Sofia’s Götterdämmerung is a remarkable triumph for Plamen Kartaloff and Bulgarian music

BulgariaBulgaria Wagner, Götterdämmerung: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of Sofia Opera and Ballet / Constantin Trinks (conductor), Sofia Opera and Ballet Theatre, 13.7.2023. (GT)

Sofia Opera and Ballet Theatre’s Götterdämmerung Act I

Approaching the Sofia Opera Theatre for the final performance of the Ring cycle was somewhat poignant as the opera performances here this week have been tremendously successful with terrific singing and sensational staging. There was a great atmosphere of expectation outside the theatre as musicians from the orchestra played excerpts from the operas entertaining the awaiting operagoers. The sultry warm weather and people drinking champagne or soft drinks mixed with TV crews interviewing journalists from the press and the audience created a mood of pleasant anticipation.

The 2023 Wagner Festival in Sofia is in two parts, first the premiere of the new Ring cycle and then, after a week’s break, performances continue with Tristan und IsoldeParsifal and The Flying Dutchman. Certainly, one hopes that with extensive coverage, these performances will lead to many more opera lovers hearing about Sofia Opera and Ballet and hopefully they will visit future stagings of not only Wagner but also the company’s productions of Italian, French and Bulgarian operas and ballets in coming years. Few companies can match the outstanding level of singing in Bulgaria – a country which has given birth to many generations of great singers.

The orchestral prelude to the Prologue began with the same E minor chord that opened the third act of Siegfried, yet here it sounded tired and world-weary. In this last part of Plamen Kartaloff’s new Ring cycle, the three triskeles were slightly raised with the Norns entering and leaving the rings singing their narration of the Nibelung tale with figures from the past emerging and disappearing: first Wotan in a mobile wheelchair, then Fricka, Erda, and the Valkyrie reflecting on past glories. The choreography of the Norns were enhanced with the great Ash Tree perceptible in the background. The portrayal by the three Norns was spellbinding in its mesmeric intensity, right to the final ‘Hinab! Zur Mutter! Hinab!

The Prologue opened with a glorious image of the red sun rising at dawn on the mountain top, where we see Siegfried (Martin Iliev) and Brünnhilde (Iordanka Derilova) in thrall with each other and some scarlet red material portraying the colours of love and passion. ‘O heilige Götter!’ Iliev’s Siegfried is now grown up and a mature hero bound to win new glories for his Brünnhilde and he embarks on Grane making his journey encircled by one of the great triskeles to the Rhine in another splendid orchestral interlude.

Act I opened in the palace of the Gibichungs with Gunther in a dark red costume on his throne and Gutrune at a great chessboard with their half-brother Hagen. It is Petar Buchkov’s Hagen who proves one of the outstanding actors/singers on this evening for his portrayal of evil desire and controlled anger which are at the heart of the opera. There is a brittle sharpness to Buchkov’s singing and in every tone, there is malicious wickedness. Gunther is well portrayed by the baritone Atanas Mladenov, while his sister Gutrune is excellently cast in the dulcet-toned soprano of Tsvetana Bandalovska.

Hans Kudlich’s set is stunning in its originality, especially the great chess figures kicked aside by Hagen as he engages Gunther and Gutrune in his scheme to steal the ring from Siegfried. The arrival of Siegfried is well choreographed – a feature of the whole staging – and he is quickly snared into drinking the draft that transforms him into Gutrune’s lover. ‘Ha, schönstes Weib!’

In scene three on the mountain top, we see Brünnhilde’s sister Waltraute (Kamelia Kader) arrives who implores the return of the ring to the Rhinemaidens ‘Hore mit Sinn, was ich dir sage!’ Yet Brünnhilde dismisses Waltraute. We hear Siegfried’s horn, yet now it is the disguised Gunther who appears before Brünnhilde with the Tarnhelm in a terrifying scene with outstanding acting/singing. In a scene of horror the unsuspecting Brünnhilde is violated by Gunther as he takes her brutally as his wife and steals the ring from her.

