Farewell to the Time Tunnel

Jesse Simon
lunes, 1 de mayo de 2017
Berlin, lunes, 17 de abril de 2017. Deutsche Oper Berlin. Wagner: Götterdämmerung. Götz Friedrich, director. Stefan Vinke (Siegfried), Seth Carico (Gunther), Werner van Mechelen (Alberich), Albert Pesendorfer (Hagen), Evelyn Herlitzius (Brünnhilde), Ricarda Merbeth (Gutrune), Daniela Sindram (Waltraute), Ronnita Miller (First Norn), Daniela Sindram / Anna Klohs (Second Norn), Seyoung Park (Third Norn), Martina Welschenbach (Woglinde), Christina Sidak (Wellgunde) and Annika Schlicht (Floßhilde). Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Donald Runnicles, conductor

Götz Friedrich, who managed the Deutsche Oper Berlin during the final two decades of the twentieth century, is an era unto himself. Although the Deutsche Oper has been gradually phasing out his Wagner productions since his death in 2000, his Ring cycle, completed in 1985, has not only managed to hang onto its place, but has continued to grow in stature over the course of thirty years and as many complete performances. It may now be time for a new production and a fresh perspective, but the two sold-out – and rapturously received – cycles this month offered an affectionate farewell for a production which has been a part of Berlin’s cultural life for more than a generation. 

On the one hand, Mr Friedrich’s staging is unmistakably of its time. That time, the mid-eighties, was the age of Reagan and Gorbachev, of renewed nuclear fears and the laborious end of the cold war. It was also the era of Blade Runner and Miami Vice, and a time when the subcultures of punk, new-wave, goth and industrial could be spotted lurking on the fringes of the mainstream; and while the full ramifications were not clear at the time, hindsight reveals the mid-eighties to have been a crucial stage in the transition between the mechanical and digital ages. Mr Friedrich’s Ring, conceived in the midst of these cultural cross-currents, captures the era in all its messy imperfection. From the industrial nightclub vibe of Nibelheim, to the delightfully goth Valkyries, to a Fafner who could only be described as steam-punk avant la lettre, part of the nostalgic delight of this Ring – a delight which Mr Friedrich surely never intended – is the effortless way in which it evokes the now-distant moment of its creation. 

Yet as the curtain – or rather, the large metal blast shield separating the audience from the stage – rose on the Norns in this final performance of the final cycle, Mr Friedrich’s production revealed a curious timelessness. The idea that this tale of creation and destruction was playing out on an infinite loop within a large metal tunnel, the abandoned remains of an advanced but long-vanished civilisation, seemed if anything more jarringly relevant than it did three years ago when it was last performed. In that brief but eventful time, old anxieties from the eighties have begun to resurface and the idea that forces beyond our control are, to borrow Loge’s words, ‘hastening toward their end’ – and taking everything else down in the process – gave the evening a piquancy which both recalled and transcended its eighties origins. 

Wagner: Götterdämmerung. Donald Runnicles, conductor. Götz Friedrich, director. Berlin, Deutsche Oper, April 2017 Wagner: Götterdämmerung. Donald Runnicles, conductor. Götz Friedrich, director. Berlin, Deutsche Oper, April 2017 © Bettina Stoess, 2017

Of the operas in Mr Friedrich’s production, Götterdämmerung is the one that most obscures its setting within the time tunnel. The palace of Gunther, while hardly convivial, has an element of the finite; the grand spaces shared by gods, dwarves and giants are here compartmentalised into the even more confined locations that will witness a very human tale of greed and pride. If Mr Friedrich’s oddly static and uneventful vision of the opera’s final scene has grown no more convincing since its last outing, his sense of the weak, incestuous vanity of Gunther and Gutrune, the wounded pride of Brünnhilde, and the empty heroism of Siegfried remain an example to any directors who would embrace spectacle at the expense of character. 

The final performance was provided with singing that, for the most part, grew in stature as the evening progressed. Evelyn Herlitzius, one of the finest Elektras of the present century and also an astonishing Kundry, thrives on the highest of high drama; yet in her opening scene her Brünnhilde seemed oddly tentative, and this physical reticence was paired with a vocal performance marked by overwhelming vibrato, elaborate swoops up to the higher notes, and quieter passages that seemed oddly phrased. Her next, more adversarial encounter with Siegfried was considerably better, and in the second act she was wholly magnificent, hurling venomous lines at her two betrayers and pronouncing her oath on Hagen’s spear with untameable fury, yet entering into the fatal negotiations of the act’s final scene with chilling clarity and resolve. Her tightly-wound dramatic phrasing and captivating presence gave her rapt immolation monologue a similar charge. 

