Deutsche Oper Berlin 2023-24 Review: Der Ring des Nibelungen

Examining Stefan Herheim’s Reframing of the Ring’s Context and Social Implications

By Christina Waters
(Photo credit: Bernd Uhlig)

The man who gave the opera world its most dazzling 21st century “Parsifal,” Stefan Herheim, continues his quest to interrogate the Romantic text that is Richard Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungen.” Inspired refreshing of a 150-year-old work of art can provide new insights and flashes of illumination. But conceptual pyrotechnics can just as easily destroy its object of desire. In the case of the final Cycle of the 2024 Deutsche Oper Ring production, Herheim’s concept of turning theater inside out proved a brilliant failure. So filled with awkward settings and irritating movement was the vast stage that the luminous magic of Wagner’s masterpiece was often upstaged. Save for a handful of shining performances, the magic for the most part was confined to the orchestra pit. And what an orchestra it was!

Under the leadership of maestro Sir Donald Runnicles the Deutsche Oper orchestra was all but flawless, conjuring the sensuous innovation of Wagner’s masterpiece through velvety brass, shimmering strings, and celestial harps. The momentum of Runnicles’ musicians never let up, partnering the power and thrust of the storytelling onstage. From start to finish, the orchestra was the star of the entire four-opera journey through the imagination of a genius as he interwove German singspiel, comedy, fairytale and prophecy into the mythic spell of the Ring. Runnicles seemed to breathe with the singers, anticipating their needs, when a phrase wanted to lengthen, expanding orchestral rubatos to allow for some heroic top notes, and lustrous innuendo.

Starting with the bare stage, Herheim revealed the behind-the-scenes preliminaries to the performance to come. We watched as players apply make up, wanderers enter with suitcases, then change clothes, add a few finishing touches, and suddenly we are inside the Ring! Stunning stagecraft that offered both magic and clarity which alas rarely manifested again.

We were invited in by Herheim, whose best ideas are ironically also the least successful ones. His concept is both fertile and annoying, which is why we keep going to see what he will do next.

But in his desire to interrupt the textual sorcery he is too successful. Herheim’s reinvention amounts to operatic whiplash. Oh the underwear!

Concept Highlights

There are two central insights at play, both receiving graphic embodiment on stage.

The fellowship of human beings—the fellowship of the Ring if you will—our fundamental and universal similarity no matter what identity we choose to adopt, is key to Herheim’s vision. The refugees, a wandering collection of beings searching for home within the very myth being performed. It’s a great idea, given Wagner’s own refugee status, given Wotan as defeated powerless Wanderer. Given the way the world is today.

By having his roving supernumeraries remove their clothing/costumes, he reveals their (and our) common essence. We’re all just the same under our chosen roles, whether they are everyday fashion, professional paraphernalia, or theatrical costume. He illustrates this with a stageful of people in white undies as the great equalizers. Few can argue with the concept, but the execution ranged from surprising to distasteful to annoying.

Herheim’s other big idea is to stage the production as the work-in-progress of the very artwork we have come to see. A backstage view of the Ring being rehearsed to the point of readiness. Over and over he breaks through the fourth wall, having characters planted on the wings, having the stage itself undressed and displayed as a backstage, a rehearsal space before a fully mounted production actually begins. This idea is in play from the very beginning, for example as three individuals apply makeup on thrust wings, then put on wigs, and jackets, and we watch them become Alberich, Froh, and Loge before our very eyes. We’re watching Wagner’s great Gesamptkunstwerk from the inside, as it creates itself. In another moment, as Rheingold gets underway, three woman from the crowd sit down at the front of the stage, and suddenly begin to sing of Rhine gold. The three Rhine Maidens Lea-ann Dunbar, Arianna Manganello, and Karis Tucker spun dazzling harmonies, weaving their voices in and out of the liquid music.

Aiding this strategy—and it was mesmerizing to watch actors become mythic gods, demigods, incestuous twins, quarreling giants, conniving dwarves—is the central prop: the concert grand piano. From its gleaming interior come heroes, lovers, atmospheric smoke, long white veils, spears, helmets, wigs, every individual element of the operas. With the lid lifted, the piano disgorges its mythic freight of Wagnerian characters. Lid down, and it becomes a dance floor, bedroom, and birth chamber.

The central trope, the piano acts as the heart of scenes, and scenic changes. Shaping the comings and goings of the main characters, it is also Richard Wagner’s piano, where he composed and auditioned and performed each segment of the Ring as it was being written, giving house concerts for friends and donors.

