We don’t yet know whether this year’s Budapest Ring Cycle will end in a bang or a whimper. But it has unquestionably started with fireworks, of which the chief artificer in last night’s Das Rheingold was Christian Franz.

Christian Franz (Loge) © János Posztós, Müpa Budapest
Christian Franz (Loge)
© János Posztós, Müpa Budapest

Loge is many things: the spirit of fire, the spirit of trickery, a being who delights in humiliating others through sarcasm, a bitter creature with a mountain-sized chip on his shoulder from never having been accepted by Wotan and the other gods. Franz is so clear in his diction and so compelling in his impersonation of malevolence combined with childish delight that you couldn’t take your eyes off him. He was also masterful vocally: we usually hear a light, agile tenor cast as Loge, but Franz’s voice has far more dimensions than that. The agility and clarity are there, but this is a man who can sing Siegfried in major houses and is able to summon up full lyrical smoothness or discard it at will.

Atala Schöck (Fricka) and Johan Reuter (Wotan) © János Posztós, Müpa Budapest
Atala Schöck (Fricka) and Johan Reuter (Wotan)
© János Posztós, Müpa Budapest

Franz led a cast of singers without a weak link. Roles which aren’t normally large enough to impress were sung in such a committed way as to make us sit up and listen: as Zsolt Haja’s Donner sang of leading the gods across the rainbow bridge into Valhalla, the warmth of his voice made us truly believe (wrongly, of course) that we were witnessing a momentous, uplifting event. Atala Schöck’s Fricka impressed with a creamy, persuasive mezzo which held a lot of promise for her confrontation with Johan Reuter’s Wotan in Die Walküre, especially if she is able to add an edge of steel. Reuter had no difficulty reaching the lower ranges of his bass-baritone, and he was clear and unstrained in the highs, with the nobility and warmth of timbre that we’re familiar with from him. I should really name-check every cast member but there isn’t space, so I’ll single out Péter Kálmán’s Alberich, who combined weight of voice in his portentous announcement of evil intent (why do all Bond villains feel the need to taunt their victims first) with rapid fire patter in his treatment of his Nibelung underlings and an entertaining portrayal of the hapless fall guy in the opening scene with the Rhinemaidens.

Gabriella Fodor, Eszter Wierdl and Zsófia Kálnay (Rhinemaidens) © János Posztós, Müpa Budapest
Gabriella Fodor, Eszter Wierdl and Zsófia Kálnay (Rhinemaidens)
© János Posztós, Müpa Budapest

Hartmut Schörghofer’s “concert staging” has received a major refit this year, which has spruced it up without changing any of its underlying principles and it’s still an effective vehicle for presenting the story with few distracting frills. The formula is the same: singers are in concert dress but they don’t read from scores and they act their roles fully, dancers represent the Nibelungs, significant use is made of video projected onto a set of transparent screens on a raised platform that spans the width of the stage. The scant number of props is the same: Wotan’s spear, giant papier-mâché heads for Fasolt and Fafner. The main change is that the video has all been re-shot using current technology, with particularly impressive results in the computer-game style depiction of Valhalla’s mountain range morphing into the Rhine valley or the ice crystals of the Nordic frost giants. Alberich’s shape-shifting into a toad is handled with extreme video cleverness, and the appearance of Erika Gál as Erda is given the full-on HD treatment: never can Gál have needed so much attention to hair and make-up.

Peter Kálmán (Alberich) and Johan Reuter (Wotan) © János Posztós, Müpa Budapest
Peter Kálmán (Alberich) and Johan Reuter (Wotan)
© János Posztós, Müpa Budapest

Ádám Fischer and the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra have been doing this Ring cycle at Müpa for long enough that no-one will be surprised that they play the music with total confidence. The balance is extraordinary: in spite of the lushness of the orchestration, there was barely a moment in the production where a voice was submerged by the orchestra. The full variety of the orchestration was brought to us in a blaze of colour, with special mention needed for the brass section: every note was played with development of its colour. When they went into full Wagnerian “shock and awe” mode, the results were thrilling.

To paraphrase Loge: what will happen next? Who knows?


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

*****