Der Ring des Nibelungen

Nicholas Carter
Chor und Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin
11 May 2024 (R), 12 May 2024 (W)
18 May 2024 (S), 20 May 2024 (G)
Deutsche Oper Berlin
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio

Das Rheingold

Die Walküre



There was much to look forward to when Deutsche Oper Berlin (DOB) announced the second season of their latest Ring Cycle, directed by Norwegian Stefan Herheim and which premiered over the course of 2020-2021.

Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, his sprawling music drama spanning more than 16 hours over 4 performances (not including intervals), saw the Europe-based Australian conductor Nicholas Carter — Chief Conductor and Co-Opera Director of Oper Bern since 2021 — helming the pit for the opening cycle.

Another Australian and a regular fixture of the house, bass-baritone Derek Welton, was to take on the role of Wotan in Die Walküre, the role already under his belt in the premiere season’s Das Rheingold.

When you’re so far from home, in the thick of some of the world’s most acclaimed opera houses, that Australian presence is always a buzz.

Carter never disappointed, exacting a thoughtfully punctuated reading bringing out a wealth of life within. The magic in the pit lasted the distance with Carter creating affectingly contrasted and expressive music with seeming effortlessness while providing carefully balanced support to his onstage artists. When even judging silence matters, every defined and keenly timed rest added ineffable substance to the score. Proving to be a valuable Wagnerian interpreter Carter’s judicial, narrative-serving approach certainly illuminated the poetic nature of the score. That experience is mounting with a new Ring production underway at his Oper Bern.

The DOB Orchestra played excellently, the variability of the brass soundscape in particular making enormous impact with its brooding sonorities, radiance and solemnity across the course. And the singing was top rate, too, with a good number of the premiere season cast members returning to Herheim’s work.

Up on stage, Wagner’s mythologically inspired tripartite universe of heavens, earth and underworld and its story of power, greed, love and vengeance gets a makeover overlaying the European refugee crisis — a pattern of increased forced migration making worldwide headlines which reached its height in 2015.

That pattern is replicating itself today, lending ongoing agency to Herheim’s overarching idea. Of course, you wonder to what purpose it serves when the themes in Wagner’s epic are complex enough to digest.

But wild interpretations can enlighten and, while many directors might leave you scratching your head, Herheim seems to make it rather easy to engage and sympathise with his approach and his characters – up to a point.

The saga unfolds with a great deal of clarity — a play within a play of sorts — mixing a little lightheartedness with the gravitas. The drawback is that the Ring identities are often perceived purely as actors. How, if it ever was going to be considered, would Herheim resolve this?

The stage is bare, except for a grand piano centre-stage, when Das Rheingold begins. A procession of worn-looking refugees, suitcases in hand, enter. At the head is who we come to know as Wotan. When he reaches the piano, he strikes a chord and the orchestra launch into the work’s signature primeval sounding drone.

Three women break from the line to sing as the Rhinemaidens and, to the side, a man begins to apply clown-like make-up from his suitcase to become Alberich. It builds slowly and, before you know it, Herheim has his refugees subtly ‘unpacking’ a show as if resembling a troupe of performers. Little more than the grand piano — an instrumental force in the action in providing scope for oodles of entrances and exits — hundreds of suitcases utilised to create sets and tonnes of drapery you imagine could’ve been brought with them and so often cleverly manipulated by the use of pulleys and cables, comprise Herheim and Silke Bauer’s designs. So much is achieved with what seems so little.

Herheim’s refugees have brought with them what is so often taken for granted — art, culture and creativity. Infused within is hope. They make do with what they have, are an industrial lot and their art provides accompanying nourishment for survival along with the land, food and shelter they seek. Their performances are a work in progress, much like their lives, sometimes rehearsal-like, as in a wittily executed not-too-polished scene when the Valkyries take their position for their iconic ‘ho-jo-to-hos’ — the quality of singing excepted. If anything, this is the essence of Herheim’s Ring.

While the nationalities of Herheim’s refugees are never crystal clear, thoughts can momentarily turn to the persecuted Jews during the Holocaust but don’t strangle what is otherwise a generic depiction.

Within this framework, the Ring’s elements appear logically referenced, rather like props that have served in performances past during Wagner’s days, including winged helmets, medieval spears and the hero’s sword. A large sad mask of tragedy is utilised for Brünnhilde’s shield that becomes the smiling mask of comedy when she is awakened by Siegfried. There is a glowing ring and a clown-faced cloth Tarnhelm.

As for the grand piano, Herheim could easily be making reference to Wagner’s purported concert performance of the Ring to only piano accompaniment when he was living in exile in Zurich between 1849 and 1858. Regardless, it acts as a cultural treasure from which magic infinitely emanates.

Uta Heiseke’s costumes make the transformation from the contemporary everyday to the theatrical with, for example, the gods depicted in white, Alberich’s army of workers as German-looking soldiers (who raise a fleeting Nazi salute) and a mixed up wardrobe of medieval costumes here and there.

Under Ulrich Niepel’s mostly subdued lighting, with a little trickery added occasionally, the essence of Herheim’s concept is evocatively realised but Torge Møller’s video designs seem limited in their scope.

Characters of the plot are often seen playing the piano, perhaps emphasising that music is driving the drama while the Ring’s scores are often handled and referred to by the cast, most notably in Siegfried. When pages seem questioned and ripped out from time to time, could Herheim be suggesting that change is something not only inevitable but often necessary?

Herheim also employs a huge supernumerary cast who, along with the principals, often strip down to their undergarments with sexual pleasure curiously never far from their minds.

More successfully, Herheim provides many a visual connection bridging one scene to inform the next. At the end of Das Rheingold, after the drapery becomes a canvas for the rainbow colours for the entrance to Valhalla, it billows and reveals a giant image of sibling foetuses in the womb — Siegmund and Sieglinde, who we meet in Die Walküre.

