Sunday 18 April 2010

There's Runnicles - Das Rheingold at Deutsche Oper

There was a terrible moment, after I woke up on Thursday morning, when I wondered if I'd actually get to Berlin in time to see this production I'd been planning to attend for so many months. Actually, there'd been a good deal more than one such moment. As it turned out, though, not even a volcano suitably apocalyptic to feature somewhere in Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, could stop me from attending (full story of my epic journey to follow in a separate post).

Getting from the hotel to the Opera proved easy, it even has it's own metro station. This is how it should be:


Deutsche Oper is a modern house, and has a good clear acoustic. It's also cheap: our excellent stalls seats were less than half what they would have been at Covent Garden and the programme was a mere €4 (albeit of limited utility since Michel Thomas notwithstanding, my German is still rusty beyond belief). Surtitles were German only too, but I seem to know the piece sufficiently backwards that that didn't matter too much (and there were a surprising number of bits I could translate fine). Despite being off to one side, sightlines were still excellent.

The very start was not the most promising. The curtain rose and revealed long tunnel stretching back to the top of the stage, on one side of which figures shrouded in white sheets were huddled. A bright light grew out of the end of the tunnel. Nothing else one happened. It seems this was meant to represent the explosion that precedes the wasteland where opera is set, but all I could feel was frustration that the music wasn't starting.

Fortunately it soon did. With a low rumble from the basses, Runnicles kicked things off. Generally taking a leisurely tempo, he built things with a perfect sense of structure, as organically the nature motif emerged and became the Rhein motif. Three of the figures disrobed and revealed themselves to be the Rhein Maidens. There was fabric on the floor which, with bluish greenish light projecting onto it, lent a reasonable watery feel. Then, the sheets rose up, semi-translucent they created a wonderful shimmering effect that felt as though we were looking through a cross section of a river.

This very much set the tone. Here was a production that was faithful, if not absolutely literal. Everything that needed to be there was there: an underground Nibelheim, real giants, a rainbow bridge. And yet it was set in a kind of universal time, rather than being rooted in a particular era, an approach which I always think suits Der Ring well.

From the moment he emerged, the stage lifting up at the front to create a crack, Tomasz Konieczny's Alberich impressed. He was suitably awkward, having to attempt three times to clamber up to the Rhein where he lumbered about ineptly after the maidens. Then the Rheingold appeared, the orchestra shimmering beneath, a big mass of gold, visible (unlike at ENO where it was left to our imagination), and he seized it.

The curtains were whisked away, perhaps with a little more noise and commotion than would have been ideal, and the tunnel now took on act two's mountain top feel. A lowered backdrop revealed Valhalla (for some reason rotating - perhaps in this world it is based on Piz Gloria - and while this was effective as it was first revealed, it made less and less sense as the scene wore on). Mark Delavan's Wotan was perhaps the weak link of the production and occasioned some booing among the audience. This was unfair, his voice was clear and the words were audible, but he did lack both the power and authority the role really calls for. This was not compensated for by a commanding acting performance. Fricka (Judit Nemeth) while nice in voice, was a bit too sweet and loving, rather than opting for the hen-pecking which I think is most convincing in the role.

Elsewhere, though, things were excellent. Fasolt (Reinhard Hagen) and Fafner (Andrea Silvestrelli) were both strong and suitably giant as they entered on what can only be described as shoe platforms. Markus Bruck was a solid Donner, the boxer's garb a particularly nice touch. However, the performance of the night came from Loge (Burkhard Ulrich). True, the role gives so much to work with, but he played it sharply, if at times in a slightly camp way, though this worked.

Then, the descent to Nibelheim. Loge and Wotan roped together like mountaineers and descended through a trap door. Shortly thereafter, the crack Alberich had first emerged from opened and then widened massively revealing an industrial underground (rather reminiscent, for British readers of a certain generation, of the industrial zone in the Crystal Maze). This had a fine atmosphere, if the dry ice was at times a little excessive. Similarly, the flashing lights surrounding Alberich were a bit blinding.

Scene three, of course, contains the tricky moment of the dragon. The invisibility had already been well managed with the old standard of donning the tarnhelm and stepping back out of the light. The dragon was interesting, if not quite as great as Scottish Opera's giant claw, reaching out of the wing and lifting Loge high off the stage. Here, giant mechanical claws rose from the stage and Alberich's booth opened up to form a mouth, giving you a mechanical dragon of vast scale yet only glimpsed. The toad was managed in the standard puppet way, but the drop in the stage allowed them to pounce on it and then neatly pull Alberich up.

