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Scene from Das Rheingold [Photo by Matthias Creutziger courtesy of Sächsische Staatsoper Dresden]
22 Mar 2010

Regieoper with a twist in Dresden Ring

Yes, the complete Ring des Nibelungen currently on stage at Dresden’s Semper Opera qualifies as Regieoper, but it’s Regieoper with a twist.

Der Ring des Nibelungen

Semperoper, Sächsische Staatsoper Dresden

Above: Scene from Das Rheingold [Photo by Matthias Creutziger courtesy of Sächsische Staatsoper Dresden]


Director Willy Decker has made the Ring very much his own, but there is not a hint of the tendentiousness that attempts to bring relevance to the cycle elsewhere. Sets and costumes by Wolfgang Gussmann and Frauke Schernau are timelessly contemporary and simple throughout, and on-stage rows of sometimes undulating seats that surround the action make this a play within a play.

Characters not involved at the moment sit and share their view with the audience. Wotan, so obviously central to Decker’s interpretation, evesdrops on Hunding’s hut throughout Act One of Walküre and he is there to catch Siegfried when in falls in Götterdämmerung. But more important is that Brünnhilde does not throw herself upon Siegfried’s funeral pyre that ends the cycle, but rather returns the accursed ring directly to the Rhinemaidens and joins the three in what is Decker’s most astonishing departure from Wagner’s stage directions. Siegfried might well die a Liebestod, but Brünnhilde lives, offering hope — scant as it might be — that the many injustices of the Ring have now been undone. It would be selling Decker short to call his a “feminist” Ring, but it is his unique concern for Wagner’s women that sets him happily apart from other directors currently on stage.

For each of the Dresden Ring operas Decker has written a brief essay of such profound insight that the four should be published — and translated — as a guide to the massive work. In the first of the four he speaks of the polarization that has accounted for the tensions between man and woman since their beginning. “The purity of woman and the guilt of the male,” he writes, “ is the basic motiv of the Ring — as it is in all of Wagner’s work.” And viewing the Ring — quite correctly — as a profound mythic work of art, Decker sees Siegmund and Sieglinde as a new Adam and Eve at the threshold of a New Age.

The problem is, of course, that the apple has already been eaten in Alberich’s theft of the Rheingold. This Decker identifies as “the original sin” of Wagner’s narrative. From this perspective the most crucial scene in the Ring is the exchange between Wotan and Brünnhilde in Act Two of Walküre. Here Wotan, an Expressionist reborn, is at work in his studio to create the New Man, so passionately dreamed of in German literature from the years of World War One. He caresses his models and points with pride to the architecture in which they will live. But he knows, of course, that it is too late, and Ukrainian bass Vitalij Kowaljow sang the second “das Ende” with a pathos of suffering more wrenching than Hans Hotter’s legendary Sprechstimme delivery. (More about Kowaljow later.)

In his notes Decker locates the pessimism that dominates the completed Ring in Wagner’s encounter with the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer that came midway in the years that he spent on the cycle. Decker follows this interpretation with impressive consistency, making of Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung the most wronged woman ever experienced in Wagner.Others are too involved in getting Siegfried on his way to heroic deeds — does anyone ever ask what heroic deeds? — to confront the dreadful abuse that he inflicts on his newly-wedded wife. But Decker is out to set things right: as the Immolation ends Wagner’s men are dead; the women survive. (It’s a fine touch that Gutrune kills Hagen before the curtain falls.)

The glory of the outstanding Dresden cast was bass Vitalij Kowaljow, the young Ukrainian who is also the Wotan of Achim Freyer’s controversial Ring now nearing competition at Los Angeles Opera. Freed of Freyer’s excessive trappings Kowaljow, a basso cantate once a fireman in his homeland, leaves little doubt that he is the first great Wotan of the post-Hotter Wagnerian world. His magnificently resonant voice, which he employs with total ease, is rich in colors and shadings and capable of every nuance.

Dresden’s 2010 Brünnhilde was Evelyn Herlitzius, currently Germany’s most reliable singer in this role. (On its most recent American tour Simon Rattle had Herlitzius in tow to sing Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung with the orchestra.) As Sieglinde German-born and Indiana-trained Melanie Diener is clearly a Wagnerian with a future, while Christian Elsner, her Siegmund, already enjoys that status. Doris Soffel, who first appeared in the role at Bayreuth in 1983, was a Fricka comfortably beyond caricature. And in Siegfried Norway’s Terje Stensvold was an appropriately matured Wotan/Wanderer.

In supporting roles Christa Mayer was both a moving Erda and a Waltraute of genuine sisterly concern. Hans-Peter König wss a singularly sinister Hagen, while Matthias Henneberg was a many dimensioned Alberich. Markus Butter (Gunther) and Sabine Brohm (Gutrune) were a near-comic parody of the incest that earlier gave birth to Siegfried. It was a particular delight to hear Wolfgang Schmidt, a major Heldentenor of an earlier decade, as an unmannered Mime.

This production, launched at the Semper Opera in 2001, clearly identifies the company as a major Wagnerian stage. Decker’s Ring is the polar absolute anthesis of Freyer’s Los Angeles staging. Those who see both will profit from comparisons. While elsewhere the Ring is seen largely as a festival production, in Dresden it is standard repertory that brings together singers familiar with each other in a variety of roles. In addition there is the luxury of one of the world’s most beautiful theaters with a mere 1300 seats. Forget about Bayreuth with its trials of succession; the Dresden Ring is currently in a class by itself.

Wes Blomster

See related story: Changing conductors bring color to Dresden Ring

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