Farewell to Tankred Dorst’s Bayreuth Ring

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Rheingold, Scene 1. Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele GmbH / Enrico Nawrath.

Rheingold, Scene 1. Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele GmbH / Enrico Nawrath.

Richard Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen
Bayreuther Festspiele 2010

Conductor – Christian Thielemann
Director – Tankred Dorst
Stage design – Frank Philipp Schlößmann
Costumes – Bernd Ernst Skodzig
Dramaturgy – Norbert Abels

Das Rheingold
Wotan – Albert Dohmen / Johan Reuter (20.8)
Donner – Ralf Lukas
Froh – Clemens Bieber
Loge – Arnold Bezuyen
Fasolt – Kwangchul Youn
Fafner – Diógenes Randes / Eric Halfvarson (20.8)
Alberich – Andrew Shore
Mime – Wolfgang Schmidt
Fricka – Mihoko Fujimura
Freia – Edith Haller
Erda – Christa Mayer
Woglinde – Christiane Kohl
Wellgunde – Ulrike Helzel
Floßhilde – Simone Schröder

Die Walküre
Siegmund – Johan Botha
Hunding – Kwangchul Youn
Wotan – Albert Dohmen
Sieglinde – Edith Haller
Brünnhilde – Linda Watson
Fricka – Mihoko Fujimura
Gerhilde – Sonja Mühleck
Ortlinde – Anna Gabler
Waltraute – Martina Dike
Schwertleite – Simone Schröder
Helmwige – Miriam Gordon-Stewart
Siegrune – Wilke te Brummelstroete
Grimgerde – Annette Küttenbaum
Rossweisse – Alexandra Petersamer

Siegfried – Lance Ryan
Mime – Wolfgang Schmidt
Der Wanderer – Albert Dohmen
Alberich – Andrew Shore
Fafner – Diógenes Randes
Erda – Christa Mayer
Brünnhilde – Linda Watson / Sabine Hogrefe (11.8)
Waldvogel – Christiane Kohl

Siegfried – Lance Ryan
Gunther – Ralf Lukas
Hagen – Eric Halfvarson
Alberich – Andrew Shore
Brünnhilde – Linda Watson
Gutrune – Edith Haller
Waltraute – Christa Mayer
1. Norn – Simone Schröder
2. Norn – Martina Dike
3. Norn – Edith Haller
Woglinde – Christiane Kohl
Wellgunde – Ulrike Helzel
Floßhilde – Simone Schröder

Sometimes, when I travel to see a performance of the Ring, I’m fortunate enough to find my way to some glorious location that embodies Wagner’s imagined world more vividly than the work of any set designer. This is largely due to the fact that the Ring is now at home on the West Coast of the United States. I’ve stood on heights by Mr. Rainier, at Big Sur, and in Sequoia National Park that put me straight into Wotan’s view of the world. This is not possible in London or New York, unless perhaps the penthouse at the Carlyle, which, as it was decorated in the mid-1980’s, was an art collector’s Valhalla, complete with a bathroom lined with blackened and gilt mirrors — an ideal retreat for a suicide inclined to do away with himself in some spectacularly messy way while admiring a final view of the rooftops of the Upper East Side. Bayreuth furnished such an opportunity (for an experience, not for suicide) at Goldkronach, where there is a gold mine that was actively worked from the Middle Ages into the 1920’s. Today Goldkronach offers a gold mining museum, and interested people can visit the mine, pan for gold, and expect to come out with a few grains of the precious metal that lies at the core of Wagner’s epic tragedy. Would a descent into this mine bring one into Alberich’s world? That will have to wait for another time. I should add that I’d never have discovered this, if I hadn’t been billeted at the excellent and very reasonable Hotel Kaiseralm at Bischofsgrün, 30 km from Bayreuth, but conveniently linked to the Festspielhaus by a shuttle bus and offering superb after-curtain dinners — not to mention fine country walks and other healthy diversions, like the Kletterwald, where one can overcome one’s acrophobia by rope-climbing at the tops of the noble spruce-trees that dominate the landscape in those parts, a much more appealing diversion that suicide at the Carlyle.

