Tcherniakov’s mostly thought-provoking production of the Ring, magnificently performed in Berlin

GermanyGermany Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen: Soloists, Staatsopernchor Berlin, Staatskapelle Berlin / Philippe Jordan (conductor). Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, 18, 19, 21, and 24.3.2024. (MB)

Staatsoper Unter den Linden’s Das Rheingold © Monika Rittershaus

Returning to Dmitri Tcherniakov’s Berlin Ring a year after I first saw it, it seems very much the same production: thought-provoking, amenable to almost endless further questioning, and yet, as we reach the dénouement, seemingly turning aside: not, I think, or at least not straightforwardly, as George Bernard Shaw accused Wagner of having done in Götterdämmerung, on account of succumbing to the ‘love panacea’, but rather from having failed to see its Konzept through. I decided this time to write a single review rather than four instalments, partly so I could make connections between the four parts more readily, not necessarily explicitly, but at least writing with the whole in mind.

Comparison with what went before last year, with a largely yet not entirely different cast, and a different conductor (then Thomas Guggeis, now Philippe Jordan) is both interesting and, on some level, inevitable, but I shall try to limit 2023 references, so this can be read on its own terms. (I shall re-read my reviews, here, here, here, and here, once this has been written and posted.) Whatever its flaws, this remains an important piece of theatre, and performances were of a high, often outstanding, standard throughout. If we continue to miss Daniel Barenboim, life goes on — and very well too.

Set in the ESCHE research centre, with an ash appropriately enough at its centre, Das Rheingold does very well in setting up expectations for the Ring as a whole. In some though not all respects, we may safely delete ‘expectations for’. It is difficult not to think of Blake’s ‘Art is the Tree of Life … Science is the Tree of Death,’ nor indeed of the Biblical Tree of Life, as well of course as Wagner’s kindred World-Ash. For this is unquestionably the realm of science, and in the most overtly political of all Wagner’s dramas, one is led – at least I was – to consider the relationship between politics and the natural sciences: in many respects, at least since the Enlightenment onwards, a key question of political and indeed other philosophy. Hegel, notably, is the trickiest figure here, at least for those who, like Charles Taylor, find his ontology impossible to accept; but he is arguably all the more important for that. Whatever else one might say, for instance, of Marx and Engels – to name perhaps the two most important political philosophers of Wagner’s generation – they were anything but vulgar materialists. Dialectical materialism: the clue is in the name.

In the following generation, Nietzsche is an equally tricky case, arguably more ambiguous (take his interest, often overlooked, in eighteenth-century materialism) than self-styled Nieztscheans. Such thinkers, and others, inform our response to this world of observation, surveillance, and experimental psychology, in which the first scene physically abuses – and watches – Alberich more thoroughly than any other I can recall. Arguably this is above all Loge’s world, the world of the instrumental reason he seems to represent: that which Adorno and Horkheimer identified as the key to modernity’s deadly dialectic of enlightenment. When Loge gestures to Wotan in the third scene of Das Rheingold that he knows all too well what is going on, but they need to continue to play the game for Alberich’s benefit, the game is truly afoot. And Wotan, quite properly after Erda’s intervention, realises something is rotten in the state of Valhalla. Following the ineffectual yet crowd-pleasing magic tricks of Froh and Donner, he remains alone, in despair, grabbing the once ‘natural’ ash tree, though it is probably too late already. No one else, though, seems to know or care.

For perhaps the key question as the drama develops is who is in charge, who is running these experiments. It might first seem to be Wotan and the gods, yet ultimately, like serious (non-naïve, non-liberal) political philosophy in general, there seems to be something and/or someone beyond those we thought was ruling the roost. Rousseau’s problem of the Legislator returns — but so ultimately does his inability to answer the questions he set himself in The Social Contract. Questions of agency come to the fore, just as they do with respect to Wotan and his ‘great idea’, announced at the end of Das Rheingold and torn to shreds by Fricka. What are we to make, when we reach Götterdämmerung, of the institute carrying on more or less as before, but with still less of an evident chain of command. Frankenstein’s monster, in politics, even metaphysics, as in philosophy? Perhaps.

