At Bayreuth, Valentin Schwarz has Siegfried playing unhappy families in vino veritas

GermanyGermany Bayreuth Festival 2022 – Wagner, Siegfried: Soloists, Bayreuth Festival Orchestra / Cornelius Meister (conductor). Recorded (directed by Michael Beyer) at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus and available on STAGE+ until 14.11.2047. (JPr)

Andreas Schager (Siegfried), Igor Schwab (Grane) and Daniela Köhler (Brünnhilde) © Enrico Nawrath

Director – Valentin Schwarz
Designs – Andrea Cozzi
Costumes – Andy Besuch
Lighting – Reinhard Traub
Dramaturgy – Konrad Kuhn

Siegfried – Andreas Schager
Mime – Arnold Bezuyen
Wanderer – Tomasz Koniezcny
Alberich – Olafur Sigurdarson
Fafner – Wilhelm Schwinghammer
Erda – Okka von der Damerau
Brünnhilde – Daniela Köhler
Woodbird – Alexandra Steiner
Young Hagen – Branko Buchberger
Grane – Igor Schwab (silent)

The family travails of Valentin Schwarz’s new Bayreuth Ring continues with Siegfried and its unfolding story of a failed attempt at eugenics. For the first act we are in the house Hunding has clearly abandoned (Die Walküre review here), it has been bordered up and the peephole in the door suggests they are wary of visitors. It seems to be Siegfried’s birthday and Mime (in fancy dress as a wizard) has arranged a party for him it seems. There are papier-mâché dolls of characters we have seen in this Ring on small stools (including one with a gold T-shirt), as well as white toy horses, a microwave on the electric fire, and a prominent fish tank. Our ‘hero’ (in a hunting gilet vest) staggers in drinking what looks like vodka and quickly destroys Mime’s present of a flimsy glowing-white sword before Mime gives him a small piece of cake with a sparkler. Mime has a crutch and occasionally sits on a stairlift and Siegfried acts as his carer and washes him. To explain his origins Mime puts on a puppet show and the fragments of sword here are arm bones and a small knife which are removed from the fish tank. When Siegfried goes out again (we see later he has gone for some Chinese takeaway) Wotan/Wanderer comes in accompanied by two minders (Ravens?) to drop off – much like an absentee father would – a present of his own. He breaks Mime’s walking aid and puts on the gold/black baseball cap and looks more like Trump than ever. (Siegfried is blonde and so is Wotan which settles any doubts over his paternity but now means Brünnhilde is his half-sister.) Wotan has given Siegfried a new crutch which he fights over with Mime before Siegfried finds a sword blade (Nothung, finally) inside it that he takes to the kitchen where sparks fly as he sharpens it. There is no other forging to be seen though Siegfried’s ‘song’ is accompanied by him destroying – Tcherniakov also has him do this later in Berlin – the vestiges of his childhood, before cooling the sword in the water in the tank and firing a gun (for the hammering on the anvil). Mime is mistreated and his head forced into the microwave, and also the tank, before resorting it seems to eating fish food. At the end of the act both Siegfried and Mime collapse to the floor exhausted.

Alexandra Steiner (Woodbird), Andreas Schager (Siegfried), Arnold Bezuyen (Mime) and Branko Buchberger (Young Hagen) © Enrico Nawrath

I am not sure who Fafner is, but he appears an elderly relative whose bequests on his death are eagerly awaited. He is lying – as an obviously recalcitrant patient – in his end of care hospital bed in an area of the family mansion we haven’t yet seen. Attending him are a nurse (the Woodbird) and the abducted boy from Das Rheingold (review here) who has now grownup and is recognisably Hagen. Alberich looks much as he did before but significantly older. Catching the eye is the cube with the pyramid and also prominent is a well-stocked drinks cabinet from which Wotan will offer Alberich a drink; their obvious connection here recalls how Schwarz shows them as twins in Rheingold. Siegfried is still finishing his Chinese food when he enters wearing Siegmund’s overcoat and Mime has his crutch and the gun. Fafner doesn’t seem to be getting the best of care and perhaps doesn’t deserve it as he makes a grab for his nurse. There is no reed pipe nor horn call and Siegfried tries to make a pass at the Woodbird who rejects him whilst still seeming interested in his advances and especially the sword he brandishes. Fafner gets up and staggers around on a walker and a distraught Hagen witnesses Fafner being pushed to the ground and dying as a result of the fall. Meanwhile Wotan and Alberich are ever-present in the background. Brass knuckles are recovered from Fafner’s black raincoat which he dies on and via Siegfried they get handed to Hagen. Alberich and Mime face-off and there is a struggle for the gun which Alberich claims while the Woodbird, Siegfried and Hagen are on a couch with drinks in hand (it’s the alcohol that helps Siegfried understand Mime and the Woodbird). At the cabinet Mime has mixed something to do harm to Siegfried and sits between him and Hagen. Eventually the exasperated Siegfried will use his sword on the treacherous Mime before Siegfried and then Hagen supply the coup de grâce by smothering him with a pillow. The baseball cap which frequently changes hands now gets back to the glowering Hagen. As the act ends, Siegfried and the Woodbird kiss before, now self-aware and fearless, he races with Hagen up the stairs to breach some yellow/black barrier tape searching for Brünnhilde.