As much as I might enjoy the paradox in seeking out real situations that recall a work which is for many the ultimate in escapism, I admired Tankred Dorst’s efforts, in his production which was first shown at Bayreuth in 2006 and has now had its fifth and final season, to bring Wagner’s mythology into our own world. Dorst recognizes that mythology and the divine are present everywhere, largely because of the consistency of human behavior. As Dorst says in his publication of his production notes, Die Fußspur der Götter (The Footprints of the Gods):

In our present time, the old gods, the old myths appear to have no place left anymore. On the other hand we notice again and again that people are driven by forces, by emotions, that are entirely anachronistic. In this way one can easily think that the strange old gods are still present, make nests for themselves here and there in our contemporary cities, on the edges, under the overpasses of the freeways, in the empty buildings destined for demolition, in corners and walls of our civilization, even when we, putting our faith in reason, are unwilling to see them or to take notice of them. Wastelands and wildness are still a part of our present and live in our heads in spite of all reason. At times it rules our lives and destroys the pleasant appearances in which we so placidly feel secure.

Hence the action unfolds in areas of urban or industrial desolation, which are familiar enough today in any part of the world. In this respect Dorst’s Ring has much in common with Wadsworth’s Seattle Ring in their common green inclinations. While the Seattle Ring shows Nature in all her beauty and force, Dorst’s shows a decayed world, impaired by human intervention, in which machines and resources have ceased to work for people as they should. We see a wrecked auto at the bottom of the Rhine, housing blocks that look like bunkers, a quarry, and an unfinished, or ruined highway overpass. One might equally be reminded of New Jersey or Detroit as the outskirts of Chemnitz or Milan. At first glance one might think of the sets as a vision of the near future, but, as one lives with it, one realizes that there is nothing incompatible with the present day. Anonymous contemporaries appear at random moments (actually dramatically significant junctures), engaged in ordinary activities: a picnic, a bicycle trip through the countryside, a walk with a girl, young people on a nocturnal escapade in a deserted house, young boys harassing an old man. These are for the most part benign, even cheerful experiences, and the recurring appearance of the bicycle, which is fortunately a very popular vehicle in Germany these days, conjures up feelings of health and optimism. In this light, it is worth remembering that Tankred Dorst grew up in an industrial family in rural Thuringia, and that Thoreau’s Walden was a book much prized by his parents, which he discovered early in life and learned to value on his own. Dorst even created a character in these simultaneous interludes, the boy Hans, who comes under the spell of the gold momentarily, returning throughout the cycle to remind us of moral impressions and future generations, because, unlike the gods, we have a future.

Tankred Dorst with wife and collaborator Ursula_Ehler. Photo Robert Haas Haus der Kunst.

Tankred Dorst with wife and collaborator Ursula_Ehler. Photo Robert Haas Haus der Kunst.

A word about Dorst would not be out of place for English-speaking readers, since it’s been awhile since one hears much about him outside Germany. He got his start in the 1950’s writing for marionette theatre, which is taken a lot more seriously in Germany than it is in other countries. Eventually he gained connections in the mainstream, and his first big successes, Große Schmährede an der Stadtmauer (1961: A Great Invective at the City Wall) and Toller (1968) made him famous. Since he usually wrote on commission for the state-funded theatres in Germany, he gained special experience in working with his directors and actors and a deep understanding of the physical mechanics of production. He has written on a wide array of diverse subjects and has applied a range of different techniques and styles as the subject required. Hence it is difficult to generalize about him, although some of his works appear to have intertwined Brechtian distancing, Artaud’s theatre of cruelty, and the theatre of the absurd. In his treatments and in some characters he combines violent, even disgusting behavior with highly literate irony. He has adapted novels and foreign plays for the German stage, written libretti, and written and directed films. Over the years he has received many awards, guest and professorships, and the Goethe Institut has often sent him abroad to disseminate German culture. In 1971, while at work on a television film, he met Ursula Ehler, who became his wife and working partner. Since the mid-1970’s he has published all his work, crediting his wife as co-author, and this applies to this Ring as well.