Scene four saw the return to the tunnel, this time sans backdrop. Wotan severing Alberich's hand to gain the Ring was a brilliantly bloodthirsty touch. This was powerfully capped by the maniacal laughter as he ran away, zig-zagging down the tunnel, pumping his fistless arm in the air. The arrival of the gold was slightly less well managed. The vast hoard of the Kinderchor of Deutsche Oper looked splendid in their miner's garb, complete with head torches, and appeared en mass at the back of the tunnel. What a shame, then, that they didn't actually carry on the gold which instead rose through the floor.

Erde (Ewa Wolak)'s visit was another of the evening's highlights. At first I was disappointed she came on from the back of the stage rather than up through the floor, but actually it worked superbly as she glided forward, finally off to one side after her last line, almost as if she wasn't quite part of the same world as the rest of them - ethereal. Vocally too she was excellent.

Loge and Froh made a good job of stacking up the gold up to obscure Freia, and did well acting that it was heavy, but it also did sometimes look as though it could easily topple over. The murder of Fasolt was well done, greatly helped by superb punctuation from the orchestra, but then the manner by which Fafner carried off the bounty, gathering it up in a sheet, and having to use a hook to do so, given how high he was from the ground, seemed a little cumbersome (and something which, if it didn't go quite right, could easily derail a production).


It only remained for Donner to summon the rainbow bridge. This he did by swinging his boxing gloved fist in great circles, in perfect unison with the music. At first it seemed a little wrong - this was a blue and red bridge, not a rainbow one. But patience was rewarded and slowly, out of the mist of yet more dry ice, a beautifully executed rainbow lighting effect emerged (looking even better than the picture above suggests, which has extra lighting for the curtain call). What was less successful was the way the small and distant model of Valhalla had been placed within the tunnel; thus, instead of walking up and off, the gods did a sort of shuffling movement intended to convey progress without making much, which didn't entirely work. Still, such a minor niggle hardly mattered next to the fabulous orchestral playing that brought the evening to a close.

Generally the movement was good and there was plenty of it. This can be a real problem in Der Ring, and if one is not careful a production can end up with a bunch of characters standing around talking for half an hour with nothing happening (Otto Schenk at the Met, I'm looking at you). This was certainly not a problem for Gotz Friedrich's production. The movement all felt natural too, if in places it looked like a touch more rehearsal time would have helped (the repertoire system's weakness).

But what of the man himself? Donald Runnicles has, of course, a reputation as being one of the world's top Wagner conductors. Anyone doubting why need only have attended this performance. He was supremely sensitive to his singers, ensuring every word was clearly audible, where a lesser conductor might have drowned them leading to a frustrating evening. Some might have felt the orchestra were a little quite, doubtless a result of that care. And yet it reminded me of nothing so much as the sound on my various Bayreuth recordings where the cover keeps the orchestral sound in check. It seemed to me that Runnicles was after a similar balance and to my mind he succeeded superbly, getting a balance closer to the composer's wishes and further from the dominance of the orchestra that can be quite common. That wasn't to say he didn't ratchet up the volume at times when required: moments such as the arrival of the giants sent the requisite shiver down the spine.

But he also found other highlights I've never noticed before, such as when Alberich dismisses the minions who've brought up his gold. It certainly bodes well for the Trauermusik and other moments later in the cycle. Runnicles' ability with both big themes and small, his sense of structure and line, helped knit together this solid ensemble production into something more than the sum of its parts. With all the slightly disappointing Rings on DVD, it's a pity there were no cameras on hand to catch this - I wonder if anyone will have the sense to rectify that, they certainly should.

Lastly, it's worth noting that, nearly five years since I first heard him, this marks my first encounter with Runnicles in the opera house. Based on tonight's experience, I look forward to many more. (If you haven't heard it, my interview with Donald Runnicles is still available - see the link near the top right of this page).

Also, and crucially important, the seats, though not having quite the spring they probably once did, are fairly comfortable. Of the three Rheingolds I've seen (Scottish Opera in 2003, ENO in 2004, if memory serves, being the other two), this left me with the least numb bum, though after about two hours, part of me would still have liked to stand up for a moment. This bodes well for the remaining operas.

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