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Berlin Season Opens With a Wagnerian Classic

Deutsche Oper Berlin
09/10/2011 -  & September 11*, 14*, 18*, 20, 21, 22, 24, 2011
Richard Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen
Martina Welschenbach (Woglinde/Ortlinde), Ulrike Helzel (Wellgunde/Waltraute in Die Walküre/Second Norn), Annette Jahns (Flosshilde in Das Rheingold), Gordon Hawkins (Alberich), Daniela Sindram (Fricka), Mark Delavan (Wotan in Das Rheingold/Wanderer in Siegfried), Megan Miller (Freia/Helmwige/Third Norn), Reinhard Hagen (Fasolt/Hunding), Ante Jerkunica (Fafner), Thomas Blondelle (Froh), Markus Brück (Donner/Gunther), Burkhard Ulrich (Loge/Mime in Siegfried), Peter Maus (Mime in Das Rheingold), Ewa Wolak (Erda/Schwertleite), Robert Dean Smith (Siegmund), Petra Maria Schnitzer (Sieglinde), Greer Grimsley (Wotan in Die Walküre), Jennifer Wilson (Brünnhilde in Die Walküre), Rebecca Teem (Gerhilde), Clémentine Margaine (Grimgerde/Flosshilde in Götterdämmerung), Liane Keegan (Siegrune/First Norn), Rachel Hauge (Rossweisse), Torsten Kerl (Siegfried in Siegfried), Hila Fahima (Forest Bird), Janice Baird (Brünnhilde in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung), Stephen Gould (Siegfried in Götterdämmerung), Matti Salminen (Hagen), Heidi Melton (Gutrune), Karen Cargill (Waltraute in Götterdämmerung)
Orchestra, Chorus, and Children’s Chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Donald Runnicles (conductor)
Götz Friedrich (production), Peter Sykora (sets and costumes)

G. Grimsley (Courtesy of Deutsche Oper Berlin)

Perhaps the longest-lived Ring production of any major company is taking what will probably be its final bows. Götz Friedrich’s staging for Deutsche Oper Berlin dates from the 1984-1985 season and has toured the world, but retains all of its poetry and dramatic coherence. Often called the “time tunnel” Ring, its four operas all unfold in a confined system of vast concrete tunnels based, it seems, on Washington, DC’s cavernous subway, a fact that has pleased Washingtonians endlessly since the production was presented there in 1989. Placing Wagner’s epic in the subterranean heart of a global superpower has important connotations for a work that is fundamentally about the pursuit of power and its baleful effect on humanity. Its mythological denizens look like refugees from some apocalyptic event above ground, though it is difficult – and perhaps unimportant -- to tell what the catastrophe was or even when it occurred in real time. Some of the sets suggest a rough present – Alberich, for example, monitors Nibelheim from a computerized industrial supervisor’s station complete with closed circuit television monitors. Other scenes imply an earlier era. Mime’s cave in Siegfried resembles a Dickensian smithy. Costumes are equally unbalanced. Everyone looks distressed, but there are clear chronological and generational differences between gods in waistcoats and breeches and Valkyries and Gibichungs in black leather jackets. A near universal pallor suggests a deprived populace of desperate people whose motives after power are all too clear. The action rolls on in a refreshingly straightforward way, without frivolous embellishment or distracting Regietheater nonsense, and it is very easy to observe Wagner’s concept on humanity. The cyclical nature of history is perhaps the greatest visual effect, with the gods emerging from white muslin covers at the beginning of Rheingold and returning to them to the final strains of Götterdämmerung. The production comment has remained strong enough to have an obvious influence on Harry Kupfer’s similar but more technologically sophisticated Bayreuth Ring and more recent efforts, including Francesca Zambello’s less successful industrial revolution-to-modern age parable recently completed in San Francisco

The Zambello production was unavoidably in mind in Berlin’s revival, for a number of the same artists repeated roles they performed in San Francisco. Donald Runnicles, San Francisco’s former music director who returned for that city’s Ring, took over at the Deutsche Oper last season and assumed the podium for the Friedrich production as well. His efforts were much more successful in Berlin. I had found the San Francisco performances uninspired, with only hints of insight poking out here and there over four rather pedestrian performances. But with a different orchestra the music was luminescent and expansive. The deeper meanings in the score often emerged in full relief, sometimes with bone chilling gravitas. It was difficult to determine what factor had changed – had Runnicles improved his technique since June, or are the Deutsche Oper’s players so much more skilled in the late German Romantic repertoire that they made all the difference? Since the entire orchestra came out on stage at the end of Götterdämmerung, the answer may have presented itself, but the sound resonated with such transports that it is hard to write off the conducting altogether.

The improved orchestral performance complemented stronger vocal studies. Mark Delavan left the impression of being underpowered in his San Francisco Wotans. The deficiency was not totally absent in his Berlin performances, in Rheingold and Siegfried, but he sounded stronger and more poised. Gordon Hawkins’s Alberich, too, registered more strongly here than in San Francisco, where really only the delivery of the curse in Rheingold riveted the spectator. In Berlin the effect was more admirably uniform throughout the part. The other American contributions reflected mixed levels of talent. Greer Grimsley’s respected Walküre Wotan accentuated both the music and drama with a nobility of tone that still credibly embraced insightful self-doubt and measured anguish. Not everyone enjoyed Janice Baird’s unusual Brünnhilde, which balanced a rich middle register with rather constricted ascents. Jennifer Wilson’s more lustrous Walküre Brünnhilde offered some enjoyable moments but labored between a curious hollowness of tone and a tendency toward unfortunate sharps in the role’s demanding highs. In Robert Dean Smith’s Siegmund, however, a Heldentenor par excellence captured fine baritonal qualities and deep dramatic pathos. Stephen Gould’s Siegfried in Götterdämmerung excelled with a splendid, plush sound that charged the role with a stamina that simply showed no signs of wear throughout the evening. His place in the pantheon of outstanding Wagner singers is assured, especially in comparison to Torsten Kerl’s weaker effort in the role in Siegfried. German contributions were by no means lacking. Petra Maria Schnitzer’s radiant Sieglinde joined Smith’s Siegmund to offer the finest single act of the four evenings. Their synergetic passion as the incestuous twin offspring of Wotan reached towering heights of Wagnerian frenzy. As Loge and the Siegfried incarnation of Mime, Burckhard Ulrich impressed deeply. Daniela Sindram sang memorably as Fricka. And what a treat it was to hear the great Finnish bass Matti Salminen reprise his menacing Hagen, known and loved by the millions who have seen the Metropolitan Opera’s classic production, now on DVD. In an age of over-thought Regietheater that has become a disappointing new norm, it is sad to lose a more poetic production that still captures the magic and mythology in this greatest of stage works.

Paul du Quenoy



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