Not Quite Traditional: ‘Ring’ Without The Rhine, But Rewards Are Golden

As Brünnhilde, Camilla Nylund was the embodiment of a Nordic shield-maiden. She first meets Siegfried (Klaus Florian Vogt, right) at the end of ‘Siegfried’ after awakening from a long sleep. (Photo courtesy of Zurich Opera)

ZURICH — At its best, live opera is a visceral experience. Zurich Opera delivered just that with the second of its two complete cycles of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, which ran May 18-26. Conductor Gianandrea Noseda and the Philharmonia Zürich provided most of the thrills, although the cast, especially the superb Wotan of Tomasz Konieczny, played their part, too.

Traditional, concept-free stagings of Wagner’s Ring are most likely a thing of the past. Andreas Homoki’s production for Zurich, with sets and costumes by Christian Schmidt, may be as close as one is likely to encounter nowadays. Time and place, however, are fluid in Homoki’s Ring, and the gods undoubtedly were far too human for some tastes.

The specific site locations that Wagner describes are absent, with the action unfolding in the paneled rooms of what appears to be a 19th-century villa. In Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, the white walls are in pristine condition. They are a dark gray in Siegfried, which is the least imaginative of the stagings. Reflecting the state of the gods’ affairs, or perhaps Hagen’s warped psyche, dingy paint is peeling off the faded walls in Götterdämmerung.

Furnishings are sparse, although a large table with chairs appears regularly throughout, seemingly a symbol of Wotan’s power. For the gods, gilded Neoclassical-style furniture reflects their divine status. In the Hall of the Gibichungs, stark, modernist furniture takes its place, a nod perhaps to the brutal, transactional nature of its owner.

The magnificently malicious Christopher Purves portrayed Alberich, shown in ‘Das Rheingold’ with the mocking Rhinemaidens.

The costumes range from elegant, mid-18th-century dresses for the ladies to leather breastplates for the Valkyries. Konieczny’s Wotan is a rather dandified gentleman in a fine black suit. In Wotan’s guise as the Wanderer, Konieczny dons a flowing black cloak and a rakish wide-brimmed hat. Alberich (the magnificently malicious Christopher Purves) is seen in human form wearing an enormous fur coat.

Some of Wagner’s instructions are ignored: Most significantly, there are no maidens frolicking in the waters of the Rhine. Three platinum-blond Hollywood starlets in white silk pajamas (the delightful Uliana Alexyuk, Niamh O’Sullivan, and Siena Licht Miller) serve as alluring substitutes. They may be visually incongruous but certainly live up to Fricka’s description of the Rhinemaidens as harlots who have led many a man astray.

One of the loveliest images is Rebeca Olvera’s Woodbird in Siegfried. Olvera glides across the stage flapping large white wings in time to the music. Her movements are as charming as her voice. The three Norns (Freya Apffelstaedt, Lena Sutor-Wernich, and Giselle Allen) are rather dowdy in comparison as they weave the Rope of Destiny but sing impressively.

It is a disappointment that there is no actual fire in the final scene of Die Walküre. The rock on which Brünnhilde sleeps is a smoldering rocky outcrop, resembling a massive charcoal briquet. There is nonetheless the requisite tree, albeit a smallish one, atop it in Siegfried. At the end of Götterdämmerung, there is likewise no blazing funeral pyre. Brünnhilde, joined by Siegfried, walks off stage in the direction of a red glow.

Almost everything else is there, however, just as Wagner desired, from super-sized gold nuggets to a gleaming Tarnhelm, as well as the Valkyries’ equine helmets that do double duty as their steeds. The Ash World Tree is rendered massive, dead, and barren of leaves, the result of Wotan’s abuse of power. In both Das Rheingold and Siegfried, a marvelous dragon appears. Alas, it doesn’t breathe fire, but Wagner didn’t call for that.

Wotan (Tomasz Konieczny) puts Brünnhilde to sleep at the end of ‘Die Walküre’ on a smoldering rocky outcrop, resembling a massive charcoal briquet.

Valhalla is first depicted in realistic landscape paintings, complete with the requisite rainbow at the end of Das Rheingold. In Götterdämmerung, Wotan watches the castle burn in real time, with digitally produced flames appearing in an ornate picture frame.

Konieczny’s Wotan was as powerful as he was complex, with his voice blazing in triumph, as well as in defeat. In the tender moments that Wagner allotted the god, such as when Wotan yields to Brünnhilde’s pleas to protect her as she sleeps, Konieczny’s voice ached with compassion and tenderness. When his spear was shattered to pieces by Siegfried’s sword, Konieczny’s Wotan was bemused by fate, rather than despairing and despondent.

As Brünnhilde, Camilla Nylund was the embodiment of a Nordic shield-maiden. The soprano’s evolution from a high-spirited, impetuous maiden to a woman who has loved, triumphed, and surmounted betrayal was reflected in both her demeanor and voice. Klaus Florian Vogt triumphed, too, as Siegfried. At first, he was a rambunctious innocent youth with voice and gait to match. As a pawn in Hagen’s hands, Vogt’s Siegfried grew in stature, with both his spirit and voice taking on darkness and depth.

Purves was not alone in deliciously detailed embodiment of evil and greed. With his long, straggly hair, towering height, and cavernous bass voice, David Leigh oozed deceit as Hagen. Another such wonderful creation was contributed by Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, whose prickly, prideful Mime boiled over with resentment and cunning.

As the doomed Walsungs, Eric Cutler was dashing and firm-voiced as Siegmund, while Daniela Köhler’s gleaming soprano made her Sieglinde one of the standout performances of the entire Ring. Christof Fischesser’s Hunding, while hardly a villain, was unflinchingly brutal and direct.

Brünnhilde (Camilla Nylund) and a drugged Siegfried (Klaus Florian Vogt, right) confront one another at the end of Act 2 of ‘Götterdämmerung.’

As for the remaining gods, the fine tenor Matthias Klink’s Jack Sparrow-like Loge was lithe and cunning. Claudia Mahnke’s Fricka was less of an overbearing wife than a proper society matron with standards. Anna Danik’s mezzo-soprano lacked plummy richness but suited the concept of an other-worldly Erda, who was masked and dressed in pristine white.

Portrayed as privileged, cricket-playing toffs, Xiaomeng Zhang’s resonant baritone gave his Donner gravitas, while Omer Kobiljak made for an equally forthright Froh. Their mortal equivalents were Lauren Fagan’s Gutrune and Daniel Schmutzhard’s Gunther, who were to the manor born but emotionally stunted due to the machinations of their half-brother Hagen. Brent Michael Smith’s Fafner was cut from the same cloth as Leigh’s Hagen, with his more lascivious brother Fasolt portrayed winningly by David Soar.

The sounds that arose from the Philharmonia Zürich in the pit were wonderful. Noseda conducted a performance in which the orchestral sonorities ranged from shimmering, transparent ripples to thundering blasts from the lower brass. The latter provided one unforgettable aural thrill after another.

All was not perfect. Although generally alert to balance, Noseda did occasionally let the orchestral nearly overpower Nylund’s Brünnhilde and Vogt’s Siegfried. Likewise, while tempos were generally spot on, the Love Duet in Siegfried did seem to drag on a bit. The rewards, however, were far greater.

Each leitmotiv arose organically from the rich orchestral textures, propelling the emotional and musical flow ever forward.The final minutes, when Wagner weaves together the Ring’s great musical themes (Rhine, Rhinemaidens, Valhalla, Power of Gods, Siegfried, Twilight, and Redemption), were transcendent.

The cycle can be viewed as video on demand through June 15 here.