Götterdämmerung proves an inconclusive end to Valentin Schwarz’s new Bayreuth Ring cycle

GermanyGermany Bayreuth Festival 2022 – Wagner, Götterdämmerung: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival / Cornelius Meister (conductor). Recorded (directed by Michael Beyer) at the Bayreuther Festspielhaus on 5.8.2022 and viewed on DG Stage, (JPr)

Michael Kupfer-Radecky (Gunther) with the chorus (Vassals) © Enrico Nawrath

Production:
Director – Valentin Schwarz
Stage design – Andrea Cozzi
Costumes – Andy Besuch
Lighting – Reinhard Traub
Video – Luis August Krawen
Dramaturgy – Konrad Kuhn
Chorus conductor – Eberhard Friedrich

Cast:
Siegfried – Clay Hilley
Brünnhilde – Iréne Theorin
Hagen – Albert Dohmen
Gunther – Michael Kupfer-Radecky
Gutrune – Elisabeth Teige
Waltraute – Christa Mayer
Alberich – Olafur Sigurdarson
First Norn – Okka von der Damerau
Second Norn – Stéphanie Müther
Third Norn – Kelly God
Woglinde – Lea-ann Dunbar
Wellgunde – Stephanie Houtzeel
Flosshilde – Katie Stevenson
Grane – Igor Schwab

After decades of regularly attending the Bayreuth Festival each summer that time has passed for me and I think I could see the end coming with all the OTT security arrangements pre-pandemic that meant actually getting into the opera house felt like a SAS training exercise. It was good to be back there at least virtually as DG Stage brought us Götterdämmerung from Valentin Schwarz’s new Ring cycle and promises the rest of the operas in due course. The best way to understand what the young Austrian director might be saying to us – or wanting us to understand – should be better explained when/if I see the entire cycle and so this review is just a snapshot of first impressions.

I was going to give it all the benefit of the doubt until the very end when the text and music suggests the old order perishes in a conflagration and Brünnhilde’s ultimate sacrifice leads to the renewal of the world. While Schwarz brought a compelling sense of drama to the rest of the opera drawing on a cast of excellent singing actors what we saw had absolutely nothing to do with Wagner as we know him. (Although we are so familiar with that approach to opera these days – think about the oeuvre of Australian director Simon Stone – when, for good or ill, it is Konzept first, the original plot second.) Sadly Schwarz seems to have run out of ideas as we approach the end of Götterdämmerung, and although Bayreuth does give the director time to rework their ideas it is not as if he hasn’t had enough time to think about his Ring cycle since it was delayed by the pandemic.

We open in the wood-panelled interior of a home of the members of a wealthy family; the furnishings are spartan and there are a couple of single beds and some cupboards mostly containing figures of horses. Siegfried and Brünnhilde have a daughter who is devoted to both her parents – clutching onto her father’s leg at one point – but it seems they are estranged, bickering while reflecting on past happier times. It looks as if they are splitting up and Siegfried is moving out and has a couple of suitcases ready. Earlier, some blinged-up Norns appeared to haunt the child’s dreams and even though she interacted with them – and Alberich who was also present – she was more interested in the water pistol she found under her bed and soon we will see that she cannot bear to be separated from a toy black horse which goes through the opera with her. Lurking around is what looks like the family’s old retainer but we soon realise he is Grane (originally Brünnhilde’s horse) but I had briefly considered he might be the child’s grandfather, Wotan. Soon we realise how the young girl actually embodies the ring and is at the centre of all that subsequently happens.

The type of people the Gibichungs are is revealed by the enlarged photo we see of their trophy hunting exploits. Hagen is a bully with a bejewelled knuckle duster in his pocket; the obviously high maintenance Gutrune enters taking a selfie to possibly post on Instagram and looks like someone who can be found in any large city centre nightspots at the weekend; and Gunther is a dissolute, long-haired old rocker with a T-shirt with WHO THE F**K IS GRANE? (without the asterisks) on it. We join them with their servants clearing up after a Christmas party and it is a modern, though sterile looking, white world. The elderly figure (who is Grane) has accompanied Siegfried and will suffer at the hands of the Gibichungs and provide the blood for the oath-swearing. It seems simply the champagne that is flowing which makes Siegfried forget Brünnhilde and he can’t wait to get his hands on Gutrune. The Tarnhelm is simply a baseball cap that is almost ever-present for the rest of the opera.

