Two great artists, Daniel Barenboim and Michael Volle, head the Staatsoper’s marvelous Ring cycle

GermanyGermany Der Ring des Nibelungen [1]: Wagner, Das Rheingold, Die Walkűre: Staatsopernchor, Staatskapelle Berlin / Daniel Barenboim (conductor), Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, 21 & 22.9.2019. (JMI)

Staatsoper Berlin’s Die Walkűre (c) M. Rittershaus


Direction – Guy Cassiers
Sets – Guy Cassiers/Enrico Bagnoli
Costumes – Tim Van Steenbergen
Lighting – Enrico Bagnoli
Choreography – Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui


Das Rheingold

Wotan – Michael Volle
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 – Natalia Skrycka
Flosshilde – Anna Lapkovskaja

Die Walkűre

Brünnhilde – Iréne Theorin
Wotan – Michael Volle
Sieglinde – Anja Kampe
Siegmund – Simon O’Neill
Fricka – Ekaterina Gubanova
Hunding – Falk Struckmann
Gerhilde – Christiane Kohl
Helmwige – Vida Mikneviciute
Waltraute – Anja Schlosser
Schwerleite – Natalia Skrycka
Ortlinde – Anna Samuil
Siegrune – Julia Rutigliano
Grimgerde – Anna Lapkovskaja
Rossweisse – Dshamilja Kaiser

My main reason for this trip to Berlin was to attend Der Ring des Nibelungen under Daniel Barenboim. It is the first time that it has been staged at Unter den Linden – it was last mounted by the company in 2016 at the Schiller Theater. The first two operas in the cycle were brilliant musically and vocally, although the stagings were less satisfying.

This is the well-known Guy Cassiers production which premiered nine years ago when Barenboim was the musical director of both La Scala and the Staatsoper Berlin. For Das Rheingold there is basically a single stage with water on the ground, which seems suitable for the Rhine scene but less so for the rest of the opera. The costumes are from different periods: Fricka and Freia are in nineteenth-century garb, but the giants wear contemporary suits. The video projections are uninteresting, while the choreography is practically a protagonist of the production. After the Rhine scene, a group of dancers is always on stage accompanying the singers, and their continuous movements are distracting.

The key ingredient of any Ring cycle is the musical director. Today there are some exceptional conductors for Wagner’s operas, and Daniel Barenboim is one of the best. He gave a brilliant but rather slow reading here, with unhurried tempi; suffice it to say that this was the longest version I have ever attended. The Staatskapelle Berlin shone in a special way under Barenboim’s baton.

The vocal cast was almost identical to the one three years ago, but it now featured the Wotan who had cancelled at the Schiller: Michael Volle, one of best performers in the role today, with a perfectly managed, powerful and convincing voice. Few baritones can compete with Michael Volle in this repertoire.

Alberich was again played by Jochen Schmeckenbecher, who has sung the role of Alberich many times and is a remarkable interpreter of the character. Stephan Rügamer did well as Loge, a part that always wins over the audience, as did mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova and her appealing voice as Fricka.

Veteran Matti Salminen dominated the part of Fasolt, and Falk Struckmann’s Fafner was good. Anna Samuil and Anna Larsson performed nicely in their parts, as did Simon O’Neill, Roman Trekel and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke. The Rhinemaidens, Evelin Novak, Natalia Skrycka and Anna Lapkovskaja, all offered attractive voices.

There followed one of the best performances of Die Walkűre that I have ever seen. This was an excellent performance: magnificent conducting, outstanding vocalists and a staging that surpassed the previous evening’s Das Rheingold. This time there was no dancing, but there were more frequent (and still not too interesting) video projections. In general, the production is quite dark, and the sets are not particularly appealing. The stage direction doesn’t add much but narrates the action properly.

Daniel Barenboim’s reading was superb, especially in Act II but also in the entire second half of the final act. If I had to take something to the proverbial desert island, it would be Siegmund’s Death Announcement and the final scene with Wotan and Brünnhilde, including the Magic Fire. Act I was fine but didn’t reach the levels that would follow. Barenboim’s tempi were somewhat slow, but the emotion and depth existed which totally changed things. I have attended performances of this opera under other conductors (Gergiev, Mehta, Nagano) that ran longer. The Staatskapelle Berlin offered an extraordinary sound, proving that it is one of the best orchestras in the world and, especially, in a pit.

As at the Berlin premiere of this production, Brünnhilde was sung by soprano Iréne Theorin whose voice showed the pluses and minuses noted on other occasions. Her broad voice is adequate for the demands of a dramatic soprano, and she is a skillful interpreter. However, she shouts her top notes although, I must say, less this time than on other occasions. Without that she would be an exceptional Brünnhilde.

Michael Volle is surely one of the best, if not the best, of the possible Wotan interpreters. I wondered if it would be noticeable that he had also sung the day before, but fortunately that was not so. He was marvelous from beginning to end, especially in his monologue in Act II and the entire confrontation with Brünnhilde in Act III. He is in a very sweet vocal mood, and we all enjoyed it.

The great Anja Kampe has always been Sieglinde in this production, and she repeated her intense performance once again. She is an excellent singer and artist, but her top notes can be a little tight, although perhaps less so here. Tenor Simon O’Neill is also a presence in this Berlin staging, and his Siegmund proved convincing. His voice does show some nasal sounds, but he has enough power to overcome the character’s difficulties. He was bright for the ‘Wälse!’ cries, which in his case were almost endless.

Ekaterina Gubanova was a remarkable Fricka, better than on previous occasions, and sang with gusto. Falk Struckmann was less persuasive as Hunding: vocally he is still a baritone, and Hunding needs a real bass voice. I would have liked very much to see Matti Salminen in the part. The Valkyries did well.

José M. Irurzun

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