National Theater Mannheim, 2013
Dan Ettinger, Achim Freyer, Thomas Jesatko, Karsten Mewes, Edna Prochnik, Jürgen Müller, Endrik Wottrich, Heike Wessels, Judith Nėmeth, Uwe Eikötter, Andreas Hört, Sung Ha, Iris Kupke, Manfred Hemm, Thomas Berau, Christoph Stephinger
Arthaus Musik - DVD
As far as modern opera directing goes, there's Regietheater, there's the avant-garde, and there's Achim Freyer. Freyer's vision for opera is unique and distinctive - similar to Robert Wilson in its idiosyncratic traits, often using obscure symbolism, repetitive movements and abstract gestures. Freyer however is by no means a minimalist, applying these techniques to a La Fura dels Baus scale of spectacle. When you set Freyer to work on something like Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen then, the results are not unexpectedly extraordinary and spectacular, but can be difficult to follow. If it's not actually unfathomable, the Mannheim 2013 Ring cycle is at least unlike any other production of Wagner's masterwork you'll see.
The great thing about the Ring as far as Freyer is concerned, and particularly in relation to the opening prologue Das Rheingold, is that you're dealing with mythology, and mythology doesn't necessarily have to have anything to do with reality. Myths of course have meaning and significance, and Wagner would certainly have thought so, but that doesn't mean that the mythology has to be presented in purely human terms. Without ever getting completely abstract, Achim Freyer reinvents the Ring as a kind of circus - a Circus Ring with a polar bear and even some live animals - but without ever departing entirely from who the familiar characters are or from the hugely significant situations that are played out across the whole tetralogy.
It's clown imagery that makes the strongest impression in the cycle, but mostly it's just applied to the Nibelung dwarfs, with Siegfried also adopting some of the characteristics of his foster parent Mime. Elsewhere, Freyer conjures up some elaborate costumes and raven-like identities for Wotan and Freia, wolf masks for Sieglinde and Siegmund, few of them looking anything like familiar representations of these characters. All of them do at least relate to the group that they belong to, the Eternals distinct from the Giants, the Wälsung too having their own peculiar 'Wolfling' look and manner of gesture and behaviour, as strange as that might often seem. It's not as strange through as the large childish-drawn heads that the Gibichung wear, but that too suits their naive nature. This is mythology however, not the time of man, so the director should be free indeed to depict these figures in whatever outlandish manner he sees fit.
Outlandish, but not entirely without some kind of basis within the poetic account of Wagner's libretto. Freia, for example in Das Rheingold, might look strange with a tree growing out of her head and apples around her bosom, but Freia is the goddess of fertility and does indeed cultivate apples that grant eternal youth and beauty, so the characterisation has 'roots', if you like. Crafty Loge prowls around here (and is frequently seen popping into the scene to keep an eye on things in Die Walküre for some unknown reason) with smoke billowing out of the five cigars he hold in five hands. No, not entirely sure where that image comes from, but it creates a distinct impression. Quite why Fricka has what looks like a black baguette on her head is a mystery, or why each of the Valkyrie have their own object (trumpet, watering can, scissors, hand, coat hanger, shoe, sewing machine - Brünnhilde for more obvious reasons, a raven), but I'm sure there's an explanation for it somewhere.
What you notice however by the time you get to Die Walküre however is the consistency and the rhythm of the stage direction. The symbolism remains consistent, a large white strip of neon (Valhalla? Wotan's staff? Perhaps just symbolically signifying the will and power of the Gods?) hanging above the revolving stage, while mini figures and handpuppets start to feature to represent double imagery (deceit? control?) or sometimes to indicate hierarchy or leitmotif presence. Or who knows really except Achim Freyer? All the actions that take place in Die Walküre are there, but are dream-like, unreal. What you can sense however is the rhythm, the slow flow of events building towards a cataclysmic conclusion. It's not as if there isn't always plenty of activity going on, but it can be difficult to remain engaged when you aren't quite sure what you're expected to be making of it all.
