Underwhelming Homoki production of Das Rheingold begins a new Zurich Ring cycle

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Wagner, Das Rheingold: Soloists, Chorus of Zurich Opera, Philharmonia Zurich / Gianandrea Noseda (conductor). Zurich Opera, Zurich. 3.5.2022. (JR)

Das Rheingold (c) Monika Rittershaus

Director – Andreas Homoki
Set and costumes – Christian Schmidt
Set assistant – Florian Schaaf
Lighting – Franck Evin
Dramaturgy – Werner Hintze, Beate Breidenbach

Wotan – Tomasz Konieczny
Donner – Jordan Shanahan
Froh – Omer Kobiliak
Loge – Matthias Klink
Fricka – Patricia Bardon
Freia – Kiandra Howarth
Erda – Anna Danik
Alberich – Christopher Purves
Mime – Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Fasolt – David Soar
Fafner – Oleg Davydov
Woglinde – Uliana Alexyuk
Wellgunde – Niamh O’Sullivan
Flosshilde – Siena Licht Miller

After much waiting, much eager anticipation, the new Zurich Ring cycle has finally got under way. Spectacular sound and light projections on the façade of the opera house heralded the event, podcasts and posters showed us all the places where Wagner had lived in Zurich. (Der Ring des Nibelungen was conceived and composition begun in Zurich, and the music drama very nearly received its première in Zurich.)

In the extensive programme, Intendant and Director Andreas Homoki revealed that the Ring was one of the very first operas he ever heard and got to know. Homoki says he did not go out to dwell on the differences in social strata, Marxist theories of capitalism, or feminist issues, which are easy to detect in the work; far more, he wished simply to highlight the personal inter-reactions and the action, which he describes as playful, emotional, surprising and entertaining. It is a world of magic and wonder that Wagner creates (with the helping hand of old Norse texts) and in which Homoki delights. Wherever there is humour, Homoki can find it. However, the set (white rooms on an almost continually revolving stage) is monotonous and dull and the great moments in this prelude to the great music drama are completely underwhelming. The river bed of the Rhine, the cloud heights on which the Gods assemble, Nibelheim and Valhalla all take place in the same white rooms. We have seen that same (or very similar) set in so many other productions.

The auditorium is plunged into complete darkness as the Rhine begins to murmur in the strings, Wagner way ahead of Philip Glass and Steve Reich in early minimalism; the Rhinemaidens then appear. There is however no visual sign of the Rhine, nor a water-nymph’s tail, not even a drop of water. The three Rhinemaidens cavort on white beds in white satin pyjamas and are Marilyn Monroe lookalikes. The Rhinegold itself is nigh invisible, contained in a tiny jewel box.

Wotan and Fricka are in suitably regal garb. Young Froh and Donner, replete with stripy jackets, straw hats and cricket bats, have come straight from Lords; Loge, in a flame-coloured coat, is a dead ringer for Johnny Depp in The Pirates of the Caribbean. The descent into Nibelheim is a remarkably dull affair. I read that Gianandrea Noseda deliberately wanted to keep the decibels low, a nod to the singers and the size of the house, but I admit to wanting to be deafened at just a few points in this wondrous score, and the moment that the Nibelungen hammer out the Rhinegold is just such a moment. A tape recording rarely hits the spot – why cannot we have real bells or anvils (it has been done)? The giant Riesenwurm (an exhibit straight from the Natural History Museum) comes out of a magic cupboard (a Homoki staple), the frog is the usual jumping plastic toy from the zoo. The light projections on the front of the opera house were so much more impressive.

Mime and Alberich, and all the Nibelungs (in beekeepers’ hats), are appropriately dressed in black. Alberich appears at one stage in a shaggy coat, rather as Homoki used for Bryn Terfel in the Zurich production of The Flying Dutchman.

The giants (property developers) in grey beards, black hats and long black coats were too close to Jewish stereotypes for comfort, so by the time of the second performance (which I saw), Homoki had quickly changed the style of hat to a Bavarian hunting model, complete with feathers; and the straggly beards had been tidied into neat goatees.

The ascent into Valhalla had no rainbow, no bridge, no castle, no procession, no grandeur. The Gods simply sat at a long wooden table. One wonders whether, if work on this production had started later, there might have been some references to oligarchs and their riches, and Vladimir Putin as the tyrant – the table brought the Kremlin to mind.

The singers were mixed. Not everyone was convinced by Tomasz Konieczny as Wotan; the voice is certainly strong and strident but where is the Godly warmth? Both Freia and Fricka were well sung, the young Gods more than competent (Jordan Shanahan delivered a strong ‘Heda! Hedo!’ before the ascent into Valhalla. Of the two giants, I much preferred David Soar’s bass to that of Oleg Davydov. But the real towering vocal giants were – no surprise – Christopher Purves as Alberich and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Mime; Purves amazed with his diction and, as a non-native German speaker, his command of the text (one slip on ‘Mass und Macht’ can readily be forgiven). He injected lashings of menace into his voice and actions.

Gianandrea Noseda is new to the Ring, and his debut was highly impressive. Zurich’s opera house is small, Noseda refers to it as a “boutique theatre”. As I mentioned above, Noseda says he tempered the dynamics so as not to overwhelm the audience and allow the singers to be heard. Anyone, such as I, who was hoping to be drowned out by the noise was therefore disappointed: the other side of the coin was that fine textures and details were easily discernible.

I came away rather unsatisfied. The tame production had been a disappointment and, as such, it will not go down as one for the history books.

John Rhodes

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