Vienna State Opera’s current Ring cycle originated in 2008, and it has a relatively simple production with sparse staging and few props, and uses mostly effective projections.  Performers are afforded an opportunity to interact with one another freely and the overall sense is that of an intimate drama despite its sweeping narrative. The current revival is led by Sir Simon Rattle, and on the first evening he took the audience on a journey of fresh musical discovery.

Tomasz Konieczny (Wotan), Herbert Lippert (Loge) and Michaela Schuster (Fricka) © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Tomasz Konieczny (Wotan), Herbert Lippert (Loge) and Michaela Schuster (Fricka)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn

The prelude began slowly and as the strings gathered strength the emphasis was clearly on the lower instruments, especially the cello. The prominence of the cello underpinned the entire performance, and added a sense of gravitas to the performance. Sir Simon was keen to bring out the intricacies and nuances of the score throughout, and focused on the overall balance of the orchestra. The brass and woodwinds were given their proper share and yet were never loud enough to overwhelm the strings or the singers. In this symphonic reading of the Ring, the orchestral interludes connecting the scenes were majestically played, with the dark curtain lowered so the audience could concentrate on the music.

Sir Simon’s pacing was often deliberate and slow, especially the prelude which was almost painfully beautiful for its understatement. The scene with Erda was also taken at a slow tempo, and the inverse nature motif was clearly articulated here as a counterpoint of the prelude. Very occasionally, the music seemed to sag and deprived the drama’s immediacy and momentum, including long pauses, but these moments were fleeting and hardly detracted from the overall magnificence of the performance. 

Richard Paul Fink (Alberich) © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Richard Paul Fink (Alberich)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
The Vienna Staatsoper Orchestra was at its usual formidable best, and they followed Sir Simon’s directions closely. When he accelerated the tempo and volume, often suddenly, unexpectedly, and dramatically, the orchestra was right there with him, and their skills, especially the dynamic strings, were once again astonishingly on display. The whole evening was a musical feast of the Wagnerian motifs and melodies expertly and thrillingly realized by the mighty orchestra led by a maestro of superb intelligence.

Singing was overall of a very high quality, with two singers, Richard Paul Fink (Alberich) and Mikhail Petrenko (Fafner) making Staatsoper debuts. Tomasz Konieczny, reprising the role from last year, at age 43, was an appropriately youthful and energetic Wotan. An excellent actor, he portrayed an arrogant leader who was still loving to his wife Fricka. His strong bass-baritone was clear and steady throughout the evening with excellent breath control. He brought nuanced singing with softly modulated tone at times to express his concern, and yet his voice opened up thrillingly as he urged his family to enter the Valhalla. His is a superb Wotan to savor for possibly many more years to come. 

Michaela Schuster was an appropriately anxious and nagging Fricka. Her voice was warm and velvety, and she interacted most excellently with other performers to form an emotional core of the ensemble. The veteran Herwig Pecoraro made the most of his brief role of Mime with mixture of sprachsinging and strong musicality. Fink used his sometimes rough edged voice effectively to play the dwarf, and yet his character retained the basic dignity even in his most humiliating moments. Janina Baechle coped admirably to the slow pacing of Erda’s music, and while her voice may lack the dark richness for the role, was nevertheless a spellbinding Erda with her beautiful legato.

Richard Paul Fink (Alberich) and Herbert Lippert (Loge) © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Richard Paul Fink (Alberich) and Herbert Lippert (Loge)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn

The two giants were both appropriately fierce and menacing, with Peter Rose a surprisingly effective and sympathetic Fasolt and Mikhail Petrenko a scheming and nasty Fafner. Having to walk on stilts and wearing cumbersome costumes, they were splendid with their booming voice. The three siblings, Olga Bezsmertna as Freia, Boaz Daniel as Donner and Jason Bridges as Froh were all equal to the task, with Jason Bridges making a strong impression with his clear and penetrating tenor. The three Rhinemaidens were vocally excellent as they taunted Alberich while being hoisted up and down on stage.

One weak vocal link was Herbert Lippert, making a role debut as Loge. His high notes did not open up as needed, and his voice was rather monochromic to express Loge’s shifty character. He was not a very charismatic presence on stage, and seemed to overact rather than let the music tell the story. This was unfortunate as Loge is one of the most important characters of the opera, playing the counterpoint to Wotan and other gods in his role as a negotiator with the giants, the dwarfs and the Rhinemaidens.

Despite the mostly fine singing, the evening clearly belonged to Sir Simon Rattle and the orchestra, and while a very small minority seemed to be displeased with Sir Simon’s conducting, he brought a fresh and unexpected reading to the score. The audience for the next three Ring operas can look forward to more adventures and discoveries.

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