Friday, April 21, 2017

A fantastic, dark world expires with Deutsche Oper's long-running Der Ring Des Nibelungen in Berlin

When Deutsche Oper's long-running Ring came to an end Monday night, so too did the life of director Götz Friedrich's iconic 1984 production. Soon after Valhalla went up in flames after 17 hours of operatic indulgence over 4 evenings, it was off to the recyclers in an inelegant ending for all the bits and bobs that pieced together its fantastic, dark world.

Inspired by mass transit subway tunnels that connect their cities above, more than three decades on, the concept behind Friedrich's "time-tunnel" Ring still remained vivid to the end even if its age was showing through the few loose boards, creaking set changes and, more distracting, Brünnhilde's wonky platform of punishment. Small reservations aside, it was a magnificent and mammoth achievement befitting Wagner's epic and life-affirming work.

Friedrich's Ring turned to the past as it awakened the future, truncating the action to give sharp focus to its tireless, fully fleshed characters, all 34 of them meeting the dizzying demands as a strong, totally committed and vocally splendid cast.

Before long, the geometric grandeur of Peter Sykora's set design draws the audience in to join the heavens, earth and underworld created within this gently arched tunnel that travels beyond its theatrical scale to form an enormous imagined elliptic torus. It sounds galactic and in Friedrich's version it rather is as its story of power, greed, vengeance and love was taken up in its hulking, metallic tubular world.

A 1980s mixed aesthetic lingered with strains of Spielberg sci-fi and punk rock occasionally orbiting near what now seem a tad cheesy - including the huge, blocky 'mechanitron' that goofily puffed smoke and lit up as a Fafner dragon. An overt sinister and airless atmosphere pervaded in the lighting design, frequently creating the oppressive and claustrophobic weight that married atmosphere with plot. But on the downside, faces were often stuck in shadows and the more colourful costumes were only discovered at curtain call.

"The beginning means the end, and the end is the beginning.” (Götz Friedrich, 1984).

Friedrich's Das Rheingold begins with the Gods shrouded in sheets - as if redundant or in storage - before the waters wash up to set the course of change. They return to the same state in the final scene of Götterdämmerung, therefore helping to emphasise humankind's attempts to make good but inability to escape from a cycle of destruction and rejuvenation.

Renouncing love for power, from the Rhinemaidens' stolen gold, a ring is forged by the Nibelung dwarf, Alberich. In the meantime, Wotan, ruler of the Gods, hasn't bargained too well for the payment of Valhalla, his newly constructed palace for the Gods, built by the Giants Fasolt and Fafner. Rather than keeping his word in handing over his sister Freia - who happens to provide the apples that maintain their youth -  Wotan steals the gold and the forged ring from Alberich, convincing the Giants to release Freia for the gold but, with it, is forced to hand over the ring. Since Alberich had put a curse on the ring, no sooner do the Giants have it than Fafner slays Fasolt and the long struggle to possess it over illogical altered time states takes hold - mostly in clearly delineated vignettes in Freidrich's "time-tunnel".

Das Rheingold ended in a striking tunnelled rainbow of colour as the Gods stepped a pavane into the distance. Fires rose menacingly from five substage burners to surround Brünnhilde's long wait for her hero in Die Walküre. In Götterdämmerung, adding to the scope of wonderful stage pictures, were the lofty pillared hall of the Gibichungs and the broad river of glinting cloth that gave the impression of an underground canal within the tunnel (not a sewer thankfully) when Siegfried rested at the Rhine before his encounter with the Rhinemaidens. A generous and memorable flow of creative splendour there was.

On the other hand, in Die Walküre, what looked like a huge decaying Swiss Army knife in dim light that turned out to be a twisted tree housing the hallowed sword Nothung, seemed not only excessive but out of place and overpowering in Siegmund and Sieglinde's iron-walled abode. A sole overhead light beaming on Siegfried during the long, gut-wrenching Funeral March in Götterdämmerung seemed not enough. Nonetheless, the overall production was characterised by a creatively sound and cohesive structure.

With Wagner's libretto comes an intricately detailed but clearly signposted reference to action present and past, as well as a score rich in easily identifiable leitmotifs that describe characters and objects. You're never lost. And when you realise you've confidently answered the six questions that Wotan, as the Wanderer and Alberich's despised brother Mime put to each other in a contest of wisdom in Siegfried, you've understood the Ring's underlying structure. To what extent the final performances adhered to the original 1984 premiere, however, I can't be sure but revival directors Jasmin Solfaghari and Gerlinde Pelkowski elucidate Friedrich's Ring in bold storytelling. The result is a powerful message - we're not to believe for a minute that any one of us is exempt from behaviour that swings between extremes. Just how far apart those extremes lie become haunting. They should.

