In the final pages of his Ring cycle, Wagner’s orchestral writing reaches extraordinary heights of grandeur and conviction, in music that depicts the destruction of an old corrupt world and the dawn of a new untainted one. It is the moment to which everything in the cycle has been leading, the moment when the tangled and dishonest world of the gods, in which the audience has been enmeshed across four operas and nearly 16 hours of music and drama, comes crashing down. It is by any standards climactic.
As these final pages were reached in Valentin Schwarz’s new Ring cycle at the Bayreuth festival, the conductor Cornelius Meister and the festival orchestra, in the concealed Bayreuth pit, were playing out of their skins as the score demanded. Above them on the stage, however, Iréne Theorin’s Brünnhilde, who is supposed to be the agent of destruction and rebirth, was settling herself on the bottom of an empty and dirty swimming pool next to the dead body of her husband Siegfried, the remains of her mutilated horse in a plastic bag, and with no suggestion at all in Schwarz’s staging that a moment of artistic significance had been reached.
It had not helped that Theorin had just delivered an undistinguished account of the final scene of Götterdämmerung, one of the cycle’s great vocal set pieces. But if the climax of this Ring contained any suggestion that a new order of things had somehow been made possible, it was hard to see where it was. The music, in short, was saying everything, but the staging, an empty pool full of junk, nothing. As the curtain fell, it triggered a fusillade of booing - along with cheering too.
Audiences journey from around the world to Bayreuth to watch the Ring Cycle whenever it is staged; Wagner’s purpose-built theatre still has tremendous allure and mystique. Occasionally, everything comes together, as it did last in Barry Kosky’s 2017 Die Meistersinger, conducted by Philippe Jordan, and before that in Stefan Herheim’s brilliant Parsifal in 2008, conducted by Daniele Gatti. But the days when Bayreuth could claim to set the world’s standards in Wagner production – as it did in the late 19th century when the festival began, and then again after the second world war, when the composer’s grandson Wieland Wagner and successors Patrice Chéreau and Harry Kupfer reconceived the works afresh, have gone.
Schwarz’s cycle was a further milestone in Bayreuth’s continuing loss of authority and direction. You might even say, in true Wagnerian manner, that this was a cursed Ring Cycle. Originally scheduled for 2020, it arrived two years late due to the pandemic with a new conductor, Meister, drafted in at short notice after Pietari Inkinen contracted Covid. Meister’s direction was fluent and competent without coming close to the excellence of Christian Thielemann’s conducting of Lohengrin in the middle of the Ring week. Important castings were changed right up to the first performances, with Tomasz Konieczny injuring himself when a chair broke during Die Walküre, requiring Michael Kupfer-Radetzky to make a successful substitution at very short notice, and Clay Hilley stepping in for Stephen Gould as Siegfried in Götterdämmerung at the last minute.
The cycle nevertheless produced good moments. Schwarz’s idea, in Rheingold, that the cycle’s foundational sin was the seizure of a child, not of the gold from which a ring of power would be created, was challenging in the best sense. In Die Walküre, successfully subverting another big moment to the horror of traditionalists, he placed the final focus of the opera on Fricka’s futile triumph over Wotan, not on Wotan’s farewell to his daughter Brünnhilde. In Siegfried, the unwrapping of the tightly bandaged Brünnhilde was a striking take on Siegfried’s moment of female discovery. In some ways the most successful staging of the cycle was act two of Götterdämmerung, performed without fuss or distraction inside a simple white cube set that felt like a 20th-century throwback.
The quality of singing was episodic too. The only truly standout performance was Lise Davidsen’s Sieglinde, a performance for the ages. Klaus Florian Vogt, in his element as Lohengrin under Thielemann, brought his otherworldly tone to Siegmund too, outstanding in the annunciation of death scene with Brünnhilde, but less effective in conveying the character’s tortured loneliness. Most of the various Wotans (there were three) were adequate rather than notable. The two Brünnhildes (Daniela Köhler took the role in Siegfried, with Theorin in the other two operas) were as commanding as the role requires. Andreas Schager was a wonderfully manic Siegfried, ringingly dauntless throughout his name opera. Olafur Sigurdarson was a fine and plausible Alberich. Georg Zeppenfeld an exemplary Hunding.
Too often, though, the cycle was a patchwork, coming briefly into focus and then slipping out of it again. Illuminating ideas were not followed through and in truth were not often sustainable. It tried to do too much, some of it interesting and thought-provoking, too much of it merely distracting and inconsequential. It added extraneous characters and details (such as unscripted children of various characters), while ignoring many of Wagner’s intentions (there was no ring, no spear, no dragon, an intermittent sword and a halfhearted attempt at a Tarnhelm). The Schwarz cycle ran out of steam in the end because it had no big or unifying idea – not even a really bad unifying idea such as Frank Castorf’s pretentious 2013-17 Bayreuth Ring which preceded this one.
New Ring cycles are springing up as the world’s opera houses get back into their rhythms after the pandemic. It is a competitive market. Among others, there was a well received one in Leipzig in June, a promising one in Zürich, there’s another in Berlin this autumn and two in London in the years to come. Bayreuth remains an extraordinary venue, its ambitious ability to mount a new cycle in a single season is remarkable, and the 150th anniversary Ring, to be mounted there in 2026, will doubtless be a global event. But the festival feels as though it needs a radical rethink if it is to merit the reputation and attention.