At the end of Stefan Herheim’s new Berlin Ring, Götterdämmerung wipes the slate clean

GermanyGermany Wagner, Götterdämmerung: Soloists, actors, Chorus and Orchestra of Deutsche Oper Berlin / Sir Donald Runnicles (conductor). Filmed (directed by Götz Filenius) at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in November 2021 and now available on Marquee TV. (JPr)

Okka von der Damerau (Waltraute) and Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde) © Bernd Uhlig

Director, Set design – Stefan Herheim
Set design – Silke Bauer
Costume design – Uta Heiseke
Video – Torge Møller
Light – Ulrich Niepel
Dramaturgy – Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach, Jörg Königsdorf
Chorus director – Jeremy Bines

Siegfried – Clay Hilley
Gunther – Thomas Lehman
Alberich – Jordan Shanahan
Hagen – Albert Pesendorfer
Brünnhilde – Nina Stemme
Gutrune – Aile Asszonyi
Waltraute – Okka von der Damerau
First Norn – Anna Lapkovskaja
Second Norn – Karis Tucker
Third Norn – Aile Asszonyi
Woglinde – Meechot Marrero
Wellgunde – Karis Tucker
Flosshilde – Anna Lapkovskaja

Well, after three parts of Stefan Herheim’s new staging of Der Ring des Nibelungen are we any wiser what he has to say to us about it after Götterdämmerung? The migrants (Jewish diaspora) heavily featured in the earlier operas have been largely cast aside while from time to time the rocky landscape of suitcases will still be seen. What with these personal belongings, and especially when I first saw the shaven-headed, blindfolded Norns in their white nightdresses, my mind briefly turned to the horrors of racial cleansing during the Second World War or that is currently being perpetrated in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Herheim’s focus now seems to on the demise of a mythical world of the old gods and goddesses. However, the setting is undoubtedly the foyer of the Deutsche Opera itself with the podiums where well-dressed operagoers gather to drink copious amounts of champagne. The sense of performance remains with various characters resorting to ‘playing’ a piano to set the rhythm for the unfolding events.

The bystanders are soon mimicking the Norns’ regaling us with what we’ve seen before. They are soon stripping again though one is left standing and observing and he is Hagen. A red glow and the massed fluttering hands suggest the flames around Brünnhilde’s rock and along with Siegfried she is discovered on top of the piano. In Alberich/Joker masks they link hands as the rope of fate, before the big split and the Norns have their eyes opened (literally!) by removing their blindfolds and then disappearing.

For Siegfried and Brünnhilde it is clearly the morning after the night before. They are not alone and Siegfried, complete with winged helmet, chainmail, horn and sword, plays to the crowd and the women are like his groupies. Wotan and those old gods and goddesses are watching on as a tableau vivant and Siegfried will begin his quest for ‘deeds of glory’ by sinking into the piano. (Oddly any reference to Grane, Brünnhilde’s horse, appears to be directed at the piano!) Soon for the Gibichung Hall we are back at the Deutsche Oper with Hagen tinkling the ivories and the almost ubiquitous white sheet reappears. Alberich and Hagen face-off during what looks like one of Boris Johnson’s lockdown parties. Hagen – in a check jacket – poses a physical threat to the weak-willed Gunther and Gutrune clearly likes a drink. Siegfried – who rises up through the piano – continues to be a boy in a man’s world. He toasts Brünnhilde with some drugged fizz and when he sets his sight on Gutrune he launches a full on assault on her. There is much playing around with the white sheet as Siegfried puts on the white tie and tails Gunther is also wearing as he sets off for Brünnhilde’s rock.

Hagen sings his ‘watch’ from the piano stool with Alberich looking on before Hagen sleepwalks along the front row of the audience and meets a masked woman (Waltraute). Attention switches to the stage with Brünnhilde now playing as a storm rages and there are flashes of lightning. Against the backdrop of the god and goddesses Waltraute puts on the winged helmet and chainmail before discarding it in disgust when Brünnhilde rejects her entreaties about the ring and departs. Gunther and Siegfried wear identical Alberich/Joker masks and share the lines Wagner gave Siegfried alone. Gunther attempts to rape Brünnhilde before she fights with Siegfried over the ring. The sheet covers Gunther and Brünnhilde before Siegfried walks towards Alberich seated at another piano, clutches his heart and drops down.

The second act begins with Alberich trying to regain the ring from Siegfried who remains immobile. Hagen is still in the front row for the confrontation with his father. When Hagen – now with make-up hinting at Alberich – eventually comes onto the stage there is a strange figure that crosses at the back covered in flames. Hagen will oddly then lie down in front of the prostrate Siegfried who will begin to stir and get up. The Deutsche Oper drinks culture continues whilst the men and women Hagen calls together to welcome Gunther and Brünnhilde come out of the audience, some with their programmes in their hands. Cue some confetti before Gunther drags in Brünnhilde on the white sheet. This huge cloth has two bridal coronets attached, one for Brünnhilde and the other for Gutrune. When Brünnhilde appeals to the ‘Hallowed Gods!’ the tableau appears at the back again. The spear for the oath swearing is the biggest piece of the two Wotan is shown holding. Nearly everyone comes down to the main part of the stage before running away to leave Wotan completely motionless where he was. Soon the men and women will sit still in rows wither side of the piano as if watching a song recital, however they are all wearing the Alberich/Joker masks. The lid of the piano is raised and reflected in it we see Siegfried on top of Gutrune which stokes the interest of the onstage audience. At the end she will be enshrouded in the sheet while he dons his chainmail again and has the winged helmet back on his head as he rushes to the suitcases at the back.