Waltraute comes to plead with her sister Valkyrie about returning the ring (child?) to the Rhinemaidens by climbing in through her window. She looks rather worse for wear and is slightly deranged and eventually Brünnhilde will chase Waltraute away. At this point both Brünnhilde and her daughter are in their nightwear and remain like that in the following acts. Gunther appears (miming to Siegfried’s singing) and threatens the girl who gets tied to a chair while he physically abuses Brünnhilde whose head is slammed against a wall. She is made to blindfold herself as Siegfried, himself, emerges as the act ends.

Acts II and III are not so involved but leave many questions largely unanswered. Now we are in a simple space with translucent panels on three sides. Hagen encounters his father Alberich while working out on a punch bag and he will pick up the leather jacket Alberich leaves behind and later wears it over his gold polo shirt. Siegfried returns with the girl who he has abducted and she hides behind Hagen as the back wall is raised and sinister, spectral figures – the Vassals – shrouded in mist and each holding a red mask of one of the old gods come forward. It is all a bit dark now on the stage and Schwarz does little with the chorus who just seem to mill around while they are there. Brünnhilde is blindfolded when brought in with Gunther but most of what we see is familiar as both her and Siegfried swear on Hagen’s spearpoint that each are telling their version of the truth of their night together. Then along with Gunther, Brünnhilde will swear vengeance for Siegfried’s perceived betrayal whilst Hagen’s focus is on reclaiming the ring (or so his words reveal). What Schwarz adds is that Siegfried has his hands all over Gutrune and at the end of the act a plastic bag is brought on for Gunther (and all will be later revealed). Siegfried and Brünnhilde are ready for their wedding and are seen at the back with the girl who suffered some mistreatment when she was first brought on and now runs to Brünnhilde who appears to turn her back.

For the final act we find Siegfried swigging more and more beer from a cool box and fishing with his daughter in a puddle of water at the bottom of a huge, deep, derelict and fenced off swimming pool. The Rhinemaidens look like trophy wives who have seen better days. Hagen’s men enter at the top as a drunken rabble, Gunther has his bag, while Hagen, himself, climbs down to share more beer with Siegfried before stabbing him when he finally remembers who Brünnhilde is to him. Siegfried is comforted by his daughter as he dies before she recovers the cap and goes off with Hagen. Gutrune is up at the top of the pool with Gunther, the three masked Rhinemaidens will appear there too, along with the girl. We will see Gutrune snorting cocaine and Gunther will chuck his bag with its contents down from the steps to Brünnhilde and mysteriously her child will end up lying prostrate on high as if she has died. Down below as realisation dawns (literally thanks to Schwarz) Brünnhilde will appear to douse herself from a petrol can, find the decapitated head of ‘Grane’ in the bag and lie down next to Siegfried, cuddling the head Salome-like and pointing up with her right hand. For no apparent reason Hagen rushes in and out for the line ‘Zurück vom Ring!’, an array of white LED neon tubes is revealed and there is a huge image of twin foetuses hugging and that is that! Cue vociferous booing from the unhappy Bayreuth audience, which is mostly directed vehemently towards the director and his team, as well as the conductor Cornelius Meister and Iréne Theorin (Brünnhilde).

