Foto: APA Fotoservice/Festspiele Erl/Franz Neumayr
The little village of Erl, in Tyrol, Austria, is currently becoming one of the major venues for Wagnerians in Europe. Founded in 1998 by conductor and artistic director Gustav Kuhn, less self-celebratory and more dedicated maybe than the grand festivals, the “Tiroler Festpiele” have one very special offer: Wagner’s Ring in 24 hours. Beginning with “Rheingold” on a Friday evening, “Walküre” on Saturday afternoon, “Siegfried” in the night, and “Götterdämmerung” on Sunday morning, it is possible to spend a whole week-end steeped in Wagner, trusting the first-class singers, orchestra and conductor to make this a memorable event. The house being originally a theatre, built in 1959 for the local tradition of Passion plays, enacted every six years, it has neither an orchestral pit nor elaborate stage devices. Gustav Kuhn, who signs also the staging, in order for the production to be really coherent, had to keep it simple and he did. He sets the stories in an imaginary present, contemporary costumes enhancing the psychological realism of the characters. An ingenious system of oversize beams, that are fastened to the stage walls and can be lowered into every angle, can be a stone desert or a forest, props and lighting doing the rest. Indoors settings consist of various sets of furniture. Local children, dressed in the same black coveralls as the stage hands, come with torches for Brünnhilde’s fire wall, and bearing a ship and a horse, symbolize Siegfried’s arrival chez les Gibichungen. Animals are oversized origami artwork, be it Alberich’s snake or toad, Siegfried’s bear or even the dragon Fafner and bring a lighter note into the performances, as do the Walkyries on bicycles or a few of the snarkier costumes (Fafner and Fasolt appear as ice-hockey and rugby uniformed bullies, and Fricka in “Walküre” sports a daring red leather suit). Simple and effective, Jan Hax Halama’s scenography and Lenka Radecky’s costumes introduce in a glance the situations and characters and leave the rest to the orchestra and singers. Gustav Kuhn conducts the Festival Orchestra with unflinching energy and sense of detail, and to hear them at the end of “Siegfried”, at half past three in the morning, just as precise and energetic as at the beginning, is nothing short of a miracle. His casting is miraculous as well. All of the singers handle the demanding parts with ease and grace and totally inhabit their characters. A few of them take on the same part in different operas, or appear in different roles throughout the week-end: the baritone Thomas Gazheli is an amazing Alberich in “Rheingold”, cocksure and grinningly grinding, he sets the whole drama in motion, and later on, he will be a dark and brooding Wanderer in “Siegfried” AND then appear as Alberich again, suspended in the airs, and one really wonders how he can sing so smoothly and expressively in this situation. Michael Kupfer gives life and depth to Wotan and also to Gunter. Austrian mezzo-soprano Hermine Haselböck is Fricka throughout and finds in her mellow voice just the right note of hysteria to be credible in “Walküre”. Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli, velvety smooth and dark voice and presence, is Fafner and Hagen. Siegfried on the other hand is sung by two very different tenors: in “Siegfried” Michael Baba, who is something of a heldentenor, dressed in loose hunter’s rags, portrays him as an unsecure, slightly boorish youth. When we see him again, appearing at Gunter’s court, he has become (in Brünnhilde’s arms?) something of a dandy and Gianluca Zampieri sings the part with a lighter, almost un-wagnerian voice that enhances the essential innocence of the character. The very gifted young New Zealand tenor Andrew Sritheran is a striking Siegmund, full of youthful ardor and Marianna Szikova as Sieglinde is just as striking, voice-and appearance wise. Three wonderful sopranos take on the role of Brünnhilde: Bettine Kampp is DIE Walküre, very moving in her duets with Wotan. In “Siegfried”, Nancy Weissbach is freed and imprisoned again by the hero, and finally Mona Somm gets to sing Brünnhilde’s last words. So many wonderful singers, such a great orchestra and conductor: no Sir, the great big festivals and houses don’t own the claim to quality and dedication!