It would not seem to have been an illogical idea to invite such a versatile man of the theatre to replace the film director Lars von Trier, who backed out of that Ring production, once he realized his inability to carry out the huge project. Perhaps Dorst was also recommended by the scope and ambition of his epic drama Merlin (1981), which has been compared to Goethe’s Faust. In an interview Dorst said that, like Faust (until the anthroposophists and Peter Stein took it up), Merlin has never been performed in its entirety.

Dorst’s highly personal treatment of the Ring was in its effect the most traditional of the current productions at Bayreuth, but it has proven extremely controversial among critics and the public. As usual, I won’t delve into this material until I have finished this review, but I personally think Dorst deserves better, and that the worst shortcomings of the production were not his doing. The production certainly had the flavor of Dorst, but it was gentler and more humane — oddly, more optimistic — than much of his work. If at his age (85 now, 79 when he first undertook the production) he was in a position to produce a Tempest rather than a Macbeth, one can hardly blame him. Perhaps people were prepared to be shocked and offended — as might have occurred with von Trier or a younger Dorst — and were even more annoyed to receive something milder, although it is indeed true that the production is by no means perfect (…and what Ring productions are?), and especially in Götterdämmerung, fails to avoid certain clichés which have taken hold on contemporary Ring production. I am thinking primarily of the decadence of the Gibichung court, but this was not without some compelling touches. Perhaps it is just healthy to remember that in Germany criticism takes on its own dragon-like life with a destructive vigor foreigners find hard to understand.

As Thielemann unfolded the score in his sweeping, epic manner, Frank Philipp Schlößmann’s stage designs actualized Dorst’s visions in various ways and with varying degrees of effectiveness. The scene at the bottom of the Rhine, I thought, was the most powerful of all, using live digital projections of nude women swimming that made Robert Lepage’s work in La Damnation de Faust look amateurish. The waves of female bodies were projected with strong recession, suggesting the flow of the Rhine. This spectacle appeared above, as if we were looking up at the surface of the water, and the shimmering effect was quite realistic, while the women’s bodies underwent continuously shifting distortions. As the women bobbed upwards, the effect was almost pornographic — a reminder that Dorst was once thought of as one of the naughty young lions of the theatre, as well as a baroque visualization of Alberich’s carnal perception of the feminine. Alberich thinks big, as we all know. Dorst, who studied art history along with German literature, is one of the more visually literate of writers, and it is likely he had a hand in the design, which suggested what might result if Bouguereau made a pastiche of Correggio’s frescoes in the Parma Duomo and Rubens’ Last Judgment for the ceiling of a palatial brothel. This was without a doubt the most brilliant visual conceit of the production, and it was impeccably realized, as were the digital projections in Parsifal and Lohengrin.

We next beheld the primary set, the God’s mountaintops, shown as a city park, with stark concrete structures in the style of the fifties and sixties — a park with stone staircases, promenades and an enclosed creek, now in neglect, boarded up and dirtied by graffiti. The waterway serves as an entrance for the Rhinemaidens into the city. (I thank Philine Wangemann for this interpretation of the set. My original observations contained some errors.) As a rule, opera sets are immediately identifiable for what they are, but it took a few moments of observation in the dark lighting fully to grasp the location and character of the setting. Perhaps the very familiarity of such a scene made it ambiguous. This may well have been one aspect of the production which made it so unpopular, but I don’t see why sets can’t show some ambiguity, if it is carefully managed and used only occasionally. Of course it was a drab environment to contemplate for the better part of three hours. Nibelheim, an industrial basement, was a fitting underground counterpart.

