Oliver Mears’ production of Verdi’s Rigoletto recorded at Covent Garden in 2021 looks and feels like the work of a British theatre director. There’s nothing particularly weird about it. The Personenregie is careful and precise and the emphasis is on text and story telling. The opera house element perhaps comes into play in the rather impressive visuals including an extremely dramatic storm scene.
Before watching the new recording of The Ring from Deutsche Oper Berlin I set out my expectations based on the bonus materials on the recording and my previous engagement with productions by Stefan Herheim. Fifteen hours or so of watching later how do they stand up?
If you have been following this saga from the beginning you have probably already concluded that Herheim’s approach is radical in some ways and very, very detail oriented. If anything, in Götterdämmerung, it gets denser and more complex with some of the central production features used in somewhat different ways. It’s also spectacular. Not least because of the contributions of lighting designer Ulrich Niepel and video designer Torge Møller. They were important contributors to the first three operas. Here they are even more crucial. This opera also has more going on across the full width of the stage more of the time so it’s actually much harder to film. So let’s get into it.
So continuing our look at Wagner’s Ring at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, directed by Stefan Herheim, we move on to Siegfried. I think it’s fair to say that all the elements referred to in my introductory post are present in Siegfried with some more thrown in for good measure. Let’s look at it act by act.
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.
So here we go with the “preliminary evening” of the Deutsche Oper Berlin’s new production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen directed by Stefan Herheim. Das Rheingold opens before the music starts with a crowd of scruffily dressed people with suitcases; presumably refugees, filling a stage which is empty except for a grand piano. One of them starts to put on clown make up. We will soon see that this is Alberich. Another “refugee” sits at the piano and conjures up the first notes of the prelude from the pit. It takes a bit longer for us to realise that this is Wotan.
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.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1894 opera Christmas Eve is based on the Gogol short story The Night Before Christmas which also formed the basis for Tchaikovsky’s The Tsarina’s Slippers. We are in a small village in Ukraine just before Christmas. Basically the smith Vakula is in love with Oksana, the beautiful daughter of the rich farmer Chub. To complicate matters Vakula’s mother, Solokha, is a witch who is (in the words of the subtitles) “having it off” with every prominent male in the village including Chub plus the Devil. Vakula shows up unexpectedly at his mum’s where she has been hiding successive lovers in sacks as the next (unscheduled) one arrives. Vakula “tidies up” the sacks but then runs into a big party of villagers where the contents of the sacks are revealed (except for the Devil). Oksana teases Vakula and says she will only marry him if he brings her the Tsarina’s slippers as a Christmas gift. Vakula vows never to be seen in the village again and sets off with the Devil in his sack.
It’s not all that often I feel genuinely moved by an opera on video. It’s so much less immersive than experiencing live. There is the occasional one. Both the Berlin Parsifaland the Aix-en-Provence La traviata come to mind. The recently released La traviata from the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino is another one. It’s an interesting and effective production with a strong cast centred on the searing Violetta of Nadine Sierra.
Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is an opera I really have trouble with. Done “straight” it’s just a horrible mixture of cultural appropriation and just plain ick. It does have some good music though and opera companies insist on doing it roughy every five minutes so it would be really nice to find a production that worked dramatically. The lake stage at Bregenz is just about the last place I’d expect to find that so I was pleasantly surprised that Andreas Homoki’s 2022 production is maybe the most interesting I’ve seen.