After a break of five years, Wagner’s Ring is again resounding in the festival theatre that the composer built for its performance. With so many of the heavyweight directors of today's operatic world – Herheim, Tcherniakov, Kosky, Bieito, Konwitschny, Kratzer – already snapped up for cycles in Europe's major houses, Bayreuth has turned to a relative unknown to mount a successor to Frank Castorf's epoch-defining production of 2013-17, the young Austrian director Valentin Schwarz. Early publicity for his vision, delayed for two summers by the pandemic, suggested he saw the cycle in terms of a Netflix drama whose episodes might be binge-watched over successive evenings. And he and his designers have indeed given it the sense of a contemporary milieu focusing on the decline and fall of an extended family.

Elisabeth Teige (Freia), Attilio Glaser (Froh) and Christa Mayer (Fricka)
© Bayreuther Festspiele | Enrico Nawrath

Schwarz's conceit, set up during a video animation over Das Rheingold's opening music, is that Wotan and Alberich are twins, already at each other's throats while still in the womb – not so out of keeping, given that the composer's text explicitly sets them up as "light" and "dark" opposites. Their rivalry therefore fuels the drama, though what that rivalry is over is confused by the fact that there is no gold. What Alberich steals from the Rhinemaiden nannies by the family swimming-pool is a child, and Nibelheim, when we get to it, is a kindergarten where this yellow-baseball-capped youth terrorises eight young girls – has the abducted child now become the young Hagen? And why are the girls all painting pictures of a winged-helmeted godlike figure? Are these Brünnhilde’s Valkyrie sisters already in existence? Confused? You will be.

Das Rheingold
© Bayreuther Festspiele | Enrico Nawrath

But to backtrack to the second scene, the gods already seem to be living in Valhalla – a swish modern interior with only the upper level roped off. We are in the world of big business, with Wotan as magnate/patriarch, ruthless and heartless enough to trade his own sister-in-law, Freia, as payment for his property deal. Loge is the company/family lawyer getting the "giants" (for which read architects rather than hoary-handed labourers) to agree to a new contract for their payment. Erda is seemingly the all-seeing housekeeper managing all the domestic staff before giving Wotan a piece of her mind. So far, so soap opera. But the child abuse/abduction element casts a darker shadow and suggests a theme of destroyed innocence that is a plausible analogy for theft of gold from the pristine natural world.

As with Castorf in his Ring production, Schwarz is aware that he is directing for the most knowledgeable Wagner audience anywhere, so he doesn't feel the need to stick to the literalness of the story as outlined in the libretto but can instead overlay it with other ideas. This is all well and fine if it maintains its own internal integrity, so it will be intriguing to see if and how things might be followed through, though there is already enough confusion, especially involving the children, to seed doubts. (I should state that in reviewing this second performance of the cycle, it has been nigh impossible to shield oneself entirely from coverage of its premiere a week earlier, but I am determined to see for myself how this does or doesn't work out.) But for now, as well as no gold, we appear to have no ring, no spear, plenty of pistols and the gods, rather than cross a rainbow bridge, drool over an illuminated cone in a display case. Again, this audience knows its leitmotifs inside out, so maybe Schwarz is letting the music do the illustrating.

Arnold Bezuyen (Mime)
© Bayreuther Festspiele | Enrico Nawrath

What we did have was a largely excellent cast, orchestra and conductor. Egils Silins's Wotan was a little rough-edged in places, though, lacking the verbal projection and insight of Olafur Sigurdarson's fine Alberich. Christa Mayer was a classy Fricka and Okka von der Damerau rightly won the loudest ovation of the curtain calls for her gripping Erda. Daniel Kirch's Loge had plenty of spirit and Elisabeth Teige made a touching Freia. Giants, Rhinemaidens, Donner, Froh and Mime all made their mark. Cornelius Meister, who substituted for the originally scheduled conductor as late as a fortnight or so before the premiere, led a sleek, well-paced account of the score, one that might have lacked the ultimate in power (one always forgets how Wagner’s covered pit blends but also tempers the orchestral sound) but that also revealed plenty of telling detail, lovingly played by the ever excellent orchestra. 


****1