Das Rheingold Premieres at the Schiller Theater in Berlin : NPR FM Berlin Blog A quest for world domination that conjures everyday politics as much as Nordic mythology is at the center of Das Rheingold by Wagner. Love and empathy are at odds with power and the law.
NPR logo Das Rheingold Premieres at the Schiller Theater in Berlin

Das Rheingold Premieres at the Schiller Theater in Berlin

Dancers of the Eastman Company (c) Monika Rittershaus hide caption

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(c) Monika Rittershaus

At the center of Wagner’s “Ring des Nibelungen” is a quest for world domination that conjures everyday politics as much as Nordic mythology. Love and empathy are at odds with power and the law. Nature fights against man’s designs, and greed is every player’s downfall.

In the cycle’s first installment, “Das Rheingold,” the dwarf king Alberich foregoes love in order to fashion a ring that will grant him control over the universe. Wotan, chief of the gods, steals the treasure with the help of the demi-god of fire, Loge, but eventually cedes it to the giants, Fasolt and Fafner, in exchange for the release of the goddess, Freia.

Yet the ring will only wreak havoc on its possessor. “Jeder giere nach seinem Gut, doch keiner geniesse mit Nutzen sein!“ (Every man yearns to possess it, but none shall enjoy its powers!) says Alberich, who curses the ring before relinquishing it. In the first revelation of the ring’s destructive powers, which will cause the gods’ downfall in the final opera of the cycle, Fafner kills his brother, Fasolt, and absconds with the riches.

Alberich (Johannes Martin Kränzle) (c) Monika Rittershaus hide caption

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(c) Monika Rittershaus

The strength of the new “Das Rheingold” at the Staatsoper unter den Linden, a co-production with Milan’s La Scala that made its Italian premiere in May and its first appearance in Berlin on October 17, is its ability to marry mythic themes with modern aesthetics that capture the worldly relevance of the drama. With projections and artful lighting, stage designers Guy Cassiers and Enrico Bagnoli evoke and dramatize the archetypal forces at play without resorting to the grandiosity that can make Wagner’s epic unbearable.

As Alberich prepares to steal sacred gold from the Rhine, an image of oversized hands appears on a tiled wall that glimmers with reflections from pools of water on the stage’s floor. A towering image of molten gold, undulating like the arpeggios in Wagner’s overture, looms in the background. The Rheinmaidens splash Alberich and laugh at his advances as he chases them like a buffoon.

The realm of the gods appears as primordial rock formations that transform into a lit valley when the goddess Erda emerges from the depths to warn Wotan of the ring. This scenic transformation may foreshadow the earth’s redemption through Brünnhilde, who will be born through a union of Wotan and Erda.

The production’s cast displayed supple lyric voices that, while not typically Wagnerian, were well-suited to the Staatsoper’s current home in the Schiller Theater. Johannes Martin Kränzle played the ruthless but pathetic Alberich with magnetic energy and stamina. As Wotan, Hanno Müller-Brachmann brought a flowing bass-baritone and sensitive phrasing to the role, yet his vocal presence was not as imposing as one would hope from a chief of the gods. Stephan Rügamer commanded the stage as Loge, cavorting with excellent comic timing and fearlessly riding the orchestra. Anna Samuil was a steadfast Freia, although her vocal delivery tended to be shrill, and Ekaterina Gubanova brought a ripe, sensuous timbre to the role of Fricka.

Fafner (Timo Riihonen) and Fasolt (Kwangchul Youn) (c) Monika Rittershaus hide caption

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(c) Monika Rittershaus

Anna Larsson appeared as Erda with appropriately earthly, burnished tones. Kwangchul Youn’s potent bass was a high point of the evening as Fasolt, although the stage director’s decision to cast shadows behind the giants to imply their size seemed disconnected from the drama. Timo Rihonen was an appropriately menacing Fafner.

Marco Jentzsch brought a youthful, ringing tenor to the role of Froh, and Jan Buchwald’s enveloping voice was well-suited to Donner. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke was a theatrically engaging Mime. Aga Mikolaj, Maria Gortsevskaya, and Marina Prudenskaja created a seductive and musically solid ensemble as the Rheinmaidens.

Daniel Barenboim, a champion of Wagner who has conducted the “Ring” for over twenty years, overcame the somewhat dampened acoustics in the Schiller Theater’s unusually deep orchestra pit by bringing forth finely articulated phrases from the Staatskapelle. He evoked vivid musical landscapes, from elemental rumblings to ethereal mists, although the brass players showed moments of hesitation in the final scene. The strings gleamed throughout the evening without overwhelming the singers.

Choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui relied upon undulating motions to mirror the characters’ inner life or create a framework for the action. At times, the dancing effectively heightened the drama, particularly during orchestral interludes that were masterfully shaped by Barenboim; at others, the sequences appeared directionless and haphazard. Alberich’s pivotal transformation into a toad, effected through crouching movement along with the dancers of the Eastman Company who had formed an impressive pyramid of mostly nude bodies behind him, added a naturalistic touch.

The staging’s culmination in a projection of Jef Lambeaux’s marble relief Human Passions depicting writhing, twisted bodies seemed to provide continuity with the convoluted human movement woven throughout the opera. The image also may forecast the impending chaos in the godly realm, Valhalla, where the deities return at the end of “Das Rheingold.” Loge danced and splashed onstage in jest before joining them, reaffirming that he had stolen the show.

The production runs through October 31.

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