Wagner’s triumphant Ring at Dessau 23-28 June 2015

The Jones Rowe tour group had an exceptional week at the Dessau Ring and most of the audience were delighted by this experimental and idiosyncratic staging.

Director Andre Bucker saw the gold of the Rhine in terms of the power which is gained by controlling communications. Rhinegold started with the earliest experiments in moving pictures, with the Rhinemaidens cavorting in a Zoetrope – which through its spinning gave an early image of the ring itself. This opening scene gave the audience a first taste of the advanced technical mechanics of the huge Dessau stage which would be used in this Cycle.

Andre Bucker used local imagery to enhance his view of the Ring, with strong use of Bauhaus designs throughout, both in terms of scenery, costume and even stylised movement. Edwardian Rhinegold costumes were entirely white, representing the innocence of the gods, which would be lost as the cycle progressed, and electronic communication slowly took over the world. Valhalla was an enormous revolving white cube which could twist into multiple shapes. In conversation with Andre, I discovered that a stagehand was trapped inside the cube organising its movements – probably one of the most claustrophobic assignments imaginable!

An enormous white wall, with huge circular hole descended in front of the steps formed by the cube, replicating the renowned “washing machine” architecture of new government buildings in Berlin. Wotan’s family mounted the cube, symbolic of their ascent into Valhalla, and Rhinegold ended with the gods arranged on their cube enjoying the view.

A heavy structure of beams represented Hunding’s hut, with the sword stuck into a giant electrical cable hanging overhead. Hunding himself was a frightening bully, with balaclava-wearing henchmen. Sieglinde was truly trapped in an abusive marriage, and her recognition of Siegmund was one of relief as well as passion.

Wotan, still living on the white cube, was a Hollywood-style movie producer, and Frika was based on  Barbara Stanwyck.  She had huge stage presence, and overwhelmed Wotan by her persistent approach to him, expecting a kiss on the cheek from him once she had got her own way.

In an exceptional coup de theatre, the Valkyries were spoilt Hollywood starlets, collecting dead sailors to wait upon them in a decadent bar. With multi-coloured costumes and extreme hair styles, they showed clearly how much Valhalla had descended into an amoral pleasure ground. We were in the roaring twenties, with many images and references to Hollywood films of the time. Wotan put Brunnhilde to sleep on a ledge in the huge cube, which by the end of Walkure had turned black, and in another brilliant piece of staging, the cube closed, trapping Brunnhilde inside.

In one of the scenes causing the most discussion, Siegfried opened in a squalid kitchen with both Mime and Siegfried playing video games, surrounded by masses of rubbish from take-away foods. The idea was simple and very relevant to today’s society: in his innocence Siegfried was unable to distinguish between the fantasy of video games and the reality of violent life. Thus, once he had constructed the sword on his video screen, and created it in a 3-d printer, he set out to slay the dragon with no more trepidation than slaying any other adversary in a video game. This concept gave modern meaning to Siegfried’s behaviour, and a new view of the meaning of this part of the Ring.

The Wanderer was a fugitive from Star Wars, one of many images from Science fiction used to great effect by Andre Bucker. Siegfried was dressed in white, reflecting the innocence of the gods in Rhinegold, but with an orange tunic – a reference to the local history of the Dukes of Orange.

+Perhaps it was predictable that the Gibichungs were armed with light-sabres, and they certainly made a grand impact in their Bauhaus costumes and ritualised movements. The towers and elevators of the Gibichung court were another of the great stage effects, and the final scene used the full extent of the stage. With Gunter dead in his own court at the front of the stage, an enormous space opened up, with Brunnhilde on the black cube surrounded by the Gibichung army raising their light sabres in salute to her as the massive stage revolve had them spinning slowing around the funeral pyre.

Dutch conductor Antony Hermus had a slightly reduced orchestra, and they felt a little tentative in Rhinegold. From there on, however, all was brilliant, with outstanding playing, crisp, accurate and full of emotion.

Performances on stage were uniformly excellent, all the more remarkable given that most of the cast were in-house singers. Of many outstanding performances, Ulf Paulsen’s Wotan must be mentioned. He has a big sound and used it with drive and confidence, filling the stage with his presence. Rita Kapfhammer’s performances must also be noted – not only a formidable Frika, but a commanding Erda, an urgent Waltraute, a sinister Norn, and finally a full-bodied Flosshilde. To play so many roles, varying the colours of her voice part by part, was a notable feat.

Jurgen Muller’s Siegfried had considerable stage presence, and a voice to match. His vocal stamina was notable, and his range of emotions, from bumptiousness to tragedy, and his physical strength, constantly on the move, was impressive.

For me, however, the star was Iordanka Derilova as Brunnhilde. A member of the theatre’s ensemble since 2003, this slim, slight singer has enormous potential as a future world star, and I understand she was to follow her success in Dessau with another Brunnhilde in Sofia. Starting as an innocent girl in Walkure, she grew in stature and voice as the cycle progressed, culimating in a towering immolation scene. This was an intelligent performance full of emotion and pathos, and she gave the audience a characterful and memorable portrayal.

The end of Gotterdammerung was greeted with tumultuous applause, and a prolonged standing ovation. Everyone came on stage – the cast, the orchestra, the stage hands, and the creative team led by Andre Bucker and Antony Hermus. Rarely can such an experimental staging of the ring have received such a reception.

The audience, despite its many international visitors, was none the less mainly local. The people of Dessau clearly love their opera house and are mightily proud of the achievement of the Ring. Dreadful it is, then, to be aware that neither Andre Bucker nor Antony Hermus are to have their contracts renewed. Gotterdammerung on Sunday 28th June, was their swan-song. They embraced on stage in the midst of the twenty-minute standing ovation which greeted the finale.

It appears they have not had contracts renewed because they organised a strike against massive local funding cuts. In January of this year, the funding was cut by 20%, and all staff at the opera house took a “voluntary” salary cut of 10%. As staff leave, they are not replaced. There will be no third cycle of this important and exciting Ring.

Jeremy D. Rowe

Back to Ian and Jeremy’s blog