The Magician

Jesse Simon
martes, 29 de junio de 2021
Herheim, Das Rheingold © 2021 by Bernd Uhlig Herheim, Das Rheingold © 2021 by Bernd Uhlig
Berlin, sábado, 12 de junio de 2021. Deutsche Oper Berlin. Wagner: Das Rheingold. Stefan Herheim, director. Derek Welton (Wotan). Thomas Lehman (Donner). Matthew Newlin (Froh). Thomas Blondelle (Loge). Markus Brück (Alberich). Ya-Chung Huang (Mime). Andrew Harris (Fasolt). Tobias Kehrer (Fafner). Annika Schlicht (Fricka). Jacquelyn Stucker (Freia). Judit Kutasi (Erda). Valeriia Savinskaia (Woglinde). Irene Roberts (Wellgunde). Karis Tucker (Flosshilde). Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Sir Donald Runnicles, conductor

In April of last year, when the first wave of the Covid pandemic was in full swing, the Deutsche Oper announced that their new production of Das Rheingold, the first installment in Stefan Herheim’s highly anticipated new Ring Cycle, would have to be postponed. As restrictions began to ease near the close of last season, they staged a reduced version of the opera in their outdoor car-park, an enchanting and frequently inspired evening that satisfied one’s desire for live opera but offered no hints regarding the visual or conceptual nature of the new cycle. Die Walküre, which opened the current season, thus became our introduction to Mr Herheim’s vision of Wagner’s world; and while it was a great success as a standalone drama, the density of its imagery left one wondering how much they had missed from not having seen Rheingold first.

Some, although certainly not all of the lingering questions from Walküre were answered when Rheingold finally had its première almost a year after its originally-scheduled date. The fact that it happened at all was something of a miracle: shortly after the first run of Walküre last October the second wave hit and opera houses closed again; even as recently as a month ago there was no clear indication when or if the infection rates would be low enough to allow the season to resume. A planned reopening this past April was cancelled at the last minute, and for many in the house on this evening, it was the first non-digital opera they had seen in eight months. Yet even without the celebratory undercurrents of opera returning to Berlin, this would have been an extraordinary evening, for Mr Herheim’s staging was a masterpiece.

Das Rheingold is arguably the most difficult evening of the cycle to stage: it requires a director intelligent enough to render in sharp detail the conflicts that will drive the subsequent three nights, but also a magician capable of conjuring giants, serpents and rainbow bridges in a way that neither detracts from the story nor denies us the satisfaction of stagecraft. Mr Herheim was certainly the magician for the job: with an arsenal of wires and diaphanous sheets, stage hydraulics and video projections he gave us image after beautiful image that brought the fantasy world of the opera to vivid life. Even when the mechanics of the magic were visible – and one could occasionally spot the hard-working stage technicians in the background – it didn’t really matter. Mr Herheim’s ability to transform not merely the space, but the mood of the stage within a matter of seconds – most dramatically in the sudden inversion of the mountain peaks around Valhalla into the dark caves of Nibelheim – was a continuous source of wonder and delight.

As with any good magician, the secret of Mr Herheim’s craft lay as much in direction of the eye as sleight of hand. While he favoured busy stage arrangements – most of the first two scenes were witnessed by a silent chorus of refugees whose background movements offered a running commentary on the main action – Mr Herheim knew exactly where he wanted us to look (and not look) at any given moment, and had the skills to make sure our eyes were always where he wanted them. Indeed the moment-to-moment action was conceived in such meticulous detail that anything less than a perfectly focussed staging could have grown impossibly muddled; instead one was left with the joy of being guided through Wagner’s complex mythology by a master storyteller.

Had the staging been nothing more than dazzling effects it may eventually have grown tiresome, but the magic was woven so tightly into Mr Herheim’s interpretation of the story – and the larger cycle – that it seemed more an added bonus. Indeed much of the evening’s charge came from its succession of ideas and subtle subversions, each designed to challenge our preconceptions of this well-established work. From Alberich’s sexually explicit encounter with the Rhinemaidens, to the unexpectedly developed relationship between Freia and Fasolt, nothing in the staging played out quite as one would expect. However none of Mr Herheim’s inventions rang especially false, and nearly all could be justified by a close reading of the text.

