Willy Decker’s Ring at the Semperoper in Dresden: Jonas Alber and Asher Fisch Excel on the Podium

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The Semperoper after Das Rheingold. Photo © 2010 Michael Miller.

The Semperoper after Das Rheingold. Photo © 2010 Michael Miller.

Richard Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen
Dresdener Staatsoper at the Semperoper
March 10, 12, 14, and 17, 2010
Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden,
conducted by Jonas Alber, John Fiore, and Asher Fisch Stage direction – Willy Decker
Stage design – Wolfgang Gussmann
Costume design – Wolfgang Gussmann and Frauke Schernau
Dramaturgy – Hella Bartnig, Klaus Bertisch

I don’t think I’ve ever stood in front of a building that made such a complex impression on me as the Semperoper. It is an uninhibitedly grand structure, stopped just shy of flamboyance, which still proclaims the high cultural values of the core of the nineteenth century, when its first two incarnations opened with the music of Weber and the theatre of Goethe. That notwithstanding, at any time of day or night, it has its way of looming over the vast Theaterplatz, whether it is bathed in the silvery riverine daylight that Bellotto understood so well, or whether the sun is disappearing over the horizon with a fading pink glow. The exterior is in good order, but invisible scars make themselves felt and lend a heaviness to its aspect. The first Semperoper, the work entirely of Gottfried Semper himself, was begun in 1838 and finished in 1841. This was destroyed by fire in 1869, and Gottfried designed a new building, which, since he was in exile for his revolutionary activities in 1848, was carried out by his son, Manfred, beginning in 1871, opening in 1878. This building was destroyed in the Allied bombings of February, 1945, leaving not much more than the outer walls. This was reassembled somewhat between 1952 and 1956 with a view to the eventual reconstruction of the building, which took place between 1977 and 1985. The plan was to remain true to the design of the second Semperoper, except for a larger stage and other accommodations for modern production techniques and safety regulations. A few sculptures from the first Semperoper decorate the façade.

Once you enter the lobby, the mood is entirely different. While suggesting a serious spirit for the enjoyment of art, the interior exudes continuity, as if the corridors were far older than the 1980’s and the bombing had never taken place. This is even more striking in the auditorium, which shows its recent construction only after a lingering glance at the mural and architectural detail—let’s say a little less than “close examination.” It is a handsome and comfortable hall, encouraging more relaxed comportment than, say, the Nationaltheater in Munich. In addition, a certain egalitarian spirit seems to linger in Dresden, and it penetrates the Semperoper: people don’t dress up quite as much, and beer flows as readily as champagne during the intervals.

As appealing as the Semperoper is, once one has gotten to know it, the real treasures of the place are its acoustics and the particular relationship between the pit and the stage. The pit is quite large and extends into the Parkett more than many, so that the conductor has an excellent sightline to the stage and the singers to him. Also the performance I am about to describe could not have been achieved if everyone, orchestra and singers alike, had not been able to hear each other extremely well. Beyond that, what the audience hears is truly unique. The sound is clear and direct, as if should be in an opera house, where words are sung, but it has a rich, warm glow as well, which suits the Dresdener Staatskapelle and Wagner’s Ring just splendidly. Wagner himself set a standard for the acoustical interrelationship of voices, instruments, and architectural space in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, which could not be more different from the Semperoper, which is warmer and more visceral. (In any case I know the Festspielhaus acoustics from recordings and personal attendance, but I’ve never heard Wagner sound better than at the Semperoper.)

Much of this, of course, had to do with the playing of the Staatskapelle, and I believe the clarity of Wagner’s text owed something, not only to the singers, but to Wolfgang Gussmann’s careful design of the sets, often putting the singers into open acoustic boxes which projected the voices efficiently into the auditorium, and to Willy Decker’s direction, which kept the singers reasonably well forward on the stage. Both of these gentleman deserve hearty respect for their restraint and practicality in a production which was most likely not lavishly funded. The relatively simple sets were only an advantage, in any case, allowing Decker to concentrate on the language and on the dramatic interaction of the characters. This was rehearsed to perfection. The singers knew their words and sang them as if they understood what they meant on every level. Dramatically one could not hope for better.

