Bayreuth’s new Ring cycle, the first for 13 years, ended with a sustained outburst of booing and cheering in roughly equal measure for the director Valentin Schwarz and his team. The traditionalists in the audience would have hated Schwarz’s resolutely deconstructed approach, but clearly his narrative appealed to many more than the previous new cycle here, directed by Frank Castorf. There was a more muted response than in previous instalments to the music under Cornelius Meister, though that was defused by the appearance onstage of the full festival orchestra and chorus who were cheered to the rafters.
This final Götterdämmerung did not attempt to answer the many questions thrown up by the previous three operas. The focus on the children of the future remained: Siegfried and Brunnhilde evidently had a daughter, who was pushed around the family in the first two acts, and finally had to watch the whole agonising denouement of her parents’ deaths. She lay prostrate at the end, while the final moments of the opera returned us to the video with which Das Rheingold started, of twin babies in the womb.
Clearly this twilight of the gods is going to result in a new race, but Schwarz put as gloomy a prognosis as possible on their prospect. Designer Andrea Cozzi’s settings were bleak: after a dream-like return to the children’s bedroom, the last act took place in the squalid remnants of a disused swimming pool, now fenced in and with a vertiginous ladder, broken through to a bit of water below, where Siegfried (in this instalment Clay Hilley) fished with his daughter, and the Rhinemaidens cavort uneasily.
Given the reductionist nature of the staging, there was no funeral pyre for Brunnhilde (Iréne Theorin, who also took this part in Die Walküre): her histrionic final scene was played out in the rotting pool next to the dead body of Siegfried, and she just lay down next to him to expire. Neither singer was a vocal match for those who sang the parts in the previous opera Siegfried; while they had plenty of projection they were not always focused. More impressive was Michael Kupfer-Radecky’s Gunther, and the return of Albert Dohmen as Alberich, one of the total successes of the cycle alongside Lise Davidsen’s astonishing Sieglinde.
Both Elisabeth Teige’s vulgar Gutrune and Christa Mayer’s Waltraute were vividly acted and sung. Meister’s conducting was strongly driven and responsive to the singers throughout, but did not attain the heights of the set pieces in Götterdämmerung, with Siegfried’s funeral march oddly underplayed.
Within the endless scope of Wagner’s drama for re-interpretation, there is plenty of scope for a Ring without a ring, and even operas without gods, as long as there are situations to grip us and music to dazzle us. Valentin Schwarz admirably stripped back this Ring to human ambition, conflict, and nemesis. But so far, it feels like a work in progress, an only half-successful experiment in radical revisionism.