‘Follow the science’: the start of an intriguing new perspective on the Ring cycle in Berlin

GermanyGermany Berlin Festtage [1] – Wagner, Das Rheingold: Actors, Soloists, Staatskapelle Berlin / Thomas Guggeis (conductor). Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, 4.4.2023. (MB)

Das Rheingold © Monika Rittershaus

Direction, design – Dmitri Tcherniakov
Costume design – Elena Zaytseva
Lighting design – Gleb Fitshinsky
Video design – Alexey Poluboyarinov
Dramaturgy – Tatina Werestchagina, Christoph Lang

Wotan – Michael Volle
Donner – Lauri Vasar
Froh – Siyabonga Maqungo
Loge – Rolando Villazón
Fricka – Claudia Mahnke
Freia – Anett Fritsch
Erda – Anna Kissjudit
Alberich – Jochen Schmeckenbecher
Mime – Stephan Rügamer
Fasolt – Mika Kares
Fafner – Peter Rose
Woglinde – Evelin Novak
Wellgunde – Natalia Skrycka
Flosshilde – Anna Lapkovskaja

‘Follow the science.’ So we have been exhorted throughout the pandemic. Everyone has claimed to be ‘following the science’: singular, yet multiple. We have ‘followed the science’ before and shall doubtless do so again. Ask Hiroshima and Nagasaki — except one cannot. Development of new technologies is, apparently, both the doing of science and not. Few dare question our age’s ruling scientism or, to consider it more broadly, Adorno and Horkheimer’s rule of instrumental reason or dialectic of enlightenment. Nietzsche did; Wagner did. Hegel’s ontology likewise presented the necessity, usually ignored, to consider the natural as well as the human sciences dialectically. Certain Russian thinkers have followed him. With the arts and humanities under assault as perhaps never before, seeking futile accommodations through ‘big data’, the rule of the ‘digital’, and so on, scientism continues its crazed parade to victory, foretold, like so much else, in the Ring. The time is ripe, then, for a Ring from this standpoint. Will Dmitri Tcherniakov, a Russian director with a considerable record in Wagner, be the one to do so? This Rheingold suggests that it might; we shall see.

Das Rheingold takes place in a world of scientific experimentation (shades, perhaps, of Hans Neuenfels’s Bayreuth Lohengrin) with, crucially, a governing corporate element. The safety curtain presents a plan of the ‘Forschungszentrum E.S.C.H.E.’, whose realm we shall soon survey for ourselves — guided, of course, by what we are permitted to see. Wotan’s original crime, from which we shall hear in the Götterdämmerung Norns’ narration, to hew his spear, inscribing on it runes of domination, from the World-ash Tree thus frames what we shall see and hear. Perhaps ‘Esche’ (ash) also nods to Escher; it is certainly a labyrinth from which no one appears able to escape. Such, at any rate, is the world of cruel experimental psychology in which lab-coated Rhinemaidens and observer-participants – scientific observers are rarely, if ever, only that, whatever their ideological claims – play with, prey upon, abuse Alberich, to see how he will react. Is that not precisely what the amoral children of Nature do to the unfortunate dwarf who seeks them in Wagner’s Rhine? Here, of course, it is clearer still, though Wagner shows those who care to listen, that there never was a golden age. Like other forms of power, indeed arguably underpinning them all, instrumental reason is rotten from the start. The ash tree may stand in the room revealed for the final scene, but we know it is dying already, however healthy it may still look. Trees are for forests, not research institutes. Or as William Blake put it, ‘Art is the Tree of Life … Science is the Tree of Death.’

Das Rheingold © Monika Rittershaus

When, pushed beyond measure – ‘enlightenment’ insists that all be measured – Alberich renounces whatever it is here that he renounces, smashing the machines to both the surprise and the experimental delight of those who have pushed him, he strikes a blow yet also joins ‘their’ ranks. Nibelheim offers an underground avenue for further ‘research’ of Alberich’s own. Though is there something illusory to it? That is where I struggled somewhat with Tcherniakov’s vision. A Ring without objects struggles to be a Ring at all. Or is this a deliberate, negative presentation of the gold: as nothing? It is unclear, as yet, but for me a cause for concern, amidst much of promise. One might well argue, of course, that the changes of shape and form effected by the Tarnhelm are illusions. If so, they are mightily powerful illusions or delusions, which on the face of it should affect others too. Again, we shall see.

The gods, meanwhile, appear to rule over the institute, though it is not out of the question that someone or something may lie beyond them too. (That is often an issue with gods, with power more generally.) We follow them through scientific-business lectures, boardroom negotiations and decisions, brutal despatch of Alberich and his ‘case’ via his handlers, and the final conjuring tricks that delight all (or most) save, notably, a Wotan changed by Erda’s intervention. The ‘look’ is reminiscent of Tcherniakov’s Tristan: its wood both a nod to the old Eastern bloc and an expensive, post-Soviet step beyond it. Both ‘sides’, after all, had their scientism and their more general apparatuses of power. More united than divided them in retrospect, at least from Stalin onwards — which returns us to the need for a Leninist, Plekhanovite, or some other (Wagner, Nieztsche, Hegel…) reconsideration.

If all was not well (in a good sense) on stage, the Staatskapelle Berlin was in good hands with Thomas Guggeis. Das Rheingold is perhaps the most difficult of the four Ring dramas for a conductor truly to shine in, yet, bar one surprisingly awkward corner, Guggeis offered a fluent, dramatic reading, often brisk, yet occasionally flowering into something ‘beyond’ with metaphysical interpretative possibilities for those so inclined. There is no doubting his, nor the orchestra’s, command of the score. Keenness of ear revealed new balances, even new details, as any fine new performance will. It was perhaps above all a linear reading, with less emphasis on the harmonic than might have been the case with Daniel Barenboim, but that will always be a matter of balance; Guggeis, like Tcherniakov, had a story to tell, and told it well.

So too did Michael Volle as Wotan, whose performance here, both dominant and collegial, was second to none. Volle has clearly considered his role deeply, responding not only to its text but its possibilities. His shift towards a changed, even tortured god during the final scene was noteworthy — and will doubtless be picked up in the next instalment. If I missed some of the blackness of a more conventional Alberich, Jochen Schmeckenbecher presented a lively, sympathetic yet not too sympathetic portrayal, similarly alert to the needs of words and music. Every inch a kinsman yet, equally, every inch a distinct character, Stephan Rügamer proved a fine Mime. Mika Kares’s mournful, lovelorn Fasolt reminded us who the only truly sympathetic character here can be. Anna Kissjudit’s Erda made her intervention count, her deep mezzo, embodiment of primaeval wisdom, as close to a contralto as made no matter. Rolando Villazón’s Loge will doubtless have proved more controversial. Approaching vocal lines as if from a bel canto melodic tradition, without being bound by it, he sometimes sounded strained, yet gave Wagner’s words their due and proved a fine singing actor into the bargain. The ensemble, including a number of non-singing roles, interacted well throughout. Where will following this art and science lead? We shall see — and hear.

Mark Berry

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