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.
Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades is a rather odd opera. It’s got some really good music but it’s dramatically a bit of a mess; it’s episodic and the plot contains highly implausible occult elements. The 2016 production at Dutch National Opera was given to Stefan Herheim to direct which is what piqued my interest. There are few directors as capable of applying some radical rethinking to an opera and coming up with something fully coherent. I think he manages it here.
Stefan Herheim’s 2012 production of Dvořák’s Rusalka for Brussels’ La Monnaie Theatre is predictably ambitious and complex. He takes an explicitly Freudian (by way of Lacan) view of the piece(*). The female characters are representations of male views of the female and, sometimes it seems, vice versa. It’s seen most clearly in Act 2 and I found unpacking Act 1 much easier after seeing it so I’m going to start there. We open not with bucolic, if coarse, peasants preparing for a wedding feast. We are on a street in a scruffy part of, I guess, Brussels. The gamekeeper and kitchen boy are replaced by a priest and a policeman. The traditional dismembered game animals become a female chorus, many of them nuns, with exaggerated secondary sexual characteristics. There is, essentially, an orgy. Clearly the human world that Rusalka cannot enter is about sex in its most physical aspects not meaty Central European banquet platters! Rusalka and the Foreign Princess are dressed and wigged identically. They are quite freely interchanged. Lines that are canonically addressed to one are addressed to the other and so forth. It’s pretty clear that each represents, albeit imperfectly, the Prince’s ideal woman. Rusalka is the unattainable feminine ideal; flawed in that she cannot engage in fully satisfying sexual activity. The foreign Princess is sexually satisfying but falls short precisely by not being unattainable. Some less clear male duality is suggested by the appearance of the Vodnik dressed as the Prince. It just gets weirder from there with the ballet of nuns, prostitutes, fish, squid and heaven knows what else spilling over into the auditorium while the Prince and Foreign Princess watch from a box and Rusalka and the Vodnik get caught up in the action. At the conclusion of the act it’s Rusalka not the Princess that he begs for help.
It’s a curious fact that two of the three most popular operas; Verdi’s La Traviata and Puccini’s La Bohème, are about women dying from tuberculosis. It’s also curious that they are almost always presented as frothy escapist fantasies in which Death makes his appearance only in the tear jerking finale. It’s very curious because Death stalks the libretto of both operas, albeit usually well hidden behind brocade, champagne and Christmas decorations. In 2005, at Salzburg, Willy Decker broke with convention and made Death an explicit actor in La Traviata creating the famous red dress production that has even been seen at that bastion of conservatism the Metropolitan Opera. In 2012 Stefan Herheim did something similar for La Bohème in Oslo.
I’m just back from being in the audience for a live event that featured Stefan Herheim, in Oslo, and Atom Egoyan, in Toronto, discussing and answering questions about their respective productions of Strauss’ Salome. It was set up with a live satellite link between the two cities which worked rather well. The event also featured two rather dry academic presentations about the productions and productions of Salome in general. This bit went on for nearly an hour and a half and reminded me of why one takes notes at university. It’s because if you don’t this stuff goes in one ear and out the other.