A Magnificent Budapest Ring, Part 2: Walküre, Siegfried, & Götterdämmerung

Budapest, June 13-16, 2019; Müpa—If the Rheingold of the Budapest Wagner Week’s annual Ring Cycle was a stunner for its excellent-yet-largely-unknown cast, the three remaining operas of the tetralogy boasted excellence with well-known stars of the Wagnerian world. Apart from Johan Reuter’s elegant, noble Wotan – ever the host of an elegant 1920s dinner party and dignified even in rage – there were Stuart Skelton’s virile-yet-honeyed Siegmund, Camilla Nylund’s moving Sieglinde, and Catherine Foster’s youthfully-energetic Brünnhilde: As good a cast as any Walküre these days could boast – certainly on paper – and fortunately, as it turned out, also on stage.

Stuart Skelton’s slightly slurred German was soon forgotten over his effortless performance, sweet and downright exquisite (rather than belting) in “Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond”, which was totally endearing: A man in love, not a hooligan out to impress. A nod here, to the orchestra (all buttery brass and gentle timpani) under the leisurely pacing of Ádám Fischer, as their well-behaved playing made this possible in the first place. Speaking, if indirectly, of Sieglinde: Nylund was radiant as I have scarcely seen her before, fully at ease with whatever she was doing – and a delight.

Albert Pesendorfer’s imposing Hunding is rough-hewn and perhaps a little unwieldy and stiff, but suitably so for the character and with an authoritative, charcoal-gray voice. Hagen, whom Pesendorfer also portrayed, doesn’t as obviously fit into that scheme – but once you get your head around Gunther (Vasar Lauri) being the young and relatively diminutive part in their half-brother relation, and Hagen the physically and vocally commanding one (rather than just a conniving schemer), the sheer dynamism of Pesendorfer sold even that character convincingly. And if Vasar Lauri looked a bit the academy graduate in the midst of these veteran singer/actors – he sounded very good and seemed to grow more comfortable by the minute.

Atala Schöck’s sympathetic Fricka was back, convincing as a whole package even with the rather vague, not particularly well defined quality of her voice. Indeed, this was a leitmotif among female singers in this Ring: Dramatic effectiveness over sheer vocal impressiveness. Case in point Allison Oakes, giving her role debut as the Siegfried-Brünnhilde, the most tender of the three incarnations of this character. It couldn’t have landed at the feet – or throat – of a sweeter dramatic soprano. Oakes has a stage presence that makes you love her character, pretty much no matter what. Oakes’ game is not nearly the playful ferocity and energy that Catherine Foster brought to her two excellent Brünnhildes. It’s charm and warmth, which she has in spades. You stop thinking about the voice and just start blinking at her, with big eyes.

Foster, incidentally, was particularly impressive as she seemed well rested and didn’t once fall prey to the flatness that can creep into her delivery. Her interaction first with Wotan in Walküre and then with Stefan Vinke’s Siegfried in Götterdämmerung was the life of the party. Only her diction could be better: without those handy German supertitles (next to Hungarian summaries), it would have been awfully difficult to follow her. The same with Anna Larsson’s wonderful Waltraute, where the text was not discernible in agitated moments, even as that splendid low mezzo still enchanted the ears.

And finally there was Polina Pasztircsák’s Gutrune (and third Norn), one of the most ambivalent characters in the Ring. Technically, she’s part of a pretty sick brother-sister and half-brother act (with slight overtones of incest – which, admittedly, is par for the course, in Wagner), perfectly at ease with drugging the incoming guest to secure a hunky hubby. But Pasztircsák’s Gutrune was more innocent than that; genuinely torn in her role of being deceived and half-unknowingly deceiving – and devastated over Siegfried’s death and the realization that she has no right to mourn him. As the third Norn, she courageously and admirably dared to use her fine voice very, very softly at times.

Dramatic effectiveness is also key to Stefan Vinke’s character, on top of which Vinke sang his Siegfried extraordinarily well – something that became clear once you adjusted to the strange cotton-mouth character of his delivery – which is simply his thing. It’s a bit as if he had gotten a shot of Duragesic in the cheeks, except everything else – certainly diction and pronunciation – is very fine. The unbridled, wide-eyed energy of his Siegfried, his naïve dynamism, made for an astoundingly sympathetic character – which is a real feat, given that Siegfried is often such an unsympathetic piece of work.

Péter Kálmán’s Alberich, accompanied everywhere by his dancing coterie of Niebelung-gimps, continued his massively impressive run, and the fabulous little vocal touches of shade (“Sei treu, Hagen, mein Sohn!”) of a suffering father he threw in when desperately instructing Hagen, were devastatingly effective. More wonderful character-acting and -singing also came from Gerhard Siegel’s Mime. When Siegfried hears Mime’s thoughts, Siegel represents those with a little hand-puppet of his character. Ripples of uncontained laughter going through the audience proved that Wagner’s hand at comedy is not as heavy as it is often made out to be. One need only dare play it up a bit – which Siegel did brilliantly.

The only let-down of this Ring came courtesy of the Wanderer: the crude park’n’bark performance of Tomasz Konieczny was devoid of nuance and indeed any sense that he had an inkling of what exactly he was singing. It’s astounding that a singer whose spoken German is as respectable as his, his sung German should be quite so divorced from any meaning. All he could do, it seemed, was stand there, and throw his voice at the audience, stiff and loud, declamatory, massive, and with a rolling “R” that sounds as though he was starting up a motorcycle. If it was oddly unsettling at first, it became increasingly annoying with every monotonous syllable. For every second I had thought of Johan Reuter’s Wotan as a touch pale in the previous two operas, I now felt deep pangs of regret and guilt: Reuter had shaped a character; Konieczny only belted notes. It would have seemed old-fashioned 20 years ago. Compared to that, the Woodbird’s shortcomings – a voice that was surprisingly heavy with a too-wide vibrato, especially at Eszter Zemlényi’s young age – was small beer.

The production, relying so heavily on the paneled screens behind the singers, had its video segments refurbished in the year this production was on hiatus. This benefited, so I was told, the resolution of the clips that were now remade in HD. But it couldn’t overcome the odd vacillation between banal screen-saver quality displays of rotating globes, gyrating ladies, endless successions of curtains, slowly shifting landscapes on one disappointing side and actual, invigorating dramatic contribution. (The splattering of blood and brain during the scene of Fafner undoing Fasolt was one such graphic and effective moments, but of those there seemed to be ever fewer as the tetralogy went on.) Meanwhile the singers’ very humorous interactions with the musicians on stage – Siegfried’s with the anvil player in Act 1 and the woodbird’s with the cor anglais player in Act 2 – were downright inspired.

If the Budapest Wagner Festival has ambitions to be Bayreuth-esque (after one of the performances an exuberant Fischer joked that the Festival’s ultimate goal was not being referred to as the “Bayreuth on the Danube” but for Bayreuth to be referred to as the “Budapest on the Green Hill”), they will hopefully embrace the workshop idea of constantly tuning their productions. This Ring, with so much going for it and so much more potential, could be an excellent playground to continuously improve an already outstanding exclamation mark in the international opera calendar.