At the opening of Die Walküre, Hunding’s hut appears as the vast foyer of an abandoned haut bourgeois villa of the nineteenth century. It doesn’t depict Wahnfried in any literal way, as sets in the current Meistersinger and Parsifal do, but it seems of the same vintage. An electrical pole has collapsed and protrudes through the left wall. A troupe of children and adolescents break in for a night’s exploration, fun and mischief. The stage is set for a haunted house show. This scene put me in mind of Walküre Act II in Seattle, in which Stephen Wadsworth and his colleagues situate the confrontation between Wotan and Fricka, not on a wild mountain precipice but outside Hunding’s dwelling. At the beginning, Wotan and Brünnhilde enter the hut and inspect the scene of the passionate goings-on in the first act. This was Wadsworth’s view of the omnipresence of the gods: he shows them among the mortals of Wagner’s myth, but does not go as far as the present-day world. In Dorst’s production, this appears as another layer of simultaneous reality, since Wotan is present there as well, appearing at a window and looking in on the events he himself has set in motion. When Hunding appears, he comes accompanied by his men, coarse characters with dog-heads — death-figures intended to recall Garm, the dog who guards the underworld in Nordic mythology, or Anubis. These thugs remain on stage until Hunding is ready for bed and dismisses them. The set was impressive, eventually graced by an enormous yellow moon that appears to prepare us for “Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond.” I’m not quite sure what purpose this served in relation to the opera, but it was a handsome effect in itself.

In Act II, sc. 1, Wotan, Brünnhilde, and Fricka have their fateful encounter amidst fragments of ruined monumental sculpture, a locality they share with various moderns. This was a well-designed and suggestive scene. While Sieglinde endures her nightmare a gang of boys attacks an old man who is walking by, and they steal his newspaper.

Die Walküre come to its conclusion in a quarry, surrounded by a yellow cordon, marking it as a danger zone. When a workman appears to set up a small warning sign, the human peril it warns against seems ridiculously trivial in comparison to the disaster which unfolds in the last act. The scene returns in the last act of Siegfried, and the first of Götterdämmerung, which means that the audience has to look at this rather dismal set (as Dorst intended it to be) for rather a long time. With the arrival of the Valkyies a sign appears, bearing the slogan: “Ihr liebt das Leben, wir lieben den Tod” (“You love life, we love death.”) — the very words of an Al Qaeda slogan, as Philine Wangemann has pointed out to me.

In Siegfried, Act I, Mime’s corner of the forest appears as a neglected laboratory/classroom, filled with antiquated equipment and all sorts of abandoned junk around its periphery, including Siegfried’s crib, which he eventually destroys, and a device that resembles a coffee-grinder, in which Siegfried grinds Nothung to filings, in order to forge it anew. It has become something of a cliché to update Mime as a scientist manqué, but this environment had much detail and atmosphere to make it intriguing, until Mime, Siegfried, the Wanderer, and their doings claimed our full attention.

In Act II Fafner meets his end by an unfinished overpass, one of the most evocative scenes in the production. On the roadway we see people living in a tent. They look down on the slaying of the dragon, who is big enough for his back to form the forest floor. The tent-dwellers seem to be living there, or perhaps camping, or are the watchmen? In his publication of the production, which is based on his preliminary notes, Dorst says they are workmen, but in this fifth iteration of the production, it is not clear. It appears rather that the construction of the road has long been abandoned. These ambiguities in a way only add to the mystery of the production…but shouldn’t we be thinking more of Siegfried and Mime, or Alberich and Wotan?

Gunther's Palace in Götterdämmerung. © Bayreuther Festspiele GmbH / Enrico Nawrath.

Gunther’s Palace in Götterdämmerung. © Bayreuther Festspiele GmbH / Enrico Nawrath.