Here’s the deal with Herheim: his reframing of the Ring’s context and social implications can be enlightening, revelatory at the best moments. But these very innovations simultaneously dilute, and worse, erase the potent vision conveyed by the leitmotifs. The accumulated thunder of the motifs creates a numinous tapestry by the time “Götterdämmerung” begins. Hence the sight of a stageful of people in underwear amounts to a wrecking ball smashing the music into shards. Equally jarring were the scenic juxtapositions of burlesque, verismo, and grand opera. When the Valkyrie emerge from a crowd of refugees and adopt cartoon versions of the Viking helmets, we don’t know whether this is irony, or simply a costuming joke.

A stunning visual was the set constructed of stacked suitcases. All the baggage of the world, ours and Wagner’s, the envious mortals and the entitled immortals, it was all there, stacked up into an amphitheater. The suitcases were rearranged for certain scenes, and in “Siegfried,” they began to shift and undulate until they became the bulky body, glittering eyes, and sharp teeth of Fafner the Dragon. All singers moved with extreme caution as they were required to climb up and down the suitcase stairs. Their discomfort was distracting, almost as distracting as the meandering crowds stripping down to their underwear many times during the four nights of operas.

The Underwear Ring

“Das Rheingold” opened on a bare stage, literally the backstage of the Deutsche Oper theater. House lights were on, the stage bare save for a grand piano. A crowd enters from the wings, individuals dressed for travel, carrying bundles and suitcases, and without quite knowing how it happened one man sat down at the piano, raised his arm and as his fingers touched the keyboard the first long undulating E-flat major chord of “Das Rheingold” began. But instead of the river coming to life, we witness the gradual encampment of a band of refugees all busily meeting, greeting, and rapidly undressing. From the start Hawaiian-born baritone Jordan Shanahan was a charismatic Alberich. His gymnastic vocal work was amplified by superb acting skills, put to spectacular work in his role as the Ring’s protagonist, the bitter ruler of the underworld Nibelungen. The battle of will, envy, and greed embodied by the jokester dwarf and the power-hungry god is the driving force through the four operas. Each has given up love to chase the Ring’s eternal power, and they share the same doom having stolen the gold from its rightful owners, the Rhine Maidens.

One hoped for a more vocally and physically powerful Wotan in order to keep the dynamic tension this four-opera journey demands. As it was, Shanahan’s command of his dark character over-matched the weak vocal skills of the two Wotans, Derek Welton in “Walküre,” and Iain Paterson, whose voice lost timbre and energy by the end of “Rheingold.” Shanahan’s voice was ringing steel, from laughter to growls to beautifully flung passages cursing Wotan into oblivion.

Danish tenor Thomas Blondelle was a whirlwind Loge, a Faustian figure in feathered jacket, red devil’s cap and red gloves. Leaping and twirling about the stage with confident antics, Blondelle’s Loge was more than able to make the deals needed to gain Wotan the Ring. But his Loge also revealed the subtle warnings of doom to come. The ring comes with some heavy karma.

As Wotan’s insistent wife Fricka, goddess of marriage, Annika Schlicht was radiant. A fine actress, Schlicht made full creative use of her splendid mezzo-soprano to gather an array of gleaming colors to her character’s cajoling, mocking, and ultimate dismissing of her philanderer husband, Wotan. Too bad she didn’t have a Wotan worth cajoling or mocking. Schlicht captured the moment again in “Götterdämmerung,” singing Brünnhilde’s sister Waltraute. Patterson couldn’t seem to muster the energy to sculpt a believable king of the gods, a god capable of imagining a magnificent fortress for his family of spoiled gods, as well as plummeting the depths of Nibelheim hellbent on stealing the power of the Ring.

Who steals the ring forfeits love for power. The curse condemns those who steal the ring to wander unsatisfied, on an endless quest for the emotional riches they’ve forfeited. Which brings us back to the crowd of travelers filling Herheim’s stage.

Die Walküre

Hunding, Tobias Kehrer (who also sang Fafner throughout the operas), was given a larger arena for his inherent anger due to Herheim’s creation of a strangely dysfunctional child that he shares with the unhappy Sieglinde (Daniela Köhler). The weird movements and gestures of the youth—who rapidly glues himself to Siegmund as a surrogate father figure— provide another one of Herheim’s interruptive devices. Siegmund (Daniel Frank) actually sings the “Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond” to his beloved sister with the strange boy wrapped around his body. One of the most beautiful love songs ever devised becomes a distortion, that leads believe it or not, to an impatient Sieglinde getting rid of the irritating kid by slitting his throat, and then running off with her brother. So distracting is all the new narrative filler that the music is all but lost.

Fricka, surrounded by the crowd of witnesses, kvetches to Wotan that this brother/sister alliance just will not do, and here again Schlicht flaunts her sexy satin slip and matching feathery fascinator in classic drama queen fashion. There is a lot of looking, standing, and swaying on the part of the crowd that keeps encircling the main players. The onstage ensemble is alternately effective in witnessing the quarreling gods and distracting in their superfluity. It’s a bad sign when Herheim begins adding huge helpings of smoke to pump up the narrative energy.

