Superlative singing in Andreas Homoki’s Die Walküre continues the Ring at Zurich Opera

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Wagner, Die Walküre: Soloists, Philharmonia Zurich / Gianandrea Noseda (conductor). Zurich Opera. 18.9.2022. (JR)

Zurich Opera’s Die Walküre Act III © Monika Rittershaus

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

Siegmund – Eric Cutler
Hunding – Christof Fischesser
Sieglinde – Daniela Köhler
Wotan – Tomasz Konieczny
Brünnhilde – Camilla Nylund
Fricka – Patricia Bardon
Helmwige – Sarah Cambidge
Gerhilde – Julie Adams
Ortlinde – Justyna Bluj
Waltraute – Anna Werle
Siegrune – Simone McIntosh
Rossweisse – Susannah Haberfeld
Grimgerde – Freya Apffelstaedt
Schwertleite – Nana Dzidziguri

After a somewhat underwhelming Das Rheingold in May this year, the Zurich Ring has now sprung to life in what many consider the most cogent, powerful part of Wagner’s trilogy. After all, Rheingold is only meant to be the prologue and introduction for a three-part operatic cycle.

The set is likely to remain for the entire Ring (white rooms in a turn-of-the-century villa, on an almost continually revolving stage) but here, where there are so many personal dialogues, it convinces as a frame for the action and does not distract.

Homoki has some clever, innovative ideas. In Act I, Wotan is on stage (invisible to Sieglinde and Siegmund) to assist Sieglinde and to ensure that the siblings bond (they kiss very early in this production). When Hunding appears, he comes with a bunch of his hairy henchmen wearing shaggy fur coats. When Sieglinde later tells the story of her life, the henchmen reappear as she describes her forced marriage to Hunding, and Wotan reappears to plunge the sword into the huge ash tree, centre stage, in Hunding’s house. During the opening storm, thunder and lightning are seen and heard whenever Wotan stabs his spear into the ground. The breaking-in of the Spring Moon is less convincing: the couple simply move into an adjoining room where the light is very bright and white, perhaps a nod to the looming energy crisis? I have seen this more magically done. At the end, the walls part to show the wintry forest, but it is unclear what that is meant to signify, frosty exchanges to come perhaps?

In Act II, a producer has to work hard to prevent a very long act from becoming tedious and here Homoki succeeds with regular scene changes and superlative acting from Thomas Konieczny’s Wotan in particular (he studied drama before discovering his voice). Oddly, the battle between Hunding and Siegmund takes place in Valhalla, not in the forest near Hunding’s house; and it is Wotan who stabs Siegmund, not Hunding; and Nothung does not break (though that presumably, as with the opening lack of surtitles, was a technical glitch). Valhalla retains its very long table, allowing the Valkyries to step rather precariously on and off it. A masked Erda actually appears when she is mentioned in Wotan’s telling of the backstory, and Brünnhilde gets to meet her mother.

Zurich Opera’s Die Walküre Act III © Monika Rittershaus

The final act should begin with the thrilling ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ but here Homoki turns to parody and it all falls rather flat. The Valkyries, in white gowns, and bearing metal horses heads, enter to face a group of fallen heroes, except that, in white nightgowns and with toy swords, they come across as frightened fools. Gilbert and Sullivan came to mind; perhaps Homoki wants us to think these heroes are already dreaming of their slaughter? Act III ends with a glowing piece of coal (the rock) exuding smoke: a red-hot ember. Then Wotan, job done, returns to Valhalla to pick up his hat and coat, but leaves his troublesome spear behind. So, to summarise the production: plenty of ideas, some of which convince more than others, and a ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ which disappoints. At least we were not faced with the shenanigans of the current Bayreuth production; Homoki’s appearance at the final curtain only elicited one loud ‘boo’.

The singers were superlative across the board. Iowa-born Eric Cutler, new to the role and the house, was a revelation. A rich voice, intonation and diction spot on. His cries of ‘Wälse! Wälse!’ were suitably urgent and piercing. Daniela Köhler was a most impressive Sieglinde; not surprised to read that she has sung Brünnhilde in Leipzig and Bayreuth. Hunding was the dependable, sonorous bass Christof Fischesser. His acting skills are not uppermost, he paled in comparison with Günther Groissböck at the Lucerne Festival who had the clear edge on blackness of voice and malevolence.

Tomas Konieczny as Wotan fulfilled every demand with distinction; the voice is strong and strident, and his acting skills are in a different class. Patricia Bardon continued to impress as Fricka, Camilla Nylund was, as to be expected, faultless. One of the Valkyries caught my ear, and that was Canadian soprano Sarah Cambidge as Helmwige; a Brünnhilde in the making I would suggest.

Gianandrea Noseda in the pit did not rest for a second and kept the orchestra on its toes. At the end of the work, he kissed his copy of the score. Claudius Herrmann, principal cello, was the star turn; but the whole, very loud brass section was simply stunning, especially the tubas. A fine start to the opening of the new season at Zurich Opera. Wagnerites should hurry to Zurich to catch one of the remaining performances: on 21 and 29 September; and on 2, 5, 8 and 18 October.

John Rhodes

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