Das Rheingold, produced by Guy Cassiers in 2010, and revived at Staatsoper Berlin as part of two Ring cycles, typifies an increasing tendency to update the opera to an anonymous locale and time. The stage is almost bare with little props; the costumes are vaguely near modern with women in long dresses and men in suits or equivalent. Projections are extensively used on two sets of backdrops; the front one can be raised or lowered. There is no need to close the curtains to change scenes, and this makes for a less disruptive viewing experience.

The projections were at times quite beautiful, with bright colors (green for the earth, red for Nibelheim, gold for the final scene) highlighting the musical themes. When the giants appeared on stage, the projections showed two towering shadows of men depicting the action on stage with a small figure of a woman, presumably Freia, between them. Fafner’s murder of his brother Fasolt was likewise depicted on screen, mimicking the action on stage. The few props were used effectively. An elevator-like platform lowered during the Nibelheim scene where Alberich was captured. Erda literally rose up on a hidden pedestal in the back to address Wotan ominously.

The use of dancers as characters’ alter ego as well as props is another recent popular theatrical device, and eight dancers were present almost continuously on stage during the opera. They became a chair for Alberich, the Tarnhelm, Alberich’s noose when he was captured, or just shadowed a character on stage. Given that the singers were not well directed and largely left to stand and sing, the dancers on stage gave the audience something to look at besides the background projections. Their ubiquitous presence, however, sometimes became intrusive and disruptive to the musical proceedings. The director chose to flood the floor with shallow water (representing the River Rhine?) and cut out squares over the water used as passages for the singers. The dancers were often drenched, dancing and moving about in the water, and their splashing was sometimes heard over the top of the music.  

While the production was thus mixed in its success, the musical performance could hardly be faulted. Daniel Barenboim conducted the orchestra with his customary deliberate tempo which emphasized the overall shape and arc of Wagner’s music. While this sometimes challenged singers as they needed to hold their voice longer, Barenboim was always mindful of their need, and never turned up the volume except for orchestral passages. One scene he did raise the volume was during Alberich’s curse, which appropriately foreshadowed the rest of the Ring. The Staatskapelle Berlin players responded to Mr Barenboim’s command with great artistry, playing with subtle beauty and clarity, with winds and brass sections making notable contributions.

To his credit, Barenboim assembled a cast of strong singers and hearing them sing with nuance in the small Schiller Theater was the evening’s greatest pleasure. Iain Paterson, replacing Michael Volle with only a couple of weeks of notice as Wotan, had an impressive vocal range and charisma and sang with good legato throughout. Ekaterina Gubanova sang Fricka with elegance and sympathy, rather than hysteria and exaggeration. Roman Terkel as Donner, Simon O’Neill as Froh and Anna Samuil as Freia, experienced singers all of them, were memorable in their brief appearances. Ms Samuil’s brilliantly lovely voice fitted her role perfectly.

A successful Rheingold needs a good Alberich, who steals the gold in the first scene and places a curse on the Ring at the end. Jochen Schmeckenbecher ideal, his rich, deep baritone capable of expressing a variety of vocal color. He was also the most natural actor on stage. His brother Mime, sung by Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, was his perfect foil with his clear tenor voice.  

Loge is another crucial role in this opera; his only vocal appearance is in Rheingold, and yet his fire music recurs throughout the Ring. Stephan Rugamer’s Loge was full of character, his baritonal voice soaring high at times. He was also physically agile to fit the character. Anna Larsson was a splendid Erda with her rich contralto voice and striking stature.

The most luxury casting of the evening was Matti Salminen’s Fasolt. At the age of 70, he has lost none of his deep resonant bass, and projected extremely well as he sang close to the front of the stage. There was no wobble, no hesitation in his commanding delivery of the giant in love. Falk Struckmann was an appropriately sinister Fafner. The three Rheinmaidens sang with sumptuous voice, together and individually.

The musical merits of the evening far outweighed the distracting aspects of the production, and it was indeed a felicitous beginning of the Ring.