You might expect that to become more difficult in the rather longer drawn-out dramas of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, but even though Freyer's vision just gets even more bizarre and detached from reality as the tetralogy progresses, it coalesces extraordinarily well. In contrast to the darkness of the Prologue and First Day Festival opera, Siegfried is initially a little brighter, but there's little that is familiar with the clinical white setting where a cartoon clown Siegfried, in a yellow wig with a horn of hair and one large red ear, lies strapped in a bed. His wears a funnel for a helmet, his Nothüng is a plastic 'light sabre' and he hangs out with a polar bear. Götterdämmerung is always a challenge, but it's here where the value of Freyer's vision comes through, the neon staff turning into a ring, the set all twilight lighting and mirrors, creating an eerie tense atmosphere that feeds right through to the singing performances as well. It's an impressive finale.
Aside from what you might make of the directorial idiosyncrasies, the Mannheim Ring fares very well indeed in terms of musical performance and singing. Dan Ettinger's conducting doesn't deliver a powerhouse Ring - or at least that's not how it comes across in the PCM Stereo mix for the DVD - nor one that is particularly lyrical either. It can feel a little cold and mechanical in places but the orchestra play well, impressively sustaining a consistent tone and rhythm right across all four festival days, building in force towards an intense conclusion in Götterdämmerung. Consistency counts for a lot in the Ring, and it's rare that the major opera houses can maintain the same cast right through the extended period that it takes to perform a Ring cycle. There are fewer Wagnerian A-list names among the Mannheim cast, but it helps considerably that the performers are uniformly good and they remain in the same roles throughout (not that you'd notice visually under all the costumes and make-up).
The strength of the Mannheim Ring rests mainly on a very fine Wotan from Thomas Jesatko. The heavy make-up and turban-like head with its single eye don't make things easy for him, and it's hard to establish any kind of recognisable characterisation under Freyer's stiff direction, but Jesatko holds reliably strong and consistent throughout. Edna Prochnik also deserves credit not only for a fine Fricka, but also for taking on the Valkyrie Schwertleite in Die Walküre and Erda in Siegfried, as well as Waltraude and First Norn in Götterdämmerung. Jürgen Müller isn't the most powerful Siegfried I've ever heard, but he is certainly one of the steadiest I've come across in recent years, more than capable for the huge demands of the role and at times even impressive. He also performs well as a bright and lively Loge in the first two parts. Judith Nėmeth's Brünnhilde is good and really comes into her own in Götterdämmerung when her contribution is really needed.
You couldn't really find fault with the rest of the cast, all of them contributing to a uniformly well-sung Ring without any significant weak elements, which is not something you can say about many Ring cycles even in the major opera houses. Manfred Hemm's Hunding is authoritative in Die Walküre, and Heike Wessels is also impressive as Sieglinde here. Christoph Stephinger's treacherous Hagen is wonderfully enigmatic, lending much to the successful tone that is established in the concluding part of the Ring.
The Mannheim Der Ring des Nibelungen is released on DVD by Arthaus Musik, but with only German subtitles provided it is apparently only for the home market. The box set contains all four operas in individual cases. The set contains seven DVDs, one for Das Rheingold, two discs for each of the others. The video quality is not quite the High-Definition level you might be used to on Blu-ray, a little grainy and lacking in definition on the darkened stage, but it's clear and free from any troubling encoding issues. It's difficult nonetheless to really capture the scale and colour of Freyer's visual extravaganza on a small screen, but despite having the most complicated stage arrangement, I thought Götterdämmerung looked and sounded the best. The audio tracks are PCM stereo only, but well mixed to balance the singing and orchestration.
The packaging on the DVD indicates that the encoding is in the European PAL format rather than the more universal NTSC, so the Mannheim Ring might not be suitable for viewing on older televisions in the USA. Should you be inclined however to experience this unique production, the DVDs are not region coded and the libretto of the Ring is freely available on the internet, so don't let the lack of English subtitles put you off.