Siegmund is an escaped inmate, with a touch both of Ukrainian Zelensky and Russian Tcherniakov to him via Elena Zaytseva’s costumes, Tcherniakov’s direction, and Robert Watson’s determined yet damaged portrayal. (The Ukrainian President is, after all, nothing if he is not an actor.) This we learn via Gleb Filshtinsky’s striking video police report, which accompanies Die Walküre’s opening orchestral storm. And yet, reopening or extending questions concerning scope, authority, agency, and so forth, he is nonetheless under observation by Wotan and Fricka, a one-way mirror from Hunding’s dwelling revealing the god’s Erich Mielke-like office, from which his own brand of state security (failings pointed out unsparingly both by Fricka and, more sympathetically, by Wagner) may be dispensed. Perhaps surprisingly, given the lack of an object for the ring, there is a sword, which in this particular context imparts a sense, if not quite of playacting, then of enforced roleplay (an echo, perhaps, of Tcherniakov’s Aix Carmen).

The forcible return of the Volsung hero to the facility proper, or to more intense observation within, is at least as shocking as, in the previous instalment, Alberich’s not dissimilar bundling off, courtesy of research centre heavies, and approaches Fafner’s horrifying gun-murder of Fasolt. Violence is omnipresent both in the Ring and Tcherniakov’s reading of it, whatever Wotan (‘Nichts durch Gewalt!’) might claim. We might also mention in that breath Wotan’s dragging a hooded – essentially imprisoned and undoubtedly traumatised – Sieglinde back to the lecture theatre, which makes the tentative steps toward childhood play and then full display of father-daughter love between him and Brünnhilde all the more moving, as did magnificent performances from both Tomasz Koniezcny and Anja Kampe.

In Siegfried, there is also much to glean and admire. The thug-orphan-hero’s smashing of childhood toys in the first act has obvious symbolism. So too has his sheer might. Intriguingly, he sees Wotan at the end of that act, through what had once seemed to be a one-way-mirror. Maybe it never was, we may just have wanted to believe that. Or perhaps it is testament to the old order and/or older generation giving way. There is room for different interpretation here. Certainly, Konieczny’s Wotan, previously the loudest – at least at his loudest – I have heard, though that is not to deny his verbal subtlety either, seemed transformed, and not only visually (though tremendous work is done there through costume, make-up, and prosthetics). This Wanderer was old, and we heard it too. So too, far from incidentally, was Johannes Martin Kränzle’s Alberich; their confrontation at the beginning of the second act was one of the deepest I can recall, as focused on Wagner’s poem as any ‘straight’ theatre performance, but with the additional intensity only music, vocal and orchestral, can bring.

The enclosed violence of something approaching a cage-fight – a lab fight – between Fafner and Siegfried is terrible to behold, though it was a pity for Peter Rose’s Fafner, so powerful and intelligent elsewhere (a fine pair earlier with his namesake Matthew Rose, as Fasolt), to let out his final ‘Siegfried’ seemingly without any recognition of what that name might mean. The experiment on our ‘rebel without a consciousness’, as Peter Wapnewski once called Siegfried, has him gain some of that, though oddly not really fear. (Nor does he have the slightest idea who the Norns are when he passes them: perhaps a missed opportunity to depict change.) It is in the final scene that things really begin to fall apart. Much seems merely silly, the forced laughter of Brünnhilde and Siegfried grating, as if Tcherniakov can no longer bear the seriousness of Wagner’s dramas and just wishes to mock it. It prefigures similar laughter in Götterdämmerung, for instance between Gunther and Gutrune; more seriously, it prefigures the failure of that drama chez Tcherniakov.

