BAYREUTH, Germany — About 150 years ago, in a megalomaniac’s coup, Richard Wagner built a theater on a hilltop here in northern Bavaria.
His immense, complex, modern operas had never been presented as he imagined them. If he wanted them done right, he concluded, he would need to do them himself.
But when the Bayreuth Festival Theater opened in 1876, with the premiere of his full “Ring of the Nibelung” — a four-opera, 15-hour mythic tale about nature and power with a solid of gods, warriors, dwarves, giants, talking birds and spitting dragons — Wagner was still unsatisfied.
Amongst probably the most intractable (and inadvertently laugh-inducing) problems were the magical effects he called for: girls frolicking within the depths of a river; transformations into serpents; Valkyries riding through the air on horseback. Even now, with Twenty first-century stage technology, what Wagner makes musically persuasive has struggled to be visually and dramatically so.
Schwarz’s acidic, passionately performed, contemporary-dress version is a “Ring” without magic or nature, during which all of the characters are human, their relations much more tangled than usual, and all of the events happen on a single estate.
While within the libretto, the dwarf Alberich briefly turns himself right into a lowly toad, that’s here only a metaphor; it’s mentioned within the text, but nothing happens. The mighty Valkyries don’t fly through the sky, but bray around a waiting room in spike heels, flame-colored nouveau riche outfits and cosmetic surgery bandages. Siegfried, the flawed hero, is given a sword — or a minimum of a shard that resembles one — but it surely does nothing supernatural. (The weapons listed here are mostly handguns.)
That is all of a chunk with the demythologizing trend in Wagner stagings over the past 50 years, especially in Europe. Essentially the most influential ones over that period have been made within the shadow of George Bernard Shaw’s interpretation of the “Ring” as an allegory of anticapitalism, with the motion set kind of in the current and the gods depicted as members of the trendy upper classes, the characters’ nobility and valor as mostly sham.
That was also the case with the last Bayreuth “Ring,” by Frank Castorf, which ran from 2013 to 2017. But compared with Castorf’s gleefully baffling staging, which regularly abandoned coherent storytelling altogether, Schwarz’s is fairly straightforward in its account of the codependence and acrimony running through a family. There are whiffs of daytime soaps in the cruel vividness of the visuals and acting, and a little bit of “Succession,” too.
If the “Ring” is an allegory — a reach for some conservative operagoers, but a given for a lot of directors — the conceptual anchor of a production is the character of the gold, the theft of which from the Rhine, within the opening minutes, is the sin that sets the epic plot in motion.
The gold — and the powerful, toxic ring it’s molded into — symbolizes the commodity that the onstage world values most. For Castorf, it was oil, corroding political and social relations because it circulated through the globalized economy. For Schwarz, picking up on the magic apples the libretto says the gods require to retain their freshness, it’s youth, innocence, children.
His “Ring” is filled with adults obsessive about appearing younger — through exercise, cosmetic surgery, absurd attempts at hip clothing — whilst, greater than in most stagings, they visibly age over the cycle.
This obsession suggestions over into ominous hints of kid trafficking and abuse; the slaves of Nibelheim are here a roomful of identically dressed blonde girls drawing at tables. (The women aren’t overtly hurt, but they’re clearly being hoarded.) The dwarf Mime’s workshop is a creepy tea party and puppet theater for raggedy homemade dolls. And in Schwarz’s most original and inspired idea, the gold is just not a little bit of metal, but an actual young boy whose abduction embodies a society curdled by its attempts to outrun death.
The life cycle is the main focus from the start. The libretto sets the beginning of the “Ring” beneath the flowing waters of the Rhine, but Schwarz as an alternative shows us an animated projection of a womb, during which twin fetuses are frozen in a gesture somewhere between love and combat.
That image of a family’s foundational claustrophobia is a key to all that follows, because the motion plays out in and across the gods’ home, Valhalla. (The forbiddingly sleek, spare sets are by Andrea Cozzi, the evocatively changing light by Reinhard Traub, and the fiercely trashy costumes by Andy Besuch.) The giants who, within the libretto, have been conned into constructing the lair are here chic architects of a glassy expansion. Alberich now isn’t of a distinct race than Wotan, the king of the gods, but is his less successful brother.
The all-knowing Erda and the brutal Hunding are a part of the estate’s omnipresent, watchful servant underclass, which shines the silver because the important characters suffer. Later, Mime and the dissipated Gibichungs, Gutrune and Gunther, are ever more depraved inhabitants of parts of the property, long after the gods have passed on.