Herheim wedges in Siegfried’s birth, at which Mime cuts the umbilical cord and steals Sieglinde’s newborn, at the end of Die Walküre, when the grand piano becomes the rock in which Brünnhilde is put to sleep as punishment for disobeying Wotan. Furthermore, Herheim is often planting his characters on the stage when they may not otherwise be singing or part of the direct action as a reminder of the influence they exert on the drama. Wotan, Alberich and, at the pointy end, Hagen, are never far from sight.

Giants Fasolt and Fafner are depicted as huge puppets made up of suitcases strung together. When Donner summons the thunderstorm to clear the air, clouds of drapery are sucked into the piano top. In Siegfried, the expertly played brass oozes ominously with its family of instruments cleverly put to use, hanging from the ceiling of Mime’s blacksmithing workshop. Then, in Act II, in the first encounter with Fafner the dragon, Fafner is comically represented by a brass phonograph-like cone peering from the piano during his interactions with Alberich and The Wanderer.

By the time we reach Siegfried, in which the pleasure of making theatre seems to blossom, the suitcases keep piling up and so do the highlights. Then, for the final journey into the lengthiest of the four instalments, Götterdämmerung, Herheim makes the move to resolve his approach. The suitcases are temporarily set aside and the curtain opens on a re-creation of the DOB timber-panelled public reception area just metres away from the auditorium. Götterdämmerung does a jackknife to bring us face to face with present familiarities. It forms the setting for the Gibichung Hall and, as the narrative unfolds, appears to explore both the ugliness of entitlement and power and the stinging complicity we are all part of when injustices are carried out.

Herheim demonstrates this when a throng of theatre patrons stream into the theatre and come on stage to eventually stand almost emotionless at Siegfried’s death — in this case, first by a spear in the back followed by decapitation. Later, Brünnhilde stands atop the piano before all as both advocator of love over power and accuser of their, or our, heartlessness. Patriarchy still dominates. The world can do better.

Herheim finally brings us back to the rawness of the stage and a few stored props — notably the suitcases, now stacked into cages — with the final signature given to a female cleaner sweeping the stage. The spell is over and the thought-provoking nature of theatre reigns. It’s partly confounding but it’s all beautiful theatre, nonetheless, in its simplicity.

The cast of this behemoth worked wonders. In Das Rheingold, Belgian tenor Thomas Blondelle is the clear standout, firing up the stage as a jester-like Loge with rich and characterful vocal colours. American baritone Jordan Shanahan also impresses immensely in his embodiment of villainy and cunning as Alberich, a pitiable misfit of sorts often lurking in the shadows and becoming more and more terrifying as the cycle progresses.

German mezzo-soprano Annika Schlicht displays all the best qualities in upholding Fricka’s astute and determined nature, giving her a sassy appearance and a punchy, dark and velvety voiced tone and reaching her thrillingly ferocious peak in the stand-off with her husband Wotan (Derek Welton) in Die Walküre. Schlicht’s later return as Waltraute in urging Brünnhilde to return the ring to the Rhinemaidens is a show-stopping highlight.

Welton is superbly commanding as a distinguished-looking but troubled and disturbing, violently inclined Wotan, a role he shares with firmly planted and resonant Scottish bass-baritone Iain Paterson, who first appears in Das Rheingold and returns as The Wanderer in Siegfried.

In Die Walküre, bursting with warmth and passion of tone, Swedish tenor Daniel Frank’s valorous Siegmund is affectingly matched with German soprano Elisabeth Teige’s gracefulness and vitality of voice to the liberated Seiglinde while German tenor Tobias Kehrer conjures colossal brawny strength in his portrayal of her abusive husband Hunding.

Taiwanese tenor Ya-Chung Huang is a born entertainer, fleeting about comically and gnarling the music with masterful craftsmanship to elevate the role of Mime splendidly.

Austrian bass Albert Pesendorfer and German bass Tobias Kehrer have every bit the goods to garner intimidation as the giants Fasolt and Fafner. When Pesendorfer returns as Hagen, he is a towering, brutal force, even joining the front row of the audience in an act of genius and infecting the air with evil in one of the great highlights of the cycle.

As the hero and heroine-bound protagonists, Siegfried and Brünnhilde, American tenor Clay Hilley and German soprano Ricarda Merbeth produced their own string of highlights. Both dig deep into their roles with the stamina and ardency to match and their pairing has spark.

Hilley is a formidable sound of burning and glowing grandeur, strikingly expressive and easily able to fill the theatre with booming energy while sporting an often smiling, affable charm to his Siegfried.

And Merbeth melds unforgettable vocal sumptuousness and exciting dynamics with surefire capabilities to convince as the ever-challenged Brünnhilde. Exuding stylishness and fortitude to the end, Merbeth deserved the avalanche of applause she received.

So many other fine performances make up the journey, including American contralto Lindsay Ammann’s soaring, matronly Erda. The huge DOB Chorus could not have been better prepared and Herheim’s large contingent of supernumeraries work tirelessly throughout.

Debate will rage whether or not Herheim’s Ring will endure as long as DOB’s previous Ring directed by Götz Friedrich, which exceeded a life of more than 30 years. While there is a sense that Herheim strays in his approach — one in which he more or less hedges his bets on with his story within a story — the plight of refugees is ongoing. To remind us, as a sign of humanity, that we have a duty to come to the rescue, Herheim’s Ring can endure and gives much to think about.

Paul Selar | 22 May, 2024

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
565 kbit/s VBR, 48.0 kHz, 3.8 GiB (flac)
In-house recording
A production by Stefan Herheim (2020/2021)