Wednesday 24 November 2021

In his passion for the music of Richard Wagner, Tony Cooper finds himself back in Deutschland attending yet another Ring cycle at Deutsche Oper Berlin

Wagner: Das Rheingold - Deutsche Oper, Berlin (Photo Bernd Uhlig)
Wagner: Das Rheingold - Deutsche Oper, Berlin (Photo Bernd Uhlig)

Wagner Der Ring des Nibelungen; Dir: Stefan Herheim, cond: Donald Runnicles; Deutsche Oper Berlin

Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 16 November 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★)
Tony Cooper experiences Stefan Herheim's new Ring cycle in Berlin

Tony Cooper's review of Stefan Herheim's new production of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, conducted by Donald Runnicles with Nina Stemme, Clay Hilley, Derek Welton, Iain Paterson, Brandon Jovanovich, Elisabeth Teige.

I’m back in Berlin, a city I favour and enjoy so much, ready for yet another Ring cycle at Deutsche Oper, a large, comfortable 1850-seat theatre boldly designed in the Modernist style and simply ideal for large-scale productions. And none come much larger than those penned by Giacomo Meyerbeer, Richard Strauss and Richard Wagner

From my hotel on Bayreutherstraße just off Wittenbergplatz, Berlin’s most fashionable department store, KaDeWe, stares me straight in the face while a quick three-stop tube journey drops me right at the doorstep of Deutsche Oper situated at the junction of Bismarckstraße and Richard-Wagner-Straße located in the western part of the city in Charlottenburg.

In fact, I was only here in the spring of last year feasting on Meyerbeer’s two great masterpieces Les Huguenots and Le prophète written at the peak of his career in 1836 and 1849 respectively. Interestingly, the finale of Le prophète - culminating in fire, destruction and death - closely mirrors the catastrophic ending of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung.

Therefore, with my mind furiously on fast rewind, I fondly recall seeing the final performance of Götz Friedrich’s monumental (and well-loved) ‘Cold War’ Ring that ‘lived’ on Bismarckstraße for an astonishing amount of time: 33 years, in fact, from 1984 to 2017. A pretty good innings all round!

Now another Ring rises from the smouldering ashes of Valhalla at Deutsche Oper this time directed by multiple-award-winning Norwegian director, Stefan Herheim, who just happens to be a disciple of Götz Friedrich. He studied under him at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater Hamburg from 1994 to 1999. A bit of the Old Master has surely rubbed off on him!

Wagner: Götterdämmerung - Nine Stemme - Deutsche Oper, Berlin (Photo Bernd Uhlig)
Wagner: Götterdämmerung - Nine Stemme - Deutsche Oper, Berlin (Photo Bernd Uhlig)

Götz Friedrich (as did Harry Kupfer) worked as an assistant to the well-respected Austrian-born theatre/opera director, Walter Felsenstein, the iconic boss of East Berlin's Komische Oper in the early post-war years. His philosophy was that opera went beyond singing to encompass music-theatre: the intersections between music, sound and theatrical performance. His productions focused on pure dramatic and musical values which were thoroughly researched and, indeed, finely balanced.  

Such a philosophy as this, I feel, defines Stefan Herheim’s direction. He pulls no punches and pays full attention to detail often incorporating ideological and historical references in his work. For instance, his celebrated production of Parsifal at Bayreuth in 2009, which I greatly enjoyed, used Parsifal and the search for the Holy Grail as a metaphor for the development of Germany as a Christian nation. 

He sparked controversy, though, when depicting the country under the absolute rule and order of the National Socialists. Strong and chilling stuff, maybe, but it was daring stuff nonetheless that showed his directorial style and prowess causing a few raised eyebrows along the way. However, I admire directors such as Herheim who pushes boundaries and challenges the status quo in opera especially with Wagner. 

Therefore, if Friedrich’s Ring focused on the big issue of his day, the threat of nuclear warfare, Herheim follows suit and his Ring focuses on the big issue of today, the refugee crisis, a subject that has been thrust into the limelight lately by the hordes of refugees, mainly from Iraq, Syria and Yemen, gathered together in freezing conditions at the Belarus-Polish border seeking refuge and hoping for a better and more fruitful life within the EU. 

Hopefully, a more fruitful life was awaiting the band of refugees we see at the start of Das Rheingold slowly (and silently) trekking across a bare stage, except for a black grand piano in its centre, clutching an assortment of battered old suitcases, spinning stories about the culture of the Ring, searching for their ‘golden’ opportunity in life. 

