Guy Cassiers’ 2010-13 production of Der Ring des Nibelungen has returned to Staatsoper Berlin for two sold out cycles in September. Touted as a “Ring for the 21st century” in the program, its premise is to represent the vision of Wagner’s Ring in the past and the present, by exploring the psychological dimensions – memories of the past and their present manifestations. The staging is abstract, with the stage bare save for a large backdrop on which abstract projections of faces, figures and landscapes are shown in kaleidoscopic images of dizzying colors. The projections are at times enchanting and stunning, but mostly they are just pretty pictures that do little to enhance the story of greed, power and love unfolding on stage. Blocking of singers was conventional and they seemed directed either with sporadic indifference or none at all. It might as well have been a semi-staged performance with costumes and scenery.

<i>Das Rheingold</i> © Monika Rittershaus (2010)
Das Rheingold
© Monika Rittershaus (2010)

Dancers make frequent appearances. They accompany some characters’ entrances, shadow them, and become a human throne on which Alberich sits during the Nibelheim scene. They also act as his shackles as he is led to Valhalla. Loge interacts with a male dancer as he splashes shallow water on stage when he sings of the gods' impending doom at the end of the opera. Unlike the previous presentation seen in 2013, the movements of dancers were quieter and more curtailed. Nevertheless, they add little to the drama, and their constant movements are distractions as singers are relegated to the sides of the stage to accommodate them. The director seems more interested in aesthetics than fresh insights.

Daniel Barenboim began the journey with a thrilling prelude; the opening E flat chord came out of nowhere, from the depths, and the music developed with a deliberate but clear sequence of added color and complexity. The Rhinemaidens sang in glorious and ecstatic harmony with the orchestra. Save for a few minor blemishes from the brass section, the Staatskapelle Berlin players showed their skill and experience in a thrilling performance. Barenboim’s balance of various instruments was impeccable, and he often lowered the volume to support singers and bring out delicate string melodies. He maintained a deliberate tempo throughout, and at times I wished for a bit more speed and variety of tempi.

<i>Das Rheingold</i> © Monika Rittershaus (2010)
Das Rheingold
© Monika Rittershaus (2010)

Some singers featured in the premiere and previous revivals of the production: Stephan Rugamer’s consummate Loge, Ekaterina Gubanova’s sincere Fricka, Anna Samuil’s lovely Freia. Jochen Schmeckenbecher sang Alberich with a deft combination of lyricism and sarcasm. Simon O’Neill reprised Froh with ringing high notes. Two veterans were especially impressive. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke embodied Mime, who is abused by his brother Alberich here and yet becomes a devious and malicious character in Siegfried. He combined expressive gestures with his voice, full of character and nuance, to present a complete character. In her brief appearance, Anna Larsson as Erda, hoisted on a pedestal that raised her up and down, sang with stillness and wisdom. It was rare to experience an Erda who scaled the role’s height and depth with seeming ease and beauty.

<i>Das Rheingold</i> © Monika Rittershaus (2010)
Das Rheingold
© Monika Rittershaus (2010)

Two singers stood out from this excellent ensemble. Michael Volle, singing Wotan in a complete cycle for only for the second time after his triumph at the Met in the spring, continued to deepen his interpretation. His powerful but mellow voice expressed the impetuous god’s desires and frustrations with superb phrasing and nuance. He cajoled, whispered and finally dominated. His “Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge” was sung with exquisite majesty and glory. It was such a treat to have Matti Salminen as Fasolt as a late replacement. Aged 74, he may have lost some of the volume of his booming dark bass that made him the reigning Hagen of the late 20th century, but he remains a thrilling presence on stage, his voice expressing the giant’s hope, joy, frustration and sorrow with such care and color as I have never heard. Despite the static and uninteresting production, this Ring revival is off to a strong start thanks to its musical qualities.

***11