Staatsoper Unter den Linden’s Götterdämmerung (final scene) © Monika Rittershaus

Before, though, we turn to the dénouement, let us consider the musical achievements, at least those not discussed above. Above all, there is the astonishing achievement of the Staatskapelle Berlin. I am not sure I have ever heard quite so faultless a performance, even under Barenboim. That there were a few instances of tiredness in Götterdämmerung is only to be expected; that there were so few is eminently worthy of note. Jordan’s conducting was extremely fluent, navigating the score almost as if he were Karajan. The sheer elegance of his approach will not be to all tastes, but it deserves serious consideration. Ultimately, I felt there was often, though not always, a degree or two of range lacking, and that Götterdämmerung had a tendency to drag just a little, as if tempi were slightly out of sync with the overall conception. But Jordan’s command of his forces and the sheer excellence of those forces – there was not a single vocal performance that really fell short – was testament to more than Barenboim’s extraordinary legacy, however important that may be. It was certainly the best Wagner yet I have heard from this conductor; it was also just as heartening to hear this great orchestra continue to consign any other Wagner band, Bayreuth’s included, to the shade.

Some individual performances I have mentioned already. I cannot run through them all but shall select some highlights. Rolando Villazón’s Loge is always likely to remain controversial, though it seemed to me to have progressed significantly from last year: less bel canto, more Rheingold dialectic. There could be no doubting his wholehearted commitment, nor his thriving on stage. That is surely more important than individual preferences for what a role ‘should’ be. Siyabnoga Maqungo made for a pleasingly lyric Froh. If I felt Claudia Mahnke’s Fricka came more into her own in Die Walküre, that is doubtless as much a matter of work and production than performance as such. She certainly lived and breathed her character’s argument and ruthlessness in its presentation, with none of the misguided recent trend to make Fricka unduly sympathetic (cheered on by commentators who clearly have little understanding of either the drama itself or Wagner’s position). Anna Kissjudit’s Erda remained essential; as with so many exponents of the role, she seems to be a singer who can do no wrong (a recent Ježibaba a case in point). That does not mean we should take for granted the deep beauty and penetrating verbal commitment of her portrayal; we should not.

Kränzle’s Alberich may have been less black of tone than many, but that offered a caution against essentialism, the intelligence of his portrayal showing it is perfectly possible for an artist to play the forger of the ring in three out of four evenings, yet also to be capable of satisfying the very different requirements of a Beckmesser. Stephan Rügamer’s Mime was every bit as distinguished, thoughtful, and similarly verbally founded a portrayal as one would expect from this fine artist: again, never something we should take for granted. Vida Miknevičutė’s Sieglinde was everything one could wish for: vulnerable, yes, yet with great inner strength, blossoming and crushed according to the dramatic requirements of work and production — and René Pape’s brutal, yet beautifully sung Hunding. This is surely more his role than Wotan.

Andreas Schager’s Siegfried continues to be a significant achievement. If Schager’s voice no longer has the freshness it once did – how could it? – his was a tireless performance, committed throughout in its attempt to show us what both Wagner and Tcherniakov asked of him. Kampe went from strength to strength as Brünnhilde, truly enlisting our sympathy, without ever playing a ‘mere’ victim’. A more distinguished set of ‘other’ Valkyries, some of whom appeared in additional roles, one would struggle to find anywhere at any time. Not only the ‘Ride’ but the crucial scene thereafter, cast from such vocal and acting strength, came to urgent, necessary life such as may only rarely be experienced. (To have such a Wotan, Brünnhilde, and Sieglinde did no harm, of course.) Stephen Milling’s Hagen was another commanding performance, and I greatly enjoyed Victoria Randem’s performance, likewise completely inhabiting the world of the Woodbird. Rhinemaidens and Norns were similarly of the highest standard.

