18 Mar 2013

Götterdämmerung at the Staatsoper Berlin

In the final of scene of Götterdämmerung in a new production at the Staatsoper Berlin, Brünnhilde appears in a flowing pink gown just as the music has modulated and penetrates the hall of the Gibichungs, represented by rows of glowing translucent boxes that preserve the dismembered limbs of their victims.

She unfastens the ring—here represented as a sequined hand—from the arm of Siegfried’s corpse, and moves regally upstage. When video projections of fire onto a shiny back wall cede to blue swirls of water—the Rhine overflowing after Valhalla has burned to ash—the fading, ghostly image of a woman with her mouth agape hovers like a virtual nightmare. A crowd of Gibichungs, dressed in drab civil suits with touches of barbaric fur, turn toward the back wall and stare at an image of excavated human remains. As their expressions reveal signs of cognizance, a giant replica of the marble relief Human Passions by Jef Lambeaux, a depiction of nude bodies writhing somewhere between heaven and hell, descends and traps the action behind it.

As program notes by the dramaturge Michael Steinberg explain, this image has provided a kind of Leitmotif for the Ring cycle by stage team Guy Cassiers and Enrico Bagnoli, which has unfolded in epic fashion over the past three years in co-production with La Scala. The opening instalment, Das Rheingold, culminated in a video projection of the full image; in Die Walküre, it mutates into a twisting, multi-media pile of bodies. Cassiers, the director, has set out to address globalization in an age of virtual reality and pornographic violence, adopting with Bagnoli a streamlined yet abstract aesthetic. Laser-like red lines that designate warfare in Walküre reappear as the fragile network (or destiny rope) of the Norns in Götterdämmerung, and rows of white spears that serve as a canvas for flickering video projections descend to drive home the notion of human destruction.

While the visual symbolism of Cassiers and Bagnoli is sometimes too conceptual to connect with its intellectual underpinnings—now a black mass which spreads like an expressionist painting when Siegfried makes a blood oath with Günther, now a woman who sticks her computerized tongue out at the audience—the production scores a triumph in the use of light-dark imagery to mirror the archetypal forces at play, underscoring the music rather than overwhelming it with images. The restraint bordered on excessive for the opening scene in the shadowy hall of the Gibichungs, designated by a simple metal wall and a box of glowing limbs, and it took a moment to realize that a group of dancers on their knees behind Siegfried represented Grane, Brünnhilde’s horse. Yet choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui was surprisingly effective when the bodies draped themselves in black cloth and transformed into the Tarnhelm, the magic helmet which allows Siegfried to still the ring from Brünnhilde. Costumes by Tim Van Steenbergen, with a modernist take on Lederhosen for the leading Gibichungs and leather motorcycle get-up for Siegfried, add to the dystopic vision.

Goetterdaemmerung_068.gifIan Storey as Siegfried and Marina Poplavskaya as Gutrune with the State Opera Chorus

If the production leans too heavily on the audience’s powers of imagination, Daniel Barenboim, currently music director in both Berlin and Milan, fills the vacuum with the sharpest insight into dramatic nuance. The Staatskapelle swelled and subsided with organic ease as the score soared from subterranean tunnels to celestial plains, mutating like the ring’s magical forces to accommodate each singer. Irène Theorin, the cycle’s Brünnhilde in all instalments, threatened to burst the walls of the Schiller Theater when her seasoned Wagnerian soprano broke out from its round timbre into a screech, but she inhabited the role of the mortalized goddess with an affecting blend of dignity, hysteria and vengeance. In the role of Siegfried, Ian Storey, a tenor of higher vintage than the previous installment’s Lance Ryan last fall, struggled with a wobble in the opening scenes but warmed up to give an indomitable performance of the hero before he is stabbed in the back by Hagen. As the evil Gibichung, Russian bass Mikhail Petrenko was an increasingly ominous presence, spitting out his words with villainous resolve in the soliloquy “Hier sitz’ ich zur Wacht.”

It was a surprise to hear Marina Poplavskaja, a dramatic soprano who has forged an international career in roles such as Desdemona and Violetta, portray Gutrune—who drugs Siegfried with a magic potion in order to separate him from Brünnhilde—but her voice poured out clearly above Barenboim’s sensitive conducting and captured the Gibichung’s wicked wiles. She also gave a pleasant account of the Second Norn. Marina Prudenskaya gave an affecting performance as the Valykrie, Waltraute, who beseeches Brünnhilde to give back the ring to the Rhinemaidens, and as the Third Norn. The mezzo Margarita Nekrasova, in the role of the First Norn, did not blend easily but evoked impending pathos with a more typically Wagnerian voice. Aga Mikolaj, Maria Gortsevskaya, and Ann Lapkovskaja made for a seductive, youthful trio as the Rhinemaidens. Even at the Twilight of the Gods, Cassiers’ vision ends the cycle with the possibility for atonement. Despite the horrors the human race has wracked upon the environment and itself, it can learn from the past and start anew.

Rebecca Schmid

Click here for cast and production information.