Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Die Walküre
Nina Stemme (soprano) – Brünnhilde
Iain Paterson (bass-baritone) – Wotan
Brandon Jovanovich (tenor) – Siegmund
Elisabeth Teige (soprano) – Sieglinde
Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin/Sir Donald Runnicles
Stefan Herheim (stage director)
rec. 10 & 17 November 2021, Deutsche Opera Berlin, Germany
Naxos 2.110741 DVD [2 discs: 231]

Those of us who persist in our belief that opera on DVD or video is the ideal manner in which to experience these works in the comfort of the home have every reason to be extremely grateful to Naxos over recent years. Not only did they reissue vintage productions of such works as Britten’s Albert Herring and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Sir Peter Hall’s Glyndebourne stagings, Gluck’s Orfeo with Dame Janet Baker, and the splendid Eugene Onegin from the same source (all reissued in the past twelve months). They also continued explorations of the repertoire in splendid productions from around Europe, many of them neglected by other companies and only now emerging after several years – Mathis der Maler from Berlin, for example, as well as raft of other rarities such as the operas of Respighi. But, at the same time, one would wish that a certain level of quality control might perhaps be exercised, especially with operas produced by exponents of what has become known as Regietheater. It seem to engender approval from a small coterie of German and other critics, but drives those who know and love the operas given that sort of treatment to despair. Unfortunately, Norwegian director Stefan Herheim’s production of Wagner’s Ring from Berlin is just such a sort of turkey, with almost no redeeming features – and not even that original.

Surely, the reader must object, the picture cannot possibly be so uniformly bleak as to deserve such condemnation. But I am afraid it is, it is. I will spare the audience a litany of the horrors perpetrated in this staging, an unending testament of folly which would be inevitably devoid of pleasure or instruction. I will simply confine myself to a description of the first ten minutes of Act Two of this Walküre. Now, Wagner’s instructions for this scene are simplicity itself. After an orchestral prelude depicting the flight of Siegmund and Sieglinde into the wilds, the curtain rises on a scene in the mountains where Wotan instructs Brünnhilde in the actions she is to undertake in the forthcoming conflict between Siegmund and Hunding, Sieglinde’s vengeful husband. She rejoices in the prospect, but warns Wotan that his spouse Fricka is approaching, and leaves him to confront her in their forthcoming argument. The musical structure falls into one unit, all at the same basic speed, and serves to introduce the Valkyries and their boisterous Leitmotive to the audience. All very basic and very straightforward, or so it would seem.

Now let us see what Herheim does with this basic scenario. The curtain rises – following the applause for Sir Donald Runnicles arriving in the orchestra pit – in total silence, on a set and a scene that have not changed in the slightest degree since it fell on Act One. The stage is dominated by a grand piano, on the lid of which Siegmund and Sieglinde have fully and visibly consummated their passion (and conceived Siegfried) in a most perfunctory manner at the end of the preceding scene. Siegmund appears to have now ungallantly fallen asleep on top of his sister, but rouses himself (still clad in the most scruffy and unprepossessing underwear) as Wotan climbs up out of the prompt box, also without his trousers. He produces a vocal score of the opera clearly labelled Die Walküre, moves across to the piano and seats himself at the keyboard. Only now does the music begin. As the themes associated specifically with the lovers erupt, Hunding arrives on stage to discover the body of his murdered son (do not ask now – I will explain later) and his wife’s clothing discarded on the floor. The lovers disentangle themselves unceremoniously and seemingly unnoticed from the lid of the piano. The lid then opens to allow the entry of Brünnhilde. She rises from the bowels of the instrument on what seems to be a sort of fork-lift truck surrounded by spears. Her sisters join her in a rabble to one side of the stage, and Hunding’s henchmen, complete with shotguns, appear to threaten both them and Siegmund and Sieglinde – who are now bundled offstage with the maximum dispatch and minimum of impact. Wotan proceeds to play the Valkyrie motif on the piano with the style of ebullient showmanship that one might have associated with Liberace, but without the charm (despite a fixed cheesy grin). In the meantime, Hunding remains crouched at the centre front of the stage, not over the body of his son as one might expect. Instead, he bares his chest (with a most impressive tattoo) over the dress of his eloping wife and bellows his outrage to the heavens just as Brünnhilde is proclaiming her arrival – thus effectively totally upstaging the whole dramatic and musical point of the scene. Finally, as Fricka approaches (also rising up through the piano) and Wotan finally gets round to putting on and buttoning up his trousers, the assembled multitude of extras are hustled unceremoniously offstage – only to creep back progressively during the following scene. They will remain there not only during the whole dispute between Wotan and his spouse but the following ‘monologue’ where Wotan insistently states that he is talking to himself (treating his daughter as his inner self) without any listeners or other eavesdroppers. Oh, by the way, since Fricka has lost her chariot drawn by rams, she has made recompense by adopting a headdress which incorporates a ram’s skull into the body of her hair. It looks absolutely ridiculous and draws attention away from the importance of her argument at every point in the dramatically crucial dialogue which is to follow.

