Thursday 3 October 2019

This revival of Guy Cassiers’ Ring cycle marks the first production of Wagner’s wondrous and epic work at Staatsoper Berlin since this historic theatre on Unter der Linden reopened a couple of years ago following seven years of intensive and detailed refurbishment

Wagner: Siegfried - Staatsoper Berlin (Photo Monika Rittershaus)
Wagner: Siegfried - Staatsoper Berlin (Photo Monika Rittershaus)
Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen: Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Ekaterina Gubanova, Anja Kampe, Anna Lapkovskaja, Anna Larsson, Evelin Novak, Simon O’Neill, Stephan Rügamer, Serena Sáenz, Matti Salminen, Anna Samuil, Andreas Schager, Jochen Schmeckenbecher, Natalia Skrycka, Falk Struckmann, Roman Trekel, Michael Volle, dir. Guy Cassiers; Staatskapelle Berlin, cond. Daniel Barenboim; Staatsoper Berlin
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 21-29 September 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
First presented in the 2013-14 season, this Ring cycle (a co-production with Teatro alla Scala di Milano and Toneelhuis Antwerp) was vividly created by 1960s-born Belgian-Flemish director Guy Cassiers and greatly endorsed by a strong visual presence conjured up by lighting designer Enrico Bagnoli and video designers Arjen Klerkx and Kurt D’Haeseleer

Our roving correspondent Tony Cooper experiences Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen at Staatsoper Berlin (21-29 September 2019) directed by Guy Cassiers with Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Ekaterina Gubanova, Anja Kampe, Anna Lapkovskaja, Anna Larsson, Evelin Novak, Simon O’Neill, Stephan Rügamer, Serena Sáenz, Matti Salminen, Anna Samuil, Andreas Schager, Jochen Schmeckenbecher, Natalia Skrycka, Falk Struckmann, Roman Trekel, Michael Volle conducted by Daniel Barenboim.

Wagner originally entitled Der Ring des Nibelungen as three tragedies and one satyr play, the latter-mentioned being an ancient Greek form of tragi-comedy. Therefore, the Ring opens proper with Die Walküre and ends with Götterdämmerung with Das Rheingold acting as a ‘Vorabend’ or ‘Preliminary Evening’ to the trio of main works termed ‘Bühnenfestspiel’ or ‘Stage Festival Play’ comprising Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung - subtitled First Day, Second Day and Third Day.

To mount a good production of this gigantic and masterful work you need the right forces at hand and in this respect Daniel Barenboim (Generalmusikdirektor of Staatsoper since 1992) came up trumps (he usually does) gathering together a superb troupe of leading Wagnerians who delivered the goods in no uncertain terms. Most members of the starry cast - admirably led by Swedish dramatic soprano Iréne Theorin as Brünnhilde and German bass-baritone Michael Volle as Wotan/Der Wanderer - were reprising their roles.

Completing the cast was New Zealand tenor Simon O’Neill as Siegmund and German soprano Anja Kampe as Sieglinde while Austrian heldentenor Andreas Schager took the role of Siegfried with Ekaterina Gubanova (Fricka), Anna Larsson (Erda), Jochen Schmeckenbecher (Alberich), Stephan Rügamer (Mime and Loge), Falk Struckmann (Hunding and Hagen) and Roman Trekel (Donner and Gunther).

Wagner: Die Walküre - Staatsoper Berlin (Monika Rittershaus)
Wagner: Die Walküre - Staatsoper Berlin (Monika Rittershaus)
I saw this show a couple of times at Staatsoper’s temporary home at the Schillertheater and, I’m pleased to say, that it has lost none of its shine or appeal whatsoever. The visual aspect of Cassiers’ production is strongly projected through Enrico Bagnoli’s screaming lighting scenario neatly fitting the angle and mood of each scene: bright red, for instance, portrayed Nibelheim, earth was seen in an idyllic-looking leaf-green and gold-coloured images intermittently flashed the stage in Götterdämmerung. But it was the digital-video work of Arjen Klerkx and Kurt D’Haeseleer that really caught my eye and, of course, swept away the need for a whole load of cumbersome stage props.

However, the Ring truly comes alive with those deep-sounding opening bars of Das Rheingold (the foundation upon which the Ring is built) punctuated by that low-register E-flat chord evoking the dawn of time describing the murky depths of the Rhine. At first the notes of the chord simply linger but gradually give way to a series of broken chords and arpeggios suggesting ripples of water. Harps then rip into full swing making an intrusion of wave-like sound patterns.

