Berlin’s Opera Season Nears the End with a Generally Satisfying Das Rheingold

GermanyGermany Wagner: Das Rheingold, Staatskapelle Berlin, Daniel Barenboim (conductor), Schiller Theatre, Berlin, 11.6.2016 (JMI)

Das Rheingold © Monika Rittershaus.
Das Rheingold © Monika Rittershaus.

Production: Berliner Staatsoper in coproduction with La Scala
Direction: Guy Cassiers
Sets: Guy Cassiers & Enrico Bagnoli
Costumes: Tim Van Steenbergen
Lighting: Enrico Bagnoli
Choreography: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

Wotan: Iain Paterson
Alberich: Jochen Schmeckenbecher
Loge: Stephan Rügamer
Fricka: Ekaterina Gubanova
Fasolt: Matti Salminen
Fafner: Falk Struckmann
Freia: Anna Samuil
Erda: Anna Larsson
Froh: Simon O’Neill
Donner: Roman Trekel
Mime: Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Woglinde: Evelin Novak
Wellgunde: Anna Danik
Flosshilde: Anna Lapkovskaja

The end of the opera season is approaching, and Berlin appears to want to finish it brilliantly. Over the next ten days one can attend a cycle of The Ring of the Nibelung under the baton of Daniel of Barenboim; an almost-premiere of the opera Juliette by Martinů; and a very interesting Tristan at the Deutsche Oper with Nina Stemme and Stephen Gould. It is indeed an attractive program to end the season.

Almost every year Berlin mounts the Wagner Tetralogy, and in 2016 the Staatsoper was in charge of programming it into two complete cycles, to be held during June. Next season the Deutsche Oper will offer the famous Ring of Götz Friedrich. It’s always rewarding to attend performances of this great work with orchestras like Berlin’s ̶ and this time under the direction of Daniel Barenboim.

I think many opera lovers will agree that the main focus in any Ring is the conductor. Not that other aspects of the work are unimportant, but the priority belongs to the conductor. There are a number of top-level conductors for Wagner, and among them is Daniel Barenboim, who with Thielemann and Petrenko completes the great triumvirate of Wagnerian conductors today.

Here, however, Daniel Barenboim’s conducting of Das Rheingold was surprising and somewhat disappointing for me. For one thing, it was too delicate, almost like chamber music: not the sort of reading I prefer. In addition, the tempos were too slow. Suffice it to say that his version was twenty-one minutes longer than the one done by Kirill Petrenko last year in Munich, and only comparable to Valery Gergiev’s version last year at the Mariinsky. I have nothing against slow tempi, especially if the conductor is Daniel Barenboim, but it is difficult to avoid tedium, and Mr. Barenboim was not always successful. The Staatskapelle Berlin was the great orchestra we all know, and especially outstanding under the baton of their principal conductor.

The staging is a revival of Guy Cassiers production that was premiered in Milan six years ago. The set is basically the same for the entire opera with water on the floor, which seems appropriate for the scene of the Rhine but not for the rest of the opera. The costumes mix up time periods somewhat gratuitously, with Fricka and Freia wearing clothes suitable to a palace reception in the 19th century, while the giants wear contemporary suits and the gods are dressed in a somewhat grotesque way. The environment is dark, but the lighting does not take enough advantage of that. Video projections on the wall at the back of the stage hold little interest, and as a result the choreography becomes quite important. Indeed, beginning with the Rhine scene, a group of about ten dancers is always on stage, continuously accompanying the singers. Their nonstop movements become superfluous and serve only to distract the audience.

Mr. Cassiers conception of the opera is basically boring. The entrance of Fricka on stage singing “Erwache, Wotan, erwache” is absurd: she simply comes in holding her husband’s arm. The Nibelheim scene was tedious, and the transformations of Alberich do not exist. I don’t remember seeing a Tarnhelm on stage, and the ring is a glove. The entrance of the gods in Walhalla is almost nonexistent, since when that wonderful music starts the gods are no longer on stage.

Michael Volle had been announced to play Wotan, but he cancelled and was replaced by baritone Iain Paterson. His voice is well-suited for characters like Gunther, but he lacks the amplitude and authority needed for Wotan. He was a modest Wotan, and will be the god in Bayreuth this summer, where they are increasingly used to seeing mediocrities in the festival.

Jochen Schmeckenbecher is a true specialist in the role of Alberich, which he has sung countless times and in many theatres. He’s a solid interpreter of the character, though not exceptional.

Tenor Stephan Rügamer did well as Loge, who always wins the audience’s sympathy. His voice is really that of a character tenor, but he moves nicely on stage and gave a good interpretation.

Ekaterina Gubanova was convincing is the part of Fricka, although I found her shorter of power than in the past in this character. Her voice is still attractive, and she is a solid singer.

As for the Giants, I must highlight the presence of Matti Salminen as Fasolt. At nearly 71, he retains a fresh voice and dominates the character, singing with exceptional intention. Fafner was Falk Struckmann, who is more baritone than bass, and he was serviceable.

Anna Samuil was good in the part of Freia, with an attractive voice. Anna Larsson is not just a contralto, but she gave mystery to her interpretation of Erda. Simon O’Neill was a luxury in the almost episodic part of Froh, and next he’ll be Siegmund in Walküre. I remember better performances from Roman Trekel, who played the part of Donner, but Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Mime did nicely.

The Daughters of the Rhine were also good. Evelin Novak offered an attractive voice as Woglinde, and the same can be said of Anna Danik (Wellgunde) and Anna Lapkovskaja (Flosshilde).

José M. Irurzun

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