Well, that is just a sample of the sort of nonsense that is perpetrated throughout this staging. Just when one thought that the whole production could not get more ludicrous, Herheim manages to find yet another lunacy to foist on the unsuspecting audience. It does not help either that some of these are so predictable. Somehow we know in advance that Wotan is going to tear pages out of the vocal score as he apostrophises Das Ende! during his monologue; that Brünnhilde is going to go through a sort of embalming ritual to prepare Siegmund for death; that Hunding is going to reappear complete with a band of henchmen to hunt Siegmund; and that he is going to stab him in the back a good couple of minutes after Wagner specifies that he should do so (at the exact moment when the orchestra is delivering the Valkyrie motif that is supposed to depict the flight of Brünnhilde and Sieglinde). We have seen all these things, or images very like them, in previous productions going back to Patrice Chereau in 1976 at Bayreuth and beyond; they lack even the dubious virtue of originality.

One further example of this tomfoolery must suffice, and it is probably the most extreme of all. We find a further completely new character introduced into Act One of the drama. It takes the shape of a teenage son, the product of the marriage between Sieglinde and Hunding, who is identified in the booklet with the singularly unimaginative name of Hundingling. Now, in an interview with the obsequious Jörg Königsdorf reproduced in the booklet, Herheim explains his rationale for this startling alteration in Wagner’s whole scenario. He is concerned that Sieglinde’s guilt during her flight with Siegmund during Act Two is insufficiently motivated by her realisation of both adultery and incest, and decides that to rationalise this he must add what he describes as a parallel to “Medea”. The teenage boy accordingly has his throat cut by his mother at the moment when his uncle pulls the sword from the tree. Now, I would argue that the motivation of Medea – her abandonment by her husband – is precisely the opposite of any motivation that could conceivably be attributed to Sieglinde at that particular moment of joyous triumph. But it also sacrifices any possible sympathy or engagement on the part of the audience in the fate either of Sieglinde or her brother (who ignores the crime that has just been committed in his anxiety to get rid of his scruffy and dirty clothes, reminiscent of a jobbing gardener, and drag his sister onto the lid of the piano for their quick tumble).

The whole addition of this character also creates problems earlier on. The unfortunate ‘Hundingling’ clasping his oversized teddy bear has nothing to sing, or indeed to do, but he is onstage from the very beginning even before the arrival of Siegmund. At first, he is suspicious and threatens the stranger with a knife, then allows this to be taken from him, and then retrieves it, all without any obvious motivation. That in turn leads the viewer to suspect that he is not only dumb but also mentally disturbed or retarded, which lends the whole concept an even more distasteful interpretation. And then he has to maintain this thoroughly unpleasant charade for a whole hour before his mother relieves him of his life. No, this is not a fair summary of the situation. The whole concept should have been despatched from the very word go, as soon as it was even formulated. Who on Earth allowed this sort of perverse nonsense to be perpetrated on stage in the first place? I could go on and on, but there is no point. Herheim at any rate seems reluctant to abandon the character; Hundingling unbelievably turns up again as one of the corpses carried by the Valkyries (supposedly slain on the battlefield), to intervene somewhat ineffectually in the dialogue between Sieglinde and Brünnhilde before the latter announces his mother’s pregnancy. At that point, having presumably fulfilled whatever purpose his resurrection was intended to serve, he is bundled offstage once again. Maybe he is intended to reappear in later episodes of the cycle; nothing would surprise.

Under these circumstances it is usually customary for the critic to shrug and suggest that those who purchase the product should be prepared to close their eyes and simply listen to the music. But here not even that is possible. Several of Wagner’s orchestral climaxes are drowned with shrieks or shouts from the singers (sometimes those perpetrators are not even supposed to be on stage at the time according to Wagner’s directions). The ultimate in absurdity occurs at the end of Act Two when Wotan, instead of setting out in pursuit of Brünnhilde, patrols round the stage accosting Hunding’s henchmen and causing them to discharge their shotguns one after another (one at the climax of each phrase) before they fall down dead for no very obvious reason. Quite apart from the ludicrous introduction of firearms (how is Siegmund under such circumstances supposed to gain any combative advantage from the possession of the sword, however magical, left for him by Wälse?), the resultant noise adds another percussion part to the orchestra, which negates the whole musical effect sought by Wagner, and drowns out the soaring aggression of the rising tuba phrases altogether. Sir Donald in the pit should have rebelled.

