The Deutsche Oper Gives a Fine Last Outing to Götz Friedrich’s Production of Wagner’s Epic Tetralogy

GermanyGermany Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen: Soloists, Chorus (chorus master: Raymond Hughes) and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin / Donald Runnicles (conductor). Deutsche Oper, Berlin, 13-17.4.2017. (MB)

Deutsche Oper’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (c) Bettina Stöß


Wotan/The Wanderer – Derek Welton (Rheingold), Iain Paterson (Walküre), Samuel Youn (Siegfried)
Donner – Noel Bouley
Froh – Attilio Glaser
Loge – Burkhard Ulrich
Alberich – Werner Van Mechelen
Mime – Paul Kaufmann (Rheingold), Burkhard Ulrich (Siegfried)
Fasolt, Hagen – Albert Pesendorfer
Fafner – Andrew Harris
Fricka, Second Norn (sung: played on stage by Anna Klöhs), Waltraute (Götterdämmerung) – Daniela Sindram
Freia – Martina Weischenbach
Erda, Grimgerde, First Norn – Ronnita Miller
Woglinde – Meechot Marrero (Rheingold), Martina Welschenbach (Götterdämmerung)
Wellgunde, Rossweiße – Christina Sidak
Floßhilde, Siegrune – Annika Schlicht
Siegmund – Stuart Skelton
Hunding – Tobias Kehrer
Sieglinde – Eva-Maria Westbroek
Brünnhilde – Evelyn Herlitzius (Walküre, Götterdämmerung), Ricarda Merbeth (Siegfried)
Helmwige – Martina Welschenbach
Gerhilde, Third Norn – Seyoung Park
Ortlinde – Sunyoung Seo
Waltraute (Walküre) – Michaela Selinger
Schwetleite – Rebecca Raffell
Siegfried – Stefan Vinke
Woodbird – Elbenita Kajtazi
Gunther – Seth Carico
Gutrune – Ricarda Merbeth


Director – Götz Friedrich
Designs – Peter Sykora
Revival directors – Jasmin Solfaghari (Rheingold, Siegfried), Gerlinde Pelkowski (Walküre and Götterdämmerung)

‘Mark well my new poem — it contains the beginning of the world and its destruction!’ Wagner’s words to Liszt, in a letter of 1853 have often been quoted. Less often quoted, yet equally important for these particular performances are the almost preposterously theatrical words with which he prefaced them. (Nietzsche’s charge that Wagner was above all an actor was not entirely without force, although not necessarily in the way he intended it.) ‘Yes, I should like to perish in Valhalla’s flames!’ Wagner also told his great friend and supporter, perhaps one of the very few who began to understand the scale of his achievement in the Ring. For here, Götz Friedrich’s production, first seen in 1984 and 1985, has reached its own Götterdammerung. One of the many lessons of the Ring is that nothing must be set in stone, or in the runes of Wotan’s spear; everything has its time. It seems to me that the Deutsche Oper has judged this about right, retiring it whilst there is some life in it, and giving it a proud immolation scene of its own, preparing the way for what must be the most eagerly awaited new production since – well, since 1876: that of arguably the greatest opera director at work today, unquestionably the greatest Wagner director, Stefan Herheim. All the Valkyries’ horses and all of Wotan’s host of heroes will not keep me from seeing that, but I am very glad to have had the opportunity to see, for the first and last time, its predecessor (however much what we now see may well differ from what Friedrich himself put on the stage). Many thanks indeed, then, to the Deutsche Oper for the tickets that enabled me to do so.

Different members of the audience would have experienced this in many different ways. Some may have been there for the first performances; some may even have been there for each cycle. Wagnerians are, after all, fanatical souls; it is safer to think oneself a Wagnerite. Some even came in coach parties, collected from the door each night. (Imagine that happening in Britain for something that was not a West End musical!) I mention that since many would have built up attachments that I did not have – just as I might for a favourite pianist whom I flattered myself I ‘understood’ and could therefore happily forget a few wrong notes. As stagecraft, what I saw was more mixed than was suggested by much of the reaction around me. It was mixed, though, and had enough going on conceptually and in detail to set me thinking more than in some new productions I have written about.

