With Götterdämmerung, the Deutsche Oper Berlin’s distinguished Ring reaches its conclusion

GermanyGermany Wagner, Götterdämmerung: Soloists, Chorus and Additional Chorus of the Deutsche Oper, Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin / Nicholas Carter (conductor). Deutsche Oper Berlin, 20.5.2024. (MB)

Thomas Lehman (Gunther) and Clay Hilley (Siegfried) © Bernd Uhlig

Director – Stefan Herheim
Revival directors – Eva-Maria Abelein, Silke Sense
Set designs – Stefan Herheim, Silke Bauer
Costumes – Uta Heiseke
Video – Torge Møller
Lighting – Ulrich Niepel
Dramaturgy – Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach, Jörg Königsdorf
Chorus director – Jeremy Bines

Siegfried – Clay Hilley
Brünnhilde – Ricarda Merbeth
Hagen – Albert Pesendorfer
Gunther – Thomas Lehman
Gutrune / Third Norn – Felicia Moore
Alberich – Jordan Shanahan
Waltraute – Annika Schlicht
First Norn / Flosshilde – Lindsay Ammann
Second Norn / Wellgunde – Karis Tucker
Woglinde – Lee-ann Dunbar

All things, good, bad, and indifferent, must come to an end; or must they? The idea that Wagner’s Ring is cyclical is widespread – many routinely refer to attending a ‘cycle’ – but it is at least open to criticism. More on that later, but this Deutsche Oper Ring has certainly come to an end with performances of great distinction, perhaps the most uniformly well cast I have ever seen, and with astonishing conducting from Nicholas Carter, certainly the best I have heard since Daniel Barenboim in 2013. Not, of course, to forget the superlative playing given throughout by the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, showing itself once again to be the match of any (Wagner) orchestra in the world, the Staatskapelle across town included. No Ring would be anything at all without Wagner’s reimagined Greek Chorus, leading, commenting, questioning, seducing, thrilling, and chilling; this one, as translucent as it was darkly malevolent, as weighty as it was agile, did all that and more. Only now, in the final instalment, it was joined by Wagner’s actual chorus, those of the Deutsche Oper as seemingly always excelling not only vocally but as dramatic participants onstage.

A Ring in the theatre is, of course, its production too; this marked the end of Stefan Herheim’s memorable staging. No Ring is perfect: it is not, should never be, that sort of work. It is too big, too unmanageable, too much a ‘world’ for that. This has contributed much, though, not least from its insistence on Wagner’s ‘three days with preliminary evening’ as a musically driven drama that navigates between the concerns of an ongoing rite and something explicitly contemporary. In that, at its best, it has penetrated to Wagner’s own mythological practice, doing what it has shown and what it has suggested to us. If the final scene of Siegfried (review here) proved for me a rare disappointment, it also gained from what happened next — though I still think it would have benefited from heightened attention to the drama of Siegfried and Brünnhilde and less to the crowd of copulating extras around them. Here, though, at the onset of the Prologue to Götterdämmerung, the generational shift (which has already, strictly, been accomplished) is accompanied by a scenic one; or rather, the action passes between two basic settings throughout, the old one of the rehearsal room and piano, and the new one of the Deutsche Oper itself.

We probably should not make too much of a distinction, or maybe we should, between actors and chorus. Perhaps some have gone on to be audience members, whilst some continue in their movement and ‘extra’ roles. The more important thing, I think, is that two related worlds less collide than interact. There is, after all, little point in telling a story if no one is there to listen. In any case, the actors surround blindfolded Norns (echoing the state at one point of the treble Woodbird), choreographically heightening the drama just as they did to form the Rhine in the first scene of Das Rheingold — and just as they will in the final scene of Götterdämmerung to form the fire, aided by striking red lighting.

Again, some of the most powerful effects are the simplest and, as Wagner put it, the most ‘purely human’. Meyerbeer’s ‘effects without cause’ are neither his business nor ours, whatever the (exaggerated) claims that have been made for the elder composer’s influence on this drama. A degree of grand opéra, yes, but other composers in that genre, the creator of Rienzi included, loom larger, which is not to say that a blazing account of the second act trio – courtesy of the orchestra, Carter, Ricarda Merbeth, Albert Pesendorfer, and Thomas Lehman – did not thrill, for it very much did.

