There’s a new recording out of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen recorded at the Deutsche Oper Berlin last year. Now the DOB claims a special relationship with the music of Wagner (the “Winter Bayreuth”) and it is, of course, in Berlin which adds an unavoidable dimension to the performance history there. It has also had, for more than twenty years, Götz Friedrich’s famous production in its repertoire. So, a new Ring at DOB is a big thing. Given that, what I want to do in terms of engaging with the recording is to bookend reviews of the four videos of the operas in the usual fashion with two general pieces; one laying out my expectations based on the “bonus” material in the boxed set and the booklets, and one as a sort of final conclusion having watched the whole thing. This post is, of course, the first of those.
The first thing DOB had to do for the project was choose a music director. Sir Donald Runnicles is the Music Director for the house and a noted Wagnerian, so no brainer there. Choosing a stage director must have been trickier. Obviously it would have to be an experienced European opera director with the ability to create a conceptual but compelling Ring. It was never going to be one of Peter Gelb’s Broadway buddies. The choice was Stefan Herheim. He’s an extremely intense Norwegian with very definite ideas about what he’s doing.
My first engagement with Herheim was his La Bohème for Det Norske Opera. This was the first time I’d seen anyone do something really interesting with a Puccini opera and I was sold. I’ve also seen his ambitious Rusalka and his intriguing, and rather good, Pique Dame. This all made very curious as to how he would approach the Ring. Fortunately the new recording (on Naxos) comes with decent documentation and interviews with Herheim and Runnicles. I decided I’d try and work out where they were going before watching the operas and then reflect on each as I got through them. This, after all, is going to take longer than three days and an introductory evening!
The elements I’m going to be looking out for are roughly as follows:
- Cyclicality. The Ring doesn’t portray the beginning or end of the World but it definitely shows the end of a World. I know that Herheim opens Das Rheingold with a crowd of refugees. Fleeing what? Are we seeing the shattered remnants of the destroyed world bringing forth the new one? And, if so, what are the implications?
- Wagner and his piano. There’s an on-stage piano which is used to summon up characters etc. We know that the Ring is a product of Wagner’s imagination (much more than it is a retelling of canonical myth)and that Wagner composed at the grand piano. And, as Herheim points out, pianos are an integral part of bringing an opera to life in any house. Maybe too, here, there’s the idea that “all the World’s a stage”.
- Nazis. Herheim clearly thinks that the performance history of the Ring matters, especially in Berlin. How will this be reflected on stage?
- Symmetry. Herheim doesn’t see Alberich and Wotan as “opposed” but rather as the complementary Light Elf, Dark Elf pair; each necessary to complete the other. Will this symmetry hold through four operas or will a form of symmetry breaking intrude?
- Ecology. There’s a sense in which the Ring; specifically the stealing of the gold and it’s transformation into an instrument of power (and industry?) disrupts some kind of primordial harmony. Given today’s concern with the destruction of the natural environment and perhaps even life itself by untrammelled greed how will this idea play out?
There’s probably a lot I’m missing and maybe I’ll pick those threads up as I move through the operas.
Catalogue information: The boxed set of four operas is available on four Blu-ray disks as Naxos Blu-ray NBD0156VX or seven DVDs as Naxos 2107001.
This is the first of six pieces on the new Stefan Herheim production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. The six articles are as follows:
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