Sofia Opera’s latest Ring cycle closes with superlative stagings of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung

BulgariaBulgaria Wagner, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Sofia Opera and Ballet / Evan-Alexis Christ (conductor). Sofia Opera, 18 & 20.6.2024. (GT)

Sofia Opera’s Siegfried

Often regarded as the darkest and least popular of the cycle, Siegfried is perhaps an interregnum between Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung, which possess greater drama and more contrast. The opera is dominated by male voices, while the female characters of Brünnhilde, the Woodbird and Erda are less prominent. There are many passages of great beauty, most distinctly in the Forest Murmurs music, the Forging Scene and the discovery at the end by Siegfried of the sleeping Brünnhilde.

In this revival of the 2023 staging, an innovation introduced by Plamen Kartaloff is a brief prequel; before the Prelude, Mime crosses the stage before the curtain rises, then chases the boy Siegfried, and again repeats chasing him as a teenage boy, and again as a young man. The curtain rises during the Prelude to Act I, and we see the pregnant Sieglinde enter and give birth on the raised plinth, and Mime takes care of the child. The first scene is set in Mime’s workshop with a great anvil and a pathway beyond and another anvil on the right. The colours are grainy yet effectively attractive bathed in red, and blue shades with the great triskels dominant.

The excellent characterisation of Mime by Krassimir Dinev shows a heartless, self-seeking dwarf eagerly trying to use the boy, whilst the Siegfried of Kostadin Andreev increases in authority by portraying the juvenile delinquent effectively and developing his role through the evening with great vocal powers in the dramatic finale. His questioning of who he is, and his origins perplex him, yet he finds most joy with a bear. Wotan, disguised as the Wanderer, enters the pathway beyond Mimi’s domain, yet he brings a great globe that represents the world of his powers. The dialogue of the three questions was well presented, yet the great globe seemed inhibiting. The forging of the sword was excellent and marvellously accompanied by Evan-Alexis Christ’s direction of the orchestra rising to every nuance of the drama on stage.

Act II opened with the dreamlike imagery of the forest backed by a colourfully beautiful backdrop, and the drama of the killing of Fafner was well enacted, as was the brutal murder of Mime. The Woodbird gave an energetic display suspended above the stage and there was wonderful, coloratura singing from Maria Pavlova.

A high point is the entry of Erda of Vesela Yaneva at the start of the third act, whose refined contralto was beautifully appropriate in her warning – with every nuance of her voice dramatically menacing; the scene was equally chilling and spellbinding. In this act, the Siegfried of Andreev matures – when we see him as a young man who wants to discover and conquer fear, and the breaking of the spear by Siegfried is startling, assured by fine performances by the Wanderer and a superb finale with Siegfried’s awakening of Brünnhilde on the mountain top.

The Wanderer of Krisztian Cser was finely portrayed through his singing and characterisation as a more worldly figure than the all-powerful God. The Alberich of Plamen Dimitrov was masterly in his portrayal of the greedy, yearning dwarf. The Mime of Krassimir Dinev was one of the stronger performers, at one moment, dastardly – and then kind-hearted – ultimately, his wickedness gets the better of him.

Kostadin Andreev’s Siegfried was effective both in voice and portrayal, and he seems to have made this role his own by capably portraying the ageing of Siegfried from a young hooligan through to adulthood and discovering love. Yaneva’s Erda was astonishingly well portrayed with her sometimes strident middle voice and projection dulcetly hinting at the forthcoming disasters beckoning for the Gods. She has a great vocal talent and gets better in every performance. The Brünnhilde of Radostina Nikolaeva has a peerless soprano and a great stage presence, and as she is awakened by Siegfried, their love scene is beautifully portrayed.

Most of all, Plamen Kartaloff’s production of Siegfried has overcome many of the hurdles of this complex stage work and has made the opera a more accessible part of the cycle; there are touches of genius and mastery in both the sets and in the interplay between the diverse characters. The colour projections and media imagery added even more to this dark opera and often created amazing scenes – even more impressive than last year – it was all enhanced by great acting and outstanding singing and led the audience to keenly anticipate the climax of the cycle.

Two days later as the Prelude to Götterdämmerung was heard, once more, the producer Kartaloff introduced beautiful visual projections to enhance the opening Prologue as a vision of the Tree of Life appeared. This prepared us for the three Norns appearing in a spellbinding scene of their narrative, and the movement between the great circular geometric constructs was captivating as the Norns wound through the Rope of Destiny until it broke, also another innovation was the small, coloured globes cast away in despair.

In the second scene, Brünnhilde and Siegfried’s lovemaking was enacted wonderfully with magnificent singing, and as Siegfried determines to seek further glories. The journey down the Rhine was spectacular with Grane – encircled by one of the triskels – slowly moved off to glorious orchestral playing. The revolving triskel encircling the great red horse with Siegfried astride was even more impressive than last year. In Act I, the Hall of the Gibichungs, the scenery was more balanced than before, with a chess board dominated by a throne, whilst another great triskel contains a devilish contraption (similar to an African exhibit in Sofia’s Gallery of Arts) which portrays evil and wickedness. At the centre of the stage was Petar Buchkov’s Hagen, one of the terrific performances of the evening; his voice is a dark husky bass, and his portrayal has taken on a far greater depth and scale than in last year’s production. His eyes, facial grimaces and bodily movements enhanced his portrayal of wickedness, notably in his ‘Hier sitz’ ich zur Wacht’.

