The instant the first notes of the prelude rang out, with brilliant brass announcing the second chapter of the Ring, Die Walküre at Staatsoper Berlin, followed by the pulsating and urgent low strings, it was clear that this performance was off to a great start. The music kept unfolding in a multitude of complex layers, with each instrument clearly delineated; and yet the overall effect was almost symphonic, with rich tonal colors and sweeping melodies. Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin managed to showcase the orchestra as the center of the performance, without taking anything away from the excellent singing.

Simon O'Neill (Siegmund) and Anja Kampe (Sieglinde) © Monika Rittershaus (2011)
Simon O'Neill (Siegmund) and Anja Kampe (Sieglinde)
© Monika Rittershaus (2011)

The problematic dancers of Das Rheingold were absent and the production, while continuing its heavy use of projections, added more architectural elements to each act, mostly to good effect. In Act I, Hunding’s hut was two sets of walls (screens), set at an angle apexing in the back, representing the outside world. A glass cage-like structure that was the inner sanctuary of the house was nestled in the nook of the walls. The tree with the sacred sword embedded in its limb was visible at stage left. The glass structure opened at the end of the act to let Siegmund and Sieglinde escape from Hunding’s hut.

Act II opened to a sculpture of horses in contorted movements as Wotan had his encounters with Fricka and Brünnhilde. At his exit he motioned for the sculpture to be cleared to leave a blank stage. A set of long pointed poles with sharp tips was lowered as Siegmund and Sieglinde continued their flight, with projected images of the forest on them. The forest green turned fiery red at the end of the act as Wotan pursued Brünnhilde in his fury.

Iréne Theorin (Brünnhilde), Simon O'Neill (Siegmund) and Anja Kampe (Sieglinde) © Monika Rittershaus (2011)
Iréne Theorin (Brünnhilde), Simon O'Neill (Siegmund) and Anja Kampe (Sieglinde)
© Monika Rittershaus (2011)

The Valkyries wore extremely complicated looking long, fluffy black dresses, which were visually stunning but seemed to hamper their movement considerably. The Act III set included a series of platforms in granite color stacked at various heights, and the singers had to climb up and down them. There was a stunning projection of a white horse in wild motion as the Valkyries sang. As Brünnhilde was placed on the floor to her sleep by Wotan, she was elevated on a platform that rose from the floor, with her long dress flowing down to the floor. A chandelier of red lamps descended from the ceiling, representing the magic fire.

Anja Kampe was a stunning success as Sieglinde, one of her signature roles. Her tone was sumptuous and she followed the sweeping musical lines created by the orchestra with luxurious phrasing and coloring. Her voice never lost its warmth even when the voice soared high in the climactic “O hehrstes Wunder!” Her Siegmund, Simon O’Neill, was in good voice with ringing high notes and on pitch singing, even though he seemed at times not in full command of the role. Falk Struckmann's Hunding was a restrained and low-key villain who had an appropriately sinister edge. 

As a late replacement, Iain Paterson was a remarkable Wotan. High notes were impressive, and his command of the music and text was exemplary. If one wishes for more character development, expressed in voice and not just in stage movement, he would succeed in creating an even more complete character. Ekaterina Gubanova looked stunning in a black dress with red flower ornaments, and was an appropriately demanding and formidable Fricka.

René Pape (Wotan) und Iréne Theorin (Brünnhilde) © Monika Rittershaus (2011)
René Pape (Wotan) und Iréne Theorin (Brünnhilde)
© Monika Rittershaus (2011)

Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin has been one of the reigning Brünnhildes for some time, although she could be an erratic performer with a sometimes unwieldy top. With gleaming and clear voice that was powerful enough to rise above the heavy orchestration, she was in excellent form this evening. Her high notes were delivered cleanly and thrillingly. Moreover, she sometimes lowered her voice to soft pianissimo to express complex inner thoughts, working well with the orchestra.  

But it was the orchestra, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, that remained the center of the performance. Woodwinds expertly accompanied singers in their quiet moments as extra voice. There were some unexpected but effective touches, as in the Siegmund-Hunding fight scene, when the orchestra slowed down and almost syncopated the singers' movement. In the final moments, the orchestra took firm control to convey the multitude of themes and emotional currents, and at long last the “fate motif” was introduced amid the fire music, in anticipation of the next opera Siegfried, as Wotan exited the stage, lit in red by projections, leaving the sleeping Brünnhilde. The music quietly faded and it was many seconds before the applause broke in.