The Gibichung castle skirts another cliché that has been in the air in “modern-dress” Ring productions, an elegant modern house of the 1930’s, which suggested the decadent world of an aristocracy or plutocracy which has already seen an advantage in embracing fascist protectors. (Hagen wears a suggestive brown uniform.) The bare white architecture is sufficiently evocative, without being particularly striking in its invention or beauty. On the left side two stories are visible. Staircases connect them via a landing and provide ample support for the elaborate subsidiary action. (Above all, a pair of Schwule in tails, derive a somber relief from boredom in painting a ram-headed boy for sacrifice to Fricka.) At the right there is an exterior staircase, which allows Gunther, Alberich, and Hagen multiple levels for their interchanges. The empty space backstage, which overlooks the Rhine, provides the scene for the final cataclysm, which was quite effective, not bad at all. At its conclusion, wary characters from Dorst’s contemporary parallel reality emerge to populate their inheritance.

Dorst’s concept of the events of the Ring playing out in parallel mythic world amidst the decay of our familiar world is compelling in itself, and, as I have tried to show, Frank Philipp Schlößmann’s set succeeds brilliantly in some scenes and falls short in others. The first scene of Das Rheingold left him with a lot to live up to in starting the audience off with a taste of the grand spectacle for which Wagner himself provided a precedent. When scenes like the quarry fail to provide sufficient visual excitement, they let us down a bit and impair the overall production. And then there is something in between, like the Gibichungs’ hall. Perhaps the slightly excessive side-business was an attempt to enliven a certain dullness in the set itself. Otherwise the decadent gentlemen and their male and female fellow courtiers did a fine job of conveying the listless decay of Gunther’s court — and on an almost Stroheim-like scale.

Bernd Ernst Skodzig’s costumes were a far more serious let-down, and they may well have been the primary cause of the general dissatisfaction in Dorst’s production. At the very best, none of them — and this extends to the overall visualization of the characters — were especially distinguished either by their insight or their eye-appeal. Some looked downright cheap, or improvised, like Alberich and Mime, who looked as if something have been cobbled up for them out of children’s pyjamas. The white vinyl costumes of the gods in Das Rheingold didn’t quite look cheap, but they did look sleazy and unappealing — rather too literally so. They may have conveyed the god’s immunity to their environment and the falsity of their values, but not very compellingly. The Rhinemaidens were bald, as they usually are these days. In the opening scene they wore strange costumes that suggested gills. Siegmund, Sieglinde, and Brünnhilde were nothing out of the ordinary. I don’t even remember what they were wearing. I did think the Norns, enveloped in their thread atop a mountain of skulls and bones very effective, unlike Erda, covered in transparent balls, who seemed a trifle silly.

Fricka, Freia, and Loge admire the Nibelung treasure in Das Rheingold. Photo Rheingold, Scene 1. Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele GmbH / Enrico Nawrath.

Fricka, Freia, and Loge admire the Nibelung treasure in Das Rheingold. Photo Rheingold, Scene 1. Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele GmbH / Enrico Nawrath.

These costumes had one great virtue, however. For the most part they were light, and they gave the singers plenty of mobility, as I learned to appreciate in Los Angeles. In fact it was a particular joy to see LA veterans Arnold Bezuyen as Loge scampering about with such exuberance, and Eric Halfvarson (Hagen) and Linda Watson (Brünnhilde) pacing about more or less normally and enjoying their full range of expression as actors — all free of masks or mask-like makeup. And they seemed to be enjoying this welcome change themselves.

Acting and the theatrical presentation of the characters were in fact the strong suit of this production. Dorst is, after all, an seasoned man of the theatre, who, as playwright, has worked closely with major directors like Peter Zadek, Dieter Dorn, and Patrice Chéreau, who is now regarded a pioneer in Ring production. His sense of character and human interaction was vivid and full of personal flair, both Dorst’s and that of the singers, who for the most part are gifted and spirited actors. Dorst tended to bring the principle figures into concentrated groups on the stage. There was rarely much space between the major characters as they interacted, and he made effective use of the multi-level sets of the Rheingold rooftops and the Gibichung palace in isolating these groups. As I have already mentioned, Dorst kept his contemporary interludes under control, and they were rarely distracting.

