Hungary Affords Worthy Option To Bayreuth’s ‘Ring’

The Budapest Ring, semi-staged, cult alternative to Bayreuth. (Zsófia Pályi, Müpa Budapest)
The semi-staged Budapest ‘Ring’ is becoming known as the Bayreuth alternative. (Zsófia Pályi, Müpa Budapest)
By James L Paulk

BUDAPEST — The Ring, performed on June 16-19, is the centerpiece of the “Wagner in Budapest” Opera Festival. Since its first appearance in 2007, one year after the festival began, it has become something of an underground sensation, developing a cult following among the international network of Wagner enthusiasts. The festival has acquired a reputation as the Bayreuth alternative, drawing fans from around the globe. How this happened is a story of magic, pluck, and luck, but also one of artistic success at a high level.

The obstacles were hardly minor. The venue, the Béla Bartók National Concert Hall, which is part of the 2005 Müpa Budapest (Palace of the Arts), lacks proper stage facilities. The Hungarian Radio Symphonic Orchestra is not well known abroad and competes locally with the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra (the latter also serves as the orchestra for the respected Hungarian State Opera). The founder, conductor Ádám Fischer, is not a household name, at least outside his native Hungary. (His younger brother, Iván Fischer, is an internationally renowned conductor.) Wagner operas, with the massive forces they require, have been known to bring down relatively wealthy established institutions. Historically, the survival rate for Wagner start-up ventures has not been so great.

The acoustics
Russell Johnson’s Béla Bartók National Concert Hall has superb acoustics.

The magical ingredient is the hall itself. The final project and masterpiece of American acoustician Russell Johnson, it has sound properties that rival Bayreuth’s fabled Festspielhaus, designed by Wagner himself. A friend once described the Bayreuth experience as “like being inside a violin.” This hall, more than any other I’ve ever encountered, has that type of acoustics, where the sound envelops you from every direction. Small in volume compared to the Festspielhaus, the Bartók hall has a seating capacity of 1,699, reduced to about 1,200 when configured for the Wagner festival.

Bayreuth veteran Ádám Fischer (Lukas Beck)
Conductor and Bayreuth veteran Ádám Fischer (Lukas Beck)

The pluck factor clearly centers around Fischer, a Bayreuth veteran with a strong following in Hungary. (He was music director of the Hungarian State Opera until 2010, when he resigned in a political protest.) Government funding is everything here, and Fischer possessed the unique abilities to rally support for this adventure.

As for the luck…

For generations, Wagner’s most passionate fans have been able to bypass the lottery system and obtain Bayreuth tickets via special allocations for the well-organized Wagner societies. But beginning with the 2012 season, the allocations were virtually eliminated, the result of a change in the management of Bayreuth and the influence of German political forces. Together with major reductions in the allocations to tour groups, this freed up many more seats for sale to Germans, but a lot of Wagnerites were cast adrift. Many found their way to Budapest, as word spread through the highly networked Wagner fan base. The timing could not have been better.

Schörghofer’s 'Ring' combines projections, careful choreography in narrow space. (Zsófia Pályi)
Schörghofer ‘Ring’ uses projections, careful choreography in narrow space. (Pályi)

Hartmut Schörghofer’s Ring is quite modern. It is described as semi-staged, and the singers, in modern dress, are mostly confined to a narrow, shallow space. This limits their movement but also focuses it. Their acting, facial expressions, and ways of relating to each other are all nicely choreographed, and the restricted movement, all at the foot of the stage, makes the singers appear as if in close-up.

The placement of the singers obviously benefits the sound, but it also has the effect of increasing the focus on them and empowering them. Their characters become more central, and the various allegories being worked out in the background become less obtrusive.

The Rhinemaidens, as projections, in 'Götterdämmerung.' (Zsófia Pályi)
Looming Rhinemaidens project what’s at stake in ‘Götterdämmerung.’ (Pályi)

The term “semi-staged” is technically true, but this is a fully produced Ring, with a complex and sweeping array of rather elegant action going on behind the singers. State-of-the-art projections appear on an array of glass panels, and these little movies become abstract, thoughtful metaphors for many of the scenes. This could be something as simple as churning water, representing the Rhine, or magnified fibers, which also resemble chromosomes, for the Norn scene of the Götterdämmerung prologue. As the prologue shifts to Brünnhilde’s grotto, the fibers slowly morph into a cityscape and penthouse, with Brünnhilde and Siegfried cavorting in bed in their skivvies.

