Wagner’s Das Rheingold by Patrice Chéreau and Harry Kupfer

This review is part of a four week collection of the Der Ring des Nibelungen cycle.


Audiences of the Richard Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, Germany, are notoriously difficult to please. They boo, hiss, and occasionally sign petitions to have productions removed from the stage – although the latter was a reaction reserved exclusively for Patrice Chéreau’s production of the Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle in 1976. The production was christened the ‘Centenary Ring’ to mark the occasion of the first complete Ring cycle production at Bayreuth one hundred years earlier. Patrice Chéreau, then thirty-one years old and virtually unknown, and conductor Pierre Boulez, a composer and specialist in avant-garde music rather than romantic opera, decided that this anniversary was the time to move Wagner interpretations away from the slavish faithfulness to the composer’s wishes that still prevailed in most post-war productions. And in doing so, they caused no less than an operatic revolution.

What better time period could one choose than the one a composer had lived through? Beginning in the time shortly before the Industrial Revolution, the forging and first theft of the ring sets off the transformation of the gods into participants of the Industrial Revolution, a time Wagner himself experienced and was influenced by. Judging by the frilly embroidered overcoats, Das Rheingold seems to still take part in pre-revolution times, but rudimentary machines loom on the horizon already in the very first scene.

They’re inhabited by the Rhinemaidens (Norma Sharp, Ilse Gramatzki, and Marga Schiml) who sing clearly with lively, crystalline voices and try to stop the theft of the Rhinegold by the dwarf Alberich with admirable effort. Once he’s forged the titular ring from the gold, the aforementioned Alberich (Hermann Becht) assumes responsibility for the revolution of labour. He’s a disturbingly calm maniac determined to boss around the entire world with the ring’s help, but overall, far less animalistic than other interpreters of the role, and he demonstrates an actual romantic effort in the opening scene. The few times he does snarl, it works to great effect. His curse of the ring is suspenseful and varied in both colour and phrasing, and losing the ring is visibly a near-traumatic experience. No wonder he haunts both the rest of the cycle and his archnemesis Wotan. Donald McIntyre sings the lord of the gods and liar extraordinaire with a buttery bass-baritone, especially in the top notes. His lackeys Donner and Froh crowd around him, and so he seems self-assured and suave bordering on smug sans air of a master manipulator – yet? Wotan’s partner in crime, the fiery demigod Loge (Heinz Zednik) is playful and silly with small notes of Schadenfreude rather than unpredictable, though his last lines are sung with some massive sarcasm. The giant brothers Fasolt (Matti Salminen) and Fafner (Fritz Hübner), whom Wotan seeks to outmanoeuvre, are persistent and almost threatening in their demands. Fasolt particularly was very lively in the formulation of his phrases, while Wotan’s wife Fricka (Hanna Schwarz) was more than unhappy with her husband’s dealings with the giants. While poised and more than capable of asserting herself, her husband consistently ignores her, and their relationship seems cool and cordial with little affection for each other. Meanwhile, Alberich’s brother Mime, sung by Helmut Pampuch, fails to leave much of an impression. Ortrun Wenkel provides Erda with a flexible voice, but altogether doesn’t manage to command a completely standstill in time, though she’s not really aided by her entrance. (It’s difficult to look imposing when literally wearing a see-through sheet oddly reminiscent of the ghost emoji.) Nonetheless, she delivers an effective, eerie warning.

Pierre Boulez at the conductor’s stand anchors the voices in a fitting, very continuous soundscape right from the first few measures of the prelude. He keeps his tempi breezy and the spirit of his Rheingold overall sprightly and light without allowing the sound to thin. Especially Wotan and Alberich adapt well by resorting to quietness more often, giving it the air of an intimate chamber drama. It suits the production as the set physically brings the singers closer together anyway and doesn’t require thundering across to fill it with more life.

The idea of setting the cycle at the time of its conception was revolutionary enough to warrant a storm of booing at the premiere, but it’s safe to guess none of it was due to complaints about musical quality. Today, decades after the shock of the premiere, it still plays out as a convincing start to the monumental cycle, and the concept of gods vs. Nibelungs in the Industrial Revolution, or possibly capitalists vs. working-class, promises a definitive, if audacious interpretation.


Twelve years after the Centenary production by the two Frenchmen, a German-Argentinian-Israeli duet arrived in Bayreuth to forge a new Ring. The time was come for Harry Kupfer and Daniel Barenboim to create the “Kupfer Ring”. The audience at the Richard Wagner Festival was treated to a new interpretation in the sacred hall that Bayreuth is for Wagner fans – one that was no less legendary and complex, if completely opposite to Chéreau’s Ring, and one that brought forth a new standard and a new generation of definitive character interpretations.