Act III opens with Wotan roaming through the mansion with his fedora on and shining a torch. In the room there is still the hospital bed and is that the dead Fafner at the back? The vivarium is still there stage right and now there is another huge tank with black rocks. Erda is a down-and-out and there is another younger woman there, also obviously a rough sleeper, wrapped in a shabby duvet, barrier tape and gold foil. Some years have passed but this is the young blonde girl Erda ushered away at the end of Rheingold and she will walk her out here too. After the confrontation with Erda, Wotan takes the gun she hands him and puts it to his head before removing the bullets and hiding in Fafner’s bed. Siegfried and Hagen have clearly bonded and when Wotan is discovered Hagen threatens him with the knuckleduster and his hat will get played with. Wotan is easily disarmed of his (empty?) gun when it is knocked from his hand by Nothung. Intriguingly, Wotan puts his hands on Hagen’s face who pulls away in disgust (was he a victim of abuse?). Wotan goes out at the back and there is a strange lime-green glow before we realise Brünnhilde hasn’t been sleeping but away to have a face-lift and now enters – followed by her grizzled companion Grane – with her face bandaged, wearing dark glasses and a pale-yellow cape. With Hagen continuously glaring at them Siegfried removes Brünnhilde’s bandages and her face mask before they kiss and embrace. The visibly upset Hagen looks as if he has been abandoned once again and moves quietly away. Meanwhile Siegfried is still comparing Brünnhilde’s face to his photo of Sieglinde and remains rather confused. He goes over to the large pyramid structure on the side of the stage (whose significance I am not sure of) and is prevented from going further up the stairs to it by the over-protective Grane who by now has Nothung. There is a tug-of-war between him and Siegfried with Brünnhilde between them and the fight with Grane over her continues and he gets hurt. There is a bit of byplay with Wotan’s fedora between Brünnhilde and Grane before she succumbs to Siegfried’s passionate advances. Having put on Fafner’s overcoat and scarf and with the gun in her hand she goes off with Siegfried (holding Nothung) and Grane towards the car headlights we see approaching at the back. Oddly, the baseball cap (Tarnhelm?) remains discarded on the floor.

Listening through loudspeakers, Andreas Schager does have remarkable stamina for Siegfried given how hyperactive he needs to be for Schwarz and he was in fresher voice here in Bayreuth than in Berlin where Tcherniakov had him rushing around too. However, I find Schager’s Siegfried uncharismatic and his singing relentlessly stentorian and he often seems at the limits of his (considerable) resources. Arnold Bezuyen’s wily and deceitful Mime was strongly sung and since there was no attempt at vocal caricature, I preferred his tenor voice to Schager’s. Just like Bezuyen, Tomasz Konieczny (a wearily resigned Wanderer/Wotan), Olafur Sigurdarson (an aggrieved Alberich), Wilhelm Schwinghammer (a surly Fafner) and Okka von der Damerau (a deep-toned, bewildered Erda) were as impressive again as they were in Das Rheingold. Alexandra Steiner proved a youthful, eager-sounding Woodbird and Daniela Köhler was a radiant and vocally secure Brünnhilde.

Cornelius Meister led the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra in an immaculate Siegfried with no apparent longueurs and he brought to the ‘scherzo’ of the Ring a keen sense of its overarching span whilst generating all the passion and dramatic fire it needed.

Jim Pritchard

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