It was the date that was supposed to mark the start of the Deutsche Oper’s new Ring, directed by Stefan Herheim. Instead, hurriedly assembled only days after the appropriate permissions were granted and the attendant risks assessed, a reduced performance of Das Rheingold in Jonathan Dove’s cleverly distilled arrangement – an orchestra reduced to 22, a cast reduced to 12 (no Mime; Froh and Donner conveniently consolidated into one single ineffectual deity), and a running time chopped by some 45 minutes.

Andrew Harris (Fasolt), Thomas Blondelle (Loge), Tobias Kehrer (Fafner), Padraic Rowan (Donner/Froh)
© Bernd Uhlig

Instead of the Deutsche Oper’s stage, we had the opera house’s “Parkdeck”, a raised carpark nestled between the workshops, offices and backstage burrows. Chairs were set out in rows over the parking bays – over half covered up, the others left uncovered for an appropriately “distanced” audience. It’s a rough and ready space, but, as Donald Runnicles noted in a brief speech beforehand, one with remarkable acoustic properties: the sound of the reduced orchestra, under cover at the back, was apparently gently boosted; the singers, unamplified, came across superbly.  

To hear live, in-the-flesh music at all again, let alone opera, after three months was moving in all sorts of ways, and the symbolism of Wagner’s Vorabend was clear. There was an extra potency to hearing its primal E flat gradually grow out of the Parkdeck’s concrete cocoon as Berlin’s birdlife went about their noisy rush hour. And I admit to shedding a tear as the Rhinemaidens (Elena Tsallagova, Irene Roberts and Karis Tucker) began singing.

Annika Schlicht (Freia) und Derek Welton (Wotan)
© Bernd Uhlig

You have to admire the resourcefulness of Neil Barry Moss, staff director at the theatre, for assembling a viable show at such speed (the programme credits him with concept, costumes and realisation; Lili Avar is credited for the set). And the circumstances encourage me to be indulgent as regards the underlying idea of the show: that Alberich renounces the love of theatre, that he steals away the opportunity to perform.

The gold is, as far as I could make out, a vocal score of Das Rheingold, the hoard the various costumes adorning the rehearsal stage where the action plays out. Wotan is the big star director, Loge the assistant that gets things done and brings along the lattes. Alberich, it seems, is a childish ham who crashes the Rhinemaiden’s rehearsal. Inevitably it’s all a little sketchy, and the triumphant entry into the theatre, as drapes announcing works in the Deutsche Oper’s repertoire were unfurled from adjacent windows, seemed, to put it mildly, somewhat to underplay the effects of the Coronavirus crisis beyond the opera world.

Padraic Rowan (Donner/Froh), Tobias Kehrer (Fafner), A. Schlicht (Fricka), Flurina Stucki (Freia)
© Bernd Uhlig

Nevertheless, the company has cause to be proud, and Moss’s direction of an excellent young cast from the theatre’s ensemble – largely made up of those scheduled for the planned Herheim Rheingold – was always detailed and cogent. At their head was the magnificent Wotan of Derek Welton. He's an imposing, authoritative presence on stage and unfurled apparently endless smooth, rich tone with a properly noble and heroic ring to it – he stepped in during the last run of Götz Friedrich’s Ring, and when he finally appears in Herheim’s production, he’s likely to be quite something.

Thomas Blondelle is a brilliantly wily and mercurial Loge, revelling in the twists and turns of Wagner’s knotty poetry, while Annika Schlicht is impressive as an unusually moving Fricka – presented with her husband’s infidelity as Judit Kutasi’s proudly pregnant Erda makes her appearance. Andrew Harris presents an ardent, desperate Fasolt alongside Tobias Kehrer’s unflinching Fafner. Philipp Jekal is a vivid, powerful Alberich, Flurina Stucki a fine, flouncy Freia, and Padraic Rowan a pleasingly lyrical Donner – his “He da! He da! He do!” sung with an appealing flutter in the voice.

Das Rheingold auf dem Parkdeck
© Bernd Uhlig

Everything was kept together well by Runnicles’s experienced hand. Plenty of detail fell by the wayside, inevitably, with the ensemble’s central string quintet struggling most with the acoustic, but the big moments came across with a power greatly enhanced by the circumstances. 

Desperate uncertainty still abounds in the opera world and beyond, of course, but as the cast fired off gold streamers to accompany the work’s grand final climax, it was impossible not to feel a sense of hope and to share in this company’s remarkable achievement in realising this show under such circumstances. A special evening.