Lurking in their midst, watchful as ever, is none other than another ‘wanderer’ in life, Wotan, heavily disguised, too, as a refugee. He edges his way towards the piano, knocks out a chord from the opening bars of Rhinegold and sets the ball rolling. The orchestra then takes over and the opera takes off with the formidable trio of Rhinemaidens - Woglinde (Valeriia Savinskaia), Wellgunde (Arianna Manganello) and Floßhilde (Karis Tucker) - breaking from the refugee column and breaking into song.

The ‘Game of the Gods’ has begun and gets off to a flying start with Derek Welton as Wotan, portrayed as a suave-looking game-master and, indeed, executive director of the whole shooting-match. He’s often seen adorned with a horned-winged helmet so popular in Wagner’s day thereby offering a nice touch by Herheim in revisiting the past - something that he’s very fond of doing.

The piano, in fact, is pivotal to the overall stage action: the source of the Rhine, the entry not only to Valhalla but also to Nibelheim and everything else in between it seems including, of course, the score itself. And when we first meet Fricka (goddess of marriage) Wotan’s long-suffering wife and her sister Freia (goddess of youth), they arrive from the bowls of the piano smartly attired in flowing white dresses quirkily resembling a couple of figurines on a wedding cake. Wotan is seen busy at the keyboard checking out and marking Wagner’s score.

Herheim, however, could be making an historical reference by highlighting the importance of the piano in his realisation of the Ring by reflecting upon Wagner’s days of exile living in Zurich. He settled in this German-speaking canton in Switzerland when fleeing from Germany following the dubious part he played in the bundled Dresden uprising of 1848. Furiously working on the Ring here he reputedly gave a concert performance of it with just piano accompaniment. 

Amusingly, I was half expecting Franz Liszt to turn up for a guest appearance to play a transcription of one of his son-in-law’s pieces! But no luck here, I’m afraid. Interestingly, in Barry Kosky’s excellent production of Meistersinger at Bayreuth the Guild of Master Singers arrive by way of a grand piano in fact a model of Wagner’s Steinway.

Overall, Herheim’s cast was spot on but if there’s anything in opera equivalent to the ‘man of the match’ then the person who would receive my vote is the German mezzo-soprano, Annika Schlicht. Harbouring a rich, strong clear voice, she delivered a stunning and commanding performance as Fricka. In actual fact, it was one of the best interpretations of the role I have ever encountered. Brava!

Feisty and hot blooded her tête-à-tête with her wayward husband over the price he agreed to pay the giants for building Valhalla was a tour-de-force. She came out all fists fighting laying into him like no other and also gave him a thorough bruising over his extra-marital affairs in their confrontation in Die Walkure

Such a great scene, it brought a round of applause from the contingent of refugees (quietly, I was joining in, too!) who by now were finding their feet, finding their voice and getting into the stride of their newfound life. 

In fact, they had now become part of the audience (perhaps, a jury, so to speak?) to the Ring’s unfolding drama popping up here, there and everywhere often bemused by the behaviour (mostly bad!) of the Gods while emphasising Herheim’s unique setting of the Ring as being a ‘play within a play’. 

Not only did Herheim direct but he also had a big hand in the set design, too, working closely with Silke Baue. They came up with a host of highly-impressive and imaginative ideas. For instance, in Rheingold the set comprised a mammoth heavy silk-like drape dominating the stage at every angle and, indeed, also used throughout the cycle shaping itself in a wide variety of configurations over a multitude of scenes. And to illustrate the respective scene, visual images were regularly  flashed on to the drape created by video designer, Torge Møller, complemented by pinpoint lighting effects conjured up by Ulrich Niepel. 

For instance, the dark world of Nilbelheim was projected by a fiery flaming-red wash as opposed to the brightness and heavenly-inspired white imagery reserved for Valhalla while the rainbow bridge was depicted by a lingering fusion of multi-coloured vapour trails slowly disappearing heavenwards.

Overall, though, a strong and formidable cast was gathered together and worked extremely well together. The talented Swiss soprano, Flurina Stucki, played the role of Freia to the full. Attired in a low-neckline dress it over-emphasised her cleavage to project two large golden balls representing the golden apples - her gift to the Gods of keeping them young and healthy. Uta Heiseke certainly came up with the right costume allowing plenty of free movement where it mattered!