Heroes in silhouette with Valkyries and their steeds in the Budapest 'Ring.' (János Posztós, Müpa Budapest)
Fallen heroes in Valkyries’ realm, with dancers as steeds. (János Posztós)

The panels become transparent when dancers appear behind them, or translucent when the dancers or other images appear in silhouette. The nine dancers amplify the action on the stage and often act as doppelgängers for the principals. They may also serve in supporting roles as horses for the Valkyries, ravens for Wotan, hounds for Hunding, etc. Occasionally, we see other staging tactics, as when the giants are represented by large puppet heads protruding above the screen and a massive stone hand carried onto the stage.

None of the key processes — projections, dancers, concert-style singers — are new ideas. But the skill with which they have been deployed and stitched together into an integrated whole represents an important achievement, an innovative development with implications for the future of the lyric theater quite beyond Wagner, demonstrating a way forward that is both technically sophisticated and frugal.

In this 'Ring,' Loge is an emcee, present in nearly every scene. (János Posztós)
The concept has Loge as emcee in nearly every scene. (Posztós)

This is not a Ring built around a unifying central concept, but one constructed from a series of smaller insights. It does, however, keep Loge, or rather his dancer doppelgänger, as a sort of emcee, popping up in almost every scene of every opera. An elegant older dancer clad in a bright red tailcoat, he escorts the other characters on and off stage and silently reacts to major events.

The cast, overall quite young, with many Hungarian singers, sounded surprisingly good. The decision to stage the cycle on four consecutive nights (Wagner’s original intention) required that most of the major roles were double-cast.

Johan Reuter, who sang Wotan in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, possesses a ringing top and fine diction, and effectively portrayed the tortured human element of his character. As the Wanderer in Siegfried, we got another youthful but stentorian voice, Tomasz Konieczny, from Poland.

Evelyn Herlitzius as Brünnhilde, with Johan Reuter as Wotan. (János Posztós)
Brünnhilde (Evelyn Herlitzius) with Johan Reuter’s Wotan. (Posztós)

It’s hard to imagine two Brünnhildes more different from each other than those heard here. Elisabet Strid, who sang the role in Siegfried for only the second time in her career, is a major discovery, with a fresh, lyric sound, a gleaming top, and fine dramatic skills. The voice is not huge, but it resonated nicely in this singer-friendly hall. The Brünnhilde in Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung was Evelyn Herlitzius, who sings with great power and dramatic intensity. Like Hildegard Behrens, she is a tiny woman, and, as with Behrens, her portrayal is highly physical, with powerful facial expressions. Her high B’s and C’s rang in the hall.

Daniel Brenna, who sang the title role in Siegfried, has a very fresh, youthful sound. He’s still learning to pace himself, and dynamics became a problem. For much of the first act, he was covered by the orchestra, only to rise with a sufficiently strong, agile voice for the big moments. By the second act, things were much better, and he was convincing as a callow teenager. In Götterdämmerung, Christian Franz portrayed Siegfried. I overheard a polite British lady’s description: “Sometimes he seems a bit…forceful.” The sound is huge, but erratic and bellowing. He was more successful as Loge.

Johan Botha displayed a beautiful tone as Siegmund and was paired nicely with Anja Kampe, whose lovely colors and fine phrasing made her ideal as Sieglinde.

Hungarian Péter Kálmán  was a satisfyingly human Alberich in Das Rheingold, his debut in the role. In Götterdämmerung, the role was performed with great dignity by septuagenarian Oskar Hillebrandt. Rúni Brattaberg was disappointing as Hagen, his voice large and dark, but with a rumbling sound. Gerhard Siegel was a memorable Mime. Distinguished veteran Waltraud Meier was a scene-stealing Waltraute.

 Ádám Fischer displayed complete mastery of the score. (Pályi)
Fischer and the orchestra: Mastery of the score, mesmerizing sound. (Pályi)

But the star of this production was Fischer, whose mastery of the score now rivals that of the greatest Wagnerian conductors. The orchestra played with surprising precision in fine symphonic arches, creating some of the most mesmerizing sound I can recall anywhere.

This production of the Ring will return next summer, but not in 2018, so the festival can focus on the other Wagner operas — a lesson, Fischer said, he learned from Bayreuth. Meanwhile, 2018 will see the debut of a new Ring cycle across town at the Hungarian State Opera.

James L. Paulk is a freelance critic who has written regularly for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution