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Richard Wagner
08 Mar 2007

Berlin “Ring” remains a sterling achievement

It was in the “Orwell year” 1984 that Götz Friedrich, general manager — Intendant — of the Deutsche Oper Berlin (DOB) from 1983 until his death in 2000, staged the first half of Wagner’s “Ring des Nibelungen” in the 1900-seat house on Berlin’s Bismarckstrasse.

Above: Richard Wagner (1862)


He completed it the following season.

Orwell’s chimera of total state control then still existed in communist Eastern Europe, and cold-war tensions were brought to a new height by new Soviet SS-20 nuclear missiles implanted in East Germany and — in response — Pershing II warheads sowed in West German forests by the US.

It was not a happy time. Germans saw their country as a nuclear battleground. Today, however, the nuclear threat is only an added feature of global terror.

Small wonder that Friedrich took Wagner’s gods and giants underground, suggesting refuge from a nuclear holocaust. And it’s hardly a surprise that this “Ring” continues to pack its wallop two decades after it was new.

Friedrich literally found his “underground” in the Washington, D.C. Metro, the model for the “time tunnel” designed by Peter Sykora as the site of this “Ring.”

In this hermetic refuge time and space are fused in a contemporary comment on the human condition.

Before Wagner’s music begins the curtain rises on immobile gods shrouded beneath white cloths. They come to life as actors in their own drama, knowing well a story they have told and re-told through the ages. And, as beginning and end merge in mythic recurrence, the gods return to their shrouds as the Rhine rises over Valhalla’s ruins at the end of “Götterdämmerung..”

This, one the one hand, is a new “Oresteiä;” on the other, it’s Beckett’s “Endgame” revisited. It engages the audience in a critical confrontation with the gods; the listener asks whether there might not be a way out of this complex labyrinth of greed, envy and death.

Thus Friedrich’s “Ring” achieves new relevance with each return of the production to the stage. (In its early years it also traveled to Japan and Washington.)

Even Bayreuth would find it difficult to assemble the cast on stage at the DOB for the cycle that ran from February 20 to 25.

Norway’s Terje Stensvold is a thoughtful Wotan, a man of authority and awesome both in vocal and physical stature. The cycle’s Sieglinde, Danish Eva Johannson will soon sing her first Brünnhilde in Vienna, and American Robert Dean Smith brings the heft of the baritone that he was earlier in his career to her “twin” Siegmund.

Richard Paul Fink, another American and today’s reigning incarnation of the role, takes obvious delight in Alberich’s evil machinations, while tenor Burkhard Ulrich eschews the emasculated, hand-wringing Mime now common elsewhere to offer a full-blooded portrait of this unattractive figure. And veteran American bass Eric Halfvarson sings an impressively dark and demonic Hagen.

Most versatile member of the cast is mezzo Marina Prudenskaja, who finished studies in St. Petersburg — her home town — just a decade ago. Here, on the heels of a regal Fricka, she sings Erda in “Siegfried” and both the Second Norn and Waltraute in “Götterdämmerung.”

Evelyn Herlitzius, Bayreuth’s 2004 Brünnhilde, could easily be taken for an energetic, teenaged athlete; she transcends the stereotypical image of the corpulent Wagnerian soprano.

She is a passionate singer in every range and at every dynamic level. Her portrayal of the betrayed Brünnhilde is as tragically moving as it is chilling. A bit of Edith Piaf grit in the lower register adds a special frisson to her work.

Beyond this overall excellence one member of this cast is truly remarkable: Alfons Eberz, who as Siegfried can simply be taken at face value. Indeed, if this character had a historic progenitor, one can only hope that was the match of this young German tenor.

Eberz, Parsifal at Bayreuth last season, isn’t merely young, blond and handsome, he’s that kid from the country whose innocence in the opening acts of “Siegfried” is totally unfeigned. He has no need to fake the pure fool that Wotan’s grandson is, he’s the blank page who makes it all genuine.

Eberz is obviously the Heldentenor that the world has dreamed of since World War Two; his voice balances beauty and power, and his stamina is endless.

With Herlitzius he elevates the “Awakening” scene that concludes “Siegfried” to a legendary level, for it is here that this “Ring” pays telling tribute to Götz Friedrich.

Friedrich, born and schooled in the East of then-divided Germany, was an assistant to Walter Felsenstein, who as mastermind of East Berlin’s Komische Oper in the first post-war decades taught Europe that opera isn’t just about singing, but that it is music theater.

His imprint is clearly felt in Friedrich’s direction of this scene.

True, the love of Siegfried and Brünnhilde was preordained, yet the text tells of the ex-goddess’ hesitation to surrender herself to her impassioned suitor. Compared, however, to the study in incipient eroticism that these two singers make of this scene, everything else is at best greasy kid stuff.

Indeed, Herlitzius makes clear here that even her earlier response to Wotan’s incestuous fondling was only the reaction of an inexperienced young woman to the advances of a man of high authority.

The greatest single contribution to the overwhelming success of the cycle, however, comes from conductor Donald Runnicles, the Scottish-born maestro now moving toward the end of his tenure as music director of the San Francisco Opera.

Through Runnicles’ intimate knowledge of — and experience with — this vast work, one hears things overlooked by Wagnerian wanna-bees. His attention to inner voices is relentless and never in the 16 hours of cycle does he resort to mere routine.

And the DOB orchestra, now heard in concert several times each season, is a superb ensemble. It was an unusual touch that after “Götterdämmerung” the entire group appeared on stage with Runnicles to accept the acclaim of the audience that packed the house.

Two concurrent events underscored the priority that Wagner is at the DOB: a single program that offered all the composer’s songs and “Klein-Siegfried,” Curt A. Roesler’s introduction to the “Ring” for kids eight and above.

A “Ringless” night was well spent at the Komische Oper, where Astor Piazzolla’s “María de Buenos Aires,” premiered in 1968 as a secular oratorio, has been fully staged by Katja Czellnik.

The libretto by Horacio Ferrer equates the sensual Mari’a both with sin-stained Buenos Aires and the Virgin Maria, sung on February 25 by Julia Zenka, while Daniel Bonilla-Torres delivered the lines of the spirit Duende in Sprechstimme. Tenor Matthias Klein was a gripping Cantor.

And although Berlin is home to three companies of international stature, opera in the city is not restricted to them.

On 19 February Texas-born soprano Laura Claycomb was the soloist in a program of Baroque opera with the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin conducted by Emmanuelle Haïm, a young French woman who brings a winning combination of grace, charm and energy to the podium, where she presided in part from the harpsichord.

A decade into her career, Claycomb, a product of Southern Methodist University and the San Francisco Opera studio, is without a peer among today’s young American sopranos.

In a packed Philharmonie, Hans Scharoun’s hall built under the watchful eye of Herbert von Karajan, Claycomb sang suites arranged by Haïm from two operas by Rameau and Handel’s 1707 cantata “Il delirio amoroso,” all works suited to the agile flexibility of her gifts.

Since German unification in 1990 pride of place among Berlin’s three opera houses has gone to the once-Eastern Staatsoper, at home in the historic Unter den Linden house built by Friedrich the Great.

 Happily, this “Ring” confirms that the Deutsche Oper remains a formidable force in the city’s vibrant musical life.

Wes Blomster

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