In that respect, for me, Das Rheingold fared best of all. If nothing can approach Patrice Chéreau’s evergreen Bayreuth staging for somehow surviving the ravages of time, this does not do badly at all. The story is told clearly, with a fine balance between ideas and characters. It is always difficult – indeed it should be difficult – to tell what is the work of the original director and what of the revival director, but it seemed to me that Jasmin Solfaghari had inspired her forces with considerable success. Perhaps she was also helped by the conceptual richness of the work, which does, as it were, so much of the work itself. If any one work of Wagner’s is a ‘drama of ideas’, it is surely this. At any rate, Peter Sykora’s fabled time tunnel, here and elsewhere, makes quite the visual – and conceptual – impression.  It was intended by Friedrich to convey something of Gurnemanz’s most celebrated line, ‘Du siehst, mein Sohn, zum Raum wird hier die Zeit’ (You see, my son, here space becomes time), thus reading back that strikingly Schopenhauerian and more generally post-Kantian idea back into the abidingly Hegelian, historical cosmogony of the Ring, or perhaps rather taking its shell and filling it with Hegelian content. Such, at least, is my predictably more Hegelian, historical reading, for a Ring without history is inconceivable to me – and, I should argue, to Wagner, the eager student (however much he might later have played this down) of Hegel’s Philosophy of History.

The setting for Nibelheim comes across as surprisingly undated. Its emphasis on the marriage between technology and barbarism marries well-nigh perfectly with Wagner’s own premonitions, or presentiments as he would have called them, of a darker age in German history. Adorno would surely have admired that more, had he been able to overcome his lack of sympathy earlier. Alberich’s appearance behind something akin to a shop window captures the avarice, the pretence, and the capital. His ability to control events is real, though. Mime’s pain is clearly no act, and the first ring transformation in particular is as convincingly handled as I have seen: sometimes lighting, or rather darkening, is all you need. In the second and final scenes, Loge’s availability to all – he is, after all, amongst other things, the incarnation of instrumental reason – is clearer than I can recall elsewhere. Fricka consults him and he proffers advice; he even wanders off with Fafner, following his murder of Fasolt, before returning to the scene of the crime. Valhalla is clearly another place, distinguished from wherever it is that the assembled company is, and the rainbow lighting of the tunnel makes a lasting impression. Dr Who, eat your heart out, I thought. In a telling touch, what I have written of as the ‘limping aspirant waltz’ of the entry into Valhalla is splendidly choreographed: two steps forward, one back. Writing of Chéreau’s production, Günter Metken likened the entry of the gods into Valhalla to a tableau vivant of Bruegel’s Parable of the blind. There is something of that spirit here too.

One might have thought the ‘purely human’ – to use Wagner’s term – contrast in the world, at least partly, of Die Walküre would have fared better, but here I had the sense – it could only be a sense, given my lack of experience – that there was too much of the singers being left to their own devices, leading to somewhat generalised musico-dramatic performances. Whatever the reasons – and there may have been too little in the way of rehearsal time – strong Personenregie seemed lacking. Nevertheless, there are many points to commend, even if some of the designs here looked (to these perhaps jaded eyes) a little tired. Miniature ruins of old civilisations in the time tunnel are suggestive – rather than prescriptive. The Valkyries, true Hell’s Angels in appearance, intriguingly put up at least a gesture of a fight when Wotan advances, his spear having to command them to desist. Here, though, and in much of the remainder of the cycle, I felt that the lighting was often too dark, or more to the point, dingy. Whilst there is clearly a conceptual case for darkening of the light, one hears it in the music in any case, and more importantly, it often makes it a little too difficult to see what is going on onstage. On the other hand, it certainly made the real fire – praise Loge – at the close stand in great relief, in more than one sense.