This full realization of the Ring as drama became the unifying principle of the production, as it was perhaps meant to be, but unified musical direction was lacking—the greatest challenge the participants faced—since the Music Director of the Staatskapelle, Fabio Luisi, who is now basking in adulation in New York—justifiably, as it would seem from his sensitive reading of Berg’s Lulu—summarily cancelled his engagements with the orchestra, following a set-to with the Intendant, Gerd Uecker. (We are interested in music drama here, and this is not the place to tell this unpleasant story.) In the end, Luisi was not greatly missed, although the most significant shortcomings of the Ring as a whole stemmed from the weaknesses of one of the three conductors who took over the Maestro’s responsibilities. On the contrary, the audience had ample reason to rejoice in Asher Fisch’s energetic and visceral Siegfried, and, even better, in the discovery of an extraordinary new talent, Jonas Alber, who, at 41, is little known outside Germany, although I understand that the one Ring he has conducted before this was enthusiastically received, and his work as Music Director of the Staatskapelle Braunschweig has attracted much favorable attention. Alber is a supremely intelligent musician. One was constantly aware that he was thinking of Wagner’s score from many angles, and he was able to interweave these complex elements into a coherent, musically flowing whole, while he elicited the very best from the Staatskapelle. The chamber music-like cohesion of their playing, which musically transcends mere accuracy in ensemble, is like no other orchestra. His sensitive and imaginative treatment of details was a constant delight, while he never let them distract us from the action on the stage and the shape of the individual acts and the whole. Jonas Alber showed himself to be a truly great Wagnerian conductor, one might say, a Goodall for the coming generation. I recently received the jaw-dropping news that Mr. Alber conducted Götterdämmerung without rehearsal, filling in a date when Asher Fisch was not available. He was offered the slot, because, after the first performance of Das Rheingold (for which he was hired only two weeks before), the Dresdener Staatskapelle themselves approached their Intendant, Gerd Uecker, asking him to give Alber the second Götterdämmerung, the thrilling quality of which gives us the measure of what both the conductor and the orchestra can do. As excellent as Fisch was, I regretted that Alber was not in charge of all four evenings. In fact, I found myself growing rather testy through John Fiore’s wimpy Walküre, but more of that later.

Das Rheingold: The Rhine Maidens Taunt Alberich. Photo © Matthias Creutziger.

Das Rheingold: The Rhine Maidens Taunt Alberich. Photo © Matthias Creutziger.

Das Rheingold
Conductor – Jonas Alber

Cast: Wotan – Vitalij Kowaljow
Donner – Hans-Joachim Ketelsen
Froh – Benjamin Bruns
Loge – Robert Gambill
Alberich – Matthias Henneberg
Mime – Tom Martinsen
Fasolt – Jan-Hendrik Rootering
Fafner – Michael Eder
Fricka – Doris Soffel
Freia – Ute Selbig
Erda – Christa Mayer
Woglinde – Roxana Incontrera
Wellgunde – Antigone Papoulkas
Flosshilde – Sofi Lorentze

Fortunately it was Maestro Alber who set the monumental proceedings in motion with a glowing pedal, eventually richly colored with the Dresdener Staatskapelle’s incomparable brass. This was an unusual timbre, but gorgeous in sonority, and vividly suggestive of metals, especially gold. The brass continued to enjoy prominence as Alber spun out the arpeggi, building up Wagner’s underlying structure, pointing the interchanges between the Rhine Maidens and Alberich, and painting a sonic tableau of the bottom of the Rhine—all the more important, since what we saw on stage was entirely symbolic. Rows of theater seats spread out across the stage in undulant patterns, representing the flow of the river. The characters have to climb over the seat backs as they interact and move about, a rather arduous and clumsy activity for a singer, but it is surprisingly effective in suggesting an underwater environment—in which Alberich is singularly out of his element. The theater seats eventually assumed straight rows and persisted through Walküre and appear crushed, in piles, at the beginning of Siegfried. In the first two operas, the rows before the perspective boxes or platforms, where the principle action takes place, provide a space where certain characters—principally Wotan—can reflect, observe events, and even intervene while remaining separate. Ultimately the seats provided a continuum between the audience’s mental space and that of the music dramas, creating a common Jungian mythic world, in which we can witness the figures of the Ring inhabiting our minds. The last important point I’ll mention about the design of Das Rheingold is Valhalla, which appears as an architectural model of a Greek temple, as the gods and the giants haggle over it, and only slightly larger, as it appears “in reality” at the end. This will be significant in the first act of Die Walküre.

