A tale of two rings 2022: Scenography at Bayreuth and Berlin


Bayreuth & Berlin Rings 2022


By Esteban Insausti

2022 saw the premieres of two new productions of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Bayreuth Festival in August and at Berlin’s Staatsoper Unter den Linden in October. The tetralogy has been a challenge to opera companies, directors and designers since its premiere in Bayreuth in August 1876. Every Ring production is judged, fairly or unfairly, on a number of previous productions. Some of these benchmark productions originate from Bayreuth. The logistics of mounting such a large production, engaging singers and musicians that can tackle this repertoire, and budgets, dictate whether the work can be mounted in one year. Few houses other than Bayreuth have the ability and resources to carry this out. Staatsoper Unter den Linden committed to a new production in one year in honour of Daniel Barenboim’s 80th birthday. Barenboim has been their long-time music director. Even rival Deutsche Oper created their latest production (premiered as a whole in late 2021) over a number of years (interrupted by Covid), directed by Stefan Herheim, co-designed by him and Silke Bauer, and conducted by Donald Runnicles.

The days of “traditional” or “naturalistic” productions, apart from the popular ones seen in Seattle, are over. They are certainly over in Europe. Since Wieland Wagner’s post-war 1951 Bayreuth Ring, a staging which broke with “tradition” but drew heavily on Adolphe Appia and the contemporary understanding of Classical Greek Theatre, one can say that productions fluctuate in a large range between the mythic and the political. Patrice Chareau’s centennial production (Bayreuth 1976) established the benchmark away from Wieland’s mythic world by setting the Marxist class struggle described in G.B.Shaw’s The Perfect Wagnerite to music. With sets by Richard Peduzzi, this Ring ranged aesthetically between the late 19th century and modern times, with top hats and large industrial revolution machinery cheek by jowl with hydro-electric dams. Class was to the fore. It was astonishing, and challenging, to the audience at the time. An audience that up to that point, the first generation of the Neue Bayreuth era, had been comfortable with Wieland’s and Wolfgang’s discs, split or otherwise, light and colour, as well as mythical totemic backdrops and stage elements. It is possible that Chareau’s concept could not have occurred without the landmark Leipzig production from 1973-1976 by Joachim Herz, which set the Ring as a parable of 19th century class conflict.

But why talk about benchmarks at all? In Wagner, and specially the Ring, it is important to understand where a production sits in the context of the history of performances. All stage productions have to confront the question as to why a particular work needs to be staged in that particular place and time. However, the nature of a piece like the Ring is such that it invites constant interpretation and identification with contemporary issues. Like Shakespeare, Richard Wagner seems to have the ability to ground his work in his time but also lift it into ANY time. Ruth Berghaus summarised this when talking of her production in Frankfurt: “The Ring [...] does not take place in a single time and place but rather always. That is why there can be no anachronisms.”(2)

After 146 years of productions is there anything left to say about the Ring? Of course there is. Harry Kupfer stated in an interview with the Los Angeles Times at the time of his landmark Bayreuth production: “The people who see this Ring” he insisted, “should learn something. They should not close their eyes, enjoy the pretty music and think how nice these world-destructions are. I want to give the audience something to think about.”(3)

So, to Valentin Schwarz and Dmitri Tcherniakov. What of their much-awaited productions? Both productions encapsulate the concerns and tropes of our time: binge television, reality dramas, social media, crime. To start with, there are more conceptual and scenographic similarities between the two than is comfortable. The scenographic and conceptual boundaries were not pushed or breached in any way as was the case with productions by Chareau or Kupfer. Certain narrative departures and, in the case of Schwarz, questionable topics, annoyed and confounded those of us that saw the productions live. Both creative teams were working in houses that have cutting edge technology with multiple scenic opportunities and state of the art lighting at their disposal. In the case of the recently renovated Unter den Linden, expanded wing space, turntable and lifting. Tcherniakov used all this to great effect in Das Rheingold in particular. Schwarz’s production was consciously traditional in its banal almost mono setting.

Tcherniakov directed and designed in Berlin, whilst Schwarz directed in Bayreuth with designs by Andrea Cozzi. First some of the similarities: both productions decided to stage their Ring almost exclusively indoors and in one architectural setting. The ambience in both productions carries GDR (DDR) wood panelling to new levels. Both productions began with a video projection that established (presumably) the main theme of their production. In Bayreuth the video of DNA and twins set an interesting proposition that was not clearly reflected in the set or the subsequent mise en scene. In Berlin the video showed the effects of an experiment with dyes injected into a brain – human behaviour, under constant experiment, pervaded the E.S.C.H.E. (the institution Tcherniakov uses as his setting). Nature, a significant presence in Wagner’s drama, hardly appears in either production. The biological videos are the closest “nature” gets to the setting. Tcherniakov used video projections throughout. Both productions set out to show no tricks or magic – we are meant to be in a very human world.

