Stefan Herheim’s Siegfried at Berlin’s Deutsche Oper Berlin is fine, despite a problematic third act

GermanyGermany Wagner, Siegfried: Soloists, Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper / Nicholas Carter (conductor). Deutsche Oper Berlin, 18.3.2024. (MB)

Ya-Chung Huang (Mime) © Bernd Uhlig

Director – Stefan Herheim
Revival director – Philine Tiezel
Set designs – Stefan Herheim, Silke Bauer
Costumes – Uta Heiseke
Video – Torge Møller
Lighting – Ulrich Niepel
Dramaturgy – Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach, Jörg Königsdorf

Siegfried – Clay Hilley
Mime – Ya-Chung Huang
The Wanderer – Iain Paterson
Alberich – Jordan Shanahan
Fafner – Tobias Kehrer
Woodbird – Nicolas Schröer
Erda – Lindsay Ammann
Brünnhilde – Ricarda Merbeth

Emblems of the refugees’ arrival but also perhaps of impending departure, suitcases once again form and delimit the set, the rehearsal piano at their centre once again omnipresent. Wagner’s life and work becomes their own, our own. It certainly has mine since I first fell under its spell, and despite occasional attempts to escape – or at least to take a break – it never works. This Deutsche Oper Ring is not helping in that vain attempt, a somewhat disappointing third act notwithstanding.

A Ring mystery is what its ring actually does, what its powers actually are. They certainly do not tally with what the characters tell us about it. Must one in some sense believe? Is it a form of theology, as Wagner, keen student of Feuerbach, might understand it? Probably. At any rate, it notably does Alberich’s bidding at the start, its yellow light focused at the piano, opening its lid, and thus initiating the Bühnenfestspiel’s ‘second day’. He and Wotan, Schwarz-Alberich and Licht-Alberich, as Wotan-as-Wanderer will call them, watch and wander from the start. They are not always present, yet often they are. Tellingly, the Wanderer watches the whole first scene from above, and Alberich appears, to Mime’s anger, during the second. (Perhaps, again, his brother might actually have been able to help him, like Siegfried, like the Wanderer, but the clever craftsman does not want to know.) Their final confrontation, at least onstage, in the first scene of the second act attains a tragic magnificence and import such as rarely, if ever, have I encountered. That again, is surely in part Nicholas Carter’s doing, proportions of the act as a whole seemingly reconsidered, so that, like the final act of Die Walküre, thoughts of lopsidedness – the so-called ‘Forest Murmurs’ often overstay their welcome, but not here – never materialise. It is also surely that of Stefan Herheim’s staging; the two, along with vocal-dramatic performances proceed together, more or less indivisible (although for the purposes of writing, one must start somewhere). The two figures are, of course, themselves refugees here: they have stepped forward, assumed roles; yet, like the boys in Lord of the Flies, however changed, they must also remain who they were, albeit within a different, often Brechtian framework of storytelling.

Music continues to play its stage role. Where Alberich, in a sense, founded his enterprise on an instrument he had found, or perhaps brought with him, Mime has expanded his endeavours into a brass workshop, where instruments hang from the ceiling. It is a slightly odd assortment and that, presumably, is the point. Mime is not an ‘artist’, but a ‘craftsman’; Wagner always upheld that Romantic distinction, which directly colours his creation of Mime and Siegfried. An artist would doubtless have brought in some other instruments. Incapable of moving beyond his narrow, technical purview, Mime continues to do the same thing — as, of course, he does in attempts to reforge the sword. Not for nothing in Herheim’s cunning elision of Wagner and Mime (here, for better or worse, in striped top) is the ‘Wagner tuba’ a key exhibit. Dubious tendencies from Wagner reception – much as we might wish, we cannot always simply ignore them – resurface. Mime’s dwarf-like quality and large head surely offer a nod to strange claims made concerning Wagner’s height and (worse still) physiognomy. Nietzsche would have laughed; the Wanderer does.

The craftsman’s resourcefulness is important, though, at least if it may be harnessed to something more. It is possible, at least for Siegfried, to have bellows created from what is available, in a splendid nod to the original steam technologies of Bayreuth. Fafner also emerges from the suitcases and instruments too, brass teeth fairly gleaming, basic sheet props and colourful lighting again working their wonders for the rest of his maw. For lighting (Ulrich Niepel) can accomplish so much, simply yet starkly, as in Mime’s silhouette of brief power, or its prospect, when he holds the Wanderer’s spear. A vision of the world, which Mime, like Alberich still would ‘win’, is unfurled, again using what has emerged from the refugees’ possessions.

It is a pity, perhaps, that Siegfried’s appearance – notably, like that of his father – is so ‘historically’ bound as (to us) to seem ridiculous, but that is surely deliberate, the flaws of ‘heroism’ present from the beginning. A striking innovation, though, is the return of Siegmund and Sieglinde in a Hänsel und Gretel-like ‘Dream Pantomime’. Siegmund may have rejected the immortality of Valhalla, but there are other ways to return, to guide (such as Mime never could). That the Woodbird, an excellent boy treble (Nicolas Schröer) emanates from this world – a very junge Siegfried, if you will – makes a significant contribution to the psychoanalytical framework. So too does the dragon’s blood in which he becomes mired and the pitching of appearance somewhere between clown (picking up from Das Rheingold) and (from Die Walküre) zombie, a disconcerting contrast with fresh youthfulness of voice.