Albert Dohmen (Hagen),  Michael Kupfer-Radecky (Gunther) and Clay Hilley (Siegfried) © DG Stage

Commenting on what I saw is easier than attempting that about what I heard because I was listening through loudspeakers. Clay Hilley was a last moment replacement for Stephen Gould but looks to have been thoroughly prepared and seemed totally as ease and it was impossible to believe this was his Bayreuth debut. He could be forgiven some nerves but they didn’t show and his voice is more flexible and lyrical than you sometimes hear from a Siegfried today and his secure top notes cut through the orchestra with ease. Like Hilley, Iréne Theorin as Brünnhilde was compelling to watch but she was not as easy on the ear and the highest parts of her role are now clearly a challenge for her and the best one can add is that she got through her Immolation Scene commendably but unremarkably. Gunther and Gutrune were superbly characterised by Michael Kupfer-Radecky and Elisabeth Teige who both clearly relished their roles. Christa Mayer’s acting overshadowed her firmly sung Waltraute, Olafur Sigurdarson was a rather bluff Alberich and there were excellent trios of Norns and Rhinemaidens. Best of all was Albert Dohmen as the always seething Hagen: he has the perfect range for the role with some particularly resonant bass notes which in themselves carried a potent threat to all those who crossed this quick to anger character.

Conductor Cornelius Meister was booed by some in the audience but he was standing-in for Pietari Inkinen who contracted Covid before the performances began, though I am puzzled as to why that should have ruled him out for the entire summer. It all seemed to be solidly conducted and well played by the orchestra and the ideal accompaniment to the stage pictures of Schwarz’s revisionist Götterdämmerung.

Jim Pritchard

3 thoughts on “<i>Götterdämmerung</i> proves an inconclusive end to Valentin Schwarz’s new Bayreuth <i>Ring</i> cycle”

  1. This, with the equally maladroit Herheim Ring from Berlin, is hopefully not a sign of things to come from the current roster of regisseurs intent on de-mystifying the Ring. I suppose that those of us no longer able, or willing, to see performances in the flesh – though Bayreuth is beyond the reach of us mere mortals – should be grateful to ARD for the Berlin Ring and BR Klassik for the livestream of this and the radio broadcasts of the rest of this travesty of the Ring but we are being ill served, not to mention Wagner, by such desultory re-imaginings. Dr Pritchard has succintly described what we saw and he is being far more open minded than many in attempting to make sense of what in essence is a total mess. He is right to point out that Schwarz has had longer than most due to the Covid interregnum to refine his Konzept but as thing stands whatever that is has been lost in the sheer incompetence of it’s staging. Both Kosky and Kratzer have at least an ability to translate their ideas into a coherent whole rather than the mishmash we saw here. Still, lots of boos so the bourgeois were suitably épatered! Will Dr Pritchard get the chance to see the rest? More pertinently would he be any the wiser if he did?

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  2. A look beyond the staging and conducting, as well as administrative organization. Being there, I again attested to the ‘leitmotif’ comments: 1) Insults for those who did not like the staging, classifying them as those who get turned off if Siegfried has no sword, if the Ring is not present, if Hagen is not drowned; 2) Stating that those in favor of this staging will have their revenge when after some years, it will be understood and accepted as was Chéreau’s; 3) Since it was painful to look at, it is advisable to close one’s eyes, and savor the music; 4) Leniency towards roles ill-sung (excusing emergency substitutions). What I did not hear there among my fellow Wagnerians were comments accusing the current administrators of committing a tragic error in sustaining this Ring on paper; the orchestra (trumpets especially) making numerous errors; a blasé, somewhat unemotional orchestral reading of the ‘Romantic’ score. The major impression is that this all should not have happened as more appropriate artists in all categories exist. Might Stanley Kubrick have been tapped were he still with us? He would have given us more than the star-child embryo film images that Schwarz borrowed to begin and end his ‘commedia’, a Dantesque voyage all too realistic here:
    ‘Midway upon the journey of our life
    I found myself within a forest dark,
    For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
    Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
    What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
    Which in the very thought renews the fear.’
    Or better, Queen Gertrude to Polonius in Hamlet: “More matter, with less art.”
    Great review, though.

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  3. Just waiting for the Calixto Bieito production at the Opera Bastille in a couple of years…let’s wait and see…

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