Back, then, to Tcherniakov. It pains me to say, as a great admirer of his work in general, that the perverse achievement of his Götterdämmerung is to have made it so boring. Having seemingly run out of ideas (and/or time?) by the last scene of Siegfried, he goes through the motions here. I presume the lack of observation from elsewhere in the centre signifies something — and one can certainly speculate about what that might be. Given that it occurs before the Norns’ rope snaps, it must have happened either at the end of Siegfried or in between. I have no objection to trying to fill in the gaps; there is no reason the audience should not have to do some work too. The problem is that it becomes difficult to care. Whatever explanations one comes up with, the production seems either to repeat itself, for want of anything better to do, or introduces something arbitrarily new. No basketball so far? Why not introduce it for the hunting scene. Of course, one can argue that such sport is a reasonable masculine equivalent, but it is unprepared at best. The return of various characters, Erda (still played by Kissjudit, rather than an actor) and an elderly Wanderer included, to observe Siegfried’s funeral rites could be touching. It is certainly not an intrinsically bad idea. But amidst a host of apparently ‘new’ characters, presumably from younger generations (although the decor has not changed at all), it is all a bit confusing, even random.

I do not think I have seen a less eventful Immolation Scene and hope never to do so. Brünnhilde really is parked, if not to bark, then to sing very well. After that, she jumps on top of Siegfried on a hospital trolley, and that is that until a final scene change to follow Hagen’s ‘Zurück vom Ring’ (from offstage). She has packed her bag – it is not quite a suitcase, I suppose, but come on… – and is heading off somewhere to be intercepted by Erda, who offers her a bird. Perhaps there was a fire after all, since the research centre seems to have vanished. For want of anything more meaningful, the words of Wagner’s so-called ‘Schopenhauer ending’ are projected for us to read. If Schopenhauer is being invoked as therapy, this must rank as the weakest, least motivated instalment of Tcherniakov’s often intriguing therapeutic turn. This, alas, seems more, not less, tired on a second viewing. One looks to do more than shrug and say ‘so what?’ at the end of a Ring, all the more so when it had started and, for the most part, continued so well. It is above all a great pity, and not in a Parsifalian-Mitleid sort of way.

Mark Berry

(Further reviews of this Ring by my colleague Jim Pritchard, in an earlier incarnation from either of mine, conducted by Christian Thielemann and viewed on ARTE Concert, may be read here, here, here, and here.)

Production:
Director – Dmitri Tcherniakov
Revival directors – Lilli Fischer, Thorsten Cölle
Costumes – Elena Zaytseva
Lighting – Gleb Filshtinsky
Video – Alexey Poluboyarinov
Chorus director – Dani Juris

Cast:
Wotan/Wanderer – Tomas Konieczny
Donner / Gunther – Roman Trekel
Froh – Siyabonga Maqungo
Loge – Rolando Villazón
Fricka – Claudia Mahnke
Freia – Anett Fritsch
Erda / Rossweisse – Anna Kissjudit
Alberich – Johannes Martin Kränzle
Mime – Stephan Rügamer
Fasolt – Matthew Rose
Fafner – Peter Rose
Woglinde – Evelin Novak
Wellgunde – Natalia Skrycka
Flosshilde / Siegrune – Ekaterina Chayka-Rubinstein
Siegmund – Robert Watson
Sieglinde – Vida Miknevičutė
Hunding – René Pape
Brünnhilde – Anja Kampe
Gerhilde – Clara Nadeshdin
Helmwige – Christiane Kohl
Waltraute – Michal Doron (Die Walküre) , Violeta Urmana (Götterdämmerung)
Schwertleite – Alexandra Ionis
Ortlinde / Third Norn – Anna Samuil
Grimgerde – Aytaj Shikhalizada
Siegfried – Andreas Schager
Woodbird – Victoria Randem
Hagen – Stephen Milling
Gutrune – Mandy Friedrich
First Norn – Marina Prudenskaya
Second Norn – Kristina Stanek

1 thought on “Tcherniakov’s mostly thought-provoking production of the <i>Ring</i>, magnificently performed in Berlin”

  1. Hi Mark,

    Bravo. Very well written with substance, insight, and balance.

    Enjoyed reading your opus. Keep up your great work and personal touch and spirit.

    Take care.

    Best wishes,

    Håkan Rosengren

    Reply

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