Lance Ryas as Siegfried. © Bayreuther Festspiele GmbH / Jörg Schulze.

Lance Ryan as Siegfried. © Bayreuther Festspiele GmbH / Jörg Schulze.

One especially intriguing characterization was that of Dorst’s carrot-topped Siegfried. Visually, this may have given Achim Freyer some ideas for his clownish Siegfried in LA. The redemptive hero is not very popular these days: Siegfried is often portrayed unsympathetically. Dorst goes to an extreme, but it is interesting, well thought-out, and entirely characteristic of Dorst. His Siegfried, in all innocence, is one mean customer, brimming with anger and destructive energy, and, as monstrous as he is, we can find him amusing. He is a raging adolescent raised several degrees, and he is dangerous beyond an ASBO. He is also a very dirty Siegfried: it’s a wonder Brünnhilde lets him near her. This total unawareness of the import and context of his actions is what frees him to destroy the old order, just as he annihilates Nothung, in order to forge it again. That is about the only thing he creates. The rest is a spree of destruction: Mime, Fafner, Wotan’s staff, eventually his oath to Brünnhilde and all that follows. This view of Siegfried is a twin brother to Dorst’s many anti-social types. His Karlos springs immediately to mind, not Schiller’s and Verdi’s idealized Don Carlos, but a fiend modelled faithfully on the historic original, who is redeemed in a small part by his unwitting role as a social critic. The truth of this characterization stood out, because it was noticeably against the grain, and Lance Ryan sang and acted it with winning zest.

To my mind, this production suffered from the failure of the many different elements — some of which were commendable, others of which were either inert or not up to standard in design and execution — to mesh into a whole that was more than the sum of its parts. Without actually deploring it as others have done, I can say that I found it to be somewhat less than the sum of its parts. Perhaps it was a mistake to assume that a playwright, however experienced, can function as a director. The playwright spins out his imaginings in all their complexity, and the director simplifies and economizes them, so that they communicate on stage. One rarely succeeds in doing the job of the other.

By contrast, the musical side of the performances was consistently outstanding — close to the best one can expect in most ways. Theoretically, seen in the context of the performance, this could be taken as one more aspect of the production that didn’t connect with the others, since Maestro Thielemann and the singers held our rapt attention to the detriment of the action on stage. It was easy to become immersed in Wagner’s glorious music and to focus only vaguely on the staging. The musical power of Meistersinger, Lohengrin, and Parsifal made the audience more tolerant of the daring or impudent inventions of their directors, but in this Ring, as thoughtful as it was in many ways, there was little that was really daring. The music simply had a life of its own, and who could possibly complain about that?

Christian Thielemann seems to use the adulation he enjoys in Germany largely to go his own way, much as Furtwängler did — although his music-making is quite different from Furtwängler’s. He can conduct and achieve his ends without having to persuade the orchestra or his audience of anything in particular. Hence his performances seem natural and unfussy. In the case of the Ring as epic, his music-making seemed like a natural force. He called up a free, open sound from the Festspiel Orchestra, with glowing, transparent textures. The sound had weight and body, but it was possible to listen through the principle lines to many inner details, some of which are unfamiliar. Thielemann luxuriated in the elegant and expressive playing of individual sections and soloists. The score often sounded somehow different, but in a way too fleeting to define, and there was never any obvious pointing or emphasis behind these moments. Tempo shifts were entirely natural, and I can think of a few moments, when I didn’t notice the change until he was well into the passage. One especially striking aspect of his conducting was his approach to the female ensembles, above all the trios of Rhinemaidens and Norns, but also the Valkyries. Using a broad tempo and exceptionally clear textures, he made each of the singers sound like individuals. Without distorting the harmonies in the score, he made the vocal lines come out like solos. This greatly enhanced characterization and musical detail. In general Thielemann takes good care of singers, letting them find comfortable tempi without detracting from the flow of the music…and his Ring is all about flow.

