Guy Cassiers drew his inspiration for his Staatsoper Berlin production of The Ring from a 1898 sculptural frieze by Jef Lambeaux titled Les Passions Humaines. Its depiction of human bodies in contorted suffering was prominent at the end of Das Rheingold, and the relief’s motifs were referenced throughout the rest of the cycle. The artwork becomes most visible in Götterdämmerung, and the result is not always successful; projected images of deformed crawling humans or screaming faces in agony on screen are unnecessary distractions. The Gibichungs here live in a closed world of material comfort but physical decay, and their failed experiments to create stronger humans are on display in their yellow translucent stepped platforms. The opera features colorful projections of red for fire, green for nature (the Rhine), as well as darker images when Brünnhilde is attacked or Siegfried is slain. The Norns spin their fateful red ropes atop Brünnhilde’s rock, the dancers are back to act as Siegfried’s Tarnhelm and subdue Brünnhilde in Act 1. After Brünnhilde jumps to her death from the Gibichungs' platform followed by Hagen, the remaining populace helplessly wander in front of the mural of the frieze, possibly indicating that the world of humans may not be a better one than that of the gods.

<i>Götterdämmerung</i> © Monika Rittershaus (2013)
Götterdämmerung
© Monika Rittershaus (2013)

There was no ambiguity as to the musical success of the evening. Just as the production is a bit of a nostalgia as it evokes the destruction of nature and humanity in the 20th century, some of the cast of the opera remind us of the far-reaching influence of Daniel Barenboim as one of the leading Wagnerian conductors of the last few decades. Irene Théorin, the only original member of the 2013 premiere, was a commanding and noble Brünnhilde, the star of the evening. She expressed every emotion of a betrayed and angry wife, gained wisdom and understanding as an unwitting participant in Hagen’s scheme, and finally became an agent to end the old world to usher in the new, with her powerful singing as well as with her gestures and body language. The final Immolation Scene was one of the best I have experienced, with Théorin facing the audience front-center, commending us to listen to the most overwhelming words and music. She was a perfect musical partner to Barenboim, conveying every nuance, subtlety and passion that he wished to communicate. I was in awe of her musicality.

<i>Götterdämmerung</i> © Monika Rittershaus (2013)
Götterdämmerung
© Monika Rittershaus (2013)

Andreas Schager as Siegfried was another outstanding performer of the evening. He portrayed an older and more worldly hero with modulated and soft singing at times. His signature clarion tenor was on full display as required, and it was a thrill to experience a voice that hits all the high notes with seeming ease at the beginning of Act 3. Schager was especially moving during the long and gradual recounting of his life leading up to his death, as his voice soared in remembered excitement and fell at the knowledge of his foolish betrayal. While his indisposition was announced before Act 2, Falk Struckmann was a good Hagen of sly evil, not so much a booming force but a conniving schemer who had the charisma to summon the vassals’ loyalty. Roman Trekel and Anna Samuil looked stylish and sang with elegance as Gunther and Gutrune, portrayed as spineless children of privilege.

It was a pleasure to have Waltraud Meier, a Bayreuth veteran and a long-time collaborator of Barenboim’s, as Second Norn and Waltraute. She has made a speciality of the latter, turning the Brünnhilde–Waltraute scene into a masterclass with her intensity and commitment. The voice retains a distinct sweetness in the middle, fitting for the role’s earnest and desperate plea. Meier’s quiet but concentrated singing anchored the Norns' scene and their narratives sounded new and fresh. Jochen Schmeckenbecher as Alberich was another master singer; his commune with his son Hagen was filled with insinuation, temptation and hatred. The three Rhinemaidens showed off their older and wiser beings with beauty and intensity.

<i>Götterdämmerung</i> © Monika Rittershaus (2013)
Götterdämmerung
© Monika Rittershaus (2013)

The orchestra excelled in the numerous transitional passages under Barenboim’s expert guidance. Siegfried’s Rhine Journey took place as a natural progression of his departure from Brünnhilde, and Hagen’s reverie with his Alberich seemed to linger on hushed notes before Siegfried’s return broke the ominous dark orchestra. Siegfried’s Funeral March was a musical highlight, with the entire orchestra joining force as one to prepare us for a devastating finale. When Barenboim ushered in the redemption theme to end the opera in rapid succession after the fall of Valhalla, the audience was left in the stunned knowledge that perhaps the story of the ring may not be over, but rather the beginning of something new.

****1