The abysmal production seems even to have affected the usually imperturbable Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde. Her sustained high notes no longer have the ease of production to which we have become accustomed over the past twenty years, although her quiet singing remains as intense and moving as ever. Annika Schlicht as Fricka, the only holdover from the cast of Rheingold, is handicapped by her stage presentation but also sounds too matronly. And at the moment of her triumph over Wotan she completely misinterprets her actions, first cast down abjectly on the floor and then addressing her final remarks not to him but directly to Brünnhilde (who then has to look surprised when she learns of their content some twenty minutes later). Iain Paterson as Wotan seems plebeian and matter-of-fact throughout – he cannot have been helped by the vacillating and shallow characterisation foisted upon him. One simply cannot believe in him as the ruler of the gods even when he is manipulating the actions of all the other characters like a puppet master at the end of Act Two (again, best not to ask). He does rise to an impressive account of his farewell, which for once follows Wagner’s stage directions.

Tobias Kehrer as Hunding is gruff although serviceable, but there is no villainous depth to his tone. Brandon Jovanovich as Siegmund sounds quite simply over-parted. At first his voice has a tendency to be covered by the orchestra although his Winterstürme is nicely phrased. Then, as he lets the tone expand towards the end of Act One, he allows his pitch to go seriously awry in a quest for volume; the passage after he draws the sword from the tree is painfully adrift. (By the way, when he arrives he is wearing a bedraggled anorak over his gardening clothes to protect him from the storm, but he does seem to have found time for a complete shave while fleeing from his enemies.) As his sister and wife, Elisabeth Teige probably produces the most satisfactory singing of the evening, but what the producer has done to her character renders her totally unsympathetic; we feel none of the pain of the downtrodden wife. The Valkyries in the final Act, when they finally get to sing, are an accurate but otherwise pretty unprepossessing bunch, although Flurina Stucki as Helmwige does at least supply a voice of the right heroic stature. But then nobody buys a recording of Walküre for the Helmwige. The film director Götz Filenius does his best to ensure that the cameras are pointing in the right direction, although how he determines what that should be is a mystery. Some of the more grandiose lighting effects are spectacular, even when unmotivated or simply misguided. The set, unchanged throughout all three Acts, is constructed from modern suitcases piled up to the rafters.

I recognise the time and effort that everyone concerned must have ploughed into this presentation. The whole production was clearly not cheap, and even the lunacies of the director clearly involved considerable – if insufficiently rational – thought. But the result is quite simply intolerable, and not even the merits of some of the individual performances can redeem that. The CoVid pandemic apparently wreaked havoc with the rehearsal and preparation period. Not enough, I fear. Herheim asks in his booklet interview for judgement on the production as a whole to be suspended until it can be considered in its entirety. But we are already given a foretaste of his plans in the closing scene of this production. As Wotan pronounces his final lines and the Siegfried motif rings out majestically in the orchestra, the lid of the piano at the centre of the stage opens (the sleeping Brünnhilde had been entombed there only minutes earlier) to disclose Sieglinde giving birth to her son with Mime in attendance (anticipating narrative which is yet to come). The scene fades to darkness (just as the music is illustrating the fire reaching its height) isolating Mime and the baby centre stage, an image which fights every inch against both dramatic and musical credibility. If I had been in a position of any influence in Berlin, I would not have waited another second, but terminated the experiment immediately. No doubt sycophantic or jaded critics will disagree; but I would defy them to produce a single innovative idea in this presentation which would not be susceptible of improvement or which is not surpassed elsewhere. For those who nonetheless persist, I may note that subtitles are provided in German, English, French, Italian, Japanese and Korean.

I cannot recommend that anyone, even an ardent fan of the Regietheater concept, should invest in this issue. Critics for years have complained about what they term the ‘lazy tradition’ enshrined in the old DG videos from the Metropolitan conducted by James Levine and produced by Otto Schenk. Even so, while Die Walküre is the weakest link in that Met Ring, the staging still has a dramatic and musical cogency which knocks this newcomer irretrievably into the long grass. Those looking for a more modern approach will find Hary Kupfer’s Bayreuth production conducted by Daniel Barenboim eminently acceptable, although Kupfer too cannot resist the temptation to add a collection of silent and unnecessary watchers to the characters onstage.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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Other cast & technical details
Tobias Kehrer (bass) – Hunding
Annika Schlicht (mezzo-soprano) – Fricka
Eric Naumann (silent) – Hundingling
Aile Asszonyi (soprano) – Gerhilde
Flurina Stucki (soprano) – Helmwige
Ahyoung Kim (soprano) – Ortlinde
Beth Taylor (soprano) – Schwertleite
Simone Schroder (mezzo-soprano) – Waltraute
Ulrike Helzel (mezzo-soprano) – Siegrune
Anna Lapkovskaja (mezzo-soprano) – Grimgerde
Karis Tucker (mezzo-soprano) – Rossweise
Stefan Herheim and Silke Bauer (set designers)
Uta Heiseke (costume designer)
Ulrich Niepel (lighting designer)
William Duke and Dan Trenchard (video projections)
Götz Filenius (television director)
NTSC 16.9: PCM stereo
Region 0 (worldwide)