No stranger to Wagner, German baritone, Markus Brück, proved a winner all the way as Alberich - an opportunist through and through. After he makes off with the gold he acts like a madman prancing round the stage brandishing a golden trumpet as if on the town enjoying a stag-night party. And when Mime, his more timid sibling arrives on the scene by way of the piano, heavily punctuated by a pyrotechnical display of light and sound happily tapping away at his anvil, he soon puts the boot in to show him who’s boss.

A sure-fire role, Thomas Blondelle was in his element as Loge, a gift of a part, though, and gifted at the piano, too, playing with his (red) gloves on while Judit Kutasi’s reading of Erda was sung and acted with delicacy and truthfulness. But Wotan in his arrogance and disbelief didn’t want to know or digest any of her wise advice and soon bundled her back below stairs! 

The entry of the giants always offers a good moment in Rheingold especially as to how they are represented and, in this case, they appeared as giant carnival-inflated puppets as if jumping from a children’s pop-up book. Andrew Harris (Fasolt) and Tobias Kehrer (Fafner) proved a fine deuce menacing to the core as their roles demand while playing their part in Wotan’s game show with a touch of panache. 

But if Freia is their hostage lying in the piano on a bed of golden-made objects Fafner, after killing his brother Fasolt over the argument of his share of the golden bounty, willingly took her place basking in greed and wallowing in the riches bestowed upon him. Freia, on the other hand, stood by looking forlorn and despairingly over Fasolt’s dead body - wondering! The first manifestation of the curse of the Ring by Alberich.

Interestingly, the scene where Brünnhilde makes her entry in Die Walküre her favoured mount Grane was not to be seen anywhere. Chanting her famous battle-cry Hoyotoho! she came straight up from the piano dressed in the style of the helmeted British female warrior, Britannia. Monty Python didn’t seem that far away!

And that famous ‘Ride’ was well choreographed and performed by an excellent team of Valkyrie’s in full flight and in full voice, too, with Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde leading the charge as ever with Runnicles driving his charges in the pit to an exciting climatic finish. But if the Valkyrie’s were found to be in full flight so, too, were Wotan’s men pinning them to the floor in a rash moment of pure passion as befitting their adventurous and carefree spirit! 

The role of Hunding, always an interesting character, was well portrayed by Tobias Kehrer while Brandon Jovanovich and Elisabeth Teige - singing the ill-fated brother-and-sister roles of Sigmund and Sieglinde - were also outstanding not just in their delivery but also in their stage presence as well. And that strong and thoughtful Wagnerian, Iain Paterson, delivered a positive reading of Wotan while his rounded and articulate baritone voice was heard to extremely good effect in such a large auditorium. My position, by the way, was at the back of the first balcony.

Great reverence was shown in the scene where Wotan banishes Brünnhilde to her rock (in this case that piano) against a flaming wild backdrop. As the flames rose higher the refugees form a large circle over a rugged rock-filled landscape as if witnessing a ritual sacrifice gracefully bowing at the exact moment when Wotan abandons her.

Herheim offers a big surprise at the end of Walküre with Sieglinde giving birth to Siegfried against a flooded red-lit stage representing Brünnhilde’s ring of fire. But as the opera quietly came to a close a slippery character moves in and steals the new-born child from his dying mother’s arms. His name: Mime.

And in the first act of Siegfried, Mime (Ya-Chung Huang) acts the part of the good and faithful ‘parent’ of Siegfried while in the second act the slaying of the dragon proved an entertaining (and visually-appealing) scene while Tobias Kehrer as ‘not-long-to-live’ Fafner engaged in a bit of old-fashioned Panto slapstick with Alberich (this time round played by Jordan Shanahan) and yours truly, Mime, kitted out and looking rather dapper wearing a Wagnerian-style floppy hat.

In keeping with Wagner’s original instructions, the Waldvogel was sung by a boy treble in this case Master Sebastian Scherer from the boys’ choir of Chorakademie Dortmund. He put in a lovely and tender performance well and truly capturing the spirit and movement of a bird in flight. 

That heroic and most formidable role of Siegfried, sung by American heldentenor, Clay Hilley, was so well executed. He looked the part from head to toe possessing good stature while he acted in that naïve and youthful manner that the role demands. And in Brünnhilde's awakening number ‘Heil dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht!’ Mr Hilley proved a stunning partner while navigating some tricky stage movements: climbing on and off the piano, addressing the refugees, sitting down at the keyboard and even having a ‘read through’ of his part of the score seated with Brünnhilde in full voice beside him.

