Opera Reviews
1 May 2017
Untitled Document

An iconic Ring production takes its final bow



by Tony Cooper
Wagner: Deer Ring des Nibelungen
Deutsche Oper Berlin
April 2017

Sadly, the Deutsche Oper Berlin’s Cold War Ring - an iconic production conceived by Götz Friedrich in 1984 - has now fully run its course. Pity, really, as it’s a strong, vibrant and well-loved production that more than suited Berliners and forged an international alliance too. But such is life.

However, unlike Old Masters hanging in public galleries for visitors to view over and over again, performing art, particularly opera, has to move on and, hopefully, make way for innovative and challenging new productions, not that Frank Castorf’s overtly-contemporary Ring, celebrating Wagner’s bicentenary and ending its five-year run this year, found much favour with the traditionally-minded audience of Bayreuth. But, I think, Friedrich would have approved. His view of opera was simple and straightforward inasmuch as the genre went beyond the boundaries of singing encompassing music-theatre in total.

No stranger to England, Götz Friedrich was director of productions at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, from 1977 to 1981. He staged there the first British production of Alban Berg’s Lulu. Returning to Germany he took up the mantle of general manager of the Deutsche Oper in 1981 and occupied the post until his death in 2000 aged 70.

Working as an assistant to the well-respected Austrian-born theatre/opera director, Walter Felsenstein, the boss of East Berlin’s Komische Oper in the early post-war years, Friedrich received a good apprenticeship. His work focused on pure dramatic and musical values that were thoroughly researched and finely balanced relying heavily, no doubt, upon Felsenstein’s philosophy and, indeed, upon his stage-craft.

Friedrich’s innovative and forward-thinking ideas, however, certainly conjured up some magnificent productions - totally interesting, totally absorbing. Therefore, his offering to Wagner’s monumental work was exemplary and challenging to the extreme with the scenario brilliantly played out in a vast Time Tunnel. To British Wagnerites, the production is often referred to as ‘The Tube’ because of the set’s similarity to the London Underground.

The opening scene of Das Rheingold unfolded quietly with the Gods holed up in the Tunnel - their escape route after nuclear warfare had obliterated the world - shrouded in a statuesque form which quickly gave way to the fast-running waters of the Rhine leading to the entrance of the Rhinemaidens sung and acted so well by Meechot Marrero (Woglinde), Christina Sidak (Wellgunde) and Annika Schlicht (Flosshilde).      

In fact, the Tunnel dominated the deep stage of the Deutsche Oper with characters coming and going in such dramatic fashion as if from another world. For instance, when Erda made her entrance it was from the Tunnel’s farthest point. Her voice, distinctly heard in the distance, grew steadily, gaining in stature as she progressed through the Tunnel making her dire warning to Wotan about the dangers of the Ring dramatic to the core. The role was admirably sung by the American mezzo-soprano, Ronnita Miller.

And the Nibelung dwarf, Alberich, who started the whole ball rolling about the Ring’s magic powers after his dalliance with the Rhinemaidens was admirably sung, too, by Werner Van Mechelen while Paul Kaufmann equalled his performance as Mime. The subterranean city of Nibelheim - full of galvanised-steel air-ducting, bright lights and all sorts of weird and wonderful contraptions - fitted well the overall stage picture and equated to any art installation I’ve seen in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern on London’s South Bank. It hit the mark.

And so did the giants Fafner and Fasolt played by Andrew Harris and Albert Pesendorfer while Attilio Glaser sang Froh sensitively and Noel Bouley beefed up Donner. Loge, sadly, lacked fire-power on this occasion: the role had to be sung in the wings by Thomas Blondelle while acted by Burkhard Ulrich. It wasn’t too much of a distraction, though.

The final scene of Die Walküre found the Tunnel dominated by an over life-size sculpture of Brünnhilde’s loyal steed, Grane, rearing on hind-legs ready to go while in ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ her military-style clad girls were on the go charging all over the show gathering the Fallen Heroes and putting them on makeshift field hospital beds for delivery to Valhalla.

As the curtain went up on Walküre, though, the World Ash Tree was equally as dominant finding the trio of singers in this act on top form: Tobias Kehrer (Hunding) - who treated Sieglinde not so much as a wife but as a servant - cleverly brought out the sinister and intimidating side to his character particularly when he breaks in on Siegmund (Stuart Skelton) and Sieglinde (Eva-Maria Westbroek) - what a couple, they simply excelled in their respective roles - in his own forest hut trying to catch them off-guard. It echoed the dark and dreary days of life in former East Germany when Stasi secret police called on suspects in the middle of the night. But to Hunding, surrounded by a bullish team of uniformed Stasi-looking guards, Siegmund was, of course, the suspect.