Back for now, though, to Herheim. (In a sense, the distinction is false, albeit necessary to say anything at all.) The theatrical ‘business’ of dressing up continues to loom large, enabling characters to become – perhaps even to leave behind – ‘themselves’, as well as actors to become characters. White sheets become improbably large wedding dresses for Brünnhilde and Gutrune, their entanglements, their allure, and their physical dangers offering visual metaphors aplenty. Rhinemaidens, in losing their external trappings, become Norn-like, hieratic, in their warnings to Siegfried, Carter’s quasi-liturgical handling of the score both reflecting and leading that. Hagen assumes Siegfried’s heroic costume, whereas Siegfried fatally loses his. Gunther is likewise transformed from initial silliness (not a criticism, but rather a commendation of Lehman’s alert performance) into something more. The white tie of an ‘artist’ is the key, or at least it seems to be, as it is for Siegfried’s transformation (as well, undoubtedly, as whatever it is Hagen slips into his drink). Their scene on Brünnhilde’s rock is very well handled, both initially equals, sharing the lines, before Gunther fails and Siegfried must take over ‘as’ Gunther — before, of course, returning to the Gibichung Hall, where the sleep into which he keeps falling (Hagen’s doing?) overcomes him. It seems also to overwhelm during his final scene, staggering about, not ‘himself’ — until he can finally become himself at his death, fully in keeping with Wagner.

Albert Pesendorfer (Hagen) © Bernd Uhlig

In the meantime, Hagen’s departure into the audience for his Watch proves, with further Brechtian use of house lights at critical moments, a telling and striking coup de théâtre. First, he finds Waltraute there, his intimidation a prod to the mission she undertakes to her sister. Then he conducts the dialogue with Alberich from there, his father on the stage, Siegfried sleeping. Alberich’s presence as clown of death, spying the action, even trying to force the ring from the sleeping Siegfried’s hand, visually informs not only his son’s appearance but that of zombie guests to the abortive weddings. As we hear the Nibelung and his ring musically envelop the action, so does he colour the participants too. Not for nothing does he manically play the piano at the end of the first act and resume his performance at the beginning of the second. His longtime antagonist appears too, actors assembling to show, first during Waltraute’s narration and on occasion thereafter, Valhalla’s throng of gods and heroes, a weary Walvater finally descending to the piano to receive Brünnhilde’s ultimate judgement.

Before (re-)turning to the close, I should add a little about the vocal performances. Merbeth combined the headstrong virtues of her Walküre Brünnhilde and the lyrical ones of her Siegfried performance into a memorable assumption of her role. Clay Hilley again proved tireless – as tireless as a Siegfried can ever really be – and committed as the doomed hero. Pesendorfer and Jordan Shanahan’s Hagen and Alberich cast spells both dark and magical through voice and stage presence alike. Lehman’s Gunther and Felicia Moore’s warmly sympathetic Gutrune captured the difficult, sometimes thankless essence of their characters, always alert to the particular demands of the staging. Annika Schlicht’s chalumeau-like Waltraute was as much of a vocal and dramatic joy as her Fricka. Norns and Rhinemaidens were uniformly excellent. This was, I am delighted to reiterate, at least the equal of any Ring I have heard in uniform excellence of casting, and perhaps more than that. There may have been starrier casts; there may have been individual performances ‘bettered’ in one way or another, for there always will be. Yet across the board, the Deutsche Oper’s strong sense of company will take some beating.

Following departure of all from the stage and a splendidly oracular image summoning up memories of Delphi, but also of Patrice Chéreau and Pierre Boulez revelling in Wagner’s own revisiting its prophetic indeterminacy, we return to where we began: rehearsal room with lights, emergency exit, and piano, no sign of suitcases, refugees, or anyone/-thing else we have seen in between. A cleaner (with a hint of Erda to her?) comes to check all is as it should be. All has been washed away, or has it? Others will doubtless come along to stage the work again. The question remains whether they will have learned anything. For Wagner’s ‘watchers’, those ‘men and women moved to the very depths of their being’ were all along intended to imply this was not entirely a return, that consciousness had been created or raised. The Ring ends not in E-flat-major, but in D-flat, the key of Valhalla. Over, then, to those who have made it, us included. Only, given the achievements to date of ‘human consciousness’, who would bet against catastrophic repetition?

Mark Berry

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