Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 21 December 2022

WAGNER Der Ring des Nibelungen, Runnicles, Herheim

WAGNER Der Ring des Nibelungen

Donald Runnicles, cond

Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde); Elisabeth Teige (Sieglinde); Aile Asszonyi (Gutrune); Annika Schlicht (Fricka); Okka von der Damerau (Waltraute); Judit Kuasi (Erda); Clay Hilley (Siegfried); Brandon Jovanovich (Siegmund); Ya-Chug Huang (Mime); Derek Welton (Wotan); Iain Paterson (Wotan, Wanderer); Markus Brück, Jordan Shanahan (Alberich); Tobias Kehrer (Hunding); Thomas Lehman (Gunther); Albert Pesendorfer (Hagen); Andrew Harris (Fasolt); Tobias Kehrer (Fafner)

Ch & O of Deutsche Op Berlin

NAXOS 0156 (4 Blu-ray discs: 301:00)


This Blu-ray set documents the new Ring cycle production at Deutsche Oper Berlin, directed by Stefan Herheim. The company’s previous production, by Götz Friedrich, had been in rep since 1984. That one was very much a Cold War conception, with a post-apocalyptic setting, so, given the political developments in Berlin over the intervening decades, it was clearly time for a change. In the event, the unveiling of Herheim’s new vision for the work was complicated by the COVID pandemic. These films were made at the first performance of the cycle as a whole, in November 2021. The individual operas had already been presented, but out of order, and by the time of this complete cycle, several significant case changes had already been made.

Herheim’s Postmodern readings of late Romantic operas, and particularly Wagner, are all the rage in Europe. He is certainly controversial, but more for his subversive deconstructions than for any visual outrages. In some ways, his aesthetic is reassuringly traditional, and the first point to make about this new Ring is that the director uses all of the resources that this major opera house affords to present a production on a suitable visual scale. With all the expectations around modern and traditional stagings, Herheim seems to deliberately pick and choose, taking visual elements from both and mixing them provocatively. So, for example, Alberich (Markus Brück) appears throughout the cycle in clown make-up, a particularly tired cliché of Regietheater. But Brünnhilde (Nina Stemme) and Siegfried (Clay Hilley) appear in the winged helmets and Viking breastplates of sacred memory. But both are subjected to transgressive code shifts, with characters sometimes dressing as each other, or simply removing their costume to continue performing in their underwear. The result is a playful engagement with multiple traditions of Wagner performance—engaging and imaginative, but often infuriating too.

Das Rheingold opens with a bare stage, empty apart from a grand piano sitting at the center. A forlorn group of people trapse on in silence, carrying battered suitcases. One of them approaches the piano and plays a low E, and so begins the Prelude. The suitcases that they carry on become the basis for all the staging, and the suggestion is that they are creating the drama themselves out of nothing. This already poses some conceptual problems. The imagery of battered suitcases piled high invokes concentration camps, an association that Herheim neither develops nor refutes. The idea of creating the drama out of nothing leads to a play-within-a-play distancing, and many of the clever tricks that he pulls later on are designed to emphasize the fact that this is a stage production, with elements of the stagecraft brought into the dramaturgy. Presumably, the intent is to have the sheer emotion of the drama transcend the prosaic mis-en-scène, but for the most part, the results are decidedly “meta,” with the sense of distancing and cleverness at odds with the music’s emotional engagement.

The other big distraction throughout this cycle is the piano. It appears in almost every scene, and, given its scale (a full-size concert D), it is impressively agile—rotating, hovering, sinking into the depths at the end. Everything comes out of the body of the piano. Characters enter this way, and it doubles as Mime’s forge, Brünnhilde’s rock, Siegfried’s funeral pyre. The characters often pretend to play the piano. In some scenes, this is designed to suggest agency; Wotan, for example, regularly plays while the other characters sing, as if he controls them and their destiny, or thinks he does. Just as often, characters will play the piano just for something to do. Given the distance between the sound of a piano and Wagner’s lush orchestration, the visual metaphor feels tenuous, and the more animated this piano playing becomes, the more ridiculous it looks.

