Valentin Schwarz's Bayreuth Festival retelling of Wagner’s Ring as an epic tragedy of an extended family continues to intrigue, and so far is holding its own in terms of its internal logic and its perceptive character development. One of its more engaging aspects is its playing with our expectations, and our knowledge of the original plot, so that we are left constantly wondering how this or that particular element of the libretto can possibly be staged in this context. Although the festival website helpfully provides podcasts of members of the cast narrating this revised storyline, much only falls into place by careful observation of the detail – or as far as one can from 25 rows back.

Andreas Schager (Siegfried), Igor Schwab (Grane) and Daniela Köhler (Brünnhilde)
© Bayreuther Festspiele | Enrico Nawrath

In Act 1 of Siegfried, Mime has taken over Hunding's abandoned ‘hut’ and has at least repaired it and sorted out the electrics. He seems to be a rather dodgy children's entertainer and is preparing for Siegfried's birthday party. Our ‘hero-to-be’ rolls home drunk, though, and swiftly destroys the toy weapon that Mime has wrapped as his present. But Mime, feigning infirmity with a crutch and stairlift, has the boy well trained to his day-to-day needs. After Siegfried has gone out again, Wotan turns up like the neglectful father to drop off a birthday gift of his own (carried by his two heavies, presumably representative of his ravens) – Siegfried's blond locks matching those of Wotan seem to settle the paternity question posed last time (which, one supposes, now makes Brünnhilde his half-sister rather than aunt). The gift box contains a new crutch, inside which is secreted a blade (Nothung at last), which Siegfried then sharpens to his satisfaction, and his forging song accompanies his trashing of his environment, the hammer blows the clashes of weapon against anything to hand.

Arnold Bezuyen (Mime)
© Bayreuther Festspiele | Enrico Nawrath

Fafner appears to be the family's true patriarch, lying on his deathbed in a room of the family mansion, and cared for by the young Hagen, none other than the now grown-up abducted boy from Rheingold, and a nurse who turns out to be the Woodbird. An unseen music lesson (the business with the reed pipe) accompanies Siegfried's futile first attempt at making a pass, and his ‘horn call” finds an analogue in his showing off with swordplay. Rather than deliberately use his weapon on Fafner, he is merely riled up enough by his intervention to knock him to the ground and so the death by heart attack appears accidental. But more alcohol fuels his understanding of both the Woodbird and Mime (which explains why the latter had no need to cook up his poison in Act 1) and he has no compunction about finishing his adopted father off with his blade. The Woodbird knows exactly where to find the family heirloom, in Fafner's coat pocket, and at last we have a ring, or at least a bejewelled knuckleduster – which Siegfried, not seeing its value, promptly gives to Hagen… The boy's yellow baseball cap from Rheingold, presumably representative of the Tarnhelm and which has meanwhile been in Mime's hands, is tantalisingly left on the floor, as Schwarz continues to tease us.

Daniela Köhler (Brünnhilde)
© Bayreuther Festspiele | Enrico Nawrath

Erda is now a down-and-out, still caring for the child she rescued at the end of Rheingold and whom Wotan/Wanderer initially mistakes for his former lover. Siegfried and Hagen have meanwhile bonded and they both easily disarm him of his revolver. Brünnhilde, who has not so much been put to sleep as sent to have a face-lift, is already on her feet when Siegfried encounters her (given the various TV soap references, the idea of a cast change ‘explained” by plastic surgery must be a deliberate one). There's an interesting contretemps between Siegfried and Brünnhilde’s companion Grane, but the potentially more pertinent issue comes when Hagen, already abandoned by his new friend, slinks off (with the ring) and presumably now harbours a grudge against Siegfried. Brünnhilde, though, at least retrieves the cap/Tarnhelm…

Alexandra Steiner (Woodbird), Andreas Schager, Arnold Bezuyen and Branko Buchberger (Young Hagen)
© Bayreuther Festspiele | Enrico Nawrath

This was another musically strong performance. Andreas Schager was his usual tireless self in the title role, even if it was a rare moment when his delivery dipped below fortissimo. Arnold Bezuyen's Mime proved a good contrast in Act 1's battle of the tenors, presenting a wily character without vocal caricature. After Iréne Theorin's less than inspiring Walküre Brünnhilde, our heroine ‘woke up’ as Daniela Köhler, an altogether more vocally secure assumption. Tomasz Konieczny (Wanderer), Olafur Sigurdarson (Alberich), Wilhelm Schwinghammer (Fafner) and Okka von der Damerau (Erda) all added to the success of their previous contributions to the cycle, and Alexandra Steiner brought a fresh voice to the role of the Woodbird. Cornelius Meister and the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra once again impressed with the power, beauty and flexibility of their music-making.

The challenge of mounting 15 hours of music drama in one fell swoop rather than introducing the four components over several seasons is not unique to Bayreuth (indeed, the Staatsoper Berlin is doing the very same this autumn), but it remains a risk, and a few untidy moments in the dramatic presentation of this performance pointed to the limitations of rehearsal time and preparation that one is sure will be overcome in time.

****1