Götterdämmerung - Edith Haller (3. Norn), Simone Schröder (1. Norn), Martina Dike (2. Norn) © Bayreuther Festspiele GmbH / Enrico Nawrath.

Götterdämmerung – Edith Haller (3. Norn), Simone Schröder (1. Norn), Martina Dike (2. Norn) © Bayreuther Festspiele GmbH / Enrico Nawrath.

Andrew Shore was a fearsome, dark-voiced Alberich, sly but unthinking in his viciousness. He and Wolfgang Schmidt as a well-rounded Mime interacted especially intensely in their scenes in Rheingold and Götterdämmerung, full of all the brotherly malevolence one could wish for. Schmidt sounded a bit raw at times in Siegfried, and I don’t think it was entirely his characterization. Mihoko Fujimora sang handsomely as Fricka, authoritative in a portrayal that still fell short of the variety of color and psychological complexity of Doris Soffel in the Semperoper Ring of last spring.

It didn’t take long for it to become clear that Albert Dohmen’s Wotan would be one of the truly great performances in this Ring — as well as one of the great Wotans. He used his extraordinary dark voice and the heaviness of his default bearing to portray a Wotan who was hardly less sinister than Alberich, deeply enmeshed in the consequences of his betrayals, to the point where it left him little energy for dreaming of Valhalla and other illusions. His voice has a great leathery texture, but is never actually rough, and he sang with lyrical beauty when called for, of course in the farewell to Brünnhilde. Even here he avoided the head-voice effects when might add pathos to the scene, but not without the danger of sentimentality. Even if he had been tempted, that is not something his voice likes to do. In any case, Dohmen’s portrayal was a thoroughly consistent, unsentimental Wotan, but never a thug or a caricature. He was immensely powerful in his scene with Mime, as he wove his trap for the dwarf from the miserable realities he had himself created. His encounter with Alberich was equally powerful. There was a ferocity to Wotan’s fate-bound grief.

Arnold Bezuyen's Loge Unmasked. Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele GmbH / Enrico Nawrath.

Arnold Bezuyen’s Loge Unmasked. Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele GmbH / Enrico Nawrath.

Arnold Bezuyen, even when he was encased in a rigid Joker costume that hid his face and constricted his movements at LA was clearly a great Loge. Here, dressed in a shyster’s loose, flashy suit, he was free to express himself, and his robust tenor voice stood by him, as he played through his antic manipulations. Bezuyen kept the element of caricature in its place, however, and gave a rounded performance. Thielemann and he must have agreed that his final scene should have considerable force, and it made its point most powerfully.

Two other outstanding singers, Edith Haller as Freya and Christa Mayer as Erda left a strong mark on this Ring, not only in Das Rheingold, but as Sieglinde in Die Walküre and Gutrune and the Third Norn in Götterdämmerung (Haller) and as Erda in Siegfried and Waltraute in Götterdämmerung (Mayer). Haller has a sumptuous soprano voice which she controls with exceptional smoothness, giving her plenty of flexibility to spin beautiful lyrical lines and a golden lower register, both of which she uses with affecting feeling in these emotional roles. Christa Mayer, who excelled in the same roles at the Semperoper, also showed herself to be one of the most expressive and imposing Erdas we have today, and her Waltraute was exceptional in the beauty of her singing and the complex psychological content she was able to project in her single scene, so many were the shifts of mood and coloration she was able to pack into her relatively brief appearance as Waltraute.