Wagner: Götterdämmerung  - Staatsoper Berlin (Photo Monika Rittershaus)
Wagner: Götterdämmerung
Staatsoper Berlin (Photo Monika Rittershaus)
The harmony, in fact, comprises the same E-flat chord which is held for just over 130 bars until the Rhinemaidens - the true guardians of the golden hoard that the Rhine harbours - blossom forth into song getting up to some girlie tricks by tantalising the poor, lustful and bitter Nibelung dwarf, Alberich, about his unwelcoming amorous advances. As such, it offers a brilliant and illuminating start to the Ring fuelling the imagination beyond belief while unleashing an amazing and fantastic adventure right through to the bitter, damning and dramatic end.

Brilliantly cast in the beastly role of Alberich, Mr Schmeckenbecher played it to the full, craftily, carefully and to the point, excelling in the moment when he forgoes the all-important issue of abandoning love to grab the gold and, screaming in utter delight, leaves the famed trio - Woglinde (Evelin Novak), Wellgunde (Natalia Skrycka) and Flosshilde (Anna Lapkovskaja) - screaming in pure agony. And what a trio they proved to be. Attired in long-flowing haute couture-designed dresses in a trio of colours, black, blue and silver, beautifully created by Tim van Steenbergen (whose wardrobe overall was eye-catching) they not only looked the part but sung and acted it equally as well.

Mr Schmeckenbecher was equally matched in his performance, though, by Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as his half-brother, Mime, who really got into the skin of his character giving a brilliant reading of this cunning but frustrated and bullied person while his tête-à-tête with Siegfried in the incredibly long first act of Siegfried proved triumphant.

The roles of Fricka and Frei were admirably sung, too, by Ekaterina Gubanova and Anna Samuil with Fricka’s angry encounter with Wotan (sung with so much strength and feeling by Michael Volle) in Das Rhinegold (scene II) arguing the toss over the price negotiated with the giants Fasolt and Fafner over the building of Valhalla. It produced a brilliantly-enacted scene in stark contrast to the intimate scene in Die Walküre (act II) in which Wotan quietly pours out his heart to Brünnhilde explaining to her the powers and curses of the ring.

Simon O’Neill and Anja Kampe stamped their authority on the demanding roles of Siegmund and Sieglinde in Die Walküre with Sieglinde’s deep sadness matching her brother’s fate while Austrian-born tenor, Andreas Schager, performed brilliantly the role of Siegfried. Surely, it’s his role! And Roman Trekel as Donner was tremendously pleasing, too, as was Stephan Rügamer as Loge, whom I saw earlier in the year lighting up the stage in the Geneva Ring. He played the part in a sprightly and philosophical manner charmingly adorned by a beautifully-coiffured punk hairstyle prancing about the stage in a youthful and carefree way that befits this waspish and colourful character.

Overall, the staging was impressive not least by the free-standing set in act II of Die Walküre featuring a brilliantly-sculpted team of charging horses dominating the back of the stage while a large digitalised image of Grane (Brünnhilde’s champion white stallion) was equally impressive offering a strong visual impact to the big scene opening the last act featuring that number, The Ride of the Valkyries, where Brünnhilde and her girls charge the battlefield gathering the Fallen Heroes for transportation to Valhalla.

But the entrance of the gods into Valhalla, to all intents and purposes, proved a rather low-key affair. No rainbow bridge or anything like that. The staging, however, was buffed up a bit by a detailed panoramic image of a Rubens-inspired painting defining the beauty and vision of paradise. But when stripped down to its raw state one was faced with a bas-relief relating to the Fallen Heroes who were represented by a series of vertical red lines (the dead-line!) running the full length and depth of the stage.

Over-sized silhouetted images were often used to good effect. For instance, when Hunding (Falk Struckmann) appeared from his ‘digitalised’ forest hut, his silhouette offered a menacing and cold appearance to his approach while the neatly black-suited business-dressed giants, Fafner (Falk Struckmann) and Fasolt (Matti Salminen) - Gilbert & George lookalikes - also received the same technical wizardry which complemented well their aggressive and brutal behaviour on stage.

Technical wizardry was most certainly at the forefront of this production with Nibelheim conceived as a metal-based, hydraulic square platform (lowered from the gridiron!) while the primeval earth goddess, Erda (handsomely sung by contralto Anna Larsson harbouring a warm and distinctive rich-textured voice) arrives from a trapdoor (where else!) looking radiant and tall adorned by long-flowing black hair to warn Wotan of the impending doom and gloom surrounding the holder of the ring. As usual, he’s too arrogant to listen.

