Unusually thoughtful production of Das Rheingold, superbly performed at the Deutsche Oper Berlin

GermanyGermany Wagner, Das Rheingold: Soloists, Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin / Nicholas Carter (conductor). Deutsche Oper Berlin, 11.3.2024 (MB)

Thomas Blondelle as Loge (right) in Stefan Herheim’s Das Rheingold (2021) © Bernd Uhlig

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

Wotan – Iain Paterson
Donner – Thomas Lehman
Froh – Attilio Glaser
Loge – Thomas Blondelle
Fricka – Annika Schlicht
Freia – Flurina Stucki
Erda – Lindsay Ammann
Alberich – Jordan Shanahan
Mime – Ya-Chung Huang
Fasolt – Albert Pesendorfer
Fafner – Tobias Kehrer
Woglinde – Lee-ann Dunbar
Wellgunde – Arianna Manganello
Flosshilde – Karis Tucker

We begin in the rehearsal room, piano onstage, vast grey slab wall and fire exit behind, lights above. Below, the orchestra tunes, actually tunes. The magic of theatre, of music theatre, of opera, and of all concerned to bring it to our eyes and ears brings the two together: not necessarily so we cannot tell the difference between ‘drama’ and ‘reality’, but so that we are made aware of the ever-shifting boundaries between them, how one brings the other into being, as is also the case for Wagner’s related yet different trinity of drama, music, and gesture in Opera and Drama. That ‘book of all books on music’ (Richard Strauss) is, in a sense, the fount of all we see and hear; onstage, it is represented by the piano: the instrument around which so many rehearsals have taken place and at which Wagner sat to compose; from which for many, though not all composers, the miracles of the modern orchestra first come into being. A suitcase-laden procession of refugees, the perennial image of our times – from the vicious, racist ‘swarm’ of Cameron and Farage’s ‘breaking point’, to Merkel’s inspirational ‘Wir schaffen das’ and the welcoming crowds I saw at Munich Hauptbahnhof – crosses the stage and initiates the action; one of them, Wotan or better the human being who will play that role, plays the celebrated E-flat with which the Ring begins. This is no ‘crisis’; it is a reality and, in that reality, an opportunity. These people are the very stuff of the drama, of our drama, and of theirs. Decisions made and roles played will be matters of life and death. How differently this plays now that Merkel’s Willkommenkultur has itself been assigned to history, how all the more necessary then it is to find a new path.

Stefan Herheim’s Das Rheingold (2021) © Bernd Uhlig

Herheim and his revival successors do this, moreover, not through dwelling on origins, but through the brazenly theatrical (and musical) magic of opera. Reality never quite disappears, but the insight of Schiller, Marx, and many others, Wagner included, that, left to his own devices, given the freedom and the education to do so, man will create is not only the starting point, but a point, if you will, of (Nietzschean, even Schopenhauerian) eternal recurrence that yet, through (Hegelian) history, is never merely that. The animating philosophical conflict of the Ring has begun. Likewise, animating joy in and through theatre, of the rehearsal piano rather than the piano composer, of Wagner’s creative life has been reignited, through the magic tricks of the Rhinemaidens, Loge’s devilish flashes of fire, ever-resourceful use and reuse of stage staples such as billowing sheets, and the whole Wagnerian phantasmagoria of sight, sound, and sensation. Froh’s final rainbow is surely, at some level, a successor to Götz Friedrich’s rainbow tunnel in the previous Deutsche Oper Berlin production. History and, more specifically, reception both form and liberate us in our response.

The first scene emerges, in typical, theatrical twin bind and opportunity, both seamlessly and with seams openly to show from what has gone before. The actors – ‘extras’ if you prefer, but the term seems more than unduly limiting – form the Rhine from themselves: what else do refugees have? They have their packed belongings, of course; still more will come from them in due course, the gods’ costumes included. Inciting, reflecting, and been incited by the Rhinemaidens’ play, their beautifully, sexily choreographed movement suggests a Venusberg-am-Rhein, with all the occasional awkwardness of an orgy’s need for perpetual reignition. Alberich, or the person who becomes him, models himself on that saddest of theatrical figures, the clown. That is how the others see him, of course; most poignantly of all, it is how he sees himself when they hand him back his mirror. He has, as Wagner shows us, been so sorely provoked, with so little prospect of reward in a cruel non-golden age of aesthetic hedonism, that renunciation of ‘love’ – as someone once said, ‘whatever that means’ – is an obvious next step. The ring he creates seems immediately to do his bidding — until, and ay, there’s the Ring’s rub, it does not. And we see it, as well as its consequences, throughout.

From those sheets come the Rhine, the mountains of the gods’ realm, even the tree at the end from which, I assume, the next instalment will spring. A premonition of Volsung twins strongly suggests so: a sparing use of video and thereby all the more powerful. The whole Bayreuth project was built on technology, as was the world from which it sprang. So too were they built on choices of what to use and when, not on idiotic euphoria and fear about film supplanting theatre or ‘artificial intelligence’ supplanting actual, human intelligence. The hoard, perhaps the best I have seen, comes from those suitcases: a true bric-a-brac show, including musical instruments (echoing, almost literally, Alberich’s possession and instrumental use of a trumpet in the first scene) and religious artefacts, cross and menorah included.

