Impressions from the 11th ''Wagner in Budapest'' Festival



Performing Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (Nibelung’s Ring) tetralogy by overcoming every challenge that this work includes, in other words by doing justice to it, has always been prestigious for every small or big opera company all over the world.

Besides Bayreuth Festival Theatre that had been built upon Wagner’s request for this tetralogy to be performed, Gustav Kuhn’s Erl Tyrol Festival and Sofia Opera are among the places that composer’s magnum opus’s brilliant interpretations can be heard every year. So much that these uniquely displayed Ring productions are mentioned with the names of the cities they are performed in, like Amsterdam’s Ring or Frankfurt’s Ring (It’s like I can hear you asking, “Is it possible for us to see ‘İstanbul’s Ring’ one day?” Unfortunately, the awareness and love towards Wagner and his works haven’t yet reached to the level of performing the composer’s other hard case works like Tristan, Parsifal or even Meistersinger, let alone Ring itself in our land. I think we should work hard for his early period works such as The Flying Dutchman, Tannhauser, Lohengrin to be performed in here much more).

Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the globally renowned Hungarian conductor Adam Fischer, is one of the ensembles that performs 15-hour-long Ring with distinguished opera singers every year. Being held for 10 years in Bela Bartok National Concert Hall, which is located inside Budapest’s outstandingly beautiful culture and arts centre Müpa, Wagner in Budapest Festival has achieved success by being one of the few distinguished places where Ring is performed with inspiring interpretations in a joyful and dedicated manner.

Wagner in Budapest Festival’s creator, Adam Fischer claims that the performances of the festival can compete with the other best Wagner performances in all over the world in every aspect, while also not forgetting to walk on the thin ice and say “I have no intention to compete with Bayreuth’s unique state in this field!” However, in my opinion, maestro’s next sentence is more important than this one: “We are hoping to pave the way for other performances that can be seen as an alternative of Bayreuth’s!” Fischer sees Wagner in Budapest Festival, as a “dream come true”. As in the example of Richard Wagner and his “taken a leap of faith” supporter the Bavarian King Ludwig II, with reference to the fact that being a part of this dream by actualising everything in the artist’s vision as an obsessive supporter, Fischer feels gratitude to Müpa and its officials for making his dreams come true.

Soloists who had taken role in the performances of ''Wagner in Budapest'' Festival in the previous years came together at the coctail after the performance of Das Rheingold.

Nibelung’s Ring is a must of the festival, which is held in June, every year. This year, the tetralogy was performed between the days 16th to 19th of June as semi-concertant, in Bela Bartok National Concert Hall. I’m describing it as semi-concertant, because these couldn’t be described as either concertant or staged performances. It was a stage direction that pushed its limits till the end in the aspects of dramaturgy, setting and costume and was staged on Bela Bartok National Concert Hall’s concert stage, not on an opera stage, without having a sofito. If they were to place a giant, open front box on the stage and get rid of the chairs that the singers sat on while they were not singing, we could watch a well enough staged Ring, thanks to the present direction.

The dramaturgy of Austrian librettist and dramatist Christian Martin Fuchs, who passed away in Salzburg in the year 2008, and the stage direction and stage design of Hartmut Schörghofer make us think like this. First, let me explain the stage. There was a thin, long baseboard laid all the way across the stage, on an approximately 1.5 m high platform with an approximately 45 degrees angle, and on top of that, 3 meters high vertical panels were placed next to each other. Between the panels and the baseboard, the half a meter gap created a second movement space in stage direction for the singers and dancers. However, the “stage” where the action took place along with the singers was this quite narrow space in between the endpoint of the inclined platform and the orchestra pit. The dark grey rectangular area, accessed via two steps, which was placed on this narrow space where it becomes the widest in the middle, formed the center point of action. The few steps placed between this area and the baseboard was an important binding element that enabled the circulation of singers and dancers between the spaces. The singers were waiting for their turn by sitting on the chairs put on the two sides of this area.

Two scenes from Das Rheingold (© Zsófia Pályi, Müpa Budapest)

The main elements that made this setting, which was created by the director Hartmut Schörghofer, even more impressive visually were light, video and choreography that we witnessed to be used intensively during the tetralogy. Andreas Grüter’s light and Momme Hinrichs – Torge Moller duo’s video designs fed and supported each other in many scenes. In the moments when usage of light contributed the stage direction heavily, the colour symbolizing the event or the theme told in the libretto was delivered by the illumination of the 45 degree angled platform from the inside. For example, while the platform was covered in red when a murder comes up in libretto, it became green when the Rhine Girls were on stage, and yellow when the Rhein Gold was mentioned. This was actually the transformation of Wagner’s musical leitmotivs into light. If there was anything more impressively used than light in the whole stage direction, it was the videos of Hinrichs – Moller duo that strengthened Wagner’s expression directly or through metaphors. There was such an intense usage of videos during the tertralogy that it’s not possible to mention every single one of them in this article. For instance, in Das Rheingold, Wotan’s castle was demonstrated in a video like it was a glass plaza of our age (There was even a pool on top of the plaza!). Freia being covered in gold all over was again showed by video with the help of animation.      