As for Brünnhilde’s rock it closely resembled a military-style installation than anything else with its brutalist, rust-coloured, square-shaped format designed on a variety of different levels. In fact, I don’t think it would look out of place in the Turbine Hall of London’s Tate Modern. But it gave Siegfried and Brünnhilde a grand and impressive dais in which to declare their love for each other in the gentle and moving ‘Awakening Scene’ (Siegfried, act III) where Brünnhilde lovingly greets the sun and the light (‘Heil dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht!) to the accompaniment of sensuous string playing complemented by a rush of wonderful harp runs.

The scene’s one of the most poignant and telling moments in the whole of the cycle and was superbly sung by Ms Theorin who also excelled in Brünnhilde’s big moment, too, in the Immolation scene in Götterdämmerung - the climax to the whole affair - where she realises that lust, greed and corruption that encapsulates the curse of the ring is inextricably tied to it. To cleanse mankind she has first to cleanse the ring by burning not only the ring itself but the last living holder of it which, of course, is none other than herself.

Therefore, Brünnhilde orders the waters of the Rhine to sweep over the fire to wash away the vestiges of the curse and, wearing the ring, she throws herself into the flaming Rhine while Valhalla burns and the ring is calmly returned to the Rhinemaidens. This is the beginning and end of the gods and their beloved Valhalla. A great act which offers an exciting and exhilarating scene not just for the singers but for the audience as well.

But earlier in Götterdämmerung that tremendously moving scene where Waltraute comes to warn Brünnhilde to return the ring to the Rhinemaidens to end the dreaded curse was brilliantly executed and passionately sung by Ekaterina Gubanova while Roman Trekel and Anna Samuil clicked nicely together as Gunther and Gutrune feeling the heat, intimidation and brute-force of Hagen who chilled the air just by his presence, the role so effortlessly and menacingly sung by Falk Struckmann. A busy fella in this production!

The only reservation I have of the production is down to the troupe of dancers who proved a bit too intrusive at times especially in Das Rhinegold distracting one’s attention from the main stage action. It’s not too dissimilar to Oper Leipzig’s current Ring production conceived by English-born director/choreographer, Rosamund Gilmore.

But, saying that, the dancers clicked in the Nibelheim scene forming themselves into a ‘throne’ with Alberich perched on it as ‘king of the castle’. He was for a short while. Power corrupts! Power destroys! The dancers also fared well in Siegfried especially in the famous dragon scene with the fiery creature, cloaked in a faded-looking transparent cloth, operated by a team of four dancers controlling the dragon’s movements while the scene with Der Waldvogel was beautifully sung off stage by Serena Sáenz and represented on stage by a dancer attired in a long-flowing white and dark-blue dress. This really didn’t work for me.

Another seemingly tricky setting was a ‘flooded’ stage in Das Rheingold representing the Rhine compartmentalised to allow the dancers to move in and out of water at whim which they did with professional ease but for the singers they had to navigate some rather tight stage territory which slightly restricted the flow of their movements. But, taking everything into account, Guy Cassiers delivered a production that was gripping, imaginative and thought-provoking while his creative team played such a big and integral part of its overall success.

However, Daniel Barenboim, a person I highly rate, is most certainly master of the pit. Not only is he a brilliant conductor but he’s also a brilliant pianist, artistic director, mentor, free-thinker and humanist. He has to be credited the main architect of this production. A wizard with the baton he struck the right balance between the pit and the stage and got from his charges a great dramatic reading of Wagner’s immortal score not just the big production numbers such as the Entry of the Gods into Valhalla, Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and the Funeral March but also in small passages, too, such as the thrilling and forceful opening bars of Die Walküre featuring such strong playing by the bass strings

At curtain-call Maestro Barenboim was showered with heaps of praise standing centre stage surrounded by members of his fine orchestra, Staatskapelle Berlin, admirably led by Lothar Strauss, deservedly lapping up the applause being bestowed upon them by a standing audience and a discerning one, too. Bravo!

