The second instalment of Deutsche Oper Berlin’s Ring directed by Stefan Herheim, Die Walküre, carries on with much the same iconography as Das Rheingold. Once again the set is largely built up of suitcases, a crowd of refugees observes the action, there’s a piano at centre stage and a white sheet in various forms plays a key role in proceedings. Also, much of the time the characters are working off a score of the piece.
There’s at least one new element though. It’s a mixing of modern elements with traditional iconography that might have come out of the original Bayreuth production or a Rackham illustration. Brünnhilde appears in a winged helmet, breast and back plate and carries a spear. The other Valkyries (most of the time) also have matching helmets and spears. I think it’s Herheim insisting that it’s a piece of theatre with a specific history.
There are a couple of related ideas being played out too. One is the conventional notion that Wotan is essentially powerless because of his contractual obligations. The other is actually a complex of ideas around love, sex, marriage, rape and male domination which ultimately seem to bring Wotan and Alberich closer together as moral agents. But before I get deeper into that aspect of my interpretation I should just (not so) briefly summarise what happens.
In Act 1 it’s mostly as one might expect but for one thing. Hunding’s hall is built from suitcases. Nothung is embedded in the piano. But there’s also an extra character, Hundingling, who is clearly Hunding and Sieglinde’s son. Herheim explains this as a device to explain Sieglinde’s obsession with having been “dishonoured” by her marriage to Hunding and thus not a fit partner for Siegmund. Sieglinde is packing to leave but can’t because of the boy (who is pretty unpleasant in a Hunding sort of way). She symbolizes her decision to leave with Siegmund, Medea style, by cutting the boy’s throat after which the twins make out enthusiastically next to the corpse. There are some interesting visuals along the way. The spectral Yggdrasil from Das Rheingold reappears and transforms into an eyeball and then a wolf. There’s also really good singing from both Brendan Jovanovich as Siegmund (“Winterstürme” is terrific) and Elisabeth Teige as Sieglinde plus a suitably nasty cameo from Tobias Kehrer as Hunding.
Act 2 opens with the twins making out on the piano while Wotan (in his underwear) plays the accompaniment. They disappear and we move on to Brünnhilde warning about Fricka’s anger before the actual Fricka/Wotan confrontation over the forthcoming Siegmund/Hunding duel. Fricka insists that Sieglinde’s marriage vows are sacrosanct (despite the fact that, essentially, she was abducted and raped). Wotan tries to persuade her that it’s OK because the twins are in love but gives in remarkably quickly. We are going to see later on that Wotan doesn’t really have a problem with the abduction/rape model of marriage. Throughout, Fricka is really quite scary and Brünnhilde is obviously terrified of her. There’s strong singing and (broad) acting from Annika Schlicht as Fricka with equally strong singing and a touch of ironic humour from Iain Paterson as Wotan.
When we meet the twins again it’s largely about Sieglinde trying to persuade Siegmund that she’s unworthy and dishonoured but he’s not having it. In his scene with Brünnhilde he clearly articulates a vision of deeply held romantic love. He is probably the only character in the entire tetralogy who does! There’s more beautiful singing from Jovavovich and Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde is really good too; both as a singer and an actor. The fight scene is pretty much by the book and Brünnhilde flees with Sieglinde.
The “Walkürenritt” and immediately following scenes are also interesting. It starts, like so much else in this Ring, with the Valkyries appearing out of an anonymous crowd and donning helmets and spears. Initially the dead heroes are bundles of white sheets but soon they become the undead and a scruffy, brutal bunch they are. They are clearly trying to get at the Valkyries and it soon becomes clear that the intent is rape. Wotan seems to countenance this as the Valkyries symbols of office are transferred to the heroes when he dismisses the girls. One gets the distinct impression that the Valkyries’ job description goes well beyond handing out cups of mead.
Wotan’s condemnation of Brünnhilde then seems very much in character. He’s basically making her available to the first male that comes along. She isn’t even to get the consolation of being raped by a hero. Of course Brünnhilde gets the sentence varied to include a magic firewall. Stemme’s singing is really quite beautiful as she works on her father to make this happen. And of course the firewall is a key plot ingredient later on but it seems out of character for Wotan here. There are elements of both patriarchy and class consciousness going on here (they were prefigured by Fricka in Act 2). Brünnhilde is now both a mortal and, like Hunding and the twins, no more than a slave to the Gods. She’s also dishonoured(*) by her disobedience and treachery and so doesn’t deserve the shield to her honour she eventually gets, at least in the moral world of Wotan and Fricka.
Visually it’s all very beautiful at this point with the inevitable white sheet becoming the flames and Brünnhilde entombed in the piano. The big surprise spoiler is that, via the piano, we see Mime assisting at the birth of Siegfried and stealing the child.
So what of love and Wotan? My first thought in the Fricka/Wotan confrontation was that Herheim was setting up a sort of Old Testament/New Testament thing but I don’t think that really flies. What becomes clear is that, while Wotan may be mildly sympathetic to the twins mutual affection, his basic belief about “love” is that women exist in a servile capacity for the use of men. He’s pretty explicit about this in his sentencing of Brünnhilde but let’s think too about Wotan’s affairs. He doesn’t have love affairs. He fathers children on various mothers to further his plans; Valkyries, Wälsungs etc. There’s no suggestion that he’s a sort of Zeus figure who goes lusting after pretty girls for the fun of it. I think Herheim is reinforcing this in the rapey Valkyrie/hero scenes. The Valkyries are just (slightly) superior rape bait. In fact Wotan’s functional approach to sex is not dissimilar to Alberich’s in fathering Hagen to advance his schemes. Wotan hasn’t formally renounced Love but he’s never really engaged with it either. In that respect he really is the complement of Alberich.
By now you can tell I found a lot to think about in this production which I think is always a good sign. I’ve seen a fair few Rings but Herheim is giving me insights that have never occurred to me before. When the production is backed up by high class singing and acting and really, really good playing from the orchestra I think we have something worth exploring.
Technical details are essentially the same as for Das Rheingold. The only difference I noticed is that Götz Filenius uses a few, short, shots from the very back of the auditorium which i guess is meant to reinforce the idea that this is a performance on many levels.
Let’s see where Siegfried takes us.
(*) The idea of “dishonour” as a kind of degradation and casting out from society was once extremely strong in (north) German and Scandinavian society. If Wagner was aware of that, and surely he was, then the obsession with it by both Brünnhilde and Sieglinde becomes more understandable. There’s a good discussion of the idea in Johan Heinsen’s essay “Escaping St. Thomas” in Rediker, Chakraborty and van Rossum (eds) A Global History of Runaways, Oakland 2019.
Catalogue number: Naxos Blu-ray NBD0158V
This is the third 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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