Richard Wagner
Sofia Opera, Bulgaria

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Martin Iliev (Siegfried) forges the sword Nothung Credit: Viktor Viktorov, Sofia Opera
Martin Tsonev (Wotan) Credit: Viktor Viktorov, Sofia Opera
Krasimir Dinev (Mime) and the broken forge Credit: Viktor Viktorov, Sofia Opera
Bayasgalan Dashnyam (Brunnhilde) and Martin Iliev (Siegfried) Credit: Viktor Viktorov, Sofia Opera
Martin Iliev (Siegfried) Credit: Viktor Viktorov, Sofia Opera

It was in 2010 that Sofia Opera artistic director Plamen Kartaloff launched the first part of what was to be the first staging of the Ring cycle in Bulgaria. There was no Wagnerian tradition in the country, despite it having produced such remarkable basses as Boris Christoff and Nikolai Ghiaurov, but Kartaloff insisted that all his singers would be Bulgarians.

Wagnerites from across the world who made the pilgrimage to Sofia Opera House were impressed by what they heard, praising the singers and their immaculate German diction, but most of us have had to wait until now to assess judgments that appeared at the time.

The individual operas were introduced to the repertoire and recorded at yearly intervals. Unfortunately, Rheingold, the first of the cycle recently released by Dynamic, suffered from poor audio quality, which meant that singers were rather overwhelmed by the orchestra. This went somewhat to the opposite extreme in Die Walküre, but the issue has been happily resolved for Siegfried.

Since that first outing, it’s also been possible to reconsider Kartaloff’s underlying interpretation. I wrote at the time, "one will have to wait for this one to be fully explicated, but Kartaloff seems to be making an interesting statement with the latex garb and plastic surroundings about the vulgarity and artificiality of a morally bankrupt culture dominated by a lust for money.’

There are no political overtones, no Patrice Chereau-like allusions to capitalism, or the literalism of Brian Large’s production for the Met with its dragons and giants. There are frankly no allusions to anything—the nearest we come to nature is scaffolding bathed in green light to represent the forest and a bungee-suspended Forest Bird.

Instead, one has brash colours and harsh geometric shapes—a ring naturally, sometimes broken to form a mandorla from which Rumyana Petrova as the earth goddess Erda emerges almost gynaecologically and in which Siegfried and Brunnhilde, Martin Iliev and Bayasgalan Dashnyam are later united in love.

Battle has been done meanwhile with a dragon, seen simply as the huge red shards that represents its talons. It seems rather that Siegfried has vanquished a lobster or skewered a pineapple top.

And yet I came to accept the glitzy tat for what it is, a point brought home as Iliev strips off the fantastical garb to stand bare-chested before his Brunnhilde, symbolically abandoning a world of vanity and futility.

Iliev, who appeared as Siegmund in Die Walküre, is magnificent, heroic in demeanour and in voice. He has that thrilling edge and power of a true Heldentenor and the instincts of a fine actor too. Siegfried’s outburst "Das ist kein Mann" when he discovers the features of a woman for the first time can be comical—here it seems quite natural.

Martin Tsonev is an impressive Wotan, an authoritative, clarion-clear bass-baritone, cutting a more vigorous figure than the veteran Nikolay Petrov who appeared in the previous parts of the cycle. Krasimir Dinev and Biser Georgiev make welcome returns as Mime and Alberich, respectively rat-like and brutal, the former particularly adept at singing while held upside-down by his bullying brother.

Dashnyam, the new Brunnhilde, has powerful vocal projection, but less so of emotion, and at times seems more focused on the conductor than the drama.

Stripped of extraneous references, this is a production distinguished by its clarity, with dumb-show flashbacks to elucidate the story and in the meticulous delivery of the text. This latter is helped by the sympathetic playing of the Sofia Opera orchestra under Pavel Baleff and its use of Gotthold Lessing’s version of the score with its reduced wind section. The only downside to this is that there can be a lack of grandeur to the sound, particularly in the act 1 climaxes that do not seem to rise above the mezzoforte.

Reviewer: Colin Davison

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