Historical note: The ‘Dramas’ to use Wagner’s preferred term (as they were modelled after ancient Greek dramas) are loosely based on characters from German and Scandinavian myths and folk-tales. For instance, much of the material used in Das Rheingold comes from Old Norse Eddas while the scenario for Die Walküre is largely based on the Völsungasaga (a piece of late 13th-century Icelandic prose) while Siegfried contains elements from the Eddas and the Völsungasaga as well as the 13th-century Norse tale, Thiðrekssaga, written around 1205 about the same time as the High German poem, Nibelungenlied, which the final opera of the Ring, Götterdämmerung, is based upon.
Reviewed by Tony Cooper

Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelingen

Wagner: Das Rheingold - Staatsoper Berlin (Photo Monika Rittershaus)
Wagner: Das Rheingold - Staatsoper Berlin (Photo Monika Rittershaus)
Saturday 21 to Sunday 29 September 2019, Staatsoper Berlin
Conductor: Daniel Barenboim (Staatskapelle Berlin)
Chorus-master: Martin Wright (Staatsopernchor Berlin)
Director: Guy Cassiers
Assistant director: Veronika Obermeier
Set designers: Guy Cassiers, Enrico Bagnoli
Costume designer: Tim Van Steenbergen
Lighting designer: Enrico Bagnoli
Video designers: Arjen Klerkx, Kurt D’Haeseleer
Choreographer: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
Dramaturgs: Michael P Steinberg, Detlef Giese
Das Rhinegold
Wotan: Michael Volle
Donner: Roman Trekel
Froh: Simon O’Neill
Loge: Stephan Rügamer
Fricka: Ekaterina Gubanova
Freia: Anna Samuil
Erda: Anna Larsson
Alberich: Jochen Schmeckenbecher
Mime: Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Fasolt: Matti Salminen
Fafner: Falk Struckmann
Rhinemaidens: Woglinde: Evelin Novak; Wellgunde: Natalia Skrycka; Flosshilde; Anna Lapkovskaja
Dancers: Verdiano Cassone, Ottavio Ferrante, Elias Lazaridis, Laura Neyskens, Daisy Phillips, Anna Senognoeva, Pol Van den Broek, Wang Qing
Die Walküre
Siegmund: Simon O’Neill
Sieglinde: Anja Kampe
Hunding: Falk Struckmann
Wotan: Michael Volle
Brünnhilde: Iréne Theorin
Fricka: Ekaterina Gubanova
The Valkyries. Gerhilde: Christiane Kohl; Helmwige: Vida Miknevičiūtė; Waltraute: Anja Schlosser; Schwertleite: Natalia Skrycka; Ortlinde: Anna Samuil; Siegrune: Julia Rutigliano; Grimgerde: Anna Lapkovskaja; Rossweisse: Dshamilja Kaiser
Siegfried Siegfried: Andreas Schager
Mime: Stephan Rügamer
Der Wanderer: Michael Volle
Alberich: Jochen Schmeckenbecher
Fafner: Falk Struckmann
Erda: Anna Larsson
Brünnhilde: Iréne Theorin
Der Waldvogel: Serena Sáenz
Der Waldvogel dancer: Laura Neyskens
Dancers: Pol Van den Broek, Elias Lazaridis, Jonas Vandekerckhove, Verdiano Cassone, Ottavio Ferrante
Götterdämmerung Siegfried: Andreas Schager
Gunther: Roman Trekel
Gutrune: Anna Samuil
Alberich: Jochen Schmeckenbecher
Hagen: Falk Struckmann
Brünnhilde: Iréne Theorin
Waltraute: Ekaterina Gubanova
1st Norn: Anna Lapkovskaja
2nd Norn: Ekaterina Gubanova
3rd Norn: Anna Samuil
Woglinde: Evelin Novak
Wellgunde: Natalia Skrycka
Flosshilde: Anna Lapkovskaja
Dancers: Daisy Phillips, Elias Lazaridis, Laura Neyskens, Jonas Vandekerckhove

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  1. Just a quick note on orchestral detail. Re the prelude to Rheingold: "Harps then rip into full swing making an intrusion of wave-like sound patterns." There are no harps in the orchestral prelude to Rheingold. The first harp entrance does not occur until page 46 of the full score (Schott edition). (And I am somewhat perplexed by the description of the prelude to act 1 of Walküre as a "small passage.") There is really no need, in a no doubt sincerely admiring review like this, to refer to details of orchestration, but if you do, it would be good to get those details right. Actually I am pleased when a reviewer refers to instrumental details, since that happens so rarely these days. Perhaps that rareness also makes it more painful, to me, to read such a blunder as a reference to harps, where there aren't any.

    1. Thanks, I have passed your comments on to the reviewer.

    2. Tony has now corrected the review. many thanks


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