and the scene ends rapturously as Wagner intended.
My conversion from rage to rapture was completed by the magnificent singing and orchestral playing. To me, Andreas Schager as Siegfried seemed to be shouting his way through Act 1. Since Schwarz sees him as an uncouth, drunken lout, Schager’s singing may be a reflection of the character interpretation. He redeems himself somewhat in the other acts, however, with some subtlety in his middle tone, although he seems incapable of soft singing above the stave. Arnold Bezuyen as Mime is ideally cast not only vocally but physically and dramatically. The Wanderer confirmed Tomasz Konieczny’s command over the role of Wotan. Olafur Sigurdarson, Wilhelm Schwinghammer and Okka von der Damerau all made their marks as Alberich, Fafner and Erda, respectively. But Daniela Köhler was greeted at the curtain calls with the audience’s greatest adulation. And deservedly so. From finest pianissimo to glorious fortissimo, throughout her range Köhler proved herself to be a brilliant vocal artist and actress. Rapture!
Götterdämmerung, August 15
The final ‘day’ of Wagner’s tetralogy offers many musical highlights and to my mind they were superbly realized by Cornelius Meister and the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra. Many others in the audience at the final curtain disagreed but my companion and I both felt that Meister was bearing the brunt of the production team’s dereliction of duty to Wagner and the audience, having failed to honour most of the text’s details and having superimposed unnecessary, unintelligible and unresolved elements to the unfolding scenario. The director did not appear at the curtain calls.
In my previous reports I have omitted to mention several of the extraneous additions to the action: the yellow and black cap that occasionally could be interpreted as being the Tarnhelm; Freia’s brown and yellow chevron patterned ‘security blanket’ that has made an appearance in each opera, mostly associated with the unexplained children who are present throughout; and the drawings of traditional Norse god-like heads that the children obsessively colour in. Several of them are crumpled and discarded by the adults. Is this Schwarz reminding us that he has rejected the mythology on which Wagner based his operas? Yet when the Gibichung vassals arrive in Act 2, they carry masks on sticks that are based on such Norse images. But I am getting ahead of myself.
The Prologue opens in the double bedroom from the Spring Song of Walküre, Act 1. It seems Brünnhilde and Siegfried have an eight- or ten-year-old daughter. She is put to bed by her mother, who wears a matching pink nightie and peignoir, and her father, in chinos and bomber jacket, reluctantly tucks her in. Once she is asleep, from under the covers the Norns appear in tatty dress, their heads, faces and limbs covered
in silver spangles and their fingers extended into witch-like talons. Are these the embodiment of the child’s nightmares? She wakes and engages with them, however, and the rubber floatation ring and a plastic ball that appeared in Rheingold, scene 1 are found under the bed and used for play. Are these the Rhein Maidens in disguise? Confused? I am!
The Norns having retreated, Siegfried (Stephen Gould) and Brünnhilde (Iréne Theorin) re-enter. This appears not to be a happy marriage and Siegfried’s relationship with Grane (Igor Schwab) is also far from cordial: which of them gets to drive
the car on their Rhein journey? Out flies the bedroom and the Gibichungs’ bungalow trucks forward. Its style is that of this production’s Walhalla, but tellingly not as expensively furnished. In fact, Gutrune (Elisabeth Teige) and Gunther (Michael Kupfer- Radecky) have just moved in and the servants are still unpacking. Don’t ask me why a servant is told to shove a Christmas tree, lights still flickering, top first into an obviously very deep fireplace, leaving half a meter of the base exposed.
Hagen (Albert Dohmen), who is now the Man in the Yellow tee shirt, lets them know that Siegfried is on his way and that they would do well to treat him nicely. At this point I should point out that my assumption that the flashy ‘ring’, which is really more of a knuckleduster, that Siegfried took from the dead Fafner and gave to the ‘young Hagen’ is not indeed the ring, nor the Tarnhelm. Hagen still has it but makes no effective use of it. When Siegfried and Grane arrive, things clearly haven’t improved between them. Grane is immediately sent off to the servants’ quarters. Both with long, obviously bleached hair, Gutrune, in a lime- green jumpsuit, and Gunther, in a grey tee shirt emblazoned in rhinestones with WHO THE FUCK IS GRANE (yes, in English), make a play for Siegfried. Grane rushes in with a head wound but is dragged back to the kitchen. The next time we see him he is semiconscious on a porter’s trolley, covered in blood and suffering. The blood brotherhood oath taken by Gunther and Siegfried is sealed by sipping Grane’s blood from a single glass and a long man-on-man kiss. Although he resiles from any further smooching, Siegfried hands Gunther the car keys for the drive to Brünnhilde’s rock – sorry, double bedroom. As the curtain descends we see Hagen with a knife preparing to finish off the whimpering Grane and dismember him.
