Bayreuth's New Ring: Critics Swoon for Conductor Christian Thielemann; For Director Tankred Dorst, Not So Much

Classic Arts News   Bayreuth's New Ring: Critics Swoon for Conductor Christian Thielemann; For Director Tankred Dorst, Not So Much
"Fire and flood purify the earth and give hope for humanity in the final moments of Richard Wagner's Ring cycle, but the new production that just premiered here may prove beyond redemption."

So wrote Mike Silverman of The Associated Press after the curtain fell last Monday night (July 31) on G‹tterd‹mmerung, the conclusion of the Bayreuth Festival's new production of Wagner's behemoth epic — and the first operatic staging directed by Tankred Dorst, the 80-year-old playwright/actor/director and _minence grise of the German theater.

Following the July 25 gala performance of Der fliegende H‹llander which opened the 2006 festival, the new Ring cycle launched on July 26 with Das Rheingold and continued with Die Walk‹re (July 27) and Siegfried (July 29).

As has been usual in Bayreuth in recent years, the director and his production team were reportedly booed after G‹tterd‹mmerung — although not by the Financial Times, where Andrew Clark wrote that Dorst's production "was not provocative enough to deserve a reaction either one way or the other." Germany's international radio broadcaster, Deutsche Welle, quoted the critic of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung as wondering "if [Dorst] ever managed to develop an interpretation of The Ring or if his inspiration on Wagner was exhausted after just a few decorative thoughts."

In The New York Times, Anthony Tommasini was more sympathetic to Dorst, but found Bernd Skodzig's costumes the "biggest lapse of the production," adding that the orchestra musicians, who went onstage in dress-down summer clothes to receive a cheering ovation, "looked a lot better than the production's costumes."

According to the reports, Dorst's concept (or conceit, depending on one's view) is that the gods, having already suffered their twilight, remain in our world, doomed forever to reenact their stories unnoticed by humanity. Thus, while Wagner's deities, dwarves and giants were mostly shown in mythological (rather than modern or out-of-period) garb, Alberich's mine was a power plant, Wotan's mountain was a modern hilltop park, and the Rhinemaidens reappeared in G‹tterd‹mmerung through a storm drain. The AP's Silverman allowed that, compared to Christoph Schlingensief's notorious 2004 staging of Parsifal (revived at Bayreuth this year), "Dorst's new production of the Ring is only a modest failure. It has moments of great ingenuity, but his concept that 'the gods are among us but we don't see them' hasn't been developed sufficiently — and too often he leaves the singers to fend for themselves."

Conductor Christian Thielemann was lavishly praised all around. "Whatever one's take on the production," said the New York Times's Tommasini, "Mr. Thielemann drew a probing, radiant and exhilarating musical performance from this orchestra of dedicated instrumentalists." Tom Service of London's The Guardian agreed, saying, " ... there is no doubt that this year's Ring at Bayreuth belongs to ... Thielemann ... [who] creates a musical experience epic in its scale and inexorable in its apocalyptic, shattering power." Clark wrote in the FT that "Dorst's Ring has been no match for the music, but at least Christian Thielemann and the festival orchestra kept their side of the bargain."

The singers generally won somewhat kinder words but far fewer column inches than their octogenarian director.

These days, the hero Siegfried is considered the most difficult role in the cycle to cast. This year's contender, Stephen Gould, was criticized for some tentativeness and weak high notes in the title role of Siegfried, though he seems to have improved for G‹tterd‹mmerung. In the NY Times, Tommasini described him as "far from a born heldentenor ... but he sang with unflagging verve, acted with agility and pulled it off ... until a real contender comes along, he will do."

As Br‹nnhilde, Linda Watson received cheers from the crowd but diverse comments from critics. The FT's Clark called her "uncharismatic"; AP's Silverman said she "rose splendidly to the demands of the Immolation Scene [in G‹tterd‹mmerung]"; Tommasini of the NY Times thought that "she sang with vibrancy, with a voice that sliced through the orchestra and ... some lovely phrasing ... but she was just too wobbly and strident for me." The reviews were just as divergent for Falk Struckmann's Wotan: The Guardian's Service described him as "powerless from the start" and "never seem[ing] in charge of the role," while Silverman said he offered "surprising reserves of power and burnished tone" and Tommasini thought he gave "the most vocally compelling performance" of the principals.

Two ladies won praise from all quarters: soprano Adrianne Pieczonka for a "luminous" (NY Times) and "radiantly sung" (Guardian) Sieglinde, and mezzo Mihoko Fujimura as a "dusky-toned" Erda (New York Times) and an "impassioned" (AP) and "electrifying" (FT) Waltraute.

As for the acting, Service opined in The Guardian that "you have to forgive the singers some of their performances given the paucity of Tankred Dorst's direction." Apparently Dorst himself doesn't accept all that responsibility: He told the AP (as quoted by Deutsche Welle) that he was able to realize only about 70 to 80 percent of his ideas and that "encouraged the singers to personify their roles themselves, but not everyone has the talent for that." However, he will get to return next summer, if he wishes, to fine-tune both his staging and his singers' portrayals. Such is the all-too-rare opportunity that the Bayreuth Festival provides.

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