Tomasz Konieczny is a tremendous Wotan in Andreas Homoki’s – better acted than sung – Zurich Die Walküre

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Wagner, Die Walküre: Soloists, Extras at the Zurich Opera House, Philharmonia Zürich / Gianandrea Noseda (conductor). Broadcast live (directed by Michael Beyer) from Zurich Opera House, 20.5.2024. (JPr)

Tomasz Konieczny (Wotan) and Camilla Nylund (Brünnhilde) © Monika Rittershaus

In Die Walküre the focus shifts from a world of gods, dwarves, giants and dragons etc. to that of humans, specifically Wotan’s mortal offspring, the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, he has ‘sired’ to help him regain the ring he gave up in Das Rheingold. Eventually they will become the parents of Siegfried who will soon be the central figure of the Ring. There is now a shift from the unsubtle and histrionic storytelling of Rheingold to something which is more of a psychodrama that delves deeply into human nature. As a result, what is best and what is worst about Andreas Homoki’s new Ring becomes a little clearer and it also turns the spotlight (almost literally) on the acting abilities of his cast.

Wagner lived in Zurich from 1849 and 1858, composing Walküre there and also had the first act performed in the city’s famous Hotel Baur au Lac not that far from opera house where it was now being performed. The bare walls of Christian Schmidt’s set are still turning, initially in four sections with just two side doors. Increasingly it has already become apparent the Homoki’s staging is at its best when everything stops going round and round and that includes all the characters who rarely stand still for any length of time. It is all well and good avoiding ‘park and bark’ but the constant movement seems to be Homoki’s cover-up for his lack of any ‘big idea’ and makes it all look as if more is happening than it is.

A motif of this Walküre (read John Rhodes’s review here) is there from the start with the thunder and lightning emanating from Wotan’s spear which is never still in Tomasz Konieczny’s hands. Apparently invisible to Siegmund and Sieglinde – both costumed as you would expect – Wotan conjures up their encounter before handing an astonished Sieglinde a cup of water or a cow’s horn of mead. Soon the scene is dominated by a huge tree trunk and not long after a fur-coated, axe-wielding Hunding appears with his henchmen – cue much circling around – Siegmund and Sieglinde will surreptitiously kiss. As Sieglinde recounts her sad life story there is an unnecessary dumbshow revealing how the wandering Wotan plunges Nothung into the tree. Wotan sits and listens to the love duet and the springtime of Siegmund’s ‘Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond’ is marked simply by a door opening. At the end of the act the back of the set opens to show some thin tree trunks as Siegmund (now with sword in hand) and Sieglinde embrace lovingly.

Eric Cutler (Siegmund) and Camilla Nylund (Brünnhilde) © Monika Rittershaus

At the start of the second act we are back in the dining room (we first saw in Rheingold) but with more chairs for the long gold table. Wotan is back from his ‘wanderings’ and Brϋnnhilde and her eight playful Valkyrie sisters have horse head helmets, chainmail breastplates and spears. Soon there begins a lot of awkward clambering onto the table we will see in this opera. We then get some mightily impressive acting in the confrontation between Konieczny’s argumentative Wotan and Claudia Mahnke’s angry – and equally defiant – Fricka over the outcome of the ensuing fight between Hunding and Siegmund. There follows more moving from room to room as Wotan reveals to Brϋnnhilde their backstory (which the rest of us know from Rheingold) and at one point she encounters her mother, Erda.

The ‘Anunciation of Death’ scene – when Brünnhilde dutifully obeys Wotan’s demand and tells Siegmund he is to die in the fight with Hunding – begins in a forest of trees with snow gently falling, though the set having turned and turned eventually returns us to the dining room where Siegmund’s sword fails to shatter (as it was clearly meant to) and Hunding pushes him onto Wotan’s spear.

Goodness knows what is happening at the start of Act III and – as good as the orchestra often sounded in support of the singers – it was more a limp along than a ‘Ride’ for the Valkyries who run through the various rooms and clamber across tables as they chase several ‘heroes’ (or whoever they are) in white nightshirts who are waving plastic toy swords! For the final scene the stage is dominated by a huge chunk of volcanic rock and Wotan – now in an astrakhan coat – appears on the verge of a nervous breakdown and is fiddling with his spear more than ever. Both Camilla Nylund as Brünnhilde and Thomas Konieczny as Wotan uncomfortably climb up to the top of the rock though their final farewell is a very tender one. Smoke emanates from the rock which glows red with ‘veins’ which look like flowing lava and again the accompanying ‘Magic Fire Music’ sadly misfires. The coda shows a very world-weary Wotan going back to the dining room to pick up his coat and hat and mope past the painting of Valhalla to become the Wanderer in Siegfried.

Of course, I was seeing this Walkϋre in Michael Beyer’s close-up camerawork and hearing it through loudspeakers but, for me, it was better acted than sung. One thing director Andreas Homoki clearly has concentrated on is a naturalistic – quasi cinematic – acting style. Was that because this Ring is being filmed?

The translation at one point refers to Eric Cutler’s Siegmund as the ‘swarthy Wälsung’. Indeed, that is what he was for me. His voice clearly has potential though I suspect he was not 100% for this performance and his singing was sturdy without being particular memorable. Daniela Köhler was a persuasive Sieglinde fighting to free herself from a forced, loveless marriage to Christof Fischesser‘s suitably grim and menacing Hunding. Köhler has sung the Siegfried Brϋnnhilde at Bayreuth and by the time she sang a radiant ‘O hehrstes Wunder!’ I wondered (!) is she might have been better than Camilla Nylund as Brϋnnhilde. Not that Nylund was in any way bad, however others have inhabited the role more than she did, for me at least, here in Walkϋre. Nylund’s voice though bright was occasionally uneven and even more rarely squally. Claudia Manke was wonderful again as a domineering Fricka and sang with great authority.

Thomas Konieczny is a tremendous (a rare word choice for me) actor and his use of the text allied to expressive body language was worthy of straight theatre. Wotan’s seed of self-doubt, planted in Rheingold, exacerbates his downward spiral in Walkϋre as the god’s fears grow about his past, present and future actions. But, and there is a big but, his singing was more like Sprechstimme for long stretches, although the tenderness Konieczny eventually brought to the banishment of his errant daughter will live long in my memory of his performance. The Valkyries were a boisterous, appropriately loud and mostly tuneful octet.

I have already suggested some doubts about the musical accompaniment the orchestra provided and am wondering whether that, in part, is a fault of the sound mixing for the broadcast more than Gianandrea Noseda’s conducting of the committed Philharmonia Zürich. Certainly, every word the singers sing can be heard and understood clearly but it was all too eloquent and dignified for long stretches and lacked something for me.

Jim Pritchard

Featured Image: 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

Siegmund – Eric Cutler
Hunding – Christof Fischesser
Wotan – Tomasz Konieczny
Sieglinde – Daniela Köhler
Fricka – Claudia Mahnke
Brünnhilde – Camilla Nylund
Helmwige – Sarah Cambidge
Gerhilde – Ann-Kathrin Niemczyk
Ortlinde – Barbara Senator
Waltraute- Anna Werle
Siegrune – Simone McIntosh
Rossweisse – Siena Licht Miller
Grimgerde – Michal Doron
Schwertleite – Noa Beinart

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