Wagner really laid down the gauntlet to future directors with The Ring. How do you show people singing while swimming underwater? How does a dwarf turn into dragon, and then into toad? How do you get a horse to jump into a massive fire that is floating on the river Rhine? Deutsche Oper’s answer to this last one is: just don’t. No horse, no fire. So what if it’s the climax of the entire 15-hour saga? Just run to the back of the stage where there is some orange light and then pull a white sheet over everything. That should do it.

Stefan Vinke (Siegfried) and Evelyn Herlitzius (Brünnhilde) © Bettina Stöß
Stefan Vinke (Siegfried) and Evelyn Herlitzius (Brünnhilde)
© Bettina Stöß

Another brow-furrowing moment was the great treacherous murder of Siegfried by Hagen. Remember how you pretended to stab someone at school by putting a stick under their arm so that from the side it looked like it was going through their body? If it’s good enough for the playground, it’s good enough for Götz Friederich.

In many ways this revelatory production, receiving its final outing here in Berlin, reveals deep inconsistencies in Wagner's epic music drama. The things that we are told by Wagner are not the things that he shows us. We often perceive the exact opposite of what is being sung, but we are expected to believe what we are told.

For example, Brünnhilde sings that Siegfried is the “greatest of all heroes”, and when he dies we experience the glorious fulfillment of his musical heroics. His life flashes before our ears. But is he really great? He is gullible (he drinks any evil potion shoved under his nose); his celebrated courage is not earned by overcoming fear (he is simply too dim-witted to recognize danger); he has no integrity (he’ll happily swear an oath only to swear again that he did no such thing). The best thing he can do is understand birdsong, but he achieves this by licking a dragon’s blood off his hand because it was burning his skin, thereby running roughshod over Norse health and safety regulations.

Ain Anger (Hagen), Stefan Vinke (Siegfried), Seth Carico (Gunther) and Ricarda Merbeth (Gutrune) © Bettina Stöß
Ain Anger (Hagen), Stefan Vinke (Siegfried), Seth Carico (Gunther) and Ricarda Merbeth (Gutrune)
© Bettina Stöß

The mighty power of the Ring itself is only ever spoken of, it is never shown. Its owner supposedly rules over the earth, but the audiences have to take Wagner’s word for it, as we only ever see the ring either not working or being stolen. Each time this happens it is supposed to be exceptional, but it proves to be to rule. You could argue that this is deliberate, and that the power of the gold is just an unsubstantiated rumour, but would you spend 29 years working on an opera about that?

The atmospheric sets were seemingly inspired by H. R. Giger’s design in the film Alien – murky, unpolished interiors containing metallic rib-like structures. Costumes were undistracting and functional, belying the reticence of this production to rock any interpretive boats. This wasn’t a philosophical re-imagining of Wagner’s well known saga. 

There were fantastic vocal performances in each main role, and dramatic chorus added heft to the villainy. Hagen, sung by Ain Anger was demonically characterful with a rich tone commanding real dynamic presence. Gunther is probably the best drawn character in Götterdämmerung, as he is the only one struggling with an internal conflict. He is in a powerful position, but too squeamish to fully capitalise on it (he nearly vomits when he has to drink at the blood-brotherhood pact), and in every interaction Seth Carico found a way to reveal his deep-seated cowardice.

Ain Anger (Hagen) © Bettina Stöß
Ain Anger (Hagen)
© Bettina Stöß

The lynchpin of Götterdämmerung, and of the whole tetralogy, is Brünnhilde. Played by Evelyn Herlitzius, Brünnhilde is the only one of the gods with an ounce of sense, though she is prevented from living a full life by the two numbskulls in her life, her dad Wotan and her husband Siegfried. The real tragedy of the opera is that of Brünnhilde, not Siegfried, as we are led to believe. After Siegfried’s death, Brünnhilde sings “he who betrayed me was the most pure” and goes on to praise him to the hilt like a victim in denial. Brünnhilde never gets a proper explanation of Siegfried’s cold-hearted betrayal, and Herlitzius’ portrayal made her frustration come alive with resounding force. She should have chucked the ring in the river and opened a saloon, but instead she chose to commit suicide, kill her horse and deposit the ring at the bottom of the Rhine.

Stefan Vinke was in many ways the perfect Siegfried. Young, dumb, and full of gold. His voice had the kind of bloom that meant he could almost hang on to those long "Heigh-Ho"s indefinitely. He portrayed the naiveté that the role requires as well as suggesting the power that Siegfried hardly realises he has himself. Gutrune and Waltraute were played by Ricarda Merbeth and Daniela Sindram, and both offer splendid foils to the main action.

The impossibility of a perfect production of The Ring Cycle means that it all comes down to musical sincerity, which this performance had by the helmetful. Donald Runnicles was the lion of the pit, coaxing thunder from the brass and wind, and molten magic from the strings. Wagner would have been proud.