Rheingold: The Gods and the Giants Haggle over Valhalla. Photo © Mattias Creuziger.

Rheingold: The Gods and the Giants Haggle over Valhalla. Photo © Matthias Creutziger.

The Rhine Maidens as well as Erda, as primeval elemental deities, were visualized as puffy white creatures, seemingly incompletely formed, like enormous pupae or maggots. Erda emerged only halfway from the ground, remaining always a part of it. The giants, as large in the stomach as in height, were dressed in sloppy American-style suits and fedoras, as if they were colorful bit parts in some Hollywood film noir of the 1950’s. I could easily see them as cheesy real-estate developers from Brooklyn or Queens. Overall, the costumes suggested various points in time between the 1930’s and the late 1950’s.

The cast sang and acted consistently on the highest level. Vitalij Kowaljow, who sang Wotan only in the first two operas, was a young, sturdy Wotan, and this youthfulness made his obsessive pursuit of his goals all the more palpable. His voice was a rich, strong low baritone, which was entirely consistent in color, and hence a trifle limited, in comparison with the most prominent Wotans, who sing the Wanderer as well. He was perfect for Rheingold and became entangled with his limitations only in the last scene of Die Walküre. Hans-Joachim Ketelsen sang a resonant Donner, making the part more detailed and nuanced than usual. Froh, as usual, seemed almost like a silent part through much of the opera, but when he began to express himself, it was in Benjamin Bruns’ captivatingly beautiful tenor, expressing most eloquently Froh’s introversion and futility.

Matthias Henneberg as Alberich and Tom Martinsen as Mime gave fully rounded and detailed portrayals, showing themselves to be a comedy team worthy of Laurel and Hardy and inspiring some of the most enthusiastic applause at the end, along with Robert Gambill, who brought off the shysterish aspects of Loge without descending to caricature, another great turn of character acting, impeccably sung throughout. Jan-Hendrik Rootering as Fasolt and Michael Eder as Fafner filled out their baggy suits most successfully, and gave rounded portrayals of the giants: on their own ground they know their business, tough and nobody’s fool, but they are no match for Freya’s attractions and Loge’s wiles.

Ute Selbig brought a full measure of sensuality to Freya through her resplendent voice. Christa Mayer as Erda gave a gripping and even frightening monologue (here the aforementioned attention to the text paid off most impressively), and she made the most of a voice which was rich and gorgeous, but somewhat brighter than usual in the Earth-Mother.

Finally, Doris Soffel’s Fricka proved to be one of the most unforgettable parts of the evening. With her dark, really sumptuous soprano, she portrayed a haughty, self-possessed Fricka. In her elegant suits she suggested perhaps one of the titled ladies who were making the best of a not unfavorable situation during the 1930’s in Germany. Her pride and contempt were truly chilling, as was the sheer beauty of her singing. Soffel’s Fricka was surely one of the great performances I have seen in opera. If I compared Alber to Goodall it was more because of his genius with detail and his sensitivity to the mood of each musical and dramatic situation as it progressed into the next. I did not mean to give the impression that his tempi were particularly slow, although, in fact, they were rather broad at times, in keeping with the overall principle of making the dramatic and verbal exchanges and turns as clear and effective as possible, as well as his own ear for inner voices, subtle harmonic combinations, and colors. When it was appropriate for the music to flow, it moved with animation. Alber is a master of transition, but not in the agogic manner of Furtwängler. Rather Alber likes to settle into a tempo, usually one which will allow him to bring out the full inner texture of the music. When an alteration of tempo is called for, he executes it noticeably, whether it is subtle or dramatic, and this consistently draws us into both the music and the action. Through this, I found myself hearing several elusive beauties in the score I’d never previously noticed.

This Rheingold was one of the finest I have heard, close to perfect, between this extraordinary conductor, the excellent cast, and the inimitable musicianship of the Dresdener Staatskapelle, who played their hearts out.

