Das Rheingold ‘comes home’ to Zurich as Andreas Homoki creates a staging which is almost concept free

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Wagner, Das Rheingold: Soloists, Extras at the Zurich Opera House, Philharmonia Zürich / Gianandrea Noseda (conductor). Broadcast live (directed by Michael Beyer) from Zurich Opera House, 18.5.2024. (JPr)

Das Rheingold 2022: Tomasz Konieczny (Wotan), David Soar (Fasolt) and Oleg Davydov (Fafner) © Monika Rittershaus

How should the Ring cycle be performed and how should any new staging be reviewed. Firstly, ideally it should play out over six days with a day off between Die Walkϋre and Siegfried and further day’s grace before Götterdämmerung. However, in Zurich it takes nine days to get from the beginning to the end of the cycle currently being streamed live on the opera house’s own website and also available on medici.tv. There are reviews of the individual operas on Seen and Heard so perhaps I do not need to be unduly forensic in my analysis and certainly since I agree with much that John Rhodes wrote about Andreas Homoki’s Das Rheingold in May 2022 (review click here).

There could be one overall reviews or comments on the four operas in two parts; thinking about it, I believe it is worth ‘voicing’ my opinion of each of them as I see and hear them. I will not go far down memory lane to but my first Ring cycles were that by Glen Byam Shaw and John Blatchley for Sadler’s Wells/English National Opera and Götz Friedrich at Covent Garden in the 1970/80s and there have been many Rings – north, south, east and west – since, with a number recently reviewed for Seen and Heard. Ah the directorial excesses I have been witness to, but I try and approach each new staging with an open mind, and such is the case here in Zurich. Homoki is quoted as saying ‘Sometimes you have to just clear away the rubbish and then people say, oh no, it was just the rubbish that we loved so much. OK, then too bad.’ In the city where Wagner conceived most of his Ring, Homoki’s Das Rheingold is (almost literally) a blank canvas with the bare walls of the three rooms on a revolve he shows us (at least here in Rheingold) as ‘just space as if you are in heaven, where there’s not time’.

Each section of Christian Schmidt and Florian Schaaf’s set basically has two side doors and one central window and here they are adapted to suggest the bedrooms of the Rhinemaidens, the drawing room and then the dining room of the gods (with its long gold table). It reeks of a palatial house, I would suggest Zurich’s Villa Wesendonck, though I was reminded too of Bayreuth’s Wahnfried. That drawing room with its heavy leather furniture is dominated by a large cabinet at the rear used in a number of ways; notably for Alberich’s transformation into a ‘realistic’ dragon and a rather more risible toad. It is also the source of a blinding white light Donner conjures up as he sings ‘Heda! Heda, Hedo!’ However, there is no Rainbow Bridge or Entry of the Gods in Valhalla who just sit around that large table whilst Wotan shuts the door on the lamenting Rhinemaidens.

Nevertheless, Wotan (unusually these days) actually has a spear and a ring which is a ring, though the Rhinegold at the beginning is just a small nugget. Alberich also has a proper gold Tarnhelm (here a chain mail coif as from a medieval suit of armour) The Nibelungs (bowler hatted and masked in black) pile up large chunks of gold and one of them is used to despatch Fasolt. Homoki might also be making a comment about greed and capitalism versus industrialisation because at one point there appears a huge pile of (char)coal and Alberich has the top hat and fur coat of a wealthy Victorian entrepreneur.

Das Rheingold 2022: Siena Licht Miller (Flosshilde), Niamh O’Sullivan (Wellgunde) and Uliana Alexyuk (Woglinde) © Monika Rittershaus

The four scenes of Das Rheingold are presented with the curtain coming down between them and, sadly, the Descent and Ascent from Nibelheim – no criticism of the splendid Philharmonia Zurich is intended – is accompanied by the worst anvils I have ever heard, sounding merely like cowbells. In Christian Schmidt’s costumes, Homoki’s Rhinemaidens reflect the translation calling them ‘silken things’ and are platinum blondes in white pyjamas, Alberich is called a ‘vagrant’ and that is how this ogling, dissolute-looking character first appears climbing though the window. There begins a lot of chasing through the various rooms which is a feature of this Rheingold, as is the use of the window such as when Wotan and Loge exit through it on the way to Nibelheim. Also, Freia will stand on the windowsill to be obscured by a huge pile of ‘gold’.

The gods are richly attired including Wotan in red velvet brocade coat, Fricka in a slightly matronly gown, and Donner and Froh with boaters and cricket bats as if off for a day watching cricket at Lord’s. Another motif of this staging is a huge gold framed canvas showing a – Caspar David Friedrich-like – Rhine (?) valley with Valhalla on high and Fafner bursts through it at one point: the ‘giants’ are dressed like Bavarian foresters. This basically leaves us with a mercurial, barefooted Loge, here, owing a great deal to Johhny Depp’s Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean) or his inspiration, Keith Richards, though neither had Loge’s armoury of flame effects.

Because of the relatively small opera house the full complement of musicians for Das Rheingold is apparently not used and, I understand, this includes only having two (out of four) harps and four (out of eight) double basses. Although the music is grandiose when it needs to be, as heard through loudspeakers, it has a more intimate, chamber-like fragility and transparency of orchestral textures and allows every word to be heard. Well-played and equally well-conducted by Gianandrea Noseda.

A number of singers reappear through the Ring and will be commented on again and again. Tomasz Konieczny’s resonantly sung Wotan is weak, ineffectual and easily swayed, he brandishes his spear but it appears to give him no authority whatsoever. More fine singing from Claudia Mahnke as a determined, manipulative Fricka, who is something of a harridan; Kiandra Howarth is an agitated Freia who seems to take a fancy to David Soar’s lovelorn, sympathetic Fasolt who falls victim to Brent Michael Smith’s avaricious Fafner.

Xiaomeng Zhang sings with some heft as Donner whilst Omer Kobiljak’s Froh is more attractively sung. The Rhinemaidens – Uliana Alexyuk (Woglinde), Niamh O’Sullivan (Wellgunde) and Siena Licht Miller (Flosshilde) – are more individually distinctive vocally as a trio than sometimes you hear and Anna Danik is a magisterial, blindfolded Erda who looks like an older relative of those Rhinemaidens. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacker is a reliable Mime though I am yet to be convinced by Christopher Purves as Alberich. He portrays all his character’s emotions from lust and boastfulness to frustration and despair, but his singing sounds slightly under-powered to me and too Lieder-like at times. Finally, Matthias Klink’s sarcastic Loge believably shows who was really is in charge for most of this Rheingold.

Jim Pritchard

Featured image: Das Rheingold 2022: Matthias Klink (Loge) and Tomasz Konieczny (Wotan) © Monika Rittershaus

For further Zurich Ring reviews click here.

Producer – Andreas Homoki
Set and Costume design – Christian Schmidt
Assistant Artistic stage designer – Florian Schaaf
Lighting designer – Franck Evin
Dramaturgy – Beate Breidenbach, Werner Hintze

Wotan – Tomasz Konieczny
Donner – Xiaomeng Zhang
Froh – Omer Kobiljak
Loge – Matthias Klink
Fricka – Claudia Mahnke
Freia – Kiandra Howarth
Erda – Anna Danik
Alberich – Christopher Purves
Mime – Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Fasolt – David Soar
Fafner – Brent Michael Smith
Woglinde – Uliana Alexyuk
Wellgunde – Niamh O’Sullivan
Flosshilde – Siena Licht Miller

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