Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Der Ring des Nibelungen (1876)
Libretti by the composer.
Brünnhilde: Nina Stemme (soprano)
Siegfried: Clay Hilley (tenor)
Wotan (Das Rheingold): Derek Welton (bass-baritone)
Wotan (Die Walküre/Wanderer in Siegfried): Iain Paterson (bass-baritone)
Sieglinde: Elisabeth Teige (soprano)
Siegmund: Brandon Jovanovich (tenor)
Hagen: Albert Pesendorfer (bass)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin/Sir Donald Runnicles
Stefan Herheim, stage director and set designer
rec. live 9-21 November 2021, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Germany
NAXOS NBD0156VX Blu-ray [4 discs: 928]
The Deutsche Oper Berlin is an important Wagner house, once dubbed “the winter Bayreuth”. This new Ring directed by the Norwegian Stefan Herheim had a very long-serving predecessor in Götz Friedrich’s much-admired cycle that ran for 33 years (1984-2017). Friedrich was an important mentor to Herheim, who studied under him at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater Hamburg from 1994 to 1999, so there is a dynastic succession from a former to a current Regietheater director of this huge work in this major venue.
Das Rheingold introduces several of the design tropes that unite the cycle visually and dramaturgically. Before the music begins, across the stage troop a group of migrants who later serve as contributors to the action as Nibelungs or observers, as in a Greek tragedy. They carry battered suitcases (later to serve as Alberich’s hoard, among other things), contemporary dress that does not exclude some additions from Wagnerian cliché, even winged helmets, a grand piano centre stage, where characters ‘play’ along to passages of the music and which functions in other ways, including as an exit and entrance route, a place for Freia to lie while gold is used to obscure her from view in Scene 4, and Brünnhilde’s rock, traditional essential props such as sword, spear, ring and Tarnhelm, large, silky, lightweight curtain materials draped in various ways to form a mountainous background, and later the thunderclouds for Donner to disperse by throwing his hammer into them, used throughout the cycle in a wide variety of configurations, with visual projections on to the cloth by video designer Torge Møller, and finally opera scores, consulted by characters on stage as an authority or guide to what might happen next. This might be one of the largest and most significant works of performance art ever, but it begins just as words and notes on a page, instructions to performers.
Herheim is also aware that this is in Berlin, and there are some World War Two and Wehrmacht references, about which he is quite unapologetic, speaking in the Rheingold booklet of “a chapter in German history which…systematised the extinction of entire people groups”. Those suitcases symbolise more than voluntary migration.
In the filmed interview with Herheim found on the last disc of this cycle, the director points out two key elements of his concept: the first, ‘escape’, is illustrated at the outset by those silently shuffling migrants, fleeing poverty or other kinds of oppression, with clear contemporary resonance. But several characters in the Ring seek to escape, from danger or from their fate, or, like Wotan, from the consequences of their own actions. The second element is the idea of ‘play’, illustrated initially by that piano on stage. In German and some other European languages, the word for play, as in both play an instrument, and as in child’s play, is the same word (Spiel). This seems to be extended here into ‘playfulness’ in some aspects of the design. Alberich – though hardly a joker – wears a clown’s white face. Freia’s golden apples are the large golden breasts she displays as on a saucy seaside postcard. She certainly gets Fasolt’s attention, and they seem to have a real mutual affection. Even Wotan, chief of the gods, is seen in his underwear until his wife Fricka brings him a change of clothes.
Those two, Derek Welton and Annika Schlicht, have impressive voices well suited to their roles, although Fricka’s affectedly silly acting manner sometimes takes playfulness a bit far. Equally well sung are the Loge of Thomas Blondelle, the Freia of Flurina Stucki, and the Erda of Judit Kutasi, but then, this whole cycle deploys a seasoned Wagner cast, with few weak links.
The final scene leads us to Die Walküre, for which we need major new characters to be born, namely Brünnhilde, Siegmund and Sieglinde. That means Wotan has some procreative work to do, so he does not enter Valhalla, but goes down through the prompt box whence Erda arose, there to sire with her the warrior maiden who is the Valkyrie of the title. At some point, also he begets the Wälsung twins from a human mother, so The Valkyries opens with the first humans in the Ring cycle, but here at the very end of Rheingold we see these embryonic twins in the womb, a huge image filling the upper half of the stage. It is a striking closing image to link to the next work of the tetralogy, and a similar link happens at the end of Die Walküre, when we see Sieglinde give birth to Siegfried, then watch Mime steal the infant.
