Owho knew? Wagner’s monumental Ring cycle is not a saga of gold, power and love after all. That was just what the composer thought. In fact, The Ring is a story of child abduction and dehumanization. At least that’s what Austrian director Valentin Schwarz seems to be saying in the first part of this long-awaited new Ring cycle at the Bavarian festival where the work itself was premiered in 1876.
The new Bayreuth Ring has been longer than expected since the last cycle in 2017. There have been director changes, delays caused by the pandemic, power struggles within the festival itself and, there are fewer three weeks conductor Pietari Inkinen was forced out due to Covid (Bayreuth says he will be back next year). The baton passed to Stuttgart Opera’s Music Director, Cornelius Meister, who opened the Ring with a smooth, flowing narrative by Das Rheingold, beautifully performed by the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra.
More extensive testing is coming as the cycle unfolds. This is certainly the case with Schwarz’s concept-heavy production, in which Rheingold opens into a children’s wading pool in an Arcadian setting, from which Alberich, renouncing love for no apparent reason, grabs a young boy in golden football shirt under the nose of casualness. Nannies Rheinmaiden. It’s a shaken and topical predatory moment, and the idea that the original sin that drives the Ring and the world of power is actually child abuse is searing.
The larger question is whether this is an idea that can be supported across the Ring without distorting what Wagner wrote. Even in Rheingold much was swept away. As one might expect, in this Ring without gold and without a ring, the staging, in the eclectic sets by Andrea Cozzi and the costumes by Andy Besuch, dispenses with all the other Wagnerian accessories.
All the same, there are pregnant possibilities. The young abductee, brutalized and wild, is the Hagen of Götterdämmerung in the making. The school-uniformed girls he bullies may be embryonic Valkyries. And the potential purge of a rotten, heartless world is the lingering Wagnerian theme of themes.
Vocally, Bayreuth standards are more often decent than stellar these days. So it turned out here. Egils Silins is a light-spoken Wotan, even more absurdly imprisoned in his Valhalla delusions than ever. Olafur Sigurdarson stands out as Alberich, although there was some tension on opening night. Daniel Kirch is an elegantly sung Lodge and Okke von der Damerau brings a touch of old-school operatic grandeur to Erda. Watch this place. This Ring cycle could go either way.