Wagner: Das Rheingold. Regie: Stefan Herheim. Sir Donald Runnicles, conductor. Berlin, Deutsche Oper, June 2021. © 2021 by Bernd Uhlig /Deutsche Oper.Wagner: Das Rheingold. Regie: Stefan Herheim. Sir Donald Runnicles, conductor. Berlin, Deutsche Oper, June 2021. © 2021 by Bernd Uhlig /Deutsche Oper.

Yet in its greatest moments the staging offered not merely a reconsideration of the action but a commentary on the pitfalls of attempting to stage a work that has simultaneously grown more contentious and more beloved with age. During the third scene the characters acquired a copy of the score – passed upward from the library realm of Erda located below the stage and accessible only through the prompter’s box – and during the orchestral interlude leading into scene four Mr Herheim created his own microdrama in which Alberich escapes Loge’s trap, but is subdued by Mime, after which Wotan prematurely seizes the ring from Alberich’s finger. Loge, consulting the score, reprimands Wotan who dutifully returns the ring. In that moment the operatic text is revealed to be more powerful than gods or gold; and, as we know from Walküre, it will soon become the central obstacle in Wotan’s struggle for free will.

Many of the singers from last season’s car-park production reprised their roles, and the sense of a well-integrated ensemble was present throughout the evening. Unlike the later operas, where large sections are dominated by a single character – Wotan, Siegfried or Brünnhilde – Rheingold is a series of group studies, and on this evening the performances succeeded more through synergy than individual assertion. Thomas Blondelle’s live-wire Loge was a delight, slightly more hyperactive than last year – his highly articulated delivery was matched by manic physical gestures – but playful, cynical and consistently engaging. As his reluctant partner in crime, Derek Welton delivered an agile, lighter-toned Wotan, largely free of the burdens that will overtake the character on the subsequent two nights.

Marcus Brück, who was not in the car-park production, was a curiously sympathetic Alberich, abashed by the sexuality of the Rhinemaidens but delighted by his new-found power. Mr Brück’s curse in the fourth scene built to a considerable peak of intensity, but arguably even more impressive was the opening scene in which he made one aware just how much care Wagner had put into rendering the character through an onslaught of harsh syllables; these found stark contrast in the flowing lines of the Rhinemaidens, sung on this evening by the graceful trio of Valeriia Savinskaia, Irene Roberts and Karis Tucker. Annika Schlicht, who also sang Fricka in Walküre last October, was captivating in her first scene and remained in excellent voice throughout the evening, even as the character grew increasingly sidelined by the action. And both of the giants were given performances of nuance and intelligence: Andrew Harris was a noble Fasolt, while Tobias Kehrer allowed Fafner far more eloquence than one is used to hearing. 

Wagner: Das Rheingold. Regie: Stefan Herheim. Sir Donald Runnicles, conductor. Berlin, Deutsche Oper, June 2021. © 2021 by Bernd Uhlig /Deutsche Oper.Wagner: Das Rheingold. Regie: Stefan Herheim. Sir Donald Runnicles, conductor. Berlin, Deutsche Oper, June 2021. © 2021 by Bernd Uhlig /Deutsche Oper.

For anyone who has heard Sir Donald Runnicles conduct the Ring in the past decade, the evening will have contained few surprises: his reading remains assured and subservient to the action on stage, prepared with great attention to detail but executed with a near-complete lack of interpretive excess. The sonic balance of his Wagner orchestra still favours the brass, sometimes to the detriment of string details in the louder passages, but on this evening the brass were on superb form, playing with great unity and warmth.

But the evening was a triumph primarily through the efforts of Mr Herheim who has created a staging equal parts provocation and delight: the most ardent Wagner fans are sure to emerge with new insights, while newcomers may find themselves hooked for life. And as with any good storyteller, Mr Herheim knows exactly what he can keep from his audience. Despite our foreknowledge of Walküre, his Rheingold offered all the satisfaction of a well-paced drama while leaving enough unanswered questions to keep us excited for the final two productions, which are scheduled to have their first performances in the coming season. Yet even after the completion of the cycle has allowed us to connect the dots and fit together all the pieces of Mr Herheim’s vast vision, it seems certain that this new Ring will continue to reward repeated viewings for as long as it remains on the stage. 

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