Die Walküre, Act I. Photo © Mattias Creutziger.

Die Walküre, Act I. Photo © Matthias Creutziger.

Die Walküre
Conductor – John Fiore

Siegmund – Christian Elsner
Hunding – Hans-Peter König
Wotan – Vitalij Kowaljow
Sieglinde – Melanie Diener
Brünnhilde – Evelyn Herlitzius
Fricka – Doris Soffel
Helmwige – Birgit Fandrey
Gerhilde – Sabine Brohm
Ortlinde – Andrea Ihle
Waltraute – Antigone Papoulkas
Siegrune – Angela Liebold
Roßweiße – Alexandra Petersamer
Grimgerde – Sofi Lorentzen
Schwertleite – Christa Mayer

My sense of disappointment in the performance of Die Walküre stemmed entirely from the conducting. Otherwise it was a superb performance with an exciting Brünnhilde and an affecting Wälsung couple, all fine singers. John Fiore’s effort seemed like hack work in comparison to Alber’s brilliant insight and his ability to inspire the orchestra. Actually, it was better than that, if only slightly. Fiore had a decent enough sense of pace and shape of Wagner’s phrases, but he lacked a strong vision of the score. The Staatskapelle did not play well for him: the strings sounded notably thinner than on the previous night, ensemble was rough, and there were even intonation problems as the evening wore on. When this happens to an orchestra like the Staatskapelle, they almost have to be doing it on purpose. Also, in his final scene with Brünnhilde, Vitalij Kowaljow was notably suffering from fatigue. A conductor capable of inspiring others can energize a flagging singer, but Fiore just kept on waving his stick with no noticeable effect. Perhaps he was unaware that his Wotan was losing focus. It should add that the performance was warmly received, and Fiore’s contribution was acknowledged with some enthusiasm, although nothing like the applause for Alber the night before, or for the triumphant Evelyn Herlitzius in Die Walküre. Perhaps Fiore had less rehearsal time than the others. In itself, the idea of three conductors rehearsing a Ring Cycle is an interesting logistical case, if not a potential nightmare.

The opera began with Wotan and Siegmund sitting passively in one of the now-familiar seats. He eventually rose and nudged the inanimate Siegmund into action. In the opening scene, Hunding’s abode was reminiscent of a domestic interior of the  1950’s, suggesting not only the passage of time in Wagner’s narrative, but a present day perspective on pre-war and post-war Germany. While Sieglinde’s housewifely dress, raincoat, and sensible shoes evoked the 1950’s, Hunding’s suit was rather more archaic, suggesting the early twentieth century, perhaps to underline the Ibsenian character of the production, while Sieglinde’s attire and behavior brought up associations with Fassbinder’s BRD Trilogy. This was reinforced in the dismal wedding photo on the wall. While Hunding was every inch the traditional European husband, secure in his sense of entitlement, Sieglinde’s donning and doffing of her raincoat expressed most poignantly her binding to the house and the significance of her leaving it. Every care was taken to make sure that the text was clear and understandable, including quite a deliberate tempo. The textual and dramatic qualities of the performance were so strong that it was only quite late in the act that I realized how very slow Fiore’s tempi were. They worked, because they were part of a consistent plan.

This was supported by the very high quality of the singing. Hans-Peter König’s Hunding was as malevolent as could be, even threatening his wife with blows, but you may feel relieved that he did not get his way with her in bed, as she warded him off with his own enormous sword. König sang Hunding with an almost frightening verisimilitude. His Hunding is a man who is fully capable of maintaining a status quo in which everything is as he desires. He makes it perfectly clear to Siegmund that he will not stand a chance when they fight in the morning. He has Sieglinde almost totally under his control, except for sex (this is Decker’s interpretation, not the usual one), and, for this obsessively jealous man, the suppression of the woman’s freedom seems to be enough to satisfy his joyless appetites. König’s enormous bass-baritone, consistent in its rich tone throughout and supported by an exceedingly dark bottom, was as magnificently sung as it was acted. Christian Elsner brought a strong Heldentenor voice to Siegmund, nicely balanced between a dark foundation and a creamy top. He phrased and acted with subtlety, responding intelligently to the director’s attention to nuance and detail. Melanie Diener seemed very much at home in the relatively modern costumes, which gave her scope to act he part more subtly than it often is. She made her Sieglinde real through all sorts of small, domestic gestures, which set off the grand, unrealistic gestures, like her seizing Hunding’s sword, very effectively, contrary to what one might expect. The confrontation of realism and the stylized language of “high theater” all too often leads to incongruity and unwanted laughter. The post-modern thing is to revel in the absurdity of it, but in this case it only added to the seriousness and power of the scene. And Fiore was at his best throughout the first act.

