Sofia Opera’s revival of Das Rheingold has more colourful visual splendours backed by magnificent singing

BulgariaBulgaria Wagner, Das Rheingold: Soloists, ‘Talasumche’ Children’s Vocal and Drama Foundation, Orchestra of Sofia Opera and Ballet / Evan-Alexis Christ (conductor). Sofia Opera, 15.6.2024. (GT)

Sofia Opera and Ballet’s Das Rheingold

As a student, Plamen Kartaloff visited Bayreuth in 1970 and became a devotee of Richard Wagner’s operas and determined to take the music of Wagner to Bulgaria. Despite an almost endless conveyor belt to the world’s opera stages of outstanding singers of Italian, French, and Russian operas, Wagner was a rarity in Bulgaria. Following his appointment as manager of the Sofia Opera and Ballet, Kartaloff resolved to produce the Ring cycle in his home country with exclusively Bulgarian singers. The problem was overcoming ‘almost centuries-old prejudices of directors, conductors, singers, and traditional opera audiences that Richard Wagner’s work is not for us. And every artistic director must have the vision to develop the repertory policy of the national opera theatre towards new horizons with never-before-seen works from different composer schools and styles.’

Historically, the first Wagner opera to be staged in Sofia was The Flying Dutchman in 1930, and only Das Rheingold appeared from the Ring cycle in 1943, and only in 2010, was Kartaloff’s Ring project launched by Sofia Opera. Last year’s new production placed Kartaloff’s project on a high artistic level with collaboration in making the sets with Hans Kudlich from Vienna and engaging the German conductor Constantin Trinks for all the Wagner Festival operas except The Flying Dutchman. An essential part of the entire project was the German musicologist Richard Trimborn who had assisted in training the singers. Since launching Kartaloff’s vision of using Bulgarian singers, Wagner operas have never left the repertoire.

So successful were the stagings of the first Sofia Ring cycle that the company toured to Minsk in 2012, to Ljubljana in 2015, Füssen in Bavaria in 2015, to Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre in 2018, again to Füssen in 2023 and earlier this year to Skopje in Northern Macedonia. All of these performances have boosted Sofia Opera’s reputation together with the acclaimed release on DVD and Blu-ray of their 2013 Ring cycle. For this revived Ring cycle in 2024, visitors from over 20 countries came to hear Sofia Opera’s Wagner Festival.

As the Prelude began on the key of E-flat major, spectacular visual projections presented the impression of the depths of the Rhine, and as the curtains opened, three great circles (triskels) appeared with the Rhinemaidens jumping up and down as if flying in the air. This opening scene developed with the amorous Rhinemaidens playing with the lust-driven Alberich, who was charmed by one after another until Flosshilde mounted on the reclining Alberich, enticing him ‘Seligster Mann!’. The Rhinemaidens were lither in their frolicking and more sensual, coming close with the lusty Alberich seeking sexual pleasures before discovering the existence of riches from the gold. The appearance of the golden horde was lit by shimmering colours against the beautiful orchestral harmonies.

In the first scene, we see Fricka and Wotan resignedly lying against the sides of one of the triskels. The portrayal of Fricka and Wotan was outstanding, and the singing drew one to the drama, enhanced by the grey and scarlet colours of the gods in the build-up. The Wotan of Veselin Mihaylov was magnificent, and the exchanges with Fricka were typically realistic of a quarrelling couple long since fed up with each other. Daniel Ostretsov’s Loge was especially noticeable with his movement, facial and body movements, and voice – even more convincing than last year. The two giants appear in the opening scene and amble off as they observe their work on Valhalla.

The exciting descent to Nibelheim was dramatic, while the three cube-like structures with the slaves hammering on their anvils were impressive against the black and red background. It was more extraordinary than last year. Again, one was impressed by the constant intrigues concocted by Loge – one could see parallels in his deceitful and cunning wickedness with present-day politicians, so realistic was his characterisation, especially when singing ‘Kennst du mich gut, kindischer Alp?’ and attempting to deceived Alberich. Once again, every nuance of his tenor voice hinted at new indignities to follow for Alberich and his entrapment as he became a frog was marvellously and realistically enacted.

