A Ring cycle is a grand undertaking for any director. Das Rheingold serves as a signal, telling audiences which ideas and style the director brings to Wagner’s masterpiece. Andreas Kreigenburg’s production at the Bayerische Staatsoper leaves many questions. His minimalistic style focuses on the human body, allowing for beautiful movement and stage pictures. But other staging choices and character interpretations go against the text without a clear vision driving them. This Ring is sure to be visually striking, but it’s not yet clear whether it will be emotionally and intellectually stimulating as well.

Thomas J Mayer (Wotan) and Elisabeth Kulman (Fricka) © Wilfried Hösl
Thomas J Mayer (Wotan) and Elisabeth Kulman (Fricka)
© Wilfried Hösl

A wooden ceiling and floor tilt to form various locations, but the stage is otherwise very bare. Dancers form the rest of the set. As the opera begins, they strip to near-nudity and cover themselves in blue paint. They then sway and roll to form the river. Later, dancers make up the turrets of the gods’ castle. Even the large cubes Fasolt and Fafner travel on are composed of (plastic) dead bodies. The mound of gold is an exception to this paradigm, taking the form of a hollow cube. But then, still, bodies remain the focus: characters step inside of it to love and murder.

The most bizarre scene is when Wotan and Loge descend into Alberich’s mines. The floor and ceiling tilt sharply. Supernumeraries wearing full-body suits and gas masks wander the sloped ground. When Alberich must perform magic with his helm, these supernumeraries shine glaring lights in the audience’s eyes while the transformation takes place. While this tactic certainly prevents spectators from seeing Alberich exit the stage, it’s not a pleasant nor an impressive way to pull off theatrical illusions.

Annoying though Alberich’s tricks may be, Alberich himself is the highlight of the show. Tomasz Konieczny’s voice is full of expression and easily cuts through the Wagnerian orchestra. Equally important, his acting shows rare energy and commitment. His terrifying evil laugh (deployed to good effect after he snatches the Rheingold) deserves a special mention. It’s surprising and disappointing when Loge gets the better of him! Burkhard Ulrich’s red-suited fire-god, though clear-voiced, has the greasy appearance and personality of a used-car salesman – not what I’d hope for from a cunning, divine trickster.

Günther Groissböck (Fasolt), Thomas J Mayer (Wotan) and Christof Fischesser (Fafner) © Wilfried Hösl
Günther Groissböck (Fasolt), Thomas J Mayer (Wotan) and Christof Fischesser (Fafner)
© Wilfried Hösl

The other gods fit their roles well. Thomas Mayer is a forceful and selfish Wotan, especially during his struggle to retain the ring. His baritone isn’t always easily audible above the orchestration, but it is solid and full of character when it can be heard. As his wife Fricka, Elisabeth Kulman shows off a rich, deep tone and impressive vocal power. Golda Schultz looks and sounds the part of the beautiful Freia, whose face and voice are considered ample payment for the giants’ labour. Her story has a twist in this staging: she falls in love with Fasolt (or develops Stockholm syndrome). This interpretation gives more depth to her character and to the giants, but she has to work hard in her line deliveries to make sense of some of her text.

Fasolt (Günther Groissböck) and Fafner (Christof Fischesser) are confusing characters. They seem more likeable than most pairs of giants (perhaps thanks to Freia’s affection for them), but their transportation via smashed-human-body cubes makes it difficult to sympathize with them. Both Groissböck‘s and Fischesser’s voices are strong, though not as booming as I’d expect from giants. The most booming voice comes from Erda, sung by the always-fabulous Okka von der Damerau. Her “Weiche, Wotan, weiche” is a wall of sound; her voice always seems to be immediately present to the audience, even when she’s standing at the back of the stage singing softly. Finally, the Rhinemaidens tease and lament in beautiful harmonies. Hanna-Elisabeth Müller’s crystal-clear “Weia! Waga!” opens the show perfectly, and the darker tones of Jennifer Johnston and Nadine Wissmann captivate as the three continue to sing.

Nadine Weissmann (Flosshilde), Hanna-Elisabeth Müller (Woglinde) and Jennifer Johnston (Wellgunde) © Wilfried Hösl
Nadine Weissmann (Flosshilde), Hanna-Elisabeth Müller (Woglinde) and Jennifer Johnston (Wellgunde)
© Wilfried Hösl

Kirill Petrenko holds the baton and manages it well as always. A few glaring mis-steps by the Staatsorchester (most notably an early entrance) stood out on Friday, but they sounded excellent on the whole. Though a large orchestra, they never overpowered the singers. Petrenko wisely kept the pace brisk, so the intermission-less opera clocked in just under two and a half hours.

I enjoyed watching this Rheingold, but its beauty felt empty. The complexities and drama of the characters’ relationships sometimes got lost, and I had no sense of a strong directorial vision. I hope that Kriegenburg’s Ring continues, it will retain its visual appeal but also gain energy and substance.