Die Walküre, Act II, Scene 1: Fricka Topples Wotan's Statue. Photo © Mattias Creutziger.

Die Walküre, Act II, Scene 1: Fricka Topples Wotan’s Statue. Photo © Matthias Creutziger.

Act II, scene 1 is another example of how well Decker’s production and fine singing worked together. For the mountain cliff, Gussmann created Wotan’s study. Over the years since Valhalla was finished, Wotan has become an enthusiast for classical architecture and sculpture, and he has amassed a considerable collection of architectural models and marble statues, above all of heroic male figures, suggesting the fallen heroes who populate Valhalla. Wotan is now middle-aged, and Kowaljow is still in the part, and very strong in it. As the story unfolds, he might be criticized for neglecting the more pathetic side of the god, although the way events close in on him is truly chilling in this production. When Brünnhilde arrives, she joins her father in admiring his collection with all the enthusiasm of a loving teenage daughter. Evelyn Herlitzius makes fine use of her small stature and physical energy to project Brünnhilde’s youth and tomboyish enthusiasm. Her voice is not enormous, but it was certainly strong enough in the Semperoper—brilliant and consistent in timbre throughout her range. Those who heard her outstanding performance of Schoenberg’s Erwartung last November in Carnegie Hall with the Berlin Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle will not be surprised by her vocal control and eloquent phrasing. All the more disturbing the chill when Fricka arrives. In Doris Soffel’s matchless performance, she has grown all the angrier and more bitter over the years. Her costume and bearing now suggested a woman of wealth and position of the Adenauer years, who joylessly reaps the fruit of her advantages, as if she were burdened by an ugly past. She eventually caps her destruction of her husband’s relationships with Siegmund and Brünnhilde by turning over the most substantial of the heroic statues.

With the arrival of Brünnhilde’s sisters in a fairly routine version of the Ride, as conducted by Fiore, an arrow, symbolizing lightning, appears. Making a somewhat tacky first impression the prop grows on one, as it appears at different angles in later scenes. The Valkyies were nicely differentiated as characters, but vocally they were not as consistent as the rest of the cast. The best quality in Fiore’s conducting was his respect for the singers. He kept out of their way, if in a somewhat generic and unimaginative way. At this point Fiore’s involvement with the score and the orchestra began to wane, and, as I mentioned above, the Staatskapelle’s execution deteriorated. The singers managed to maintain tension and excitement up until the final scene, when Kowaljov’s visible fatigue prevented him from realizing Wotan’s pained emotions. Herlitzius was in better shape, but Kowaljov’s seemed to sap her energy somewhat, and Fiore, who seemed at that point happy enough to get the performance over with, was no help. Still the scene was well sung, and it by no means undermined the effect of this constantly absorbing and insightful production.

Siegfried, Act I: Mime Quizzes Wotan. Photo © Mattias Creutziger.

Siegfried, Act I: Mime Quizzes Wotan. Photo © Matthias Creutziger.

Conductor – Asher Fisch

Siegfried – Alfons Eberz
Mime – Wolfgang Schmidt
Wanderer – Terje Stensvold
Alberich – Matthias Henneberg
Fafner – Hans-Peter König
Erda – Christa Mayer
Brünnhilde – Evelyn Herlitzius
Waldvogel -Romy Petrick

