Productions of Wagner operas in the composer's bicentennial in 2013 range from low-key and comedic to over-the-top. And when it comes to the composer's four-part opera masterpiece, European theaters are going all out.
For Richard Wagner's 200th birthday, theaters in the German-speaking world have overhauled and massively stocked up on Wagner productions. The current season from Zwickau to Cologne and from Munich to Kiel features 38 Wagner premieres. The front-runner among the new production is the composer's final opera, "Parsifal."
With "Die Feen" (The Fairies) and "Das Liebesverbot" (The Ban on Love), people are also rediscovering Wagner's early works. But the composer's "Ring of the Nibelung," with 16 hours of music drama spread across four evenings, remains the centerpiece of the Wagner universe.
"Just imagine the wonderfully disastrous love of Siegmund and Siegelinde, Wotan's immense secrecy with regard to their love, then his divisiveness with Fricka, his furious mission of self-conquest, and, finally, the magnificent Valkyries, Brünnhilde, how she - having ascertained Wotan's innermost thoughts - defies the god and is punished by him," enthused the composer in a letter to his friend Franz Liszt.
For audiences, "The Ring of the Nibelung" remains a unique theatrical experience. But for theaters, productions present enormous logistical and financial demands.
Munich and Vienna
Far in advance of the bicentennial, major opera house directors were engaged in a bitter battle over the best Wagnerian singers - a rather rare breed. In Munich and in Vienna, listeners can now take in the outstanding soprano Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde and the heroic tenor Stephen Gould as Siegfried. These two "Ring" productions (staged in Vienna by Sven-Eric Bechtolf and in Munich by Andreas Kriegenburg) were minted in time to attract attention well before the Wagner year got underway. Conductors Franz Welser-Möst and Kent Nagano provide solid musical interpretations up to the cathartic finale in "Götterdämmerung" (Twilight of the Gods).
Berlin: A city of two "Rings"
In an unprecedented situation, both of Berlin's major opera houses decided they could not do without a production of the tetralogy. Guy Cassirer's stage presentation at the Staatsoper has been torn to shreds by the press but features Daniel Barenboim in the pit, a leading Wagner conductor of our time.
The reprisal of the legendary "Ring" by Götz Friedrich, who died in 2000, promises to be a sensation during its September 21-29 run in the Deutsche Oper. The staging, nearly three decades old, set the standard for generations of Wagnerian directors to come and has lost none of its expressive power. The esteemed Sir Simon Rattle, serving as principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic through 2018, will crown his years of Wagner conducting with this production in Berlin.
Another celebrated maestro, Ingo Metzmacher will lead his first complete "Ring" at Geneva's Grand Theater. Listeners got an appetizer in early March with "Das Rheingold" (The Rhine Gold), the first installment in the series (Staging: Dieter Dorn). "Wagner's soul sings again," wrote the German daily "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung." November 2013 and January 2014 will bring the continuations with "Die Walküre" (The Valkyrie) and "Siegfried." The cycle will close in May 2014 with "Götterdämmerung" (Twilight of the Gods).
It's not just the big European stages that are hosting interesting Wagner productions in 2013. Veteran German director Achim Freyer and the young Israeli conductor Dan Ettinger are christening a new "Ring" in Mannheim. A former assistant to Daniel Barenboim, Ettinger has been the music director of the National Theater Mannheim since 2009 and earned much praise for his rendition of the "Ring" in Tokyo.
Another noteworthy project is the "RING Halle Ludwigshafen," a coproduction by the Theater im Pfalzbau, the Oper Halle and the German Philharmonic Orchestra Rhineland-Palatinate. Rehearsals for Wagner's opera tetralogy began in November 2010 in the cities of Ludwigshafen and Halle. In the two cities, the entire cycle can be experienced within a week in March and April 2013. The director is Hansgünther Heyme, with Karl-Heinz Steffens wielding the baton. Former solo clarinetist in the Berlin Philharmonic, Steffens is the general music director in Halle.
After 58 years of "Ring" abstinence, Dessau's Anhaltisches Theater, once called the "Bayreuth of the North," will return to Wagner's masterpiece. In 2013, however, the eastern German theater will feature productions of just two parts of the cycle ("Siegfried" and "Götterdämmerung"). The unusual reason: performing the "Ring" backwards. General Director Andre Bücker was inspired by Wagner's original approach: beginning with the narrative titled "Siegfrieds Tod" (Siegfried's Death). It was only later that the librettist and composer expanded the work to include preliminary events in the saga, eventually arriving at the cycle.
After ten years, the "Ring" in Cottbus will reach completion in 2013. In 2003, Martin Schüler, the director general of the Staatstheater Cottbus, put "Das Rheingold" on stage. It was followed in 2008 and 2010 by "Die Walküre" and "Siegfried," respectively. And with the March 30 premiere of "Götterdämmerung," the cycle is now complete - an enormous undertaking for a small opera house.
At least one thing's clear: for Wagner fans, not all roads lead to Bayreuth.