Maison Gibichung having receded, Brünnhilde’s bedroom flies back in. (Sadly, I have to report that before the smother curtain had been closed between the two sets, the silhouettes of two stage managers could be seen entering the stage through the sheer curtains on one of the windows.) Brünnhilde attempts to stop the little girl from drawing Norse masks, but she is distracted when Waltraute (Christa Mayer) enters through the window in a tattered version of her plastic surgery clinic Valkyrie outfit. During Waltraute’s great warning scene, Brünnhilde offers her a cup of tea. Accepting it, Waltraute empties the entire contents of the sugar bowl into the cup, spilling most of it. After she has left, Brünnhilde gets down on her hands and knees and very effectively cleans up the mess with a cloth. Wotan’s former favourite Valkyrie is reduced to a pink housecoat-wearing hausfrau.
The window is left open when Waltraute leaves and now Gunther arrives through the door while Siegfried sings behind the window’s sheer curtain. There is still no sign of a ring and Gunther blindfolds Brünnhilde before dragging her off. (Dear reader, I have now written more for the prologue and Act 1 of Götterdämmerung than I did for the whole of Siegfried. Read on if you dare!)
Act 2 opens in a gym whose walls are constructed of the same frosted Perspex panels that have been part of each room in Wotan’s domain. A single punching bag is suspended from the ceiling. After Hagen rises from his chair and makes some desultory attempts at punching, Alberich joins him in some light sparring. Alberich departs, the walls fly out and the vassals appear through dense mist. Except for the fact that Brünnhilde brings her child with her, Schwarz doesn’t surprise with any gimmicks. There is even a sword for the unhappy couple to swear upon.
Now for Act 3, perhaps the most dispiriting of all. The scene is the cutaway of a very deep but empty, derelict swimming pool, obviously on the Walhalla estate because of the backdrop. The rim of the pool is fenced off, although there is gate access to a ladder to the bottom. The Rhein Maidens are asleep at the back while Siegfried and the child are fishing in a small puddle at the deep end. When the Rhein Maidens wake and are unsuccessful in convincing Siegfried that he should return the ring to them, they crawl off through a tunnel to one side of the pool.
Hagen arrives in the company of the intoxicated Gunther and vassals. Gunther is carrying a white plastic bag in which we easily guess Alberich has placed some of Grane’s body parts. Gutrune has her moment and after Hagen climbs down into the pool, the conspiracy proceeds, leading him to stab Siegfried in the back. The vassals are appalled and drunkenly stagger off. Gunther opens the gate and drops the plastic bag into the pool before making his exit.
As the funeral music begins, the distressed child tries to wake Siegfried (at which time a mobile phone rings in the audience, I kid you not!) The child and Hagen cover the body with his jacket and sit at the entrance to the tunnel. The child eventually crawls away. Brünnhilde arrives in the company of three Valkyries and the child. She begins her immolation scene from behind the safety fence above. Hagen eventually crawls out through the tunnel and Brünnhilde abandons child and sisters only to re-enter inexplicably downstage left. I can only guess that Ms Theorin refused to climb down the ladder.
As she is calling Grane, Brünnhilde trips over the plastic bag and opens it to find his severed head. Suddenly we have lurched into Salome territory. At some point one of the Valkyries kills the child and they leave. Brünnhilde then lies beside Siegfried with Grane’s head between them. There is one line left to be sung. On cue Hagen appears at the pool edge above, sings the line and leaves: a meaningless gesture, since there is no ring.
There is no fire, no water. Eventually the cyclorama descends to reveal a series of horizontal strip lights. The pool trucks back and projected onto its back wall are the twin foetuses of the Rheingold prelude, this time in loving embrace.
Despite Wagner’s glorious music, I doubt there was a moist eye in the house. The booing erupted immediately, drowning out any cheering that there may have been. My companion and I were surprised at the vehement reaction received by Ms Theorin. Although not necessarily ideal, she certainly had all the notes and delivered them efficiently. The rest of the cast received accolades of varying enthusiasm. And the audience left 10 minutes later in a subdued atmosphere.
My reactions are purely personal. I do not apologize for them, nor do I believe they are definitive. I look forward to hearing and/or reading other people’s opinions. You can read mine as a cautionary tale or a challenge. I can’t imagine what the dramaturg (Konrad Kuhn) was thinking as he addressed Schwarz’s ideas. How complicit was he in the final product?
My pilgrimage to Bayreuth has not been a waste of time, effort or money. But I’d rather it had been a more rewarding week. With the exception of some scenes, I am sticking to my very first assessment of Schwarz’s production: banal.