The Israeli conductor, Asher Fisch, a Barenboim protégé, presided over Siegfried. Wagnerians are keenly anticipating his Tristan und Isolde in Seattle this summer (July 31-August 21), and to judge by his Siegfried they should not be disappointed. His approach was rich in texture and passionate, with flowing tempi and wide dynamics. In contrast to Alber, he strove for a more closely knit and earthy orchestral timbre, which did not allow for as much transparency and detail, but communicated more directly to our emotions with its warmth. His interpretation of the score contained numerous “discoveries,” phrases here and there in the inner voices that we don’t usually hear, or at least as the object of passing focused attention. While with Alber’s more transparent textures, such details would appear naturally balanced in their context, Fisch had to bring them out through the rich mass of strings and wind. Interestingly, the transition to Wagner’s late style after his almost 14-year break in composition was especially clearly marked here, since Fisch seemed to be especially susceptible, even inflamed, by its rich colors and harmonies. Fisch’s intense involvement in this gorgeous score proved truly gripping for the audience, and I found myself hanging on every bar.

Making the most of a tight budget is a signal virtue in any theatrical endeavor, and Herren Decker and Gussmann were extraordinarily successful in this for the most part, because they remained focused on core values, i.e. respect for Wagner’s text and dramaturgy, but in the first act of Siegfried the material sacrifices began to show. Mime is extremely active at his forge throughout the act, but his forge and tools are hardly to be seen. His work is explicitly referenced in his lines, so not only is the set disturbingly bare, there is a mismatch between what Mime says and what Mime does. Then Siegfried is given very little to work with in his forging scene, with only a minimal glow emerged from a nondescript table-like contraption. Discrepancies between the text and props and actions on the stage are common enough in this age of Regieoper, but if they are more than minimal, it becomes distracting—even absurd. Here the production team seemed to be acting from noble causes—lack of money—and not from the ambition to shock audiences with some indecent or disgusting interpolation of their own, but the appointment of Mime’s forge would have been found lacking even in a school production. By contrast, the creation of Fafner the dragon from cut-outs, as simple as the design was, proved interesting and effective. Also effective, up to a point, was the treatment of the Forest Bird as an innocent pre-adolescent Doppelgänger, who follows Siegfried, guiding him up to Brünnhilde’s mountaintop and then disappearing.

Siegfried, Act III: Wotan and Erda. Photo © Mattias Creutziger.

Siegfried, Act III: Wotan and Erda. Photo © Matthias Creutziger.

The singers were, as before, on such a high level as to marginalize the shortcomings of the sets and props. Wolfgang Schmidt and Matthias Henneberg continued their brilliant portrayals of Mime and Alberich, which they began in Das Rheingold, as did Christa Mayer in her magnificent Erda. The great Hans-Peter König took over Fafner with great resonance and menace, and Terje Stensvold the ageing Wanderer, projecting all of Wotan’s experience and weariness with his colorful voice, which was dark and leathery on the bottom and more like burnished gold in the upper range. His portrayal showed no less variety, and it was entirely appropriate to cast a more mature voice as the Wanderer: Kowaljov would not have had the range of color and emotion for it.

Evelyn Herlitzius only grew in her interpretation of Brünnhilde, as she managed her conflicted oscillations in the final scene with consummate intelligence and natural empathy, creating quite an amazing portrayal of Brünnhilde’s transition from divine girl to mortal woman. Her voice and musical sense in Brünnhilde’s soaring lines were magnificent. Alfons Eberz’s interpretation of Siegfried offered no surprises: he went through the familiar gestures with adolescent cheerfulness (a contradiction in terms?) and insouciant cruelty, as in his killing of Mime and Fafner. His handling of the final scene was less thought-out than Herlitzius’ Brünnhilde, but both convincing and charming nonetheless. But, if what he did was not especially original, the way he carried it out was solid, capable, and musical. His muscular and glowing Heldentenor voice remained for the most part appealing throughout. He showed a little fatigue and stress in the taxing final scene, but not enough to compromise his energetic performance.

Götterdämmerung Act I: Siegfried and Brünnhilde. Note the Tarnhelm as gold bowler hat. Photo © Mattias Creutziger.

Götterdämmerung Act I: Siegfried and Brünnhilde. Note the Tarnhelm as gold bowler hat. Photo © Matthias Creutziger.