It feels innately odd that one might never truly be prepared for Wagner's Ring until those first distant droning opening bars unleash. No amount of study and analysis can replace the rewards invested in experiencing it. In the pit, its lifeblood emanated with Donald Runnicles - Generalmusikdirektor of Deutsche Oper since 2007 - steering the more than 100 musicians of Das Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin through what headed towards a satisfying majestic and well-weighted extravaganza.

The great entrance to Das Rheingold started, however, with a sagging hesitancy and patchy brass tainted an otherwise eloquent sound that took flight once the descent to Alberich's subterranean world arrived. The richness followed in Die Walküre but it was the flawless musicianship in Siegfried that matched the  sensational onstage vocal work where the best results came. It set up a transcendent evening of music for Götterdämmerung and it came in spades with a poignantly drawn and orchestrally shaded reading replete with accentuated elastic tempi.

But the tour de force rested in singing that carried forward the drama absorbingly. As Siegfried, Stefan Vinke reigned supreme, tempering a mix of brashness with tenderness and heroism in a performance taken to precipitous heights that I didn't see at Opera Australia's Melbourne Ring last November. An invincible determination and unimaginable magnificence rang through Vinke's Forging Song in Act I of Siegfried. Both in vocal completeness and physical depiction, Vinke's Siegfried made a believable transition to the hero that Brünnhilde required.

Evelyn Herlitzius stood out with immense fighting spirit and an effortless, highly charged voice to match when she made her appearance as a long ginger-haired Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, the Valkyrie who becomes mortal and redeems the world. A new, transformed Brünnhilde woke up with Ricarda Merbeth's richly blossomed, focussed and intoxicating performance in Siegfried before Herlitzius returned to her splendorous form in Götterdämmerung. Of the two, Merbeth had the edge with clean, smooth and confident stokes accompanying Brünnhilde's introspection but Herlitzius, having the more taxing job, had the voluminous power and forthrightness to shake the house.

Their Valkyries looked oddly and heavily dressed for a punk rock gig but they were a strongly bound and fierce singing contingent, giving the epic's most popular tune, The Ride of the Valkeries, thrilling layers and texture.

Derek Welton, as the first, most youthful, of three Wotans, stamped vocal excellence on the role in an iron-clad performance underneath which a deeply nuanced vocal power full of molten riches percolated through. Iain Paterson followed up robustly, demonstrating in ample vocal expression the exasperation Wotan feels as ruler of the Gods in Die Walküre. And bringing steady, compelling hungry resolve and vocal engine power, Samuel Youn reinforced the desperation and decline of Wotan the Wanderer with heightened belligerence and dramatic magnetism in Siegfried.

Tirelessly authoritative yet loveless in marriage to Wotan, Daniela Sindram's luscious, jewel-encrusted mezzo-soprano accompanied the poise and nobility she depicted as Fricka. The exact measure of vitriol poured from Werner Van Mechelen's broad, gnarly-voiced and snakily determined Alberich while Paul Kaufmann cowered and grovelled as Mime in Das Rheingold. Burkard Ulrich took the part over in impressive tensile, stringy-voiced form in Siegfried after having animated the role of Loge glowingly in Das Rheingold.

The Giants Fasolt and Fafner were a little precarious on their 12-inch steel-framed heels but what they couldn't make up for in mobility was more than delivered with thuggishness. Albert Pesendorfer's heated-voiced Fasolt was taken down by Andrew Harris's more rugged and muscular-voiced Fafner. Returning as Alberich's offspring Hagen, Pesendorfer stealthily took back command in cunning fashion and depths of rich vocal viscosity.

With an especially formidable gift of the heart, Eva-Maria Westbroek sang through her ordeal with class and gravitas as Sieglinde. As her incestuously in love twin brother Siegmund, Stuart Skelton worked bravery to convincing lengths with full-bodied power and as much heroic appeal as befits the future father of Siegfried. Sealed with a more than a cursory kiss, allusions to incest popped up again rather unnecessarily on twins Gunther and Gutrune's road to power-broking marriages. But Seth Carico's fine mix of distinguished polish and nervousness as Gunther and Ricarda Merbeth's return from Brünnhilde as the vixen-like Gutrune were planted strongly in voice.

And Ronnita Miller's brief appearance as Erda in Das Rheingold rather froze time as she edged mysteriously forward in earth-shattering form. Holding a deeply carved and cavernous instrument, Ronnita Miller was a superhuman sensation, returning with penetrating galactic force in Siegfried.

The list of star turns goes on. Götz Friedrich's Ring does not, but one thing is certain - the profound art that exists in Wagner's Ring will. It starts up once again in 2020 at Deutsche Oper under the command of Stefan Herheim in what's going to be a much anticipated affair.

Deutsche Oper, Berlin
Until 17th April 2017

Production Photos: Bettina Stöß

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