Especially video’s being used this intensively becomes meaningful when Adam Fischer’s beautiful presentation in the festival booklet is read. Fischer put it like this in terms of his thoughts on Wagner, traditional and modern stage directions, attention of the young being drawn to the art of opera: “I want the young, who are raised in an era of Internet and music videos but oblivious to Wagner’s music, also be able to enjoy the composer’s works when they listen to them. Wagner’s music appeals to today’s youth directly. What we need to do is to provide a listening-watching environment for them where they can discover the magic this music contains. Once a person falls under the influence of a musical piece, that person cannot easily pull themselves out of it. We are trying to bring out the opera productions where no one gets bored because boredom is the biggest enemy of theatre. While performing Nibelung’s Ring, we want to discover new forms, perspectives, modern connections. My statement can be found very assertive maybe, but we want to create the concept of future’s opera performance in here. Theatre should always adapt itself to the era and develop. During its 3000-year-history, theatre has always adapted itself to the era and the culture it developed in. Nibelung’s Ring has a validity that exceeds the eras, it strikes every generation’s fancy, but in order to be able to convey and render its message correctly to today’s people, we should use modern methods.”

Just like the video, another side of the stage direction that was aimed to catch today’s people’s fancy, was the use of puppets and dancers. It was obvious that the usage of puppets was a part of the stage direction to strengthen the visual quality. The big heads that were bound on the end of the long sticks symbolizing the giants, the giant hand that was carried by the dancers to again symbolize the constructor part of the giants in Das Rheingold, can be given as an example of the usage of puppets. The coloured-costumed dancers who were walking on all fours and representing the slaves of Alberich, were also an element that enriched the stage direction in the visual aspect. In my opinion, it was such a great invention of making us feel like we are watching a shadow play time to time during the tetralogy, due to the powerful light that was reflected behind the dancers in some parts. The mime character in the red tuxedo took attention by showing himself in the most dramatic moments of the tetralogy and displaying various gestures and facial expressions. I think that all this intense usage of video, puppet and dance is effective for Adam Fisher to convey the modern Wagner and Ring concept in his mind to the stage and especially passing this on to the young.

 Two scenes from Die Walküre (© János Posztós, Müpa Budapest)

As for the voices, like in all productions of Nibelung’s Ring, we listened to the voices that are both at the peak of their carriers and who are obviously past that peak. However, rest assured that the names at the peak were larger in number and we were also happy that there were ones that we haven’t heard before. By remaining royal to Richard Wagner’s genuine wish, even though 1 prologue and 3 operas that make up Budapest Ring were staged successively without a break and this situation created a big stress over the singers, apart from one or two, each role was undertaken by a single singer. Christian Franz was one of the most prominent performers of Budapest’s Ring. The mighty heldentenor Franz portrayed a full show of strength in his roles as Loge in Das Rheingold and Siegfried in Götterdammerung. Franz, who was born in 1968, is one of the most sought after Wagner performers today and he is also a good actor; for instance he was very successful in the scene with Mime in Das Rheingold. His accents were magnificent in his performance as Loge. Franz was less impressive vocally in his performance in Götterdammerung; although there were some wobbling in his voice and the metallic tone was increased in his high notes, he got a high score with his experience and energy.

One of the most satisfying performances of Budapest Ring was given by the Danish baritone Johan Reuter. Reuter, who is one year younger than Christian Franz, became one of the names that raised the bar of the vocal quality of Wagner Budapest Festival with Wotan character he portrayed in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. Reuter portrayed a very impressive Wotan with his velvet toned voice and his noble stance. The verdant Alpine Mountain view projected on the panel behind, being taken over by ruins (Dresden?) during his duet with Fricka in the second Act of Die Walküre was an example to the effective usage of video that I mentioned at the beginning. Reuter, demonstrated a wonderful singing and acting both in his big monologue and in the scene of farewell to Brünnhilde; it wouldn’t be wrong to say that we couldn’t hear enough of the beauty of his low tones. He being in a tuxedo with a spear during the performance was also interesting in terms of costume choice of the stage direction. Wotan, who turned into Traveller in Siegfried was performed by the young Polish artist Tomasz Konieczny, who has a wide voice with a very beautiful tone.

One of the singers who carried a heavy burden during the tetralogy was the veteran bass Walter Fink. Fink, who was born in 1949, performed the roles of Fafner in Siegfried and Hunding in Die Walküre. His old age surely affected his performance in a negative way at some places, but the volume and tone colour of his voice was rare indeed. Peter Kalman as Alberich and Gerhard Siegel as Mime displayed very good performances. The captivity scene was the moment when Kalman peaked too. Atala Schöck as Fricka, Hungarians’ veteran voice Tünde Szaboki as Freia, and Erika Gal as Erda displayed very satisfying performances.

