Das Rheingold, Wagner

Bayreuther Festspiele 2010

The Rainbow Connection

Maybe it’s the swarms of hopefuls lined up outside with their handwritten signs (“SEEKING TICKET TO ANYTHING”), or the nervous glee of those lucky enough to be permitted entry into the temple, or the classical beauty of the inner sanctum itself, with its gilt columns and creaky wooden seats; but whatever the source, there is a unique spell cast by the first murmurs of Rheingold when experienced here at Bayreuth, rising up from the subterranean cavern of Wagner’s covered pit.

It is not such a leap to imagine one’s self at the premiere, 134 years ago, hearing those tones without the baggage of history, before the striving idealism of Wagner’s music was converted into fuel for fascism, gold into lead.

Gratefully, as the curtain lifts onto Tankred Dorst’s 2006 Ring (with brilliant sets by Frank Philipp Schlößmann, gorgeous lighting by Ulrich Niepel, and inspired costuming by Bernd Ernst Skodzig), it does not take the spell of the overture off with it, but instead draws us deep into this tale of tales, and never lets go.

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Photos by: Photos by: Bayreuther Festspieler GmbH/Jörg Schulze & Enrico Nawrath

What is most brave and effective about this production is Dorst’s choice to merely re-contextualize, instead of fully re-interpret, the work.  The gods are still gods, their tricks and spells are allowed to fool and bedazzle us.  But, as if demonstrating string theory on an opera stage, they exist in a parallel realm that simultaneously inhabits our mortal one. We flash in and out of realities (a door to a factory opens to a black pit full of faceless Nibelungen; when an oblivious human worker reopens the door an instant later, it is merely a white-tiled hallway).  This induces a kind of spiritual vertigo, in which we are able to focus on two planes at once. 

But this has always been the role of myth: to teach us about ourselves, in terms of the forces and archetypes that compel us, unseen.  In avoiding the trap of “translating” the Ring into something either mundanely contemporary or else merely fantastical, Dorst preserves its impact as engrossing, entertaining, instructive metaphor.

In other words, he does not shrink from the power of myth.

The Rhinemaidens who famously open the opera were quite charmingly presented here more as colorful saltwater specimens: pod-like, rooted to the rocks of the river’s floor, covered with flowing pink and coral gills.  Schlößmann’s masterfully beautiful set, with the under-surface of the river bending above, flowed in a perpetual state of transformation: a boulder might blossom into a seductive sprite, or a glowing speck of ore would rise into a crystalline column.  The trio of nymphs (Christiane Kohl, Ulrike Helzel, and Simone Schröder) had a mature, warm blend, less maiden-ish than one might wish for, but pleasing nonetheless. They provided a short-lived balm to the hoarse exertions of Alberich (Andrew Shore), who did not need to push his tired instrument to such extremes to play a convincing villain/potbellied lizard.  (He settled down a bit in the second act).

The gorgeousness of the opening scene contrasted with the familiar bleakness of the second: a graffitied, concrete structure, perhaps the top level of a parking garage or the courtyard of an apartment complex.  The gods wander around in their white layers of Commes des Garçons-looking finery, unperceived by the odd human passerby.  A faint image of a crumbling, Pantheon-like Valhalla shimmers in the background, seemingly co-existent with the modern plaza.

Wotan (Albert Dohmen) lumbers around his domain wearily.  At first I found his energy to be a bit slouchy, though this seemed increasingly like a choice as the cycle developed: we are encountering the warrior-king as he nears his end, already tired of fighting.  Dohmen’s voice naturally possesses a nobility and lyricism that allowed him to bring out the sensitive and conflicted nature of the character, while still retaining a hard-edged masculinity.

Speaking of hard-edged masculinity, I could have done with a slightly more tempered version of it from the orchestra, under Christian Thielemann.  Although engaging with its assuredness and momentum, his style comes to feel rather unrelenting after a while.  There is precious little breathing room in Thielemann’s Wagner.

The other excellent, astonishingly powerful bass voice on the stage belonged to Kwangchul Youn in the role of Fasolt.  Costumed like a cross between a shepherd and a Transformer action figure, Youn managed to make that unlikely combination genuinely fearsome through sheer vocal brawn.

The three tenors of the evening (not of the tuxedoed Italian variety, but rather, representing an imp, a goblin, and a rainbow-maker) were also all exceptional.  Arnold Bezuyen’s Loge had the right spontaneous feel and physical ease that one wants from this court jester; Wolfgang Schmidt’s Mime was a guilty comic pleasure; and Clemens Bieber, in the somewhat thankless role of Froh, also made his mark not only in the sky, but on stage, with a healthy, full sound.

Erda (Christa Mayer) delivered her bit from within her lumpy, Venus-of-Willendorf chrysalis with a voice of reassuring, maternal warmth.

In most senses, the staging was “traditional”: Erda came out of her hole in the ground; Freia’s golden apples were just golden apples; Alberich used his magic hat to become a dragon and then a (bejeweled, leaping) frog.  Symbols were allowed to function as such, magic tricks (achieved through expert stagecraft) surprised and astonished.  In other senses (as stated above), the staging was completely fresh in its juxtapositions: as the sterile factory of the third act gives way to reveal Alberich’s sweaty slave colony within, we feel the trickle of first-world horror creeping into our consciousness.  What modern industry doesn’t secretly harbor an inner Alberich?

And so Dorst & Schlößmann’s production manages to be both classic and relevant.

The newly-crowned Artistic (Co-)Director of Bayreuth, Katharina Wagner, has unfortunately said in the press that she hopes to make her ancestor’s music more palatable to youth by having “DJs” mix it up with some “techno-beats”.  (Ai-yai-yai.) This is, of course, condescending to both youth and Wagner.

It is perhaps youth, even especially children, who might appreciate this Rheingold, for it does not ask us to believe in tricksy “magic” so much as convince us that it is quite real, and ever present.

And as Froh’s rainbow filled the misty sky above the plaza and the gods ascended to their Pantheon in the distance as the curtain fell, I felt like a child myself being read a wondrous bedtime story, a little drowsy but eager for the next chapter the following night.

Bottom line: a 24-karat Rheingold


Georges Briscot


response to this review: response@operaticus.com

Production Credits

Conductor - Christian Thielemann
Director - Tankred Dorst
Set Design - Frank Philipp Schl÷▀mann
Costumes - Bernd Ernst Skodzig
Lighting Designer - Ulrich Niepel


Wotan - Albert Dohmen
Alberich - Andrew Shore
Loge - Arnold Bezuyen
Fricka - Mihoko Fujimura
Erda - Christa Mayer
Mime - Wolfgang Schmidt
Fasolt - Kwangchul Youn
Fafner - Diógenes Randes
Freia - Edith Haller
Donner - Ralf Lukas
Froh - Clemens Bieber
Woglinde - Christiane Kohl
Wellgunde - Ulrike Helzel
Floßhilde - Simone Schröder

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THIS PRODUCTION:http://www.bayreuther-festspiele.de