Fortunately, Herheim has plenty of imagination to exploit these visual motifs and to generate plenty of surprises and interest, despite his unpromising Konzept. The Rheingold continues with the individual characters making themselves known from among the anonymous refugees; Wotan, it transpires, played that first E. When the gold appears, it takes the form of a bass trumpet, an elegant image and a particularly astute visual reference.

Vocal casting throughout this Ring is strong, though tends more towards younger voices than established names. For Rheingold, Wotan is played by Derek Welton. He is more often heard as the Herald in Lohengrin, where his light but arresting tone is ideal. He lacks authority as Wotan, although his tone and expression are always attractive. No weak links among the gods here, although the casting seems more focused on dramatic potential. The standout among the Rheingold cast is the Fricka of Annika Schlicht. She has a big, deep tone but with focus too—a true Wagnerian voice. The giants appear accompanied by huge marionettes, all made of suitcases. Andrew Harris and Tobias Kehrer give emotive readings although, unusually for Herheim, the two characters seem dramatically inert without their doubles.

In the Nibelheim scene, the dwarves are represented in Prussian military uniform, seemingly a cautious reference to the Third Reich. This sets up a key element of Herheim’s reading: he presents Mime as a caricature of Wagner himself. Such a device appears in almost every Herheim production, but usually with the main character presented as the composer. Here it makes for a curious sideline, inviting interpretations rather than dictating any. Ya-Chung Huang is visually ideal for the role, which has a lot of dark humor, though voice lacks maturity.

Another Postmodern affectation is the presence of the vocal score on the stage. At one point during the third scene, Wotan reaches into the prompt box and grabs the score, to settle some dispute about the narrative. This leads to another great reveal and the end of the opera, when Erda appears as the prompt herself, climbing out of the prompt box to chide Wotan. This links back to the play-within-a-play idea, and the surprise is beautifully prepared.

During the final scene of Rheingold, Wotan seizes Nothung, again from the prompt box, and stabs is through the closed lid of the piano. That’s where we find it at the start of Die Walküre, and many of the transitions between scenes and operas are handled in a similarly continuous way. The big addition to act I of Walküre is a son for Hunding and Sieglinde, a mute part credited as “Hundingling” (Eric Naumann). Elisabeth Teige and Brandon Jovanovich make for convincing leads as Sieglinde and Siegmund. In the first run of the production, Sieglinde was sung by Lise Davidsen, and it is a shame that her account was not offered here: Teige is good, but not on the same level. Tobias Kehrer lacks vocal presence as Hunding, though his physical heft is suitably imposing. At the moment that Siegmund releases the sword, Sieglinde cuts the throat of the child. That feels unduly brutal, though it does afford her more agency that what Wagner writes into the libretto.

The second act is particularly well sung, with Iain Paterson taking over the role of Wotan and Annika Schlicht returning as Fricka. Both have impressive Wagnerian voices, and Paterson arguably has the standout voice of the entire cycle. Herheim’s Personenregie needs singers who can really engage with the physical drama, and the interactions between Wotan and Fricka here are excellent, a brutal and unsettling power struggle. Nina Stemme sings Brünnhilde and matches the quality of the cast, but without surpassing it. Having been the Brünnhilde of choice for several decades, she is now in her late 50s, and her age is beginning to show. All of the notes are there, but the tone is now more angular, with less flow and less ease. Paterson and Stemme lack chemistry in the final act, but Herheim compensates with some elegant stagecraft. After a spectacular Valkyrie scene, in which Brünnhilde rises resplendent through the piano, the stage is cleared of scenery, allowing the interactions of Wotan and Brünnhilde to take place in a more intimate setting. The Magic Fire is done with flame projections against a billowing sheet of parachute fabric—very effective.