And the scene when Wotan, angry, fired up and irritable as ever, came for Brünnhilde to shake her up a bit for disobeying his orders, he had more than a fight on his hands to get to her. The Valkyries shielded Brünnhilde by gathering together in a protective circle, one of the oldest-known forms of defense, trying (but in vain) to halt his progress while Donald Runnicles and his charges in the pit fired up Wagner to boiling-point.

Father and daughter - sung by Iain Paterson and Evelyn Herlitzius - forged an endearing partnership and Paterson commanded the stage in a manner befitting Wotan’s arrogance and superiority while Herlitzius, adorned with long-flowing red hair, interpreted Brünnhilde as a free-thinking independent woman showing athleticism and grit as the young warrior maiden. Fricka, eloquently and regally sung by Daniela Sindram, put in a sound performance in her tête-à-tête with her unfaithful and wandering husband, Wotan. And in Götterdämmerung she also gave a lovely performance as Waltraute in the brilliant scene where she warns Brünnhilde to give up the Ring but, of course, to no effect.

The visual effects and pyrotechnical action that one was treated to at the end of Walküre was mightily impressive. Loge spun pure magic here! As eight fire-traps opened in quick-fire succession, the whole stage was engulfed in a barrage of billowing smoke and, coupled with a swathe of stunning lighting effects, it proved a thrilling and exciting scene. While all this was happening, Wotan was wandering about looking lost, confused and distracted in a state of despair while his favourite Valkyrie, Brünnhilde, was ‘lying-in-state’ waiting for her big moment.

That big moment comes, of course, in the last act of Siegfried, comprising, basically, one long, beautiful and impassioned love-duet. It’s such a joyous moment in the whole of the opera and Wagner’s favourite, too, who described it as ‘the most beautiful of my life’s dreams’.

And great staging, too, not least by Siegfried, heroically and passionately sung by Stefan Vinke, running the full length of the Tunnel in search of Brünnhilde, the role so brilliantly sung by Ricarda Merbeth. Her awakening hymn to the sun and to the earth was, simply, adorable.

But the opening scene of Siegfried - highlighted by a fairy-tale backcloth depicting the forest: the work of Mime creating a child-like world for Siegfried, I guess - was convincing enough with Mime (whose workshop was half built on a lower stage reminiscent of Nibelheim) and Siegfried working well off each other. Once again Burkhard Ulrich acted the part (brilliantly, may I add) with Gerhard Siegel in full voice from the wings while Elbenita Kajtazi put in a sensitive and timely reading of The Woodbird.

And the haunting, deep-sounding rumblings of the forest music were heard to good effect with the orchestral phrases wonderfully interwoven to form an impressive richly-textured musical canvas that was so pleasurable to hear in the bright acoustics and confines of such a big house as the Deutsche Oper.

The visual content of act two was highly impressive, fashioned by military camouflage nets that also concealed the dragon before he was cornered as a fire-spouting monster. The dying Fafner, revealed looking more like a military-tank commander - maybe summing up Siegfried’s boyhood dreams - than a dragon duly predicted the young hero’s future.

Götterdämmerung - featuring the Deutsche Oper chorus, well-drilled by Raymond Hughes - was thrilling from start to finish opening with the trio of Norns, daughters of Erda, weaving the Rope of Destiny singing of the past, present and future predicting Wotan setting fire to Valhalla signalling the end of the Gods. Without warning, their rope dramatically breaks and, lamenting the loss of their wisdom, they disappear. It proved a powerful and visually-pleasing scene while Ronnita Miller, Daniela Sindram and Seyoung Park were dramatic and convincing in their respective roles. So, too, was Stefan Vinke in the retelling of his dialogue with The Woodbird. A Heldentenor, heroic in every sense of the word, commanded the stage with such consummate ease.

The beastly role of Hagen fell to Estonian bass, Ain Anger, who delivered a brilliant reading controlling Gunther (Seth Carico) and Gutrune (Ricarda Merbeth) like puppets on a string. Such was his hold. Such was his presence.

At thend of the cycle Valhalla went up in flames after the Bomb detonates once more, echoing Atlanta burning, and coupled with white-strobe lighting flashing the length and breadth of the Tunnel it showed that this historic production has not been frightened to encompass modern technology.

At curtain call the audience erupted with wild applause and cheering but when the Deutsche Oper's musical director, Scottish supremo, Donald Runnicles, took his bow, along with members of the orchestra, they more than showed their appreciation that the work done in the pit was equal to the work done on the stage. It was a standing ovation for the final bow.

And welcome to the new cycle that comes round in 2020 directed by Norwegian director, Stefan Herheim, who, from 1994 to 1999, studied under Götz Friedrich at Hochschule für Musik und Theater Hamburg. A chip off the old block, then. ‘Staging Wagner’s Ring might well be considered the toughest exercise for a director,’ he said, ‘since it requires that he declare himself both philosophically and aesthetically.’ I’ll subscribe to that.

Text © Tony Cooper
Photo © Bettina Stöß
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