Siegfried and Götterdämmerung fell somewhere in between, I think. I was rather charmed by the naïveté of the forest designs, and the contrast with the excellent functioning of Mime’s smithy, bellows and all, proved instructive. In Wagner’s dramatization between artist (Siegfried) and craftsman (Mime), there is more to glean than mere opposition, for the work is more complex than even this creator. I have seen far worse dragons too. The revival direction (Solfaghari again) seemed to me to possess a good sense of the epic, which is surely the key to what in many ways remains the most difficult of the Ring dramas to bring off. Many think it does not work, or even speak of the second act as tedious; they either do not understand, or have been let down by poor stagings. If the 2016 revision (essentially directed by Patric Seibert), although certainly not my first experience (how I recanted!) of Frank Castorf’s Bayreuth Ring evinced a more extraordinary epic character than any other I have seen, and has probably changed my view of Siegfried forever, then a staging three decades old did not hold up too badly. It can hardly be held responsible for failing to match up to the spectacular set designs of Aleksandar Denić.

If Götterdammerung somehow fails to impress, there will have been ‘the wrong sort of catastrophe’, as Network Rail, or whatever it now calls itself, might put it. That was certainly not the case here, although again I felt the Personenregie was sometimes a little lacking. Intelligent singing actors can do a great deal, and did, but in a work such as this, more is ideally required. The settings vary between an intriguing, distorting Gibichung hall, revealed with cunning metaphor to be partly of mirrors, to almost school-play-like bathos in the Rhine at the close (although see the end of this paragraph). The drama survives, though, even if lighting might have helped it further. The time tunnel at the close, which I had expected, whether ‘historically’ or melodramatically, or both, to suffer devastation, pays testament to a cyclical view. And so, yes, the Schopenhauerian view suggested by Gurnemanz’s words prevails, if not entirely, at the close – just as he does, not entirely, at the close of the work. It was only afterwards that I read Friedrich’s words – and I am glad that I left it until then, so that they would not colour my anticipation – ‘When at the ending of Götterdämmerung everything has been burnt and destroyed, when the Rhine in the shape of a gigantic white cloth covers all of it, they [the gods] have gone back to sitting there, as in the beginning, ready to play their parts in the play once again, perhaps ever and again. Are we, while they are doing this, while they continue to do this, are we getting any wiser, any richer? The director leaves the reply to his question to you.’

Cast as these performances were over just five days, there was some degree of sharing out recurring roles. I have no objection to that at all. Theatre is not ‘real life’, and there can be advantage not only to different standpoints at different stages of characters’ development, but to being reminded that this is theatre – especially, I might add, for Wagnerians as opposed to mere Wagnerites. (The problem is that the former are likely to be most resistant to such realisation.) All three Wotans had sterling qualities to their portrayals. Derek Welton’s Rheingold god matched youthfulness to power and strength, his turn to thoughtfulness in the final scene, ably picked up by Iain Paterson’s Walküre successor: very much an heir to the sagas, reminiscent in some respects of a young(er) John Tomlinson. Samuel Youn performed a valuable task in reminding us that there is life in the old god yet, brutality especially evident, but in context, I felt this was a little too much Dutchman, somewhat too less resigned Wanderer. Perhaps, though, I am falling into the Wagnerian trap I mention above.

Standing out for me amongst the other gods was Daniela Sindram’s Fricka: almost yet not quite sympathetic, at least in the day-to-day, straightforward sense. Wagner’s Hera should fascinate, yet to some degree repel. His description of her as embodying ‘custom’ was not in any sense intended as a compliment – as the drama makes abundantly clear. Attilio Glaser’s foppish way with Froh trod with ease the difficult line between portrayal of an almost cipher-like character and mere inconsequentiality. Burkhard Ulrich’s subtly calibrated Loge reinforced the production’s understanding of the demi-god as the Ring’s sole intellectual; Ulrich would prove just as impressive in the very different role of Mime (although they are often sung by the same artist), never, as Wagner insisted the singer must not, turning to caricature without falling into the common, understandable trap of making the dwarf unduly sympathetic. (Siegfried does enough of that as it is.) Ronnita Miller’s Erda showed great presence, in stage and vocal terms, although she veered somewhat out of tune for some of her Rheingold stint.