Wotan says the twins are in love and love should be celebrated. Fricka says they are a travesty and Siegmund must die. Cue Hunding. Cue Brünnhilde, who famously defies her father’s wishes and saves the child, the true hero Wotan has wished for.

Dressed exactly as the original 1870 version of Brünnhilde in breastplate, metal helmet, and rune-engraved shield, Ricarda Merbeth rose up from the piano to lead her Valkyrie cohorts in extolling their duties of gathering the fallen heroes and taking them back up to Valhalla. Yet from the very beginning of her tenure in Walküre and later in Götterdämmerung, Merbeth’s uncontrollable vibrato erased both articulation and pitch. Each phrase was, as they say, all over the map.

By now Wotan sees everything coming apart. The power of the Ring has contaminated the world and knowing he can never have both love and power Wotan just wants it all to end. As baritone Patterson sing/shouts “das Ende!” the house lights went on and Runnicles slowed the orchestra, intensifying the power of Wotan’s curse on the entire enterprise. Alas, so much was wrong with Brünnhilde’s sleep within a ring of fire, created by the underwear ensemble forming a circle and waving their arms up and down in a red spotlight. Pitiful.


Stamina, high spirits, and a golden instrument made Clay Hilley‘s Siegfried a resounding success. Most of the time. American heldentenor clearly had fun swaggering around the stage displaying a madcap arsenal of gestures, postures, and costume changes demanded by Herheim’s hyperactive directorial concept. And in keeping with Herheim’s collaging of historical performances, Hilley was here clad as super-tenor Lauritz Melchior’s 100 years earlier. Flowing robe, furskin vest, an intentionally artificial wig, and that fabulous sword. Hilley was every inch the Wagnerian tenor as he forged Nothung, his ringing high notes sounding clearly above every strike of his hammer. But his gestures as the foolish boy raised in the woods by an evil dwarf were too comic. As with so much of Herheim’s Ring the slapstick arm-waving pushed against the sublime perfume of the music. Perhaps Herheim was aiming for such a musico-emotional disconnect, occurring throughout the four operas. Only the control exerted by Runnicles throughout kept some of the scenes, notably those involving Hilley and the vibrato-intensive Merbeth, from crumbling/collapsing into sheer silliness.

Strangely effective was the costuming of Mime, the hero Siegfried’s surrogate parent, in a false hooked nose and Wagner’s signature purple beret. He was presented as the opera’s creator in Jewish-face, and portrayed in a kinetic performance by Ya-Chung Huang, whose precision energy helped distract from some of Hilley’s egregious gesturing. Again, we had the crowd drawing close, removing their clothing to form another ensemble of underwear, and when Siegfried encounters the sleeping Brünnhilde (this time portrayed by the elegant soprano Elisabeth Tiege), the barely-clad bystanders literally show the innocent hero what he should do next. Another crowd orgy.

Tiege, brilliant last season in Bayreuth as a resounding Sieglinde in Valentin Schwarz’s production of the Ring, provided welcome vocal beauty. Clear pitches up and down her tessitura, and graceful stage presence. She was missed in “Götterdämmerung.” Hilley did rise to the occasion, top notes ringing in his love duet with his sleeping beauty. Here again, the almost impossible beauty of Wagner’s music, as Siegfried discovers the sleeping Brünnhilde, becomes a living creature in Runnicles hands. The hypnotic chromaticism, the re-invention of the previous themes, Siegfried’s final aria “Sangst du mir nicht”—come alive with Wagner’s evolving leitmotifs. Yet Herheim ruins it with those annoying witnesses undressing the Ring.


The mood changed in this final episode of the Gesamtkunstwerk, which opened intriguingly in the lobby of the very opera house in which we sat. Deutsche Oper’s cloudlike wall sculpture moving back and forth, the cocktail tables, even the very bar many in the audience have just left to take their seats. Then in came the piano conveying the sleeping newlyweds (Hilley and Merbeth). At this point Merbeth’s vibrato unleashed itself in almost superhuman proportions. Even Hilley seemed to have grown a bigger sonic quaver, and Runnicles compensated by increasing orchestral volume as needed. With unfortunate arm movements and compromised by the torturous difficulty of stepping up onto the piano bench, and the climbing in and out of the piano itself—many times—this Brünnhilde failed to manage the vocal power or physical poise to draw us into her plight. Only the control exerted by Runnicles throughout kept some of the scenes, notably those involving Hilley and the vibrato-intensive Merbeth, from crumbling/collapsing into sheer absurdity.