Towards the end of this most romantic of all numbers, the stage suddenly became dwarfed by copulating couples having the time of their lives. Funnily enough, Rhinegold finished in exactly the same way. Shades of David Freeman’s The Fiery Angel. 

But revisiting Rheingold a couple of characters I always enjoy and associate with the smaller roles of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern found in Hamlet are Donner and Froh. They come alive at the end of the opera when the Gods are preparing for their heavenly journey to Valhalla.

The deuce taking on these roles did a fine job. Canadian bass-baritone, Joel Allison, as Donner fitted well his character the god of thunder while German tenor, Attilio Glaser - who, by the way, made his Bayreuth début this year singing the Steersman in the new production of Der fliegende Hollände - portrayed Froh (god of spring) in a tenderly and loving fashion.

Without a shadow of doubt, Nina Stemme still has so much strength to offer in the role of Brünnhilde. She sang in a grand Wagnerian style giving a joyous performance of great magnitude and strength which manifested itself in the brilliant finale in Götterdämmerung featuring the famous Immolation scene where Brünnhilde realises the consequences of lust, greed and corruption - that lie at the very heart of the Ring - is completely and utterly worthless. This is the beginning and end of the Gods and Valhalla, their heavenly home and the Hall of the Slain. 

That beautiful scene in which Waltraute comes to warn Brünnhilde of the evils of the ring (one of my favourite passages in the whole of the cycle) and to return the ring to the Rhinemaidens to end the dreaded curse was passionately sung with such firm commitment by Okka von der Damerau harbouring a rich and rewarding mezzo voice.

Interestingly, the setting for the opening scene of Götterdämmerung was a replica of the main reception area of Deutsche Oper. And with house lights up the Supernumeraries briefly became part of the audience waiting for the show to begin. 

And, of course, it begins with the Norms recalling the days of Wotan’s reign and predicting the fall of Valhalla. But the Rope of Destiny in this production is acted by the Supers who gracefully move about the stage in balletic form before the Norms - their prediction foretold - descend back into mother earth.

I thought that Thomas Lehman and Aile Asszonyi worked well together as Gunther and Gutrune in Götterdämmerung feeling the heat and the brute-force of Hagen, the role so brilliantly sung and acted by Albert Pesendorfer, now firmly in the director’s chair. A sort of Bill Sykes’ character, Hagen chilled the air just by his presence let alone his actions and conjured up the evilness that befits a man possessed by greed and envy. 

He was the epicentre of Götterdämmerung, personifying evil touched with a wry and subtle irony. And a touch of irony arose when he made his way to the orchestra pit to talk over a point with the conductor. He was most definitely the boss, chairman of the board and all that but, like so many important people, they come unstuck.

And come unstuck he certainly did as in the final act of Götterdämmerung, raging with anger and fury he decapitates the head of Siegfried whom he had already slain. The piano then becomes his funeral pyre, laden with worldly gifts from the Gods in an act of redemption while a remorseful Gutrune is seen cradling the head of Siegfried in her arms echoing Salome’s erotic dance round the decapitated head of John the Baptist. 

As the funeral pyre is set alight simple but effective staging kicks in with the Supers seemingly on fire, too, with their arms at full stretch collectively acting as the flames while circling the funeral pyre before it makes its journey down the Rhine. The End Game of the Gods.  

A new dawn begins and Deutsche Oper’s house cleaner walks the bare stage, save for the black grand piano in the centre, to clear a god-awful unholy mess!

At curtain call the audience erupted with wild applause but when Deutsche Oper's general music director, Scottish conductor, Donald Runnicles (whom I rate as one of the finest Wagnerian conductors around today keeping good company with the likes of Daniel Barenboim and Christian Thielemann) took to the stage along with all of the members of the Orchester der Deutschen Oper the audience erupted and more than showed their appreciation that the work done in the pit equals the work done on the stage. It was standing room only. Deservedly so! 

Following this Ring cycle, Deutsche Oper Berlin will present a new production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in June 2022 directed by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito with Donald Runnicles in the pit. This will further renew their Wagner repertoire and add more fuel to the fire about the rumour that Deutsche Oper is considering mounting a ‘Winter Bayreuth’ festival echoing the great Wagner seasons that Wieland Wagner successfully staged in Stuttgart between 1954 and 1966. 