Carter seemed to offer a presentiment in the first act, which (rather than vice versa) on one occasion seemed very much to approach Humperdinck’s score. Perhaps it was my imagination, but it struck me at the time and before I knew what was to come on stage. His direction of the once-again outstanding Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper remained deeply and consistently impressive, both tied to and leading the action onstage. So too did the cast’s performances. Iain Paterson proved a typically thoughtful Wotan, Jordan Shanahan making a welcome return as an ambiguous clown-Alberich, readable and ‘relatable’ on multiple levels, without forsaking the destructive impulse at his core.

Ian Paterson (Wanderer) and Jordan Shanahan (Alberich) © Bernd Uhlig

Ya-Chung Huang’s Mime was, quite simply, one of the best I have seen and heard, turning the Siegfried-Mime axis into a true battle of very different tenors, for which Clay Hilley’s tireless Siegfried should also receive due credit. Both learn to conduct, as to play the piano, to lead musically and seemingly according to the score, but do they bring it to life? That requires the return of the refugees — and discarding of the old (Walküre) score. Huang’s ability, doubtless enhanced yet only enhanced by make-up and costume, to play his role as if Mime were a puppet-clown, grotesque yet also human, captured so much of the role, its uncomfortable aspects included. Above all, it reminded us of Wagner’s great achievement in showing us, as the late, greatly lamented Michael Tanner pointed out, the sheer misery that it is to be Mime. Tobias Kehrer continued and extended his excellent work as Fafner, that extraordinary last gasp of recognition – ‘Siegfried!’ – given its proper, prophetic, yet chilling worth. I assume his return to ‘life’, or whatever it was, was as much a recognition of the underlying Brechtian ideas as it was of his acquiring zombie-status, though perhaps it was both. The Woodbird’s frustrated waving him away, getting in the way of the story, was a nice touch, but I did wonder whether it might have been better all round not to present the problem in the first place.

What, then, of the third act? Musically, again, there was much to admire, though even in that respect – and perhaps more on account of inextricable connection with stage action than any actual flaws – it held my attention less. There was certainly nothing to complain about in Lindsay Ammann’s return as Erda, beautifully sung and enunciated, the character, now more dishevelled, awakened from her sleep and emerging once again from the prompter’s box. Ricarda Merbeth’s surprise return, in place of the previously advertised Elisabeth Teige, as Brünnhilde will have disappointed no one either. Her radiant performance, quite an achievement given its notorious demands so late in the evening, was quite the tonic, insofar as one could avoid distraction, from the events around her. For whilst I can rationalise Herheim’s decisions here, for the first time I felt rather less than convinced.

The first two scenes go mostly as they ‘should’. No harm in that, quite the contrary, and the third seems nicely set up by the now apparently proficient Siegfried summoning Brünnhilde’s mountain and fire from the piano. Unless, though, I was missing something – it would not be the first time – there is not much more to it then return of the refugees, their ‘identification’, first among straightforward traditional gender lines, with Siegfried and Brünnhilde, then, taught by the score (whose ubiquity becomes more than a little tedious) and, presumably, also by what the two principal characters sing, turning more fluid in orientation and staging an orgy around them. It is all very well done, to the extent of unfortunate distraction from the two singers, ‘parked and barking’. Again, I assume that to be the point, yet it ultimately seemed to me misguided. I doubt this was an attempt to hold up Wagner’s drama as insufficient, or intolerably Romantic. Frank Castorf did so in his Walküre and it proved the weakest part of his Ring. Yet Castorf arguably proved most compelling here in Siegfried, when his conception found itself guided by the weight of Wagner’s drama, even perhaps by a mediated version of its Romanticism. Is a basic Brechtian point about storytelling, ‘enhanced’ by young people in white underwear doing their thing, enough? There are plenty of places one might go in Berlin to see the real thing, if that is what one is after.

It might be tempting to see this ‘problem’, if problem it be, as mirroring Wagner’s own in completing the Ring. After all, it was at precisely the same place, the end of the second act, that he ceased his compositional work on it for twelve years. Turning instead to Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger, he wrote to Liszt that he had ‘led my young Siegfried into the beautiful forest solitude; there I have left him beneath a linden tree … he is better there than anywhere else. – If I am ever to take up this work again, it must either be made easier for me, or else I myself must in the meantime make it possible to bestow this work on the world in the fullest sense of the word.’ Yet when Wagner did return to his Siegfried, to the linden tree, or rather to the scene that followed in which all is both changed and resolved, it was still more under the spell of Schopenhauer and his musical aesthetics (as well as his broader philosophy). That, really, should have been right up Herheim’s street. I shall happily eat my words if all becomes clear in Götterdämmerung; for now, however, I register my first note of dissent.

Mark Berry

2 thoughts on “Stefan Herheim’s <i>Siegfried</i> at Berlin’s Deutsche Oper Berlin is fine, despite a problematic third act”

  1. I attended that performance, and I was less impressed than Mr Berry. There was too much kitsch for my taste, most notably Siegmund and Sieglinde appearing as guardian angels. Give me a break! I do agree, however, about Ya-Chung Huang’s performance: quite probably the best Mime I’ve heard and seen.

  2. Mark Berry is an excellent guide to what directors might be thinking as they seemingly trash Rings: he even made sense of the Castorf catastrophe. But is he too indulgent of excess and incoherence? Brünnhilde’s and Siegfried’s moment of intimacy is neither enhanced nor illuminated by 30 other people turning up for an orgy. Given the distracting and, surely, irrelevant zombie rapes and orgies of the previous evenings this Ring-nut is reminded more of infantile ‘look at me’ excesses of the 1960s when sex on stage was a novelty. Which is a great pity because, agree with him or not, Herheim has many interesting insights.


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