‘Rheingold’ In Zurich, Or Wagner Does Hollywood (Jean Harlow Sighting)

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Loge (Matthias Klink) in midair in the Zurich Opera production of Wagner’s ‘Das Rheingold.’ (Photos by Monika Rittershaus)

ZURICH — There are no Rhinemaidens splashing about or gods with armor and winged helmets in Andreas Homoki’s Das Rheingold for Zurich Opera. Rather Wotan, Fricka, and the lot live in a grand villa, in what might as well be 19th-centrury Zurich. Aptly so, in that Wagner composed the opera there while living in exile after his political activities made him persona non grata in Dresden.

Zurich hasn’t mounted a new Ring since Robert Wilson’s 2000 production of Das Rheingold with Franz Welser-Möst conducting. It’s a first for both Homoki, intendant of the Zurich Opera, and Gianandrea Noseda, who became the company’s music director in September 2021. The excitement over the new Ring spilled over to the general public, which flocked to see a 10-minute light installation on the façade of the opera house. It was a colorful, magical introduction to the mythical world Wagner created in the Ring. Inside the opera house, it was a different matter.

In Homoki’s concept for Das Rheingold, the mythical elements rest uneasily with what for all appearances seems to be a rather stuffy upperclass family. Wotan wears a black suit and flowing cape, while Fricka and Freia appear in elegant, stylized dresses of the period. Donner and Froh are high-spirited young men, seemingly a bit slow on the uptake, always carrying cricket bats.

The deities come off as dysfunctional, but Wagner built that into the plot. Wotan, after all, does sell Freia to the giants Fasolt and Fafner in return for their help building Valhalla. Sibling rivalry results in brother killing brother in a dispute over a pile of gold. Small wonder that Zurich Opera marketed Das Rheingold with the come-on Rheinality TV.

Alberich (Christopher Purves) with the Rhinemaidens (Uliana Alexyuk, Niamh O’Sullivan, and Siena Licht Miller).

Homoki, however, is not content to keep the action in one time period. Images from Hollywood films keep intruding on the 19th-century bourgeois ennui. Jean Harlow, the original Blonde Bombshell, was the inspiration for the three Rhinemaidens, who wear white silk pajamas and platinum blond wings. They cavort on a large bed, as opposed to the watery depths of the Rhine. Alberich renounces love for gold and the hopes of world domination, but it was certainly a tough call.

The Nibelungs get some pretty good shtick. Mime has fancy hand action straight out of The Three Stooges, while the black-clad Nibelung tumble about the stage like Keystone Cops. The best, however, is Loge, the god of fire and Wotan’s fixer, who is a dead ringer for Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean.

Christian Schmidt’s set is quite simple, consisting of identical white rooms with little decoration positioned on a revolving stage. A large painting of Valhalla is propped up against a wall, which is torn early on in the action, never to be mended. Wotan descends into Alberich’s realm through a large armoire, which later opens to reveal a cloud-like haze of soft white light to beckon the deities to Valhalla at the end of the opera. The magic closet is taken straight from C.S. Lewis’ novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which was subsequently turned into a fantasy film.

There were, however, some nods to tradition. For one, Wotan has a spear. Alberich gets the most conventional treatment with a shiny Tarnhelm and his transformations into a dragon and then a toad. There were also huge gold nuggets piled everywhere until they were gathered into one stack to hide the sight of Freia in accordance with the demands of Fasolt and Fafner.

Christopher Purves as Alberich.

The mix of tragedy and comedy didn’t capture the deep magic and profound despair that Wagner instilled in Das Rheingold. More than once, the mix of high drama and comedy brought Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos to mind, a very different opera indeed.

Wagner was far better served in the music. Noseda’s challenge was to deliver the sumptuousness and depth of Wagner’s score while maintaining the proper balance between stage and pit in the intimate Zurich Opera House. This he managed splendidly, without sacrificing any of the visceral musical thrills.

The giants stomped to the sounds of the Philharmonia Zurich’s lower brasses, which resounded through the hall, as did the Nibelungs hammering away on their anvils. When shimmering string sounds were called for, they too arose from the pit. The orchestra has seemingly forged an immediate bond with Noseda, which portends great things as this Ring unfolds.

With no need to pump out sound and Noseda’s careful attention to balance, the fine cast that Zurich Opera assembled was able to sing with extraordinary attention to text, as well as a great range of dynamic shading and vocal coloring. As Wotan, Tomasz Konieczny was lost in his thoughts much of the time, except when facing down Alberich over the gold, which he needed to ransom Freia from Fasolt and Fafner. Still, Konieczny sang with imposing authority.

Patricia Bardon’s Fricka and Kiandra Howarth’s Freia appeared heavily sedated for much of the action. Deprived of Freia’s magic apples, Fricka seemed to be overcome by an attack of the vapors and lapse into sleep. Vocally, however, they did sound like goddesses. Anna Danik lacked the vocal heft to do justice to Erda’s dire predictions that possession of the ring will bring about the end of the gods. Jordan Shanahan’s Donner and Omer Kobiljak’s Froh were a winning combination. Shanahan’s forthright singing made him a clear audience favorite.

The gods prepare to enter Valhalla.

The giants and dwarves were the most vivid vocally, just as they were dramatically, apart from Matthias Klink’s Loge, who sang with the same ease that he exhibited darting about the stage. Christopher Purves’ Alberich was the incarnation of greed and delivered his threats and curses to chilling effect. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke was an excellent Mime.

Attired as Alpine woodsmen dressed up in their Sunday best, David Soar’s Fasolt and Oleg Davydov’s Fafner were imposing vocally. Sensuality and glamour was provided by the alluring Rheinmaidens of Uliana Alexyuk, Niamh O’Sullivan, and Siena Licht Miller.

Homoki has stated that for Zurich’s new Ring, his goal was “to try to tell the story as simply and directly as possible.” Visually, this Das Rheingold pretty much hit that mark in terms of simplicity, undoubtedly a disappointment to many, but the Hollywood shenanigans tilted in the other direction. It remains to be seen whether his concept coalesces into something that can be sustained through four evenings of a complete performance of the Ring. There is no doubt, however, that Noseda with the Philharmonia Zurich in the pit will have no problems in that regard.