They cover Freia clumsily, brutally, yet also completely inside the piano from which she and Fricka, in posed nineteenth-century tableau vivant-style have risen, and through which portal she and the giants (her love for Fasolt is movingly real, as it should be) have passed to and from Riesenheim. Donner and Froh are splendidly caught too, stars of rock (Freddie Mercury) and disco (wig carefully prepared with hairspray, soon lost) respectively. Loge is a true Mephisto to two Fausts, Wotan and Alberich, with a little – in this he is not alone – though never too much of previous Herheim creations, the Parsifal Klingsor and the Lohengrin Herald reincarnated in something dazzlingly new. Alberich’s Nibelungs are, for once, a true host of night, terrifying to behold, images of death and the undead, marching to his lead. (Again, I recalled, a brief yet telling image from the second act of that Bayreuth Parsifal.) Indeed, throughout, the ways in which movement proceeds both in time to the music and not, yet never heedless to it, are not the least indication that we are in the hands of a musical stage director. Attempts at musical direction, both from the piano and conducting from the score, of the would-be leaders of our stage world, tell – and play – their own stories too.

Art and its tricks, then and now, are not reality; they spring from it, yet we see, far more clearly how they are put together, whilst wondering all the more at them. They are more than reality; again, they form and react to it, at least potentially liberating us from it. And they cross history, through an artwork’s reception, always a joy for and from Herheim. Wotan’s winged helmet for once says much, not least in the boredom with which he discards it. So does Mime as Wagner in trademark velvet beret, a cunning tribute-cum-insult, in which the inventor of the Tarnhelm who cannot ever quite become an artist embodies the brilliance and insecurity of his creator. Yet ultimately, that craftsman also brings the drama, brings us, the score from which first he, then others read, sings, learns, and is bound by. In a duly ambiguous representation of Werktreue, it becomes Valhalla, the sacerdotal fortress and resting place of heroes. Meanwhile, the sword, emblem of Wotan’s ‘great idea’, is placed through the piano lid, ready for a truer, more courageous hero to extract it.

If Herheim surpassed my expectations, so too did the performances. Nicholas Carter’s musical direction proved, quite simply, a revelation. Carter has recently led performances of the Ring in Bern; returning to the Deutsche Oper, he offered an ideal balance between thorough musical grounding and theatrical spontaneity. This was a performance in which everything both fell near-miraculously into place and yet also involved itself in the dramatic here and now, as much, as it must, contributing to the drama as reflecting it. Balances were, without exception, well judged, as were tempi. What particularly struck me was the keenness of ear – and ability to project it – in recognition of Wagner’s different kinds of writing. Rarely, if ever, have I heard so clearly the roots in Gluckian accompagnato of Fricka’s contributions to her first exchange with Wotan, also of course tribute to the astute, rich-toned artistry of Annika Schlicht. My sole, extremely minor musical disappointment lay with the anvils. All else fairly sprung off the page as if in a musical Kammerspiel, mediated in the mind’s eye by the magical mechanics of the piano.

A Kammerspiel would be nothing without its actors, and here both individual performances and ensemble as a whole were second to none. There may be (some) starrier assumptions elsewhere, but none more alert to the joy, as well as to the necessity, of musico-theatrical creation. As Schlicht’s consort, Iain Paterson offered a thoughtful performance, typical of the cast as a whole in its alertness to verbal and musical texts alike, as well as to their alchemic reaction as part of a new-yet-rooted performance text. Any Loge worth his salt will steal the show, ‘durch Raub’, yet Thomas Blondelle’s owned it too: tricksy, fiery, manipulative, and corrosive, in words and line as in gesture. Albert Pesendorfer and Tobias Kehrer shone as the giants, their performances as finely differentiated as those of Ya-Chung Huang’s intelligent Mime and Jordan Shanahan’s masterclass in the role of Alberich: sympathetic up to a point, yet as brutal in his forming by events as he had initially been hapless. This clown had grown up to lead troops, not a troupe, his curse echoing in the ears until the close. An excellent trio of Rhinemaidens underlined that too, their cries piercing any attempts there might have been to rejoice. So too did the coup de théâtre of Erda’s appearance and finely sung warning (Lindsay Ammann), emerging from the prompter’s box so as, well, to prompt, ‘sensibly’ clad like a stock librarian of yore. To whom, after all, should one turn for wisdom regarding texts?

Mark Berry

2 thoughts on “Unusually thoughtful production of <i>Das Rheingold</i>, superbly performed at the Deutsche Oper Berlin”

  1. What a beautiful and incredible review, Mark! We are all so thankful that this was all so well understood and appreciated!!

    • Thank you, Tom: it is very kind of you to write. It was a pleasure, both to attend and to write.


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