Wagnerians who are unfamiliar with the subtle humour of German humourist Loriot might sneer at the mere thought of paying to hear a version of the tetralogy that is cut by about 80% of the total score, but this was not the case with the regular Viennese Ring-goers who filled this performance. And judging from the applause, it was a worthwhile experience for them as well as for Wagner rookies.

Irmgard Vilsmaier and Caroline Melzer © Barbara Pálffy/Volksoper
Irmgard Vilsmaier and Caroline Melzer
© Barbara Pálffy/Volksoper

Wagner’s Ring in one evening is a lovingly put together miniature version of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk where the musical side was taken care of by Ernst Märzendorfer and for which Loriot provided the connecting texts. Thankfully, Loriot withstood the temptation to make this summary a best-of compilation or turn it into a parody, but focused on the narrative, even if this meant sacrificing some of opera’s greatest hits like “The Ride of the Valkyries”, Siegfried’s forging song and even Siegmund’s “Winterstürme”, or indeed parts like Freia, Fafner and Fasolt, Hunding or Erda. The humour of it all lies in the detail of the texts where the superficially sober account of the story is spiced with observations from a contemporary point of view (like the role of greed in society), sarcastic comments like on Siegmund’s and Sieglinde’s reunion (“This is a matter of incest and adultery. One is enthused”), general clichés (“Of course the wife is right, but that doesn’t make her more likeable”), and last but not least, Wagner clichés: “Once Siegfried has opened the heavy top, the bosom of a highly dramatic soprano is curving towards him. Having recovered from this shock, he observes quite rightly, ‘This is not a man’”.

The narrator in this concert is an ideal role for Volksoper director Robert Meyer and he didn’t disappoint when stepping into the shoes of Loriot, who performed at the Volksoper’s first run of the piece in 1993, but sadly died in 2011. The span of time between the last and the current run implies that the house’s orchestra, schooled on lighter repertory, is not too well acquainted with the score. But although it has to be said that although some of the music was delivered a bit mechanically or even clumsily (like the prelude of Das Rheingold), there was a lot of beautiful playing from the strings and especially the violins that often found congenial partners in the harps. Unfortunately, it was not the night of the brass, with sometimes well built-up orchestral crescendos spoiled by split notes. Put into this perspective, conductor Jac van Steen’s performance is to be rated highly; there was even more of differentiation in the dynamics of the Götterdämmerung finale than I’ve heard from some more prominent conductors.

Some of the singing, contrary to what you might expect at a house that does a lot of operettas and musicals as well, was magnificent. I’m even tempted to say that Irmgard Vilsmaier is a world class Walküre Brünnhilde, as her “Todesverkündigung” was some of the most impressive female Wagner singing I’ve heard live and “Starke Scheite” from Götterdämmerung was suitably flaming. There was room for improvement in the Siegfried Brünnhilde though, for whom I have wished for the same warmth of voice as in Die Walküre, where her duet with Sieglinde proved a particularly pleasant surprise, as Caroline Melzer impressed me with the best singing I’ve heard from her by far. Contrary to lighter parts I’ve seen her in, she lived in the music and produced a pleasing and voluminous sound. Siegmund and Siegfried were sung by Endrik Wottrich and he gave a very fine performance, though not in the same league as his ladies. Despite one or two scooped notes, Michael Kraus was a distinctive Alberich, but the man of the evening was Sebastian Holecek. As Wotan he displayed enormous breath control and resonance even for the longest phrases and impressed with his signature clear diction – a remarkable rendition and not just for someone who regularly sings in operettas as well. The many other roles were ably performed although I would have preferred a more seductive sound from the Rhinemaidens (I caught the performance after the première where an alternative trio of singers is said to have made a big impression).

All in all, this bonsai of a Ring was a wonderful afterthought to all the festivities surrounding Wagner’s 200th birthday including the Staatsoper’s current run of the Ring, and surely Vienna’s most humorous contribution to the Wagner year so far.

****1