The witnesses had become a tribunal of gods, seated high above the stage, clad in 19th century costumes of what gods might look like if Edmund Kean or Sarah Bernhardt were onstage.

Eventually those gods come down from their clouds and join the humans on the stage, witnesses to the machinations of the Gibuchungs and the bourgeois values that Wagner satirizes throughout.

The white veil that had been pulled up out of the piano for the past three operas, was now so long and cumbersome that it took the entire company to draw it out across the entire stage.

But why? What does that white veil, pulled over the heads of each singer at various points in the operas, stand for? Is it simply a space-filling device, a canvas for colored lighting? A handy shroud for Siegfried? We are given no rationale. But one thing the ubiquitous white veil is, is annoying.

A great moment—for the opera, the singers, and the visual stagecraft—transpired as Alberich visited his son Hagen (a compelling Albert Pesendorfer) in a dream. The trumpets were perfection. And so was Shanahan’s fierce Alberich as he encourages his son to kill Siegfried and return the Ring to the realm of the Nibelungen. Merbeth’s vibrato was now bouncing vertically, as was her body, up and down. Another stroke of visual genius device involved more underwear, when we watched Siegfried and Gunther (Thomas Lehman) remove their clothes, and re-dress in tuxedos complete with new shirts, cummerbunds, jackets, trousers, matching shoes and socks, until they are both dressed alike. It was a smart way of visually displaying the transformative powers of the Tarnhelm, which will make Brünnhilde think that Siegfried is Gunther. But like many of Herheim’s best ideas, it was self-cancelling. Two men attempting to sing while taking their clothes off and on again wearied the musical ideas.

The witnesses were now all wearing Alberich clown-face masks. No one is without ulterior motives, Herheim insists. This compelling costume design was reminiscent of the director’s use of a wig of long red hair in his “Parsifal.” Each of the players takes turns wearing this wig of blood, a mark of unholy shame, and transferable culpability.

The ending of this Ring recapitulates the beginning. We are left with a bare stage, a defiantly mundane perspective to consider while the most ravishing music of all is weaving its ultimate spell. Herheim ran out of ideas. Not even the refugees with their suitcases, only the closed piano on a bare stage. The sagging of directorial energy was palpable just when it should have been ramping up toward a denouement. Show over, end of story. Until the next telling. A sensory reductio, trivializing the great artwork into just another show. Especially while the music is conjuring the ultimate epiphany of fire and water, Valhalla and the Rhine, returning into each other’s primal substance. With Runnicles’s uncanny sensitivity to each instrument, each synthesis, each intake and exhalation, this Ring was anything but just another show.

Illuminating Moments

The Rhine Maidens taunting Siegfried to return the ring to them, morphed into the Norns, warning Siegfried about what was to come. Done by the removal of outer coats and long blonde wigs, to reveal the oracles in their white slips (more underwear) and bald heads. A chilling transformation.

The use of the big book that sat atop the piano, in which each character—without any detectable reason—sat down at the piano and consulted the book, as a script, as stage direction. With this simple and repeated gesture, we were invited to watch as the actors consulted a higher authority as to what their characters should do next. Watching them learn their parts. Very effective, if confusing.

Players to note included Thomas Blondelle as the naughty red-gloved Loge, and Jordan Shanahan as the juicily dynamic Alberich. Annika Schlicht shone as Waltraute, imploring her sister to give back the Ring and spare Wotan’s dream. Clay Hilley gave his all, and while he had the required staying power, he lacked vocal distinction. Tiege’s compelling stage presence and lustrous voice gave richness to her Brünnhilde. The intrepid Merbeth, despite unflattering costumes, a woeful wig, and flailing gestures stayed in the game to the bitter end.

In need of re-thinking is the set itself, the uncertain footing posed by stacked suitcases, and the treacherous steps from piano stool, to piano top, and down into the interior of the piano itself. For many of us, this will always remain the “Ring of the Underwear” thanks to the non-stop disrobing, as if the traveling witnesses were directed to strip whenever a scene needed a little something. And if underwear wasn’t enough to hold audience interest, they were required to energetically bump and grind with the rapturous music compromised by the ridiculous visuals. The concept of humanity as wanderers on a collective journey—restless, curious, uncertain—has aesthetic merit. But must they cavort in their underwear? Seriously? A tired idea unworthy of Herheim.

The star of this Ring was first, last, and always Wagner, whose musical masterwork reached its zenith in the hands of maestro Runnicles and his triumphant orchestra. A particularly elegant touch was bringing the entire orchestra up onto the stage for a bow, presented by Runnicles, joining hands with his young trumpet virtuosi with visible and well-deserved pride. It was a chill-making moment. These were the players who deserved the curtain calls.


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