The role of Wotan, his hands ever pawing at women at their most vulnerable, is shared by the sturdy Egils Silins (in “Das Rheingold”) and the brooding Tomasz Konieczny (“Die Walküre” and “Siegfried”). Within the second act of “Walküre” last week, Konieczny had an appropriately bourgeois accident — the back of his Eames lounge chair broke off, and he tumbled to the ground — so he sat out the third act, giving Michael Kupfer-Radecky the chance to leap in, superbly, a couple of nights before his manic turn as Gunther.
In “Siegfried,” the title character was sung by the tirelessly secure Andreas Schager, subtly unfolding the lovable side of a drunken degenerate. In “Götterdämmerung,” Clay Hilley was a last-minute substitute as Siegfried, and he would have been impressive even under less dramatic circumstances.
“Die Walküre” was notable for Klaus Florian Vogt’s pure, rapt Siegmund and Lise Davidsen’s tender, surging Sieglinde, by far probably the most vocally resplendent performance of the week. Daniela Köhler sang brightly within the short but daunting Brünnhilde part in “Siegfried”; within the for much longer “Walküre” and “Götterdämmerung,” Iréne Theorin acted with intense commitment to the staging, but her sizable voice wobbled under pressure.
Moving into the production just a couple of weeks ago to switch a sick colleague, the conductor Cornelius Meister led a solid, sensibly paced, somewhat faceless reading of the sprawling rating.
For all that is evident, even blatant, about Schwarz’s staging, there’s much that’s memorably, lyrically ambiguous. Appearing periodically throughout his “Ring” is a small, glowing white pyramid in a glass cube. Characters occasionally carry it, and it sometimes sits next to furniture or within the corner, but it surely’s never explained or dwelled on. It’s whatever you think that it’s: a model of the pyramidal addition to Valhalla; a stylized sword or spear tip; purity; energy; antiquity; aspirations before and beyond the complications of reality. It’s, in essence, a line of poetry, enigmatic and evocative.
Similarly, drawings of stereotypically Wagnerian faces with winged helmets keep popping up — they’re what the women are making in Nibelheim — before taking form because the red masks carried by the sinister crowd of vassals in “Götterdämmerung.” Do they represent the stultifying weight of tradition in presenting the “Ring”? The dark side of German nationalism?
Thankfully, it’s not specified — neither is the meaning of the omnipresent horse figurines and toys. An important horse within the cycle, Brünnhilde’s Grane, is, just like the gold, here an actual person: a tall, dependable, silent aide with an equine mane and beard.
There have been indelible images throughout the week: the enormous Fafner (Wilhelm Schwinghammer) moldering at home on his deathbed; Alberich (Olafur Sigurdarson) and Hagen (Albert Dohmen) confronting one another on a palely lit stage, empty but for a punching bag that Hagen attacks, then forlornly embraces; Hagen’s slow, mournful dance as he leaves, waving Alberich’s leather jacket like a bullfighter.
And at the tip of “Die Walküre,” we don’t see Brünnhilde asleep in a hoop of fireplace, but slightly the ultimate attempt of Fricka (Christa Mayer) to reconcile with Wotan, her husband. He walks away, leaving a single candle burning because the curtain closes, a nod toward the libretto’s fire that captures the emotions of the music and the moment in a fresh light.
But while the abandonment of enchantment is usually illuminating, occasionally it ties Schwarz in knots. Since there is no such thing as a potion to cause Siegfried to forget — and cruelly betray — his love for Brünnhilde, their ecstatic duet earlier in “Götterdämmerung” must be staged, unconvincingly, as a fight to present motivation for his bitterness. And each Theorin and the staging run a bit out of steam within the closing, apocalyptic Immolation Scene, with Brünnhilde wandering aimlessly, then cradling Grane’s decapitated head as she lies down next to the murdered Siegfried at the underside of the estate’s drained, dirty pool.
As an alternative, the actual coup of “Götterdämmerung” is the conclusion, earlier on, that the kidnapped Rheingold-boy has grown as much as change into the embittered, ambivalent Hagen. Painfully, in Schwarz’s staging, we see him treat Brünnhilde and Siegfried’s young child (an addition to the libretto) as callously as he was — the wheel of fear and abuse continuing to show.
And the production’s final image is a reprise of its first: again, twin fetuses, but this time in seemingly peaceful embrace. Is that peace lasting? Or will birth inevitably bring a couple of renewal of resentment, betrayal and violence? With admirable restraint, Schwarz doesn’t define whether he thinks a sick world is able to change.
Der Ring des Nibelungen
Through Aug. 30 on the Bayreuth Festival, Germany; bayreuther-festspiele.de.