Casting to type, casting against type — what does it come down to in the end? Faust today, Mephistopheles tomorrow! Why not? For an actor who just talks, the limiting factor is imagination. At the opera, such turnabouts are mostly inconceivable, but not in Der Ring des Nibelungen, where the top god, Wotan, and his nemesis, Alberich, sing in the same range and at the same volume levels, sometimes barely accompanied, sometimes over an orchestra in full cry.
"The same voice can sing both parts," Polish bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny confirms, speaking from experience. "The writing for Alberich is more chromatic, and in the curse, the intervals are wider than Wotan's. For long stretches, Wotan is a more relaxed character, so his tessitura lies lower. Alberich's voice is a voice of despair, and despair pushes his music high. But I am sure Wagner had no specific vocal type in mind for either one."
Of course Wotan is the longer, more layered and more prestigious part. But in a world where sopranos sought after for Sieglinde and Brünnhilde may moonlight as Freia or Gutrune, or a topflight Siegmund clears his throat as Froh, trading down from time to time would be no disgrace. After all, Alberich is the Nibelung of the cycle's title. What is more, he takes the stage in three of the four operas, as many as Wotan and Brünnhilde. No other character appears in more than two.
Yet how many artists have tackled both lords of the Ring? In living memory, I come up with none but Franz Mazura, whose gnarly Alberich was a fixture at the Metropolitan Opera in the 1980s — more than a decade after he sang the Rheingold Wotan for San Francisco Opera in Los Angeles. The Met archives also list a single Walküre Wotan by Mazura in 1987.
These days, Konieczny is bringing the house down in both roles, most prominently at the Vienna State Opera, in the production directed by Sven-Eric Bechtolf and originally conducted by Franz Welser-Möst. Konieczny has been honing his Wotan since 2003, when, as an ensemble member of the Nationaltheater Mannheim, he worked up Das Rheingold and Die Walküre with Adam Fischer. He added the Wanderer in 2010 with a Siegfried in Budapest, again under Fischer. The Konieczny Alberich sprang to life in 2008, with Das Rheingold and Siegfried in Dresden, under Peter Schneider, and Götterdämmerung in Vienna, under Welser-Möst. In the meantime, his Nibelung has played Deutsche Oper Berlin, as well.
In Bechtolf's Ring, which started out with Die Walküre in 2007, Das Rheingold was mounted last, just in time for the first full cycles. A newcomer to the Vienna State Opera, Konieczny had been on board for the intervening premiere runs of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung in 2008. But Alberich has by far his most imposing hours in Das Rheingold, and it was the out-of-sequence prelude that shot him to the top. The Wiener Kurier hailed him as "phenomenal, vocally excellent, and a brilliant actor." Last June, when Welser-Möst called Konieczny back to Vienna for DieWalküre, lightning struck again. "A young, shining Wotan," the Kronen Zeitung reported. "His diction is perfect; his powerful bass-baritone comes across wonderfully even where the orchestral eruptions are mightiest. And he invests the resignation of the god with profound emotion."
In November, Konieczny reverted to Alberich for the single Ring of the current Vienna season, a red-letter occasion under the baton of Christian Thielemann. "It was never my choice to switch," he said backstage the day after Das Rheingold. "I auditioned with Wotan's finale from Rheingold and was offered Alberich. At first, I wasn't thrilled, but this was the Vienna State Opera. And now that I have done both parts, I would never give them up. Seeing the story from Alberich's perspective makes my Wotan richer, and vice versa."
I had the good luck to catch the November Rheingold, which fell under the heading of revelation on many counts. In Thielemann's fleet, vibrant and transparent reading of the score, not a minute was wasted. Bechtolf is said to have steered the later operas of the cycle with a shaky hand, but here he worked wonders. Pristine light fields and supercharged sculptural poses evoked vintage Robert Wilson, even as the vivid storytelling recalled the invention of Théâtre du Soleil at its populist best.
Juha Uusitalo, the production's original Wotan, had dropped out on short notice, leaving a power vacuum the conscientious Albert Dohmen filled with honor. Still, Das Rheingold was incontestably Konieczny's show. He pressed through the opening scene with burly sensuality, an innocent awakening to his animal magnetism and instantly slapped down. In anguish, his dark, polished sound took on a bitter pathos never cheapened by caricature or self-pity. If Konieczny's expressive kit seemed unusually comprehensive, it is no wonder. Only after establishing himself as an actor in film, and then in live theater of a highly rhetorical bent, did he feel impelled to train as an opera singer.
"This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine": with these words, as The Tempest winds to a close, the magus Prospero owns his failure to raise Caliban above a state of savage nature. The Wanderer in Siegfried — in reality, Wotan in his late, Socratic stage — faces up to a similar hard truth. Hence his affectation of calling his former self Licht-Alberich, the Alberich of light, in contradistinction to Schwarz-Alberich, or Alberich of darkness, his Nibelung foe.