A highlight was that constantly in the background, Alberich lurks and watches the scene as the action unfolds – a persistent observer of the circumstances of his seeking after his appropriated gold. Scene three, when Brünnhilde is betrayed was again finely portrayed with even more cruelty than last year, each aspect was cautiously enhanced with the assault on Brünnhilde by Siegfried dressed as Gunther.

An unexpected bonus was the First Norn of the German mezzo-soprano Anna Werle, who was the Brangäne in Tristan und Isolde here last year. Her singing was sublime, and her movement was excellent as she played with the rope until its breaking, her depth of expression was especially enhanced by her stunning black costume, again another fine conception by the costume designer of Hristiyana Mihaleva-Zorbalieva. Buchkov’s Hagen impressed me very much last year; however, on this evening, he was even more impressive, more so, he was Hagen. I doubt if there is a Hagen anywhere in Europe who can match Buchkov’s portrayal. His part was matched by Martin Iliev as Siegfried, and again, he seems his affinity in this role is better than last year; his singing was sublime, and his portrayal was excellent, especially in his final love-filled singing ‘Brünnhilde! Heilige Braut!’

The Gutrune of Tsvetana Bandalovska was another highpoint; her portrayal was wholly in the character of a young loveless woman charmed into a fake wedding by her brother and the evil Hagen. Atanas Mladenov was excellent as Gunther in the cunning matchmaking of his sister’s marriage, and his singing/acting was as good as last year. Plamen Dimitrov’s Alberich was a sinister figure lurking frequently in the background, watching the events unfold in his desire to restore ownership of the ring – his characterisation was sublime, when imploring his son during ‘Schläfst du, Hagen, mein Sohn?’

Sofia Opera’s Götterdämmerung

Yet the finest performance of this Götterdämmerung was the Brünnhilde of Iordanka Derilova. Last year, she was the star of this production and was again as she managed to excel her previous performance by giving a supreme portrayal – even better than her Isolde that I saw last month in Dessau – here in Sofia; this role belongs to her, and she should be singing it at Bayreuth. This was a stunning performance of magnificent singing and acting, which brought this cycle to a splendid close with her ‘Fliegt heim, ihr Raben!’

The Sofia Opera male chorus was excellent, even more impressive than last year, with an improved choreography giving greater dimensions and drama to the performance. The orchestra under Evan-Alexis Christ was magnificent, sometimes a little loud but succinct in accompanying the drama on the stage. If anything, the American conductor drew out more from Wagner’s score than we heard last year. That Evan-Alexis Christ obtained a different quality in Wagnerian sound from Constantin Trinks reveals how good this Bulgarian orchestra is in providing the 2024 Wagner Festival with a reliable foundation for this cycle.

Most credit has to go to the director Plamen Kartaloff’s stagings: he has masterminded this festival by creating a reputation for outstanding Wagnerian singing and performance and, in collaboration with Hans Kudlich, they have transformed Sofia into the Bayreuth of the Balkans. For many decades, Bulgaria has given the world’s finest opera stages a conveyor belt of magnificent singers, both male and female singers of Italian, Russian and French opera. In a country previously lacking a Wagner tradition, Kartaloff has created a miracle in staging his third Ring cycle, and by progressively staging all of the Wagner operas; only Tannhäuser and Die Meistersinger remain of the mature operas, and one cannot rule out his staging Rienzi in future seasons.

There were visitors this year to Sofia’s Wagner Festival from over 20 countries, including Brazil and America, and Wagnerians will hopefully continue to be attracted to Sofia which will be staging another Wagner Festival in June and July 2025 with eight operas, one of which will be a new production of Tannhäuser, as well as revivals of Parsifal, Lohengrin, and The Flying Dutchman.

Gregor Tassie

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
Artist – Christiyan Stoyanov

Cast for Siegfried:
Wanderer – Kriztian Cser
Alberich – Plamen Dimitrov
Siegfried – Kostadin Andreev
Mime – Krassimir Dinev
Fafner – Petar Buchkov
Brunnhilde – Radostina Nikolaeva
Erda – Vesela Yaneva
The Woodbird – Maria Pavlova

Cast for Götterdämmerung:
Alberich – Plamen Dimitrov
Gunther – Atanas Mladenov
Siegfried – Martin Iliev
Hagan – Petar Buchkov
Brünnhilde – Iordanka Derilova
Gutrune – Tsvetana Bandalovska
Woglinde – Stanislava Momekova
Wellgunde / Second Norn – Ina Petrova
Flosshilde / Waltraute – Alexandrina Stoyanova – Andreeva
First Norn – Anna Werle
Third Norn – Lyubov Metodieva

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