Conductor – Jonas Alber (Asher Fisch on March 7)

Siegfried – Alfons Eberz
Gunther – Markus Butter
Alberich – Matthias Henneberg
Hagen – Hans-Peter König
Brünnhilde – Evelyn Herlitzius
Gutrune – Sabine Brohm
Waltraute – Christa Mayer
1. Norn – Sofi Lorentzen
2. Norn – Constance Heller
3. Norn – Kyung-Hae Kang
Woglinde – Roxana Incontrera
Wellgunde – Antigone Papoulkas
Floßhilde – Sofi Lorentzen
Ein Greis – Stephan Daum

Presumably as a cost-cutting measure, the transitional tableaux which often accompany the extensive orchestral interludes of Götterdämmerung were omitted. This was only for the better, as it turned out, because it made it possible to concentrate without any sort of visual distraction on Jonas Alber’s revealing reading of the Preludes, the Rhine Journey, and Siegfried’s Funeral Music, and  the Staatskapelle’s magnificent playing. It also made it clearer than ever how the orchestra, as the primary vehicle of both scene-painting as well as of the inner processes of the events which lead to the final destruction, remains the central figure in the drama throughout. Beyond that, Brünnhilde is at the center of things. She is the figure who must learn a tragic lesson and make decisions on it, as this production made eminently clear. Once again, she was in more than capable hands with Evelyn Herlitzius, who navigated the treacherous waters between her happy hours with Siegfried at the beginning, her discovery of his grotesque betrayal, and her subsequent dealings with Hunding and Gunther. She might still remind us of Brünnhilde’s youth, but a character of great bravery and dignity emerges at the end, as lively as the emotional shifts may have been in her journey. Herlitzius’ intelligence in phrasing and expression served her brilliantly, and she was always in balance and clearly heard in the midst of Alber’s transparent lines and sensitive dynamics.

Götterdämmerung Act I: Hagen, Gutrune, and Siegfried. Photo © Mattias Creutziger.

Götterdämmerung Act I: Hagen, Gutrune, and Siegfried. Photo © Matthias Creutziger.

The other vocal standouts were, as one might expect, Hans-Peter König who deepened his interpretation of Hagen with a tragic quality which almost made him sympathetic at moments. Matthias Henneberg returned as a vividly corrupt and malevolent Alberich. I find their nocturnal scene together to be one of the most fascinating and powerful moments in opera, and König, Henneberg and Alber were entirely worthy of Wagner’s conception. Also excellent were Markus Butter’s and Sabine Brohm’s amusing and superbly sung characterizations of Gunther and Gutrune as a pair of effete, alcohol-sodden aristocrats, who might have been at home in Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu. When we meet them, dressed in evening clothes they are sipping champagne (and, to judge by their unsteady balance, have mostly likely been at it since luncheon) in a vast room redolent of the 1930’s, not least in the enormous picture window offering a view of the Rhine Valley, just as Hitler’s famous window at Berchtesgaden overlooked the mountains around Salzburg. The large globe towards the back of the space at the right also conjured up strong Hitlerian associations. While Decker and Gussmann have the intelligence and taste not to belabor allusions to the Third Reich, as some productions have done, including the new production of Das Rheingold at the Bastille (soon to be reviewed here), the parallels I have mentioned in the Dresden Ring only enhance characterization and atmosphere with associations from recent German history. In any case there was no Hitler or Charlie Chaplin to embrace the globe, but Gunther, followed by Brünnhilde, who contemplated it while she arrived at her insight into what she must do.

If Fabio Luisi’s current performances of Berg’s Lulu at the Met are any indicator, his Ring may well have been a superb one. (we may well hear him conduct the Ring at the Met before long) However, the Dresden Ring of 2010, in spite of the lack of single, unified hand over the orchestra, was a memorable success: Fisch was excellent, and Alber showed a notably well-defined, personal view of Wagner’s scores, a flair for inspiring the famously cantankerous Dresdener Staatskapelle, as well as all the other traits of a great Wagnerian conductor. I certainly hope that his triumph in Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung will bring him the recognition which will make it possible for us to hear his Wagner more often, and internationally. The cycle, in fact, was remarkably unified, thanks to Willy Decker’s strong direction, which, by focusing on theatrical essentials, overcame the Spartan production values, which in themselves were  for the most part well-executed and effective, making it clear that Wagner’s Ring doesn’t need a lot of spectacle to succeed.

Jonas Alber

Jonas Alber

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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