Act II opens in Gibichung’s palace, where the sleeping Hagen is awakened by his father, the raspy voiced Alberich of Plamen Dimitrov, ‘Schläfst du, Hagen, mein Sohn?’ and he coaxes his son into recovering the gold, and as if nothing had happened Siegfried enters together with Gutrune presenting the image of a perfect couple. Scene three was dominated by Hagen’s striking call to his vassals (Hoiho! Ihr Gibichsmannen), a magnificent scene with soldiers dressed in armour styled on Japanese warriors of the middle ages. The choral singing was glorious as the vassals clutching gleaming spears present an awe-inspiring vision that is aggressively belligerent.

At the Gibichung’s palace, in scene four, Gunther arrives with Brünnhilde, yet she is distraught by Siegfried’s betrayal, and casts doubt on his sincerity. ‘Einen Ring sah ich an deiner Hand’. Hagen entices Brünnhilde to seek revenge by killing him, ‘Wer dich verriet, das räche ich’. She suggests Siegfried is stabbed in the back, to which Hagen responds, ‘Un dort trifft ihn mein Speer!’

The prelude to Act III opens by the Rhine, where the frolicking Rhinemaidens greet Siegfried, ‘Siegfried! Schlimmes wissen wir dir’ enticing him to give up the ring. In Scene three, encircled by his vassals, Hagen kills Siegfried. As he dies, the potion wears off, and he realises what has happened, ‘Brünnhilde, heilige Braut!’ A stunning manoeuvre is employed by turning the great triskele on which he is lying, and Grane enters to carry the triskele with Siegfried on his funeral journey – a striking effect by Kartaloff against the poignant score of the funeral music.

Sofia Opera and Ballet Theatre’s Götterdämmerung Act III

At last, Brünnhilde calls Loge to set the fire, ‘Fliegt heim, ihr Raben!’ and Valhalla appears in flames with the structure collapsing and the flooding of the Rhine where the Rhinemaidens dance around the three triskeles and are joined by Hagen, who tries to steal the ring showing the continuation of life and recycling of life’s dramas and the continual struggle of prosperity against wisdom in humanity. This was a spectacular close to the Ring cycle which received a standing ovation as the audience greeted the cast of this magnificent production.

Throughout this final evening, the outstanding performances came from the Hagen of Petra Buchkov in an astonishing performance of singing and acting, secondly, Martin Iliev as Siegfried proved a true Heldentenor glorious in voice and superb in characterisation, but the greatest singing of the night was from the Brünnhilde of dramatic soprano Iordanka Derilova whose singing and acting was truly world class. I will not be surprised that one or two of these singers will be performing across Europe soon.

The four operas of the Ring cycle performed over six evenings was an important event in Sofia with tickets selling out months in advance and a large number of foreign guests and visitors from countries ranging from Australia and America to Britain, Italy, Germany, France and Austria. Each evening, Bulgarian TV filmed the scenes outside the theatre and interviewed both guests and performers.

The whole project was a remarkable event in employing almost exclusively Bulgarian singers. I doubt if any other country could provide Wagnerian singing of such a standard. The sets by Hans Kudlich were astonishing in their simplicity, yet extraordinary in their functionality. This was augmented by the lighting of Andrej Hajdinjak contributing a spectacular vision throughout every scene. The costumes by Hristiyana Mihaleva-Zorbalieva were stunning both for their ageless design and the colour scheme of red and black with grey or gold trimmings. Most of all the success however was due to the chorus and orchestra of the Sofia Opera and Ballet who under Constantin Trinks were world class, yet the true credit for this triumph must go to the brilliant talents of Plamen Kartaloff who masterminded this remarkable Ring cycle for Sofia Opera – and for Bulgaria.

Gregor Tassie    

Director – Plamen Kartaloff
Set designer – Hans Kudlich
Costumes – Hristiyana Mihaleva-Zorbalieva
Lighting designer – Andrej Hajdinjak
Multimedia – Ivan Lipchev
Head of Production – Nela Stoyanova
Assistant Director – Julia Krasteva

Siegfried – Martin Iliev
Brünnhilde – Iordanka Derilova
Alberich – Plamen Dimitrov
Gunther – Atanas Mladenov
Hagen – Petar Buchkov
Donner – Svetozar Rangelov
Gutrune – Tsvetana Bandalovska
Waltraute – Kamelia Kader
First Norn – Tsveta Sarambelieva
Second Norn – Ina Kalinova
Third Norn – Lyubov Metodieva
Woglinde – Ayla Dobreva
Wellgunde – Ina Kalinova
Flosshilde – Alexandrina Stoyanova-Andreeva

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