It would be hard to imagine a composer more fastidious about how his operas should be performed than Richard Wagner. The non plus ultra of his concern was unquestionably Der Ring des Nibelungen which not only took 26 years to write, but necessitated the building of a new opera house to stage it. To ensure the optimal dramaturgical and musical continuity of this monumental Gesamtkunstwerk, Wagner insisted that the Ring should be presented over four consecutive days. Admittedly his absurdly magnanimous patron Ludwig II jumped the gun and staged Das Rheingold and Die Walküre without the composer’s approval six years before the officially completed Bühnenfestspiel, but this is hardly justification for the Wiener Staatsoper’s decision to stagger performances over a period of more than two weeks. This was not so much as Ring cycle as four completely detached operatic events.

Stefan Vinke (Siegfried) © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn
Stefan Vinke (Siegfried)
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn

There was however a certain continuity in Peter Schneider’s languorous and loud conducting; bass clarinet, bass tuba, bass trombone, bass bassoon and bass everything else growled, snarled and blasted their way through most of the leitmotifs with terrifying volubility. There was more unevenness in orchestral playing than in Die Walküre, with a few muffed brass entries such as the opening to “Heil dir Sonne”. The normally seductive Vienna strings were less beguiling than usual, although the lyrical Siegfried Idyll measures before “Ewig war ich” were splendidly orotund. 

Rolf Glittenberg’s Act 1 stage design was more detailed than Walküre with Mime’s forge/hovel in the forest resembling a school-room laboratory with multiple workbenches on different levels. Siegfried’s pet bear brought in to terrify Mime was another cartoon-like projection. The strongest complaint about Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s direction is that Siegfried and Mime are almost Huck and Tom-type buddies than overtly vehement adversaries. Siegfried’s contempt for his conniving carer is extreme but, bizarrely, Bechtolf has the egocentric youth compassionately bandage Mime’s injured hand after Wotan puts it in a vice. They scamper off to exterminate Fafner as if on a jolly adventure.

Jochen Schmeckenbecher (Alberich) and Tomasz Konieczny (Wanderer) © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn (7 May 2017)
Jochen Schmeckenbecher (Alberich) and Tomasz Konieczny (Wanderer)
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn (7 May 2017)

Physically a tad too tall for your average dwarf, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke was vocally impressive as the duplicitous Nibelung, but his characterisation lacked the snivelling passive-aggressive servility of Helwig Pecoraro in the 2008 première of this production. Knitting cutesy kiddy clothes, there was more epicene prissiness than pathological malevolence in this unconvincing portrayal. Vocally Stefan Vinke was a convincing, petulant, pouty Siegfried with an absolutely ringing top as refulgent as Nothung, the sword he was forging. The top A naturals on “Hoho” were truly helden and there were some finely nuanced word colourings such as “So starb meine Mutter an mir”. Curiously, a disturbing tendency to grin a lot reaffirmed Brünnhilde’s description of her “lachender Held”. The scene between Mime and Thomas Johannes Mayer’s Wanderer was disappointing in that the latter had extreme projection difficulties. The voice sounded tired and lacked resonance in both extremes of the register. Although diction and acting were much more satisfactory, only the middle of the tessitura seemed comfortable, although this was generally subsumed in the orchestral tsunami.

Tomasz Konieczny (Wanderer) and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Mime) © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn (7 May 2017)
Tomasz Konieczny (Wanderer) and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Mime)
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn (7 May 2017)

Instead of a gloomy cave in the depths of a forest, Act 2 revealed walls on three sides splattered with all manner of stuffed animals – a kind of open-air morgue for aberrant taxidermists. As Mime’s manic brother, Jochen Schmeckenbecher was suitably snarly and bitter and his altercation with the Wanderer achieved the apposite frisson. Fafner in dragon form was an enormous twitching projected eye and instead of Siegfried piecing the giant’s heart, it was Fafner's iris which received Nothung’s ultimate penance. In returning to temporary, albeit exceptionally tall corporal form, Sorin Coliban displayed a solid bass with an impressive, resonant low register. Considering the range of fine sopranos in the Staatsoper ensemble, the casting of Hila Fahima as the Woodbird was regrettable. Intonation was unsteady and vibrato intrusive.

Petra Lang (Brünnhilde) and Stefan Vinke (Siegfried) © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn
Petra Lang (Brünnhilde) and Stefan Vinke (Siegfried)
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn

After Act 2, Wagner stopped composing Siegfried in 1857 and it was 12 years later before the last act was completed with, as Wagner wrote, “a dark, sublime and awesome dread”. Even greater complexity of orchestration is immediately evident and the short instrumental opening to Act 3 explores no less than nine of the earlier leitmotifs. This time the orchestra excelled, with six tubas taking raspy prominence.

The pivotal scene between Wotan and the subterranean savant and serial snoozer Erda was more memorable for Okka von der Damerau’s plummy chest notes than the Wanderer’s vocalism, which again lacked focus and projection. As an unwilling victim of Hypnos, Petra Lang’s Brünnhilde seemed to stay weary of voice with some insecure intonation, a wide vibrato, poor trilling on “heiter” and a shrill C on “Leuchtender”. On the other hand, the fortissimo top B natural on “Hort” was pure Nilsson. The concluding “Fahr' hin, Walhalls/ Lachend erwachst” duet was sung directly at the audience but finally the performance reached a Loge-esque incandescence.