Stuart Skelton’s Siegmund was as well sung and humanly portrayed as we have now come to expect. (Why, o why, does Covent Garden continue to ignore him?) The relative weakness, so it seemed, of the Personenregie did little, though, to ignite a real sense of passion between him and Sieglinde. In that role, Eva-Maria Westbroek certainly wowed the audience, which awarded her the greatest cheers of the evening. I, however, found myself less involved. Her portrayal seemed to me at times as generalised as the direction, and I could not help but suspect that the clamour was as much a response to the volume as anything else; it can hardly have been a response to her way with the poem. Tobias Kehrer’s darkly dangerous – yet not simply relying on darkness of voice, as in some ‘great’ portrayals of the past – Hunding made me wish we had more to hear from him. As the Volsung twins’ heir, Stefan Vinke proved tireless (save for one forgivable moment in the final act of Siegfried). He had his moments with tuning, and it cannot be said to have been the most subtle of assumptions – but would a subtle Siegfried be missing the point? – yet he did much more than get through the cruel demands placed upon him by Wagner, much more than I have usually heard.

There was quite a contrast between our two Brünnhildes. Evelyn Herlitzius, as is her wont, gave utterly committed performances. One has to take the rough – sometimes, I have to admit, the very rough – with the smooth, but one can forgive almost everything when the commitment is such as here. Her turn as the woman scorned in the second act of Götterdämmerung was noteworthy for something that is all too often missed; that is very much part of her ‘elevation’ to humanity. I should not have minded hearing more of the words, though, especially in the grand dénouement. Ricarda Merbeth had far less to do in terms of acting – or singing, for that matter. I suspect she might have been parted by the demands of the Walküre and Götterdammerung incarnation, but there were vocal thrills of a perhaps more conventionally ‘operatic’ kind, not unreasonably, to be had in her duet. Michaela Selinger contributed a moving Waltraute, attentive to the text throughout: the greater part of the trick, if we may call it that, here. The other Valkyries were a characterful bunch, more varied in tone than any ensemble I recall.

Werner Van Mechelen’s Alberich shifted, as if with the aid of a vocal Tarnhelm, between appearances – until his final, almost Beckettian appearance in that well-nigh incredible scene with Hagen (of which Boulez, no less, spoke with awe). Albert Pesendorfer showed great versatility in shifting in rather different fashion, from a truly sympathetic Fasolt (contrasting with Andrew Harris’ darker portrayal of the giant’s gangster turned rentier brother, Fafner) to a subtly manipulative Hagen: again offering far more than ‘mere’ darkness of tone. Seth Carico proved an accomplished Gunther. It is a difficult role, since playing ineffectuality should not become ineffectual in its sense. Carico’s acting skills helped greatly here, his fear palpable, without unduly informing smoothness of vocal line – or indeed enunciation of the text. His Gutrune, Merbeth again, with whom there was suggested an all-too-close relationship (perhaps more mother substitute than anything else), could sometimes be a little blowsy and again ‘operatic’; I am not sure that it was really her role.

Last but certainly not least, the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper under Donald Runnicles did a sterling job. One almost always hears a few too many slips in Götterdämmerung, especially from the brass, and such was the case here, but to dwell on that would be to parody Beckmesser. Throughout, the string tone was dark yet commendably clear, not so transparent as that of some bands, but different orchestras have different characters, and long may that remain the case. No one, however often (s)he might have heard the Ring, could have come away from the performances having failed to learn a good deal from Wagner’s modern Greek Chorus. The actual chorus, a hangover but what a hangover from Wagner’s immersion in grand opéra, showed typical excellence in Götterdämmerung. Runnicles was an excellent guide, first amongst equals: supportive of singers without deferring to them. Structure was admirably clear, even if form lacked the last few inches of dynamism one would hear from, say, Daniel Barenboim. Art is not a competition, though, and if I felt a little shortchanged at the end of the first act of Die Walküre, I also recalled that the Staatsoper’s recent (Guy Cassiers) production made a considerably lesser impression than when I heard Barenboim’s concert performance at the Proms.  There is much to be said for such an unshowy way with Wagner, not least when one compares it with what London audiences have had to endure since the departure of Bernard Haitink. Runnicles’ wisdom was ultimately not so different from Brünnhilde’s. We ‘saw’ and heard ‘the world end’ – in words of hers Wagner never set, but never needed to; sometimes the orchestra says it all.

Mark Berry

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