Wagner: Götterdämmerung. Donald Runnicles, conductor. Götz Friedrich, director. Berlin, Deutsche Oper, April 2017 Wagner: Götterdämmerung. Donald Runnicles, conductor. Götz Friedrich, director. Berlin, Deutsche Oper, April 2017 © Bettina Stoess, 2017

As Siegfried, Stefan Vinke was able to summon enough impetuous manner and skirt-chasing arrogance (even before the potion) to realise Mr Friedrich’s conception of a deeply flawed, somewhat unlikable hero. In the early scenes, there was an oddly pinched quality to his tone in all but the most emphatic passages, but this tendency grew less pronounced throughout the evening; indeed, it had disappeared entirely by the third act, in which he dealt elegantly with the taunting of the Rhinemaidens and gave a commanding account of his early years, birdsong and all. As Siegfried’s greatest adversary, Albert Pesendorfer provided the evening with a superb Hagen, fashioned of equal parts intelligence and hatred. His thick, naturally dark-toned bass had no trouble bringing animation and menace to the lowest passages, and his imposing yet deliberate physical manner suggested calculation in every step. 

While these three dominated the evening, there were several other noteworthy performances, of which Daniela Sindram’s Waltraute was perhaps the most exceptional. Even in lesser hands, Waltraute’s reunion with Brünnhilde is often the high point of the first act, but Ms Sindram approached the tale of Wotan’s decline with a subtly wrought sense of inner terror and a commanding seriousness that made it easy to overlook the fact that she looked exactly like the token bad girl from some long-forgotten 80s teen comedy. Earlier in the evening, as a last minute replacement for Irene Roberts, Ms Sindram also sung an excellent Second Norn from the side of the stage. 

The evening’s other quietly great performance belonged to Seth Carico as Gunther. His tall, thin frame wrapped in a cruise ship dinner jacket, he spent much of his stage time suggesting a man hollowed by shame, watching with increasing unease as Hagen’s schemes unfolded. However his voice – warm and crisp, with natural melodic ease and unforced projection – conveyed a more complex sense of former nobility eroded by forces only partly beyond his control. By contrast, the Gutrune of Ricarda Merbeth – whose performance tended to favour dramatic engagement over vocalic gloss – was more wilful and less dreamy than one often hears, and none the worse for it. 

For his brief appearance as Alberich, Werner van Mechelen delivered a live-wire monologue – excitable but, crucially, not exaggerated – that offered a welcome alternative to the narcotic somnolence which often pervades his night-time visit to the sleeping Hagen. It should also be said that the three Rhinemaidens – Martina Welschenbach, Christina Sidak and Annika Schlicht – sung together with great beauty and clarity, raising gentle admonitions to Siegfried, but able to switch collectively in their frustration to a more barbed, hectoring delivery. 

Donald Runnicles has an approach to conducting Wagner that rarely draws attention to itself either through exaggerated tempi or excessive idiosyncrasy; it is not showy, but neither is it bland. The opening Norn scene was a model of good judgment – always richly detailed but never so belaboured as to lose the thread of the drama – and the rest of the evening proceeded along similar lines. Although he could whip the orchestra into a convincing frenzy, as he did for the explosion of fire that follows Brünnhilde’s closing monologue, he generally pulled back just enough to let the singers carry the score’s dramatic turning points. The orchestra, despite one or two dubious notes from the brass, gave an heroic performance that lost nothing in texture and clarity throughout what must have been an unusually long evening. 

It was inevitable that Götz Friedrich’s Ring had to end; if opera is to remain a vital artform, it cannot be beholden to nostalgia. Indeed, the Deutsche Oper have already declared their commitment to the future by commissioning Stefan Herheim to direct their next Ring, currently scheduled for 2020. If Mr Herheim’s Ring is anywhere close to as inventive as his recent Meistersinger, it promises to be unmissable. Yet as much as we look forward to the prospect of something that will reshape the experience of Wagner’s great cycle to meet the spirit of the twenty-first century, it was an undeniable pleasure to be able to spend a few final evenings among the remnants of Mr Friedrich’s time tunnel. 

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