Der Ring des Nibelungen
Der Ring des Nibelungen: Richard Wagner, Staatsoper Berlin (Schiller Theatre), June 2016. Director Guy Cassiers, Staatskapelle Berlin conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Reviewed by Tony Cooper
The scale of The Ring (the scenario mainly sourced from Norse sagas and The Nibelungenlied) is firmly established with the haunting opening bars of Das Rheingold comprising a low rumbling E-flat note lasting just over 130 bars building towards an elaborate figuration of the chord of E-flat major. It never fails to thrill me and vividly creates in my mind a broad and atmospheric canvas of the Rhine. Wagner, by the way, termed Rheingold a ‘vorabend’ (preliminary evening) while coining the three main works of the cycle a ‘Bühnenfestspiel’ (a stage festival play).
A great introduction lasting a mere four minutes but on this occasion it was rudely interrupted by a rogue mobile phone cutting in. The curse of the Ring, no doubt! But the intrusion was of the theatre’s own making as front-of-house staff mistimed their recorded announcement telling audience members to turn off their mobiles. It drew a barrage of protest from a very unsettled auditorium. However, Maestro Barenboim, cool, calm and collected as always, held the performance and when the dust had settled duly returned to the score.
The production – which has lost none of its shine or momentum since I saw it last three years ago – had a tremendous and striking visual impact. It was well cast, too, and all of the singers delivered strong and confident performances especially the team of Valkyries in Walküre who brought so much to the scene in which they plead with Wotan for Brünnhilde’s safety.
Without doubt, the opening of Rheingold fuels the imagination beyond belief and unleashes an amazing adventure which begins with the Rhinemaidens – the true guardians of the hoard of gold that the Rhine harbours – tantalising the lustful and bitter Nibelung dwarf, Alberich (sung without a hitch by Jochen Schmeckenbecher), about his unwelcome amorous advances.
He was equally matched by Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as his half-brother, Mime, who really got in the skin of his character giving a brilliant reading of this cunning but frustrated and bullied person while his tête-à-tête with Siegfried in the long first act of Siegfried proved triumphant.
Schmeckenbecher, however, played his role to the full, excelling in the moment when he forgoes love to grab the gold and, screaming in delight, leaves the famed trio – Woglinde (Evelin Novak), Wellgunde (Anna Danik) and Flosshilde (Anna Lapkovskaja) – screaming in agony. And what a trio they proved to be. Attired in long-flowing haute couture-designed dresses in a trio of colours, black, blue and silver, beautifully created by Tim Van Steenbergen, they not only looked the part but sung and acted it equally as well.
The roles of Fricka and Frei were admirably sung, too, by Ekaterina Gubanova and Anna Samuil respectively with Fricka’s angry encounter with Wotan in Rheingold producing a brilliantly enacted scene on a par with the intimate scene in Die Walküre (act II) when Wotan pours out his heart to Brünnhilde explaining the powers of the ring.
Simon O’Neill (who also took on the role of Froh) and Anja Kampe stamped their authority on the demanding roles of Siegmund and Sieglinde in Walküre with Sieglinde’s deep sadness matching her brother’s fate while Wagner super-star, Iréne Theorin and Austrian-born tenor, Andreas Schager – who, incidentally, has been feted for his prowess in undertaking the heldentenor repertoire – performed brilliantly as Brünnhilde and Siegfried. What a great pair they made. And those two junior roles of Donner (Roman Trekel) and Froh were tremendously pleasing.
Top marks must go to Iain Paterson who took over the role of Wotan from Michael Volle with only a couple of weeks’ notice. He has a wide-ranging voice delivered in a smooth-flowing manner. I was impressed by his portrayal of Kurwenal in Tristan und Isolde at Bayreuth last year. And I’m glad to say that he’s back at Bayreuth this year singing Wotan in the final year of Frank Castorf’s controversial bicentennial Ring production which, I predict, will take its place in Bayreuth’s history as a ‘classic’.
Stephan Rügamer as Loge was sprightly, philosophical and prickly, adorned with a punk hairstyle and prancing about the stage in a youthful and carefree manner that befits his waspish and colourful character. It’s a gift of a part, though!
Overall, there was a great deal of thought put into this production. The sets and lighting by Enrico Bagnoli (Mr Cassiers assisted in the set design) were straightforward and imaginative enough and neatly fitted the angle and mood of each scene. But it was the digital-video work of Arjen Klerkx and Kurt D’Haeseleer that impressed me the most and, of course, reduced the need for cumbersome stage props. Nibelheim, for example, was awash in a blood-coloured red, the earth, leaf green, while gold-coloured images occasionally flashed the stage in Götterdämmerung.
But saying that, in Walküre (act II), an impressive and brilliantly-sculpted team of charging horses dominated the rear stage while a large digitalised image of Grane (Brünnhilde’s champion white stallion) was equally impressive offering a strong visual impact to the big scene opening the last act of Walküre featuring The Ride of the Valkyries, where Brünnhilde and her girls charge the battlefield gathering the Fallen Heroes for transportation to Valhalla. Apart from the song of the Rhinemaidens, The Ride’s the only ensemble piece in the whole of the cycle.