I cannot think of a better idea inasmuch as the works of Wagner are an integral part of Deutsche Oper’s core repertoire, the theatre’s perfect for Wagner and Wagnerites are there waiting.

Wagner: Götterdämmerung - Jurgen Linn, Clay Hilley - Deutsche Oper, Berlin (Photo Bernd Uhlig)
Wagner: Götterdämmerung - Jurgen Linn, Clay Hilley - Deutsche Oper, Berlin (Photo Bernd Uhlig)

Ring extra!
The Ring fitted Wagner’s mood and personality like a glove. His ideas were always adventurous and larger than life and in recent years Ring directors have, in many respects, followed in his footsteps with productions larger than life, too, but light years away from the composer’s original intentions. 

Therefore, I think it’s fair to say that Stefan Herheim’s take on the Ring keeps the work firmly on track and he should take great pride in his realisation of this seemingly-immortal work. Like any director, Herheim had definite ideas on how he wanted his Ring to shape up and he came up with some good and interesting ones, too. 

Some things you got, some you didn’t but it was that sort of production and one that made you think. I have a shrewd idea that this Ring - which Herheim has definitely reshaped for the 21st century - will endure a good innings just like Götz Friedrich’s did.

Come to think of it, though, Wagner was very specific, determined and matter-of-fact about how he wanted his productions to shape up, too. I truly think that for his works to flourish and engage with new audiences change has to be at the forefront of the agenda. And that’s what’s happening today with the likes of such illuminating directors as Stefan Herheim safely in the director’s chair. 

Furthermore, as much as the traditional ‘booing’ Wagnerians bemoan the fact of change in direction - and Herheim went ‘off-piste’ much in the same way as Frank Castorf did at Bayreuth - this, I feel, is justified to keep Wagner alive, healthy and well for future generations.

I remind myself of George Bernard Shaw’s waspish remarks about the Ring. He said that the best way to enjoy it was to relax at the back of the theatre with your feet up, eyes closed and just listen to the music. He was just as cantankerous as the Wagnerian ‘old guard’ is today! But give it a thought. Just think of what you would miss. Indeed!

Another cycle comes round in January of next year (4th, 5th, 7th, 9th) and then that it until 2024.

Review by Tony Cooper

Wotan: Derek Welton
Donner: Joel Allison
Froh: Attilio Glaser
Loge: Thomas Blondelle
Alberich: Markus Brück
Mime: Ya-Chung Huang
Fasolt: Andrew Harris
Fafner: Tobias Kehrer
Fricka: Annika Schlicht
Freia: Flurina Stucki
Erda: Judit Kutasi
Woglinde: Valeriia Savinskaia
Wellgunde: Arianna Manganello
Floßhilde: Karis Tucker

Siegmund: Brandon Jovanovich
Hunding: Tobias Kehrer
Wotan: Iain Paterson
Sieglinde: Elisabeth Teige
Fricka: Annika Schlicht
Brünnhilde: Nina Stemme
Helmwige: Flurina Stucki
Gerhilde: Aile Asszonyi
Ortlinde: Antonia Ahyoung Kim
Waltraute: Simone Schröder
Siegrune: Ulrike Helzel
Roßweiße: Karis Tucker
Grimgerde: Anna Lapkovskaja
Schwertleite: Beth Taylor
Hundinglin: Eric Naumann

Siegfried: Clay Hilley
Mime: Ya-Chung Huang
Der Wanderer: Iain Paterson
Alberich: Jordan Shanahan
Fafner: Tobias Kehrer
Erda: Judit Kutasi
Brünnhilde: Nina Stemme
Ein Waldvogel: Soloist from the boys’ choir of Chorakademie Dortmund

Siegfried: Clay Hilley
Gunther: Thomas Lehman
Alberich: Jordan Shanahan
Hagen: Albert Pesendorfer
Brünnhilde: Nina Stemme
Gutrune: Aile Asszonyi
Waltraute: Okka von der Damerau
Erste Norn: Anna Lapkovskaja
Zweite Norn: Karis Tucker
Dritte Norn: Aile Asszonyi
Woglinde: Meechot Marrero
Wellgunde: Karis Tucker
Floßhilde: Anna Lapkovskaja

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