One of them is John Tomlinson’s Wotan, who seems rather friendly and benevolent, if overconfident, in the beginning, undoubtedly also due to his costume. He wears sunglasses with only one tinted glass to indicate one-eyedness, a far less martial and threatening alternative to the blinded-eye-makeup option. Tomlinson’s bass – a very warm, powerful sound – places him at the lower end of the Wotan spectrum, vocally excellently suited to the role. Günter von Kannen as Alberich is a worthy foe and an engaging actor, though he could be more detailed in his phrasing – vocally, he has the ability to thunder across the stage but restraint would render it even more impressive. The transition to power-hungry megalomaniac is apparent, and he’s very threatening and domineering towards his brother Mime (Helmut Pampuch in an improved outing), who also has a penchant for power-hungriness hidden behind a weaselly, subservient demeanour. Wotan’s other opponents, Fasolt (Matthias Hölle) and Fafner (Philip Kang), are standouts mainly in physical size – costume-wise, they’re the literal examples of “three owls in a trench coat”. How many people were hidden under those mountains of cloth, exactly? Unfortunately, their costumes strongly limit their acting options, especially in showing the dynamics between the brothers. Nonetheless, they’re vocally solid, even if not a highlight. On the other hand, Birgitta Svendén as Erda provides a thrilling dive into the beauty of alto voices. She hits a balance between rich low notes and a finely controlled, floating top and molds the warning to Wotan into something between angelic and ominous. Fricka, sung by Linda Finnie, overall enjoys a much more intact relationship with Wotan in this Rheingold than in other versions – not all that much distrust or venom here yet, though it might be a development left over for Die Walküre. Rounding out the female voices, the Rhinemaidens (Jane Turner, Hilde Leidland, Anette Küttenbaum), who open the first scene, are hypnotically synchronised in movement and singing and remarkably physical in their apparent-but-not-actually seduction of Alberich. And Graham Clarke as Loge is a brilliant outsider not only in terms of costume. His Loge is visibly an elemental force of nature – he lived before the gods and will live after them and alternates between delighted and horrified at this. He’s both mercurial and taunting and nonetheless a clever and farsighted character.

The set design is nearly timeless and slightly surreal, full of illusions and light and a great contrast to Chéreau’s historical specificity. Harry Kupfer achieves a smooth incorporation of concrete objects like Freia’s apples into abstract landscapes. The scarcity of the stage requires lots of movement by the singers, who rise to the challenge to fill it with life. Wotan and Loge snatching the Ring from Alberich was a particular highlight to watch – the scene was almost violent in its execution and laid bare the ugly greed and ruthlessness necessary to acquire the ring. The ring is cursed from its very beginnings, and this scene was a stark reminder.

Daniel Barenboim’s conducting doesn’t have the characteristic flow of Boulez’ interpretation, but Barenboim puts his stamp on the music nonetheless. The prelude is excellently balanced with an uncharacteristically growling sound to the bassoons in the first few measures. He takes obvious liberties with the tempi, sometimes to the detriment of the singers. Loge’s monologue at the end of Scene 2 would do better at a faster speed, whereas Alberich’s megalomanic ranting could’ve taken more time. On the other hand, Barenboim isn’t afraid to dial up the orchestra, such as when the giants enter, and that’s an entirely agreeable choice.

Visually, it’s a fascinating production, perhaps because the simple methods of light and shadow and sparse set design are used so thoroughly and well that it seems it could’ve been conceived anytime, even today. However, the direction of Kupfer’s interpretation is already clearly visible: while not as radical as Chéreau, he honours the composer’s wishes, but doesn’t revert to unquestioning adherence to Wagner’s ideas. (In Bayreuth standards of that time, it’s enough to be booed as well, if not quite as frenetically as Chéreau.) Absent any historical allusions, Kupfer promises perhaps an even greater focus on the characters’ inner life – a direction that sounds highly promising, considering the emotional highs and lows of the cycle.

Lynn Sophie Guldin, October 2020

For more by Lynn, visit her blog at https://beckmessering.tumblr.com/

Lynn has also written:

Wagner’s Die Walküre by Patrice Chéreau and Harry Kupfer

Wagner’s Siegfried by Patrice Chéreau and Harry Kupfer

Wagner’s Götterdämmerung by Patrice Chéreau and Harry Kupfer


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