Similar fire effects, this time coming out of the piano, provide suitable spectacle for Mime’s forge at the start of Siegfried. Clay Hilley is an impressive Siegfried here, his voice focused but with plenty of color. His acting sometimes feels stiff, especially up against the ever-amusing Mime/Wagner of Ya-Chung Huang. In act II, the Woodbird is sung by a boy treble, Sebastian Scherer. Herheim explains (in the bonus documentary on the Götterdämmerung disc) that he had two reasons, neither of them musical. The first was to emphasize that, when Siegfried meets Brünnhilde, she really is the first woman he has ever seen. The other is to give a suggestion that this child, who appears in bloodstained clothes, represents Siegfried’s sacrificed childhood. We are moving a long way from Wagner’s libretto here, but the idea makes sense as it follows a scene in the previous act, in which Siegfried sings of his parents that he never knew. As he sings, the pair appear in idealized form, literally as winged angels. The dragon in act II is great fun: the piles of suitcases suddenly come alive, with the entire stage representing the dragon’s head. Giant teeth appear, seemingly based on the bells of huge brass instruments, but the eyes alone are enough to create the effect. After the tenderness of the final act of Walküre, the ending of this Siefried is more carnal, as the cast again strip down to their underwear and engage in various sex acts. It feels like Herheim is trying desperately to keep up with metrosexual Berlin.

More underwear-clad extras for the Norn scene at the start of Götterdämmerung. The Norns themselves are bald and blindfolded, and the crowds presumably represent the Rope of Destiny (nothing else here does). Albert Pesendorfer has an impressive voice for Hagen, though he tires in the last act. In order to demonstrate the increasing influence of Alberich on Hagen, the latter appears in each scene in ever-more prominent clown makeup, a nice touch. When we get to an actual singing chorus, the director comes into his own, with effective and dynamic blocking. In fact, the scenery grows gradually less significant as the opera goes on, leaving the scene setting to the chorus. One memorable exception, though, is Waltraute’s Monologue. Here, a cloud of dry ice swirls above the two singers, gradually revealing Valhalla above, with the gods waiting patiently for their demise. Even on the small screen, the sheer scale of the effect is overwhelming. Okka von der Damerau gives a star turn as Waltraute, passionate and engaging, and with a beautiful, bronzed tone. Thomas Lehman and Aile Asszonyi give competent but non-descript accounts of Gunther and Gutrune, leading to the suspicion that Herheim made little account for these two characters in his interpretation. During Siegfried’s Funeral Music, Hagen severs Siegfried’s head, then wears his clothes and brandishes his horn atop the prompt box. Stemme cracks a few high notes in the Immolation Scene, but carries the drama, as does Herheim’s grand finale. The piano remains onstage, but most of this final scene relies on the movements of the chorus, often with projected lights, to create waves and flames. The ending comes full circle in impressive style, but I won’t give away the final image, as it is a welcome surprise.

Donald Runnicles leads an impressive account of the score. His deep knowledge of the music comes through in the naturalness of the discourse, the easy communication with the singers—many in role debuts—and the vibrant colors he draws from the orchestra. He is particularly keen to bring out the low woodwind solos, which always stand out prominently. He balances dramatic weight against dynamism, and never rushes climaxes, even at the ends of acts. The orchestra respond well, and provide a deep, rich string tone as the basis of the musical drama.

The video recording was made in collaboration with several broadcasters—rbb Kultur, NRK, and Marquee TV—and the editing style has a television feel, focusing on the main singers, and wholly ignoring the conductor, orchestra, and the corners of the huge stage. But Herheim’s imaginative use of colored lighting (designer Ulrich Niepel) and his focus on small props (the vocal scores for instance) lends the visual aesthetic to screen presentation. The sound quality is excellent throughout, with all the singers heard up close, and the orchestra broadly arrayed around the front speakers of the surround mix. Subtitles are given in German, English, French, Italian, Japanese, and Korean.

Stefan Herheim may be an acquired taste, but if you know his excellent Parsifal and Meistersinger productions, you will have a good idea what to expect here. Visually, the production is stunning, and musically the cast is never less than serviceable, with several excellent voices in each opera. Some of the ideas don’t add up, and it can feel like the director’s reinterpretive approach has been spread thin oven this long cycle. But his ability to direct singers to create real drama and emotion is much in evidence. Whether his decisions are right or wrong, this is clearly a major new production of the Ring, and is worth exploring for any but the most entrenched opponents of Herheim’s work.


This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 46:4.



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