We had the opportunity to listen to the two most important Wagner performers of our day in two big roles in Die Walküre, and witness their expertise once again. Tenor Johan Botha as Siegmund, and soprano Anja Kampe as Sieglinde worked their magic. Kampe in “Der Manner Sippe sass hier im Saal” and Botha in “Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond” right after, probably delivered the most beautiful moments in the tetralogy. It was really nice that while Botha was singing, there were views of flower fields on the panel behind, and a couple of dancers were accompanying them. Two artists shared the role of Brünnhilde in Budapest. Evelyn Herlitzius was on the stage in Die Walküre and Götterdammerung. When Wotan bid farewell to her in Die Walküre, but especially when she learned that she was betrayed by Siegfried in Götterdammerung, her vocal and dramatic performance was giving goose bumps at times. Herlitzius was able to overcome the extremely difficult parts and high registery of Brünnhilde vocally. Elisabet Strid, who performed as Brünnhilde in Siegfried opera, brought out a quite different taste to Brünnhilde with her excellent musicality.      

Two scenes from Siegfried (© János Posztós, Müpa Budapest)

Tenor Daniel Brenna performed the title role in Siegfried, third leg of the tetralogy but unfortunately he couldn’t reflect the role’s “helden” character very well, his voice usually fell below the orchestra, he couldn’t leave a mark enough as “a hero” in the opera. One of the relatively weak voices of Budapest Ring was Runi Brattaberg, who portrayed Hagen in Götterdammerung. Brattaberg had quite a difficulty in high frets in Hagen that requires a wide range of frets; he let out rather ugly voices as he shouted Hoiho. Other voices in Götterdammerung were Oliver Zwarg who displayed a lively performance as Gunther, Oskar Hillebrandt as Alberich, and one of the living legends Waltraud Meier as Waltraute. Veteran singer Meier displayed a marvellous performance as always, captivating her audience. In Götterdaemmerung, in the few scenes where there is choir in Ring, Hungarian Radio Choir and Budapest Studio Choir were very successful. They displayed a performance worthy of getting full marks with their lively, solid and soft singing.

We can say that the conductor Adam Fischer prefers fluent tempos for Nibelung’s Ring. We listened to a not ceremonial, but an energetic, enthusiastic Ring for four nights. The strings and the wind instruments of Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra resonated very well in Bela Bartok National Concert Hall’s amazingly beautiful acoustic setting. Having a very clear acoustic setting and an undisguised orchestra pit like Bayreuth has, were the elements that made things inconvenient for Fischer, but with his skilful comprehension, he displayed a perfect accompaniment in many scenes by putting his orchestra under the singers’ order. Ring’s amazingly beautiful orchestral parts, such as Ride of the Valkyries, Magic Fire Music, Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and Siegfried’s Death, reached to our ears with the interpretation of an experienced conductor and an experienced orchestra.

Two scenes from Götterdaemmerung (© Zsófia Pályi, Müpa Budapest)

After reading this article, if any readers of mine would like to attend Wagner in Budapest Festival, I suggest them to hurry up, because this production will be repeated one last time next year and be shelved after that. But that doesn’t mean that Budapest will be Ring-less in the year 2018! Hungarian National Opera will benefit from this one year gap opportunity, which Müpa will give birth to, and will stage their own Ring production in city’s grand opera house. That way, after watching and listening Ring as semi-staged in Müpa for long years, Budapest’s people and foreign visitors will find a chance to watch it in a full-fledged opera house. In recent years, Hungarian National Opera is one of the most assertive operas of Europe with its stage directions and the corporate identity that it invested on, however, the company's management will have a very hard job this time, since it’s not so easy to stage a satisfying production to put on, after Adam Fischer’s modern vision – which is also giving on to embrace the young people – that he brought to Ring. But again, do not presume that Müpa will put an end to Wagner in Budapest Festival next year, no. Festival will continue to stage Ring with a brand new production where it left off, beginning from the year 2019!

The musicians of Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra were maybe the most exhausted after the 4 consecutive night.

If there are any readers asking that “Let’s say, we wouldn’t be able to go and watch it in its place in next year too, is there any DVD or CD recording of this stage direction?”, my answer is unfortunately, no. Before I sat down to pen this article, I have searched for the recording of Fischer’s Budapest’s Ring and I was very surprised that I haven’t come across any visual or audio recording. I hope that next year, it will be thought that either an audio or –better – a visual recording will be prepared (I’m thinking that in the advanced technological environment of Müpa, a recording must have been made already) and released to the market, so this important production can be inherited by the future generations.

Serhan Bali



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