Alongside Diógenes Randes’ unmemorable Fafner, Kwangchul Youn made a powerful impression with his resplendent bass and his finely tuned portrayal of the susceptible Fasolt. His Hunding in Walküre gave him more scope, of course. Youn’s voice is enormous, almost engulfing a gravelly bottom and sparkling overtones like a huge ocean swell, and he is a thrilling actor, compromised only by a slight tendency to melodrama, which in the end does little harm to the power of his acting. It only diminishes him, when one compares his work to Dohmen’s Wotan. As one might expect with Dorst, his Hunding is less a tyrannical bourgeois husband than pure violence and evil — a fighting man who dominates other fighting men and looks at his wife and home with only poisonous suspicion. As in almost no other production, it is clear that Siegmund hasn’t a chance against this beast, barring divine intervention. Youn won a huge ovation from the audience, as he did with his magnificent Gurnemanz in Parsifal. I was with them.

Johan Botha’s powerful voice served him well as Siegmund. Its particular cluster of heavy and lighter timbres was as interesting and attractive as ever. However, he brought a special sensitivity to his Siegmund, as if the role held a special fascination for him. I have always admired Botha’s singing, but here he was exceptionally subtle and many-sided, both musically and dramatically, and my regard for him is even higher.

The excellent troupe of Valkyries were entirely equal to the exposure Thielemann placed them in.

In Siegfried Lance Ryan truly relished his part, especially as Dorst offered it to him. While one can only admire his energy and intelligence as an actor, his voice was less satisfying. It actually seemed too young and raw for the part. His darker tones have not yet become a unified part of his voice, and his top can become shrill. His difficulty in the upper register made it hard for him to maintain lines, which he surely understood in a musical sense. His interpretation was constantly absorbing, however.

In the Siegfried I heard, I have mentioned in my preliminary report from Bayreuth, Sabine Hogrefe stood in for an ailing Linda Watson most ably. Occasionally she showed some slight insecurity on stage, but the quality of her voice and the refinement of her musicianship were indisputable. It is a pleasure in itself to hear such a fresh voice in Brünnhilde. We had a full opportunity to enjoy Linda Watson’s generous voice, rich as it is in fruity colors and glowing resonances in Götterdämmerung. Watson takes Brünnhilde in all her traditional nobility and grandeur, and this suits her voice. Of course she was able to act and sing much more effectively in her flexible costumes and on an obstacle-free stage, and it was an affecting performance of high integrity. Even under these improved circumstances, Watson’s usual problems emerged: her pitch is not always accurate and her vibrato verges on unsteady production all too often. Still, overall there was much to be valued in her performance.

Ralf Lukas was both mellifluous and threatening as Gunther. In Dorst’s world we are free to think the worst of him and his sister Gutrune, although she is relatively free from guile in her relations with Siegfried. She can’t understand or control her desires and emotions, and so she becomes infatuated with Siegfried. Neither she nor her brother can help themselves, and they deserve what they get. These rotten people depend on their poor relation, Hagen, to keep them in some distant and indirect connection to reality, and he is there to serve them — for his own ends — in his brown tunic and jodhpurs. Eric Halfvarson is a great singer and actor, and it was pitiful to see him reduced to a human dummy at Los Angeles. Here he was free to move and to use his face and arms, and he achieved a meticulous, detailed characterization of this complex figure and the way he is stalled between his bonds to his paternity, his service to his half-brother, and the free-will he desires in his own warped, uncomprehending way. Although he knows enough to manipulate people, his vision goes no further. Sometimes Hagen can be rather overwhelming, but here Halfvarson made him seem so real, that I was responding to him as an actual person, surely a repellent one, but a person one might want to observe as a case study, until he becomes dangerous.

The choral singing, under the direction Eberhard Friedrich, was energetic and colorful.

To end with another observation about the staging, I have mentioned in my review of Meistersinger that the audience were invited to see themselves in the good citizens of Nürnberg on stage. Here again, we well-dressed folk (I speak for the audience in general, not for myself.) began to see ourselves in the Gibichungs, and then among the dazed survivors, as the curtain fell. Some might find an unkind joke in this, but, even if what one saw was not as exalting as what one heard, Tankred Dorst’s production deserved respect.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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