Die Walküre brings a change of Wotan, and another experienced Wagnerian, Iain Paterson, gives a sympathetic, authoritative, and well-sung account of his immensely demanding role. His huge Act 2 monologue – sometimes cited as one of longueurs of the Ring – is compelling. Hunding’s rather one-dimensional role is always watchable in Tobias Kehrer’s strongly played interpretation. Brandon Jovanovich’s Siegmund has pathos and when needed, vocal power, but Elisabeth Teige’s Sieglinde takes the vocal honours for a beautiful and touching portrayal. Nina Stemme is now a veteran Brünnhilde, having sung that and other Wagner leading roles all over the world, and she is probably still heading the list for casting directors of major opera houses; certainly she is on ringing form.
Herheim brings a surprise addition to the cast of Die Walküre in inventing the role of Hundingling, a young, soft-toy cuddling offspring of Hunding and Sieglinde. He is not mere decoration but plays a real role in Act 1, interacting with his bullying father and occasionally irritable mother, and often being comforted by the newly arrived stranger who seems to resemble his mother. Herheim explains in the booklet that this child is the embodiment of the shame Sieglinde feels about her enforced marriage. As Siegmund pulls the sword from the tree (or piano keyboard), Sieglinde slits the throat of Hundingling, who falls dead. Herheim references Medea, and says Sieglinde makes the tragic mistake of thinking the sacrifice of Hundingling is necessary for her to extricate herself.
In the third act, the opening “Ride of the Valkyries” begins with the Valkyries appearing out of the migrant crowd and donning proper Valkyrie kit – well, helmets and spears. The playing of the “Ride” itself has the usual wrong accenting, but most conductors ignore Wagner’s specific instruction that the main stress is always on the first beat (“I’m sick on a see saw”, not “I’m sick on a see saw”). Maybe the singers, as they perused the score on stage, and who do occasionally ‘conduct’ one another, could have given the correct beat! The fallen heroes arise from under their winding sheets and act as sex pests to the Valkyries, with Wotan’s seeming approval, a sign maybe of how he sees love. The end of Act 3 is strong as ever, tenderly affecting as Wotan bids farewell to his favourite daughter, and banishes Brünnhilde to her rock (or piano) against a curtain of flames, as the migrants look on in concern.
Talking points in Siegfried begin with Mime’s costume. He has the whiskers and hat of the mature Wagner, and the striped jacket of a concentration camp prisoner – so both notorious antisemite and a victim of that racist prejudice. Siegfried’s bear is none other than Alberich, who wonders into other scenes where the text does not place him. Siegfried is garbed traditionally, for some costumes reference the design history of the Ring. He also forges Nothung convincingly enough, hammer taps and all, and when it’s done, a map of the world briefly covers the stage, suggesting he could now conquer it all. The Woodbird is a boy soprano, as the composer initially intended. He does not sing his music very convincingly alas, and for some reason later adopts Alberich’s clown make-up. The dragon is a pair of enormous glowing eyes, and a mouth full of sharp teeth, and extras wielding the giant bells of brass instruments (the fight is a noisily brassy piece, and the weakest music in the Ring). We have a new singer for Alberich, Jordan Shanahan, who is as effective as his predecessor.
In Götterdämmerung the now familiar features of this production are used and varied, adding aspects of the opera house itself including its audience. Thus the sculptural metal feature of interlinked discs from the foyer is now an onstage backdrop to the opening scene, where Hagen, in modern dress, sips his interval drink at a table. He fetches Waltraute from the front row of the stalls, where he dozes through his nocturnal colloquy with Alberich. As before characters operate some of the time, e.g. for the blood brotherhood oath, in their underwear. There are some details of which the meaning is elusive, such as the burning man crossing the stage in Act 2, just as Hagen begins to summon the Gibichungs. Others, such as Gunther joining Siegfried in visiting Brünnhilde in the final scene of Act One and sharing his lines, instantly make some dramatic sense. As befits this mighty closing work of the tetralogy, there is plenty of spectacle to bring the cycle to a blazing conclusion.
The new singers are uniformly very good. Hagen is the vocally and physically imposing Albert Pesendorfer, wonderfully baleful in his night watch. His half-brother Gunther is also well sung and acted by Thomas Lehman. His sister Gutrune is the assured Aile Asszonyi, and Okka von der Damerau sings Waltraute with touching beauty; her scene with Brünnhilde is a strong one.