Stefan Herheim’s Götterdämmerung (End of Act II) © Bernd Uhlig

The final act begins just as the previous one ended with the women staring at Gutrune on the piano before it slides away. The Rhine daughters wear the long chainmail cardigan-style dress we last saw Brünnhilde wearing as well as having blonde wigs. The Deutsche Oper foyer has morphed into a suggestion of some tree trunks and an extensive green canopy above. The playful teasing of the Rhine daughters involves much byplay with the white sheet, though when they warn Siegfried of the danger he is in, they emerge from under it bald once again and in their nightdresses. Siegfried laughs hysterically at their threats as the Rhine daughters get concealed at the back before we see Hagen and his men arrayed there. They quickly move forward sensibly bringing chairs with them to eat and drink from the buffet onstage and even Siegfried will be offer pretzels. Champagne is flowing again and seems to be the reason Siegfried regains his memory rather than any other stimulant. After Siegfried is stabbed in the back by Hagen, he will still have the strength to uncover Brünnhilde on the piano before collapsing in the arms of Gunther who seems unusually distraught.

Later when Siegfried’s body is brought back onstage Hagen – with Wotan having risen briefly at the back – chops his head off and it will get thrown to Gunther who is horrified. Brünnhilde comes on trailing the white sheet with Gutrune at the other end who will have her Salome moment with the decapitated head. Gutrune recovers the ring before getting stabbed as Gunther is too. She is not quite dead yet and hands the ring to Brünnhilde who has Siegfried’s corpse put in the piano, with the spear on the keyboard and the horn on his body. Again Wotan and the gods and goddesses at the back come forward and Wotan will sit on the piano stool to be addressed directly by Brünnhilde. Eventually everyone will remove the (quasi-fancy dress) costumes they are wearing, bundle them all up and put everything into the piano as Brünnhilde plunges the glowing spear point into it. In a smoky haze all the men and women in their underwear wave their hands as if to represent flames. Soon they will all sink away, a red glow turns blue, then red spotlights turn white, before the stage is revealed as almost totally bare and a cleaner emerges to sweep up and give the piano – the only thing on it – a polish. Is it now ready for the rehearsals for the Ring to begin again?

The music at the end of Götterdämmerung is cathartic and slate-clearing so perhaps this is an appropriate conclusion to what we have seen. As to anything else Herheim wants us to have got from all he has put on the stage in his Ring, perhaps that has just been left for each individual to interpret in their own way. He has been suggesting all along that Wagner’s text and music is paramount and maybe that’s all there is to the Ring? All the characters in it are striving for something – mainly power or love – perhaps meaning can simply be added to that. This is a Ring whose conception was blighted by the pandemic and perhaps Herheim may rework it in future, or maybe not?

That has been all about what I saw, whilst of course my hearing of this Götterdämmerung was distilled through loudspeakers. Sir Donald Runnicles was well supported by his excellent musicians and a sterling chorus and never sounded as if he was prepared to forgo dramatic tension for anything more self-indulgent, or even with rather greater light and shade. Again Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde could not hide the fact that she does not now find the role easy. She remains a notable singer-actor and her warrior goddess was all-too-human but it proved hard work for her to overcome the wall of orchestral sound; her voice wasn’t always totally secure and her highest notes were forced and steely.

Stemme was totally outsung when matched against Okka von der Damerau as a compelling Waltraute and she announced herself as a Brünnhilde of the future. For how long Clay Hilley will go through the Ring and end up looking and sounding as fresh as he did remains to be seen and heard: Siegfried has rarely seemed so easy to sing, and there was some beautiful phrasing and strongly held top notes. Whether Hilley can ever switch from a wide-eyed innocent Siegfried to a more nuanced, harsher portrayal only time will tell. Thomas Lehman‘s voice was almost too noble for the easily manipulated Gunther and Aile Asszonyi’s soprano was richer and more emotive than is usual for a vulnerable, drink-sodden Gutrune (she was also Third Norn). Jordan Shanahan repeated his eye-catching, wounded, greedy and vengeful Alberich. Deserving of mention were the two excellently sung and characterful trios of Norns and Rhine daughters. Towering over all these performances (literally and vocally!) was Albert Pesendorfer who with his cavernous bass voice brought huge power and presence to Hagen, a brutish, black-hearted villain if ever there was one.

Jim Pritchard

1 thought on “At the end of Stefan Herheim’s new Berlin <i>Ring</i>, <i>Götterdämmerung</i> wipes the slate clean”

  1. I think this, and the previous reviews gratifies the cycle. Whatever the message the presentation of it was largely inept. Maybe, putting on just a ‘show’ was just one of the many ways Herheim dimininshed it. I sense, that particularly in this review, there is rather too much head scratching. Just what are we to think is happening? Certainly not what Wagner intended and oddly, many more regie deconstructions have had far more clarity in their exposition. It cannot just be that the overall Konzept was effected by the pandemic delay. There must be a possibility that Herheim is just not that good. Since his ‘Parsifal’ he has had far too many misses with what looks like a rather narrow set of theatrical shticks. Agree with the views about the overall level of singing, Hilley was for me the highlight. And Runnicles and his orchestra were superb. Overall, this was too poorly presented and I seriously doubt that there is much more that Herheim has to say that would improve it. Still, he is not alone in having run out of ideas amongst today’s ‘Go To’ Regisseurs. Or should that really be ‘Keep Clear Of’?


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