One stroke of metaphor, and there they stand — rival kings on a chessboard, and yet not equal at all. Alberich belongs wholly to the dark side. Wotan, by contrast, personifies the mingled yarn that is civilization, good and bad together. All the same, Alberich's hold on Wotan's heart is as deep as anyone's. Wagner tells us so at their parting, by having the trumpet play the aching melody we know as Wotan's farewell, a motif he uses extremely sparingly. It first occurs as Wotan gazes into his daughter's eyes for what he knows will be the last time. For the most part, the reminiscences hark back unambiguously to that moment. One, more oblique, recalls Wotan's love for the Wälsungs, for whose sake Brünnhilde incurred his wrath. Here, in Act II of Siegfried, it points to heartbreak at parting from his mortal enemy.
In the classic centennial Ring of 1976, Patrice Chéreau subtly underscored the bond between Wotan and Alberich by dressing them in identical uniforms and three-cornered hats, like fellow veterans of long-forgotten wars. Rightly so. For one as for the other, the road begins by or in sacred waters, where he discovers his relationship to the female, violates Nature's primordial harmony and sustains a wound that will mark him forever. (Sex for Wotan is always something more — with Fricka, the staking of his claim on world dominion; with Erda, the means of gaining knowledge of the future; with the mother of the Wälsung twins, the establishment of his private army. For Alberich as we see him with the Rhinemaidens, sex isjust sex and goes unconsummated. With Grimhild, the Gibichung adulteress who takes his treasure and bears him Hagen, it is barely even that.)
In dramatizing Wotan's history, Wagner leaves key moments out. Through passing references and the Norns' richly suggestive report, we hear how the young Wotan came to the spring by the world ash tree, broke the branch from which he fashioned his spear, won his wife, Fricka, at the price of an eye, and then dreamed up Valhalla. As we see in Das Rheingold, he goes on to honor marriage up to a point, forge shaky alliances, make contracts in bad faith, and so forth. By the time we meet him again in Die Walküre, he is expending his energies chiefly on damage control. By Siegfried,he has left the fray to observe from the sidelines as the runaway wheel of ensuing calamity takes its course. His last line, addressed to the conquering hero of Siegfried, captures his moment of capitulation: "Zieh hin, ich kann dich nicht halten" (Be on your way, I cannot stop you). The Valkyrie Waltraute describes him for us in Götterdämmerung as a romantic chieftain august in defeat, surrounded by his doomed, hushed tribe. And that, according to Wagner's stage directions, is how we see him at the apocalypse, resigned to the cosmic fire.
In the case of Alberich, we witness for ourselves how the story begins. In his rage at his humiliation by the Rhinemaidens, he steals their gold, curses love and vanishes to forge the almighty ring. That curse is the self-inflicted wound he bears henceforward. (Konieczny enacts it with convulsions.) Before our eyes, a buffoon morphs into a demon. From his brief heyday as a tyrant and slave-driver, Alberich dwindles to friendless impotence, brushed off even by the son he sired to avenge him. We last see him fading into the night of Götterdämmerung, the pathetic shell of his former self, still clinging to his megalomania, still lacking the cosmic vision.
It is not much of an exaggeration to say that Alberich's litany of growled curses, snarled threats and savage prophecy are written in a single color — pitch black. Wotan, by contrast, sings in a dark, sumptuous palette worthy of Rembrandt. The heart of his role, the searching monologue in Act II of Die Walküre, finds him at once at his most tentative and his most solemn. But again and again, his music blazes forth in rhapsodic grandeur, as in such set pieces as the close of Das Rheingold, his farewell to Brünnhilde in Die Walküre and the invocation of Erda in Siegfried.
Small wonder, then, if much of Wotan's part has taken on a separate life in concert excerpts, while none of Alberich's role, not even the great curse, has done the same. In our revisionist age, cynics disparage Wotan for his very eloquence, even as sentimentalists recast Alberich as a Byronic antihero, more sinned against than sinning.
Such appraisals may not be wrong so much as they are overly schematic. "In talks with Bechtolf, I began to imagine that Wotan acquired godhood by marriage," says Konieczny. "The gods are aristocrats, who are content with the status quo. Wotan was a power-hungry outsider who wanted in. There's something frivolous about him. Alberich has greater courage. As a young man, he really does renounce love, whatever that means, but he's still full of creative energies. Having lost the ring, he turns into a hermit, holding watch at Fafner's cave with the fanatical patience of a monk. When we last see him, in Götterdämmerung, he is very old, his powers are spent, and he looks for his role to be fulfilled in Hagen. Wotan can never make up his mind. I wonder who pays the higher price. I think it's a tie."