The Brünnhilde of Nina Stemme and Siegfried of Clay Hilley bring the same qualities heard in Siegfried. The American Heldentenor was a sensation as a last-minute replacement at Bayreuth’s 2022 Götterdämmerung, and should be heard by anyone who fears that no-one can truly sing the role these days. He has the range, the shining sound, the musicality and stamina required. Nina Stemme also has those qualities, but is about twenty years Hilley’s senior. All those performances of the repertoire’s most demanding roles begin to take a toll, of course, and she perhaps tires as this performance progresses, with one or two top notes ‘spreading’ – but really it matters little, for she triumphs over the difficulties and remains the consummate performer of this role.
Runnicles and the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin are superb throughout, as is the chorus (in Götterdämmerung Act 2). Their familiarity with this work shows in the confidence of the playing, and the orchestral set pieces such as Siegfried’s Funeral Music are tremendous. If you want to hear incandescent playing in Wagner, try the Prelude to Act 3 of Siegfried, but the many subtle moments (always listen for the bass clarinet in Wagner) are deftly touched in, too. You will realise that Nietzsche, in calling Wagner a supreme miniaturist, was not just indulging his fondness for paradox.
The filming and surround sound are excellent on these Blu-ray discs. The fourth and longest of them has Dolby AC3 5.1 instead of the DTS-HD Master Audio used on the other discs, but I would not have detected that without looking at the small print on the back of that disc’s box, as the audio sounded the same – very good indeed – on my surround system.
The filmed interview and Herheim’s contribution to the booklets are very useful addition in explaining his concept. Perhaps it will be worth consulting both ahead of viewing each opera, but there is also merit in viewing these works as if it is opening night in the Deutsche Oper, and you don’t know what you will see until the curtain rises. Then, to quote T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, you can “get the beauty of it hot”. If that beauty is mainly in the highly eloquent singing and playing, you will find much to impress, question, debate and decode in the innovative production.
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Loge: Thomas Blondelle (tenor)
Alberich: Markus Brüch (baritone)
Fasolt: Andrew Harris (bass)
Fafner: Tobias Kehrer (bass)
Fricka: Annika Schlicht (soprano)
Freia: Flurina Stucki (soprano)
Erda: Judit Kutasi (contralto)
Woglinde: Valeriia Savinskaia (soprano)
Wellgunde: Arianna Manganello (mezzo-soprano)
Flosshilde: Karis Tucker (mezzo-soprano)
Hunding: Tobias Kehrer (bass)
Helmwige: Flurina Stucki (soprano)
Gerhilde: Aile Asszonyi (soprano)
Ortlinde: Antonia Ahyoung Kim (soprano)
Waltraute: Simone Schröder (mezzo-soprano)
Siegrune: Ulrike Helzel (mezzo-soprano)
Rossweisse: Karis Tucker (mezzo-soprano)
Grimgerde: Anna Lapkovskaja (mezzo-soprano)
Schwertleite: Beth Taylor (contralto)
Hundingling: Eric Naumann (actor)
Mime: Ya-Chung Huang (tenor)
Alberich: Jordan Shanahan (baritone)
Erda: Judit Kutasi (contralto)
Waldvogel: Sebastian Scherer (Soloist of the Boys’ Choir of the Chorakademie Dortmund)
Gunther: Thomas Lehman (baritone)
Gutrune/Third Norn: Aile Asszonyi (soprano)
Waltraute: Okka von der Damerau (mezzo-soprano)
Flosshilde/First Norn: Anna Lapkovskaja (mezzo-soprano)
Wellgunde/Second Norn: Karis Tucker (mezzo-soprano)
Woglinde: Meechot Marrero (soprano)
Burning Man: Erich Kammerichs (Stuntcrew Babelsberg)
Chorus and Extra Chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Chorus Director Jeremy Bines
Götterdämmerung disc bonus features:
‘Making Of’ documentary including interviews with Stefan Herheim, Sir Donald Runnicles and behind the scenes footage.
Interviews with members of “Funding Wagner: The Ring Circle of the Deutsche Oper Berlin”.
Other members of the production
Silke Bauer, set designer
Costume designer, Uta Heisecke
Lighting designer, Ulrich Niepel
Video projection, Torge Møller
Dramaturgy, Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach, Jörg Königsdorf
Film director, Götz Filenius
Picture format: 1080i High Definition. Sound format: PCM Stereo/DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Audio language: German. Subtitles: German, English, French, Italian, Japanese, Korean.
Reviewed in surround sound.