The ascent from Nibelheim to the mountaintops was represented realistically by the great raised triskels, and dramatically enacted with Wotan and Loge escorting the tied-up Alberich, vividly demonstrated by Loge’s ‘Da, Vetter sitze du fest!’  Suddenly, the appearance of Erda brought the warning of the future disaster, ‘Weiche, Wotan! Weiche!’ admonishing him to give up his desire for the ring, yet Wotan relents upon his lust for riches and power and surrenders the ring to the giants. Now, with the ring, Fafner brutally murders Fasolt.

Once more, Loge sees the ominous dilemma facing the Gods and jests at Wotan’s lack of good fortune ‘Was gleicht, Wotan wohl deinem Glücke?’. The lightning strike was spectacular visually and sonically, and as the triskels disappear, Wotan escorts Fricka to Valhalla, as in the foreground, Loge prophetically sings ‘Ihrem Ende eilen sie zu’, foreseeing their extinction, while the Gods make their solemn way to their completed fortress, and we see the Rhinemaidens lamenting ‘Rhinegold! Rhinegold! And as the gods approach Valhalla, the curtains drops on this magnificent climax.

Sofia Opera and Ballet’s Das Rheingold

The most impressive singing and characterisation was from the young Bulgarian Veselin Mihaylov in his debut as Wotan. Last year, it was the veteran Nikolay Petrov who was Wotan, and on the evidence of this evening, he has a worthy successor in the young Mihaylov. His portrayal was magnificent, with a splendidly rich baritone backed by tremendous projection and stage presence. One looks forward to his future performances. Mariana Zvetkova’s Fricka was tremendous both vocally and in characterisation of the wife of the unfaithful God Wotan, in every facial expression and subtle phrase, she was magnificent. Again, Plamen Dimitrov was an excellent Alberich, with magnificent acting and singing dominating every scene he was involved in. The Mime of Krassimir Dinev was a highlight with his grovelling tenor, at one time exhibiting humility and then wickedness in his self-serving character.

The Erda of Vesela Yaneva was excellent in voice and emotion and with a stage presence that made one listen to every expression. The orchestra under Evan-Alexis Christ sounded different from before under Trinks. The American conductor shortened the ever so succinct phrasing, allowing more energy and excitement and a quicker tempo and increasing the intense energetic drama – yet on the debit side – sometimes drowned out some of the singers in the quieter passages.

The singing of the dark-voiced bass Petar Buchkov as Fafner was outstanding, as was that of the Fasolt by Stefan Vladimirov, though their giant-size costumes more than hinted at cartoon imagery and seemed not the same standard as those of the other characters. Hristiyana Mihaleva-Zorbalieva created wonderful designs for them all, yet the super-sized attire of the giants was rather ridiculous by comparison.

This was an even better staging than last year; some aspects have been resolved and made clearer in the transition from one scene to another, assisting the flow of the drama on the stage and allowing the narrative to develop. The most apparent and successful innovation from last year was the lighting design by Andrej Hajdinjak and the multimedia presentations by Ivan Lipchev and Elena Shopova which created wonderfully colourful imagery in the Prelude depicting the Rhine and the scene in Nibelheim and the closing scene with the Rainbow Bridge to Valhalla, and the Rhinemaidens dancing at the end. This revival was terrific and prepared us well for more remarkable singing in performances here in Sofia.

Gregor Tassie

Wotan – Veselin Mihaylov
Fricka – Mariana Tzvetkova
Alberich – Plamen Dimitrov
Loge – Daniel Ostretsov
Mime – Krassimir Dinev
Fafner – Petar Buchkov
Fasolt – Stefan Vladimirov
Donner – Svetozar Rangelov
Froh – Hrisimir Damyanov
Freia – Silvana Pravcheva
Erda – Vesela Yaneva
Woglinde – Stanislava Momekova
Wellgunde – Ina Petrova
Flosshilde – Alexandrina Stoyanova-Andreeva

Direction – Plamen Kartaloff
Assistant Director – Yulia Krasteva
Set designer – Hans Kudlich
Costumes – Hristiyana Mihalev-Zorbalieva
Lighting design – Andrej Hajdinjak
Multimedia – Ivan Lipchev, Elena Shopova
Constructive development – Georgi Georgiev
Design and Structure – Boryan Belchev
Head of Production – Nela Stoyanova
Artist – Christiyan Stoyanov

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