A Magnificent Budapest Ring: Prelude and Rheingold

Budapest, June 13-16, 2019; Müpa—Loved by the cognoscenti – but a bit off the radar for much of the rest of the Wagner-loving world – Ádám Fischer has been throwing a little Wagner Festival for the last 15 years, right on the banks of the Danube in the Müpa, Budapest’s fine modern arts center. The resumption of its updated semi-staged/concertant Ring Cycle this summer (after a one-year Ring sabbatical), was the occasion when I finally got wise to it. And boy, what a happy surprise it was!

As it turns out, the Müpa and the Budapest Wagner Festival are more than just incidentally connected. It might even be said that the Müpa was tailored to the Ring cycle: In Ádám Fischer’s pithy version of the story, he and architect Gábor Zoboki (once an aspiring conductor himself) met in Bayreuth in 2001 when Fischer took over conducting the Jürgen Flimm Ring in Bayreuth from the deceased Giuseppe Sinopoli. Afterward, Zoboki said to Fischer: “If you give me a Ring in Budapest, I will build a hall for it.” To which Fischer replied: “If you build such a hall in Budapest, I will give you a Ring.” And so it went – or so goes the lore.

In fact, the foundation and shell of the Müpa had already been poured and constructed. But the innards were still to be finalized and built. Fischer and Zoboki decided then and there how a Ring might best be performed in a concert hall. The vision of the six harps in the second-level balconies for Rheingold; the anvils and distant horn calls in the resonance chambers; the way Erda was to sing from behind stage – all that came to them there and then, Zoboki said. The result over three days and a preliminary evening in summery Budapest earlier last month underlined that those ideas from almost two decades ago have manifested themselves as a – often literally – resounding success, nowhere perhaps more successfully than on that preliminary evening.

Wagner’s Ring is lucky to open with Das Rheingold, a perfect little opera that isn’t a bar too long. And happily, the Budapest production (director and set designer Hartmut Schörghofer) opened with a knock-out performance. Musically and dramatically top notch, it featured a cast of the first water. The set consists of a backdrop of 12 narrow, tall panels – three groups of four each, elevated and set back from the stage’s front edge – which serve to display videos and projections of all sorts. Depending on the lighting, they can also be made see-through or serve to depict shadow plays from behind. A platform before and slightly below the panels – replete with trapdoor, lit from within in changing colors, and reachable from the stage exits left and right – is where most of the action takes place. With each panel mounted on hinges and usable as a door for entries and exits, the dramatic possibilities on the concert stage are considerable. In fact, there were times when Schörghofer’s creation came closer to a fully staged rather than concertant production.

With only one well-known quantity in this cast – the Danish Wagner-veteran Johan Reuter – a principal element of this Rheingold was surprise in just how darn good the singers were. Eszter Wierdl’s excellent German opened the proceedings with “Weia! Waga! Woge, du Welle”. She was part of a set of most beguiling Rhinemaidens that also included a most charmingly acted Wellgunde (“Nur fest, sonst fließ’ ich dir fort!”): Thus teased Gabriella Fodor poor Alberich. Despite her soprano being covered with a vocal haze and hampered by German that sounded as though she had her mouth full, there were moments where she reminded of a young Linda Watson: high-dramatic and exerting good control. Flosshilde’s youthfully-seductive mezzo (alluring Kálnay Zsófia) became particularly alive in Götterdämmerung.

Atala Schöck, although with a slightly veiled mezzo, was a sympathetic Fricka, which is ever so important lest Fricka – unjustly – fall into the Yoko-Ono trap of being a joy-kill that breaks up the (divine) band with her nagging. Amid a generally subtle cast, Lilla Horti’s Freia sounded a bit loud and clattery-gurgling, but she portrayed an attractive character nonetheless – which is what counts, in the end. Perhaps it was the fact that Erika Gál’s Erda was confined to singing somewhere behind the panel, standing still, with her face only projected onto the screens that made her seem relatively cold and detached in a cast otherwise so fully involved in the drama at hand. But the result, however distant, sounded characterful.

If the women were very good, the main male characters were superb! Fasolt and Fafner made lasting impressions: The former – Per Bach Nissen – with his clear and beautiful voice that reached any depth with apparent ease yet never sounded dark. His lyrical tenderness is exactly what the only character in the entire Ring that gets to feel pure love ought to espouse. His more murderous construction-business colleague Fafner – Walter Fink – impressed not with prettiness, of which there isn’t any left in the old voice, but a dry roar where low and loud sounds simply fall out of his mouth when he opens it. If that’s not the last word in refinement next to a sophisticated Fasolt (incidentally nicely underlining their difference in character), it certainly comes in handy in Siegfried.

Mime’s character meanwhile brought out the fabulous comic actor in Gerhard Siegel. His perfect German and his easily travelling voice – whether in booming bluster, in high falsetto facetiousness, or in servile squeals – were a joy to behold dramatically and vocally. Christian Franz’s sophisticated and scheming Loge (with a touch of SNL’s former Weekend Update anchorman, Colin Quinn) reminded of no one so much as Heinz Zednik’s role-defining performances in Patrice Chéreau’s Centennial Ring. The fact that on stage he was often accompanied by three generations of ballet dancers – a youngin, a middle-aged, and a slightly grayed manifestation dressed entirely in red – didn’t always make sense but neither did it distract and it was a nifty enough visual cue to look for his Leitmotif popping up from the pit.

Szabolcs Brickner’s Froh, sonorously ringing with a voice that belies his slim build, was beaming with youthfulness – a naïveté that befits his dolt of a character. Brother Donner (Zsolt Haja) was mostly effort, hardly result, on the weak side and oblique and as much a disappointment to listeners as the character’s impotent posturing must be to Freia, every time. Johan Reuter, back as Wotan in Die Walküre, was regal subtlety and refinement personified, qualities that were perhaps never more obviously impressive as when he was absent, with Wander/Wotan taken on by a different singer in Siegfried. Péter Kálmán’s Alberich, finally, was a sensation! Variously funny, lusty (rattling “Süßeste Maid!” like a buck in heat) , violent, threatening, and crushed, he sang and acted the hell out of a thankful part, in great German and with dramatic depth the like of which you feel blessed to witness when you get to.

Throughout all, Ádám Fischer led the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra with verve and attention to detail that paid dividends in the concert hall’s fairly open pit. The magic Bayreuth delay-and-mix isn’t there, but the audible minutiae are impressive. Exemplary were the Richard Strauss-esque solo violin moment on Alberich’s “Weh’n da oben ihr lebt, lacht und liebt” and the grand chamber-music-like shaping of the cellos underscoring Wotan’s “Von Nibelheims nächt’gem Land / vernahmen wir neue Mär’”. What a teaser this was, to make one look forward to the next three nights!