Richard Wagner is musically memorable for many things: for his harmonic innovation, his writing for brass (including for instruments he invented), for the sheer ambition of his musical architecture. But as the Budapest Ring cycle drew to its close, what struck one most vividly was the man’s ability to set up a quarrel scene. Most of the dozen scenes that make up Götterdämmerung contain one or more face-offs between a pair of characters or some larger group, each with its distinct dramatic and musical nature, each heightened by the virtuosity of the musical composition.

Lauri Vasar (Gunther), Stefan Vinke (Siegfried), Albert Pesendorfer (Hagen) © Bálint Hirling, Müpa Budapest
Lauri Vasar (Gunther), Stefan Vinke (Siegfried), Albert Pesendorfer (Hagen)
© Bálint Hirling, Müpa Budapest

Wagner provides singers with the requisite raw material, but to deliver a great theatrical experience, they need to be excellent actors and be fully in tune with each other – all the more so in a concert setting where they are shorn of costumes and props. One of the things that made this Götterdämmerung stand out is that every singer proved themselves to be a fine actor. The interplay between Lauri Vasar’s Gunther and Albert Pesendorfer’s Hagen was a telling exposition of a weak, insecure man in power manipulated by a smarter underling driven by a clear sense of purpose; Vasar somehow managed to ally strength of voice to weakness of character. When Polina Pasztircsák came on as Gutrune, she gave a credible characterisation of a woman terrified of spinsterhood who can’t quite believe that an impossibly attractive lover is dropping into her lap. Pasztircsák sang with conviction and sweetness both as Gutrune and in her earlier role as Third Norn.

Albert Pesendorfer (Hagen), Pétér Kálman (Alberich) and Nibelungs © Bálint Hirling, Müpa Budapest
Albert Pesendorfer (Hagen), Pétér Kálman (Alberich) and Nibelungs
© Bálint Hirling, Müpa Budapest

Pesendorfer is a big man whose sheer physical presence enhanced the contrast between Hagen and Gunther (and later between Hagen and Alberich). He also has a huge voice which shook the house when he declared to us that we will all serve him (“ihr dient ihm doch, des Niblungen Sohn”). And critics may decry “park and bark”, but there are times when it works to perfection: in Hagen’s dream scene, as Peter Kálmán’s Alberich flitted nervously around him, Pesendorfer sat motionless as he vowed to carry on the Nibelung cause, his voice sleepy and distant yet immensely powerful.

Stefan Vinke is an irrepressible Siegfried who bounces onto the stage and whose voice is unequalled in its comfort at sustained high tessitura, even when wound up to full power. I don’t think there’s another tenor in the world who can hit the levels Vinke does and make it sound so casual: his encounter with the Rhinemaidens, in which Siegfried narrowly misses saving the world without having any idea what he’s doing, was acted hugely entertainingly as well as sounding wonderful in its blend of voices.

Stefan Vinke (Siegfried) and Rhinemaidens © Bálint Hirling, Müpa Budapest
Stefan Vinke (Siegfried) and Rhinemaidens
© Bálint Hirling, Müpa Budapest

Ádám Fischer’s shrewdness in casting is evident from watching two Brünnhildes in different operas. For Siegfried, Allison Oakes was notable for warmth and lyricism. In Götterdämmerung, Catherine Foster was lyrical enough in Act 1’s love scene, but more remarkable when ratcheting up the intensity in Act 2, as Brünnhilde’s situation goes from bad to worse. Foster can hit a high note with laser precision from a starting point anywhere in the stave below, sustain it as long as she wants and do so without ever going shrill. In the Act 3 immolation scene, she made good use of all that power, but also projected pianissimo clearly, fixing the audience with such a piercing stare that it felt as if she was singing to each listener directly and personally. Foster had demonstrated fine acting skills previously in Brünnhilde’s chance to save the world, the Act 2 duet with Anna Larsson as Waltraute. For a contralto of Larsson's calibre to appear in a one-scene role like Waltraute is a case of luxury casting if ever there was one.

Catherine Foster (Brünnhilde) and dancer © Bálint Hirling, Müpa Budapest
Catherine Foster (Brünnhilde) and dancer
© Bálint Hirling, Müpa Budapest

I don’t have space to mention every singer and every scene, so here are some thoughts about this Ring cycle as a whole. With a hundred-odd musicians, I don’t know how many notes there are in the cycle, but the figure must run into the hundreds of thousands. At Müpa, we heard every one of them at a level of detail that one simply never gets in a normal opera house. And just about every note – I only clocked a handful of exceptions – was played accurately, with a richly expressive dynamic and/or timbral contour: for the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra to have achieved that is an impressive feat. It’s no less impressive that Fischer assembled thirty soloists who all sung with nothing less than excellence, including half a dozen who are arguably the best in the world at their roles. Hartmut Schörghofer’s concert staging doesn't get the same clean scorecard: its two main elements, choreography and videography, are annoyingly inconsistent. The enslaved Nibelungs and Hunding's dogs are great pieces of choreography; the Valkyrie horses adequate, Loge's scarlet alter egos and Wotan's ravens annoying and misplaced. The video sequences of the sword and of the frost and mountains are great, the fire great but overused, the dragon scene embarrassingly poor. But overall, the staging elements rate a Douglas Adams “mostly harmless”, and considering the consistent first class quality of the acting allied to vocal and orchestral performances consistently of the very finest,  this Ring cycle as a whole has been a magnificent and thoroughly memorable experience.


Read the reviews of the other operas in the cycle: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried.

*****