Over a decade ago, a musical director Gustav Kuhn created a music festival for a few weeks in the summer and the winter in an Austrian town of Erl, on the border with Germany. Surrounded by mountains and farmland with cows, the festival halls, now in two buildings, one white and one black, are a striking sight with breathtaking scenery as backdrop as one approaches the town by train. This summer, the Erl Music Festival is presenting Wagner’s Ring cycle twice, once over two weekends in July, and another time over the course of a weekend. On Friday evening at the beginning of the “weekend” Ring,  the hall was packed with well-dressed Wagner enthusiasts from all over Germany and other European countries.

Michiko Watanabe (Wellgunde) and Thomas Gazheli (Alberich) © Franz Neumayr | Tiroler Festspiele Erl
Michiko Watanabe (Wellgunde) and Thomas Gazheli (Alberich)
© Franz Neumayr | Tiroler Festspiele Erl

The performance is semi-staged, as the orchestra is on the back of stage on terraced platforms, and a transparent scrim separates the orchestra from front of the stage where the action takes place. It is awe inspiring to see six harps lined up high on the bleachers, with the brass and woodwinds right below and strings further down. The screen on the back of the orchestra lights up in various colours, purple during the Rhinemaiden scene, red and orange in the entrance of Gods to Valhalla etc. The props are simple as the opera begins; one sees three tall towers of ladders, supported and moved around by men in black, from where the Rhinemaidens sing and tease Alberich. The gold is represented by a geometric light fixture that descends from the ceiling. The Gods are seen as a family of wealthy Americans lounging around with their cocktails on beach chairs. Fasolt is dressed as an American football player, Fafner as a hockey player with a stick. Donner sports a golfing outfit, and Froh is a hammer thrower. Wotan is a successful businessman, Loge his assistant with a smartphone which he uses to find Nibelheim.

In the Nibelheim scene, five long pieces of metal on each side of the stage, somewhat reminiscent of the Met’s “machine,” move onto the stage noiselessly to provide scenery. A group of local youngsters was recruited as Nibelungs, with flashlights, and slink around from the side of the stage, carry the gold, and disperse noiselessly when threatened by Alberich. There is no grand entrance of the Gods to Valhalla, but the final scene shows the Rheinemaidens singing their lament standing among the orchestra, with Wotan and Loge singing on a podium from the back.

Hermine Haselböck (Fricka) and Michael Kupfer (Wotan) © Franz Neumayr | Tiroler Festspiele Erl
Hermine Haselböck (Fricka) and Michael Kupfer (Wotan)
© Franz Neumayr | Tiroler Festspiele Erl

The musical performance was of high quality, with the orchestra playing Wagner’s music often as gentle and lyrical chamber music with fine details in the strings and woodwinds, rather than as voluminous show of sound that could drown out the singers. While one misses some of the dynamic and emphatic rhythm of Wagner’s music, especially in the last scene where more bombastic power may have been welcome, the conductor kept the pace at a good clip, and there was no lull in the musical action. The subsequent three operas would demand more colour and varying emphasis from the orchestra, however.

Except for Franz Hawlata as Fasolt and Andrea Silvestrelli as Fafner, none of the soloists are well-known internationally, but they were more than adequate, and some were quite impressive. All three Rhinemaidens were Japanese (Yukiko Aragaki, Michiko Watanabe, and Misaki Ono), and while some of their singing and German diction left a bit to be desired, they negotiated the music reasonably well. Hermine Haselböck, as Fricka, is tall and elegant, with a voice to match. The Wotan of Michael Kupfer has a moderately sized bass-baritone and sang and acted the part of a callous businessman/tycoon with style. The two veterans singing the giants strutted around on their platform shoes. The three spoiled siblings, Freia (Joo-Anne Bitter) Donner (Frederik Baldus) and Froh (Ferdinand von Bothmer) were youthful in voice and appearance. Giorgio Valenta sang the brief role of Mime, but made little impression. Elena Suvorova’s Erda possesses an earthy mezzo and sang Erda’s warning with appropriate pensive mood.

Franz Hawlata (Fasolt), Joo-Anne Bitter (Freia) and Andrea Silvestrelli (Fafner) © Franz Neumayr | Tiroler Festspiele Erl
Franz Hawlata (Fasolt), Joo-Anne Bitter (Freia) and Andrea Silvestrelli (Fafner)
© Franz Neumayr | Tiroler Festspiele Erl

The most satisfying singing of the evening came from Johannes Chum as Loge and Thomas Gazheli as Alberich. Chum has a clear and bright tenor voice that makes one sit up and pay attention as soon as he appears on the scene. While he could perhaps have done more with his text, his singing is clean, witty, seemingly effortless, and his lower notes are also impressive. He deservedly received the loudest ovation among the singers. Gazheli portrayed Alberich not as a conniving and heartless villain but as a rather pathetic creature seeking love and acceptance. While he seemed to tire towards the end, his dialogue with Loge in the Nibelheim scene was well sung and acted.

A Das Rheingold that is not well played and sung could be an exercise in patience as it is performed with no intermission over two and a half hours. At Erl, the well rehearsed orchestra and the fine ensemble of singers made the experience a great pleasure. The excellent acoustics of the hall and the simple, uncluttered staging proved to be a perfect setting for the magic of Wagner’s music. As the performance ended and the audience filed out of the theatre, the idyllic scenes of mountains and meadows were just beginning to turn from dusk to evening, a truly dream like end of a special evening.