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Two premieres awaited us in Bayreuth this year: an opera from The Ring of the Nibelung was presented as a stand-alone piece and an artist made his way from the stage to the orchestra pit. Review of a memorable Valkyrie, led by Placido Domingo with Catherine Foster, John Lundgren, Stephen Gould (and his replacement Vincent Wolfsteiner), Anja Kampe, Marina Prudenskaya, Tobias Kehrer, Caroline Wenborne, Christiane Kohl, Simone Schröder, Marina Prudenskaya, Regine Hangler, Mareike Morr, Mika Kaneko and Alexandra Petersamer
In addition to Lohengrin’s new production, this year at the Bayreuth Festival the audience was looking forward to the Valkyrie.
The curiosity was justified by a combination of factors: the first day of the Ring as a stand-alone piece out of the context of the cycle, the last performance of Frank Castorf’s controversial staging, and an stunning conductor, Placido Domingo.
This is even more exceptional if we consider that the tenor played the role of Siegmund here at the beginning of the 1990s, and that today he is back there for the same opera, but to conduct it.
The main question was how Domingo would bring it off. His credentials in the conducting profession were mainly the Italian repertoire prior to Bayreuth and in addition to his first Wagner opera, the singing maestro will have to be able to master the typical acoustics. Conducting in Bayreuth requires specific time adjustments because the orchestra’s sound must be about half a second ahead of the singers’ to sound synchronized in the hall.
The lights go out. A religious silence falls over the wagnerian temple. Domingo takes his place in the pit and the music begins.
From the first notes of the opening, with a very slow tempo, we began to be concerned with the singers. Already entangled in demanding roles, this stylistic choice will make performance even more arduous.
The first to suffer is Vincent Wolfsteiner who, not only must face the challenge of taking on a last-minute role (replacing Stephen Gould), but must also be able to avoid being distracted by the improvisations of a pair of turkeys, part of the set designed by Castorf, today very loquacious.
We therefore endure a difficult first act that struggles to involve us. The orchestra occasionally overshadows the voices, makes them unintelligible and blurs their sound.
Thankfully, the following acts are more fluid, the set-up becomes less fragile and we finally manage to appreciate the show and let ourselves be carried away by emotions.
What contributes to the success of the second act is the theatrical power of the two central roles of the Ring: Brunnhilde and Wotan, remarkably performed by Catherine Foster and John Lundgren.
The walkyrie makes a confident and powerful appearance that advocates for the importance of her role, since if there is a hero in the Ring, it is neither Siegmund nor Siegfried, but it is her, Wotan’s favourite, who disobeys him and is thus punished by losing her immortality.
During the three days of the lyrical drama, we witness a real evolution of his character, first joyful and carefree, then more and more mature and disenchanted. The girl becomes an adult woman, makes her own decisions and bears the consequences.
As in the previous editions of the festival, Catherine Foster impresses us with the clarity and energy of her voice, the balance of her vocal delivery and her strong commitment.
John Lundgren‘s Wotan is in stark contrast: impressive and resolute in his quest for power, which proves stronger than his love for the twins and Brunnhilde, but also inhibited by the constraints of his role as king of the Gods and by his own rules, which his wife is compelled to remind him of. His incarnation by John Lundgren is sincere and touching (especially in his farewell to his daughter Leb wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind), and one appreciates his solid and vibrant voice.
Of Tobias Kehreron (Hunding) we remark the sound, round and virile voice that fills the room with beautiful colors. His character, authoritarian and intimidating – he doesn’t hesitate to throw himself at Siegmund by jumping off the stairs – is an extremely compelling incarnation.
Vincent Wolfsteiner (Siegmund), on the other hand, shows persistence and professionalism, amply rewarded by the public’s applause. His Siegmund has all the features of the character: heroic, brave and harrowing when it comes to his devotion to Siegliende.
Anja Kampe (Siegliende), whose velvety voice and steady and uniform vocal delivery are striking, persuasively embodies a broken woman under the influence of a violent and abusive husband. Thanks to Siegmund’s presence, she bravely rebels and leaves the family home.
Unfortunately, Fricka does not like this, and explains her reasons to Wotan in an ironic domestic scene (the man who reads the newspaper while the woman complains). At first, we resent her lack of empathy for Siegliende’s suffering, but Marina Prudenskaya‘s passionate and ultimately heart-warming interpretation makes us step back and sympathize with this woman who is protecting her husband’s integrity. The pleasant, full bodied voice of the mezzo-soprano also contributes to making this character more pleasant than usual.
By attending the Castorf Ring once again, the multiple reading levels become clearer, we enjoy how the videos improve the legibility of the events on stage, especially the ones invisible to the public, and illustrate the parallel with the Bolshevik revolution.
The Azerbaijan oil refinery closes its operations in Bayreuth. Patric Seibert is relieved of his many silent roles, which he carried out with commitment and strength of character. The theatre can be cleared of the complex architecture designed by Aleksandar Denic, while awaiting the new Ring in 2020….