The entrance of the Gods into Valhalla was, to all intents and purposes, a rather low-key affair. No rainbow bridge but the staging was buffed up by a detailed panoramic image of a Rubens-inspired painting defining the beauty and vision of paradise. But when stripped down to its raw state one was faced with a bas-relief sculpture relating to the Fallen Heroes who were represented by a series of vertical red lines (the dead-line!) running the full depth of the stage.
Large silhouette images were used to good effect. For instance, when Hunding (Falk Struckmann, who also took on the roles of Fafner and Hagen) appeared from his forest hut, his silhouette offered a menacing and cold appearance to his approach while the neatly black-suited giants, Fafner and Fasolt (Matti Salminen) – Gilbert & George lookalikes – also received the same technical wizardry which well complemented their aggressive and brutal behaviour on stage.
Interestingly, in Bayreuth’s current production, Nibelheim is represented by a silver-plated Air Stream mobile trailer: in Cassiers’ it’s represented by a well-constructed square metal-based platform which arrives on the scene lowered from the gridiron while the primeval earth goddess, Erda (handsomely sung by Anna Larsson who has a lovely deep rich-textured contralto voice) arrives from a trapdoor looking radiant, tall and adorned with long-flowing black hair warning Wotan of the impending doom that awaits the holder of the ring. But he’s too arrogant to listen.
And Brünnhilde’s rock was well constructed, too, looking like a military-style installation more than anything else with its rust-coloured brutalistic square-shaped design formulated on a variety of different levels. In fact, it wouldn’t look out of place in the Turbine Hall of London’s Tate Modern. But it gave Siegfried and Brünnhilde a grand and impressive dais in which to declare their love for each other in the gentle and moving Awakening Scene where Brünnhilde lovingly greets the sun and the light accompanied by some sensuous luminous string playing and wonderful harp runs.
As a pledge of fidelity, Siegfried gives Brünnhilde the ring of power that he took from Fafner’s hoard and rides away as the orchestral interlude – Siegfried’s Rhine Journey – lifted this act to a higher plane with Barenboim and his players on brilliant form.
This scene is one of the most poignant and telling moments in the whole of the cycle and was superbly sung by Ms Theorin who also excelled in Brünnhilde’s big moment in the Immolation Scene in Götterdämmerung when she sees that lust, greed and corruption that encapsulates the curse of the ring is inextricably tied to it and to cleanse mankind she has first to cleanse the ring by burning not only the ring itself but the last living holder of it.
To this end Brünnhilde orders the waters of the Rhine to sweep over the fire to wash away the vestiges of the curse and, wearing the ring, she throws herself into the flaming Rhine while Valhalla burns and the ring is returned to the Rhinemaidens. This is the beginning and end of the Gods and their beloved Valhalla.
A great act which offers an exciting and exhilarating scene not just for the singers but for the audience as well and, once again, Ms Theorin showed her stuff as a true Wagnerian whilst stamping her authority on this most demanding of roles.
And that wonderful and moving scene in Götterdämmerung where Waltraute comes to warn Brünnhilde to return the Ring to the Rhinemaidens to end the dreaded curse was brilliantly executed and passionately sung by Ekaterina Gubanova (who was highly rewarded for her performance at curtain-call) while Roman Trekel and Ann Petersen clicked together as Gunther and Gutrune feeling the heat, intimidation and brute-force of Hagen who chilled the air just by his presence with the role so effortlessly sung by Falk Struckmann.
Some of the staging was a bit off-putting, though, especially in Rhinegold, where a team of dancers representing some of the characters’ alter-egos were consistently on stage. It proved a bit too intrusive at times and distracted one’s attention from the main stage action. They fared better in Siegfried and in the famous dragon scene the fiery creature was portrayed by a large square of flimsy transparent cloth operated by a team of four dancers controlling the dragon’s movements and actions while The Woodbird, sung so elegantly by Christina Gansch off stage, was represented on stage by a dancer clothed in a long white-flowing dress. But, I’m afraid, that didn’t work for me at all.
Another seemingly tricky setting was a flooded stage representing the Rhine, compartmentalised to allow the dancers to move in and out of water at whim which they did with professional ease but for the singers they had to navigate some rather tight stage territory which slightly restricted the flow of their movement.
But taking everything into account, Flemish-born director, Guy Cassiers, delivered a production that was gripping, imaginative and thought-provoking throughout while his creative team played a big and integral part of its overall success.
However, the man in the pit, Daniel Barenboim, has to be credited as the main architect of this production. A wizard with the baton he struck the right balance between the pit and the stage and got from his charges a great dramatic reading of Wagner’s thrilling and exciting score especially in the big production numbers such as the Gods’ entrance into Valhalla, Siegfried’s momentous Rhine journey and the Funeral March from Götterdämmerung. At curtain call the Staatskapelle Berlin was showered with heaps of praise but when Maestro Barenboim, whom I rate as the world’s greatest musician, took his bow the audience erupted with elongated and rapturous applause.
TONY COOPER is QR’s opera critic