Following the DNA video Schwarz’s initial stage image is of a shallow pool, outdoors, with a traditional painted landscape backdrop. The landscape may be described as a Bavarian one, with soft rolling hills and lush trees. This is not the Rhine of cliffs, rocks and mountains. The same pool, but in deep section, and painted bucolic landscape appear in the last Act of Götterdämmerung as a kind of bookend. After the theft of the gold (I won’t discuss this confusing and controversial staging) the stage transforms in front of our eyes into a luxury interior. The five or six pieces that make up the entire Ring set are flown, pushed and brought together to create every scene in the tetralogy. For Schwarz and Cozzi, their concept was to stage the tetralogy as a Netflix family drama, Falconcrest on the Rhine or Succession of the Nibelungen. Set in, presumably, Wotan’s estate “Walhalla”, we are never clear where we are, as the same pieces of the set reconfigure to suggest different spaces within the same “house”. There is a mezzanine just above normal door height that is used very sparingly. This is unusual as the space the mezzanine takes up is substantial and highlights the small scale of the set. The Bayreuth stage is very tall, as wide as it is tall, and Schwarz and Cozzi’s set “swims” in it. There are walls of translucent plastic above the mezzanine that try to give the set an epic quality (and mask the vastness of the stage) but to my eye made the scene look like a factory. Was this meant to depict large windows? Why couldn’t we have seen the painted landscape instead? The plastic sheeting lends itself to beautiful lighting effects but this was not explored until Act 2 of Götterdämmerung where a white box with walls and ceiling constructed of this plastic sheeting provided the most beautiful and effective setting of the whole production. 

This “house”, Walhalla, was rather banal, perhaps to reflect the banality of the “gods” dwelling in it. The only trappings of luxury were some large paintings, the ubiquitous Eames chair and a glowing pyramid object that may or may not have represented the gold or ring. This pyramid is also depicted in a much larger form as a glasshouse or outbuilding that is never integrated into the setting or explained. For me there were similarities to Asplund’s and Lewerentz’s Staff Quarters (now restored as Visitor’s Centre) in their Woodland Cemetery in Stockholm – the pyramid shape further emphasising a funereal or death cult atmosphere. The depiction of landscape in this luxury interior is something that is contained and minimised. Some plants and bushes are depicted in a small “courtyard” that in some configurations looks like a vitrine – nature captured, contained, on display in this vacuous luxury house. The set did not fill the stage, in the same way that Castorf ’s and Aleksandar Denic’s setting dominated the Bayreuth stage with its height and multiple spaces. Castorf may have confounded the audience with ideas outside the Wagnerian narrative but there was a consistent reference to oil as the gold down to the peeling posters on the drab walls of the Berlin tenements and we knew where we were.

With Tcherniakov we know we are in the E.S.C.H.E. Institute (Forschungszentrum or research centre), as the stage curtain on show prior to the start of every opera (except Götterdämmerung) depicts the architectural plan of the building. In Das Rheingold he proceeds to shows us the various spaces or rooms (10 by my count including a Lecture Hall, various Laboratories, a Conference Room and an office) in which the tetralogy will unfold. The action unfolds like an episode of The West Wing with characters walking and singing through the corridors and rooms, opening and closing doors as they go. When Wotan and Loge descend to Nibelheim (Scene 3 of Das Rheingold) by lift, the whole set lifts to follow the pair down to the basement (a disused office/laboratory taken over by Alberich and his brother Mime). This was impressive, a coup de théâtre, but other staging ideas seem to work against this “magic”. For instance, Hunding’s Hut (a deconstructed room that was reused several times, as Mime and Siegfried’s home and as Brünnhilde’s rock in Götterdämmerung) is attached to Wotan’s office with a large one-way mirror window. This setting sits on a bare stage and spins around, we are in a theatre watching this experiment with Wotan, seems to be the message. The limitations of the E.S.C.H.E. Institute concept and the rooms we saw was highlighted by the scenes in front of Fafner’s cave in Act 2 of Siegfried. These scenes were mainly sung in between the rooms amongst the scaffold and construction of the sets – it was visually interesting but highlighted the limitations of the set. Or was it meant to convey that we were in an in between world? A world between gods and men, between reality and fantasy? At other times the singers step outside the rooms and interact on the stage, breaking the convention of being in a set.

There were few, if any, beautiful stage images or memorable moments in either production. In the Schwarz Ring the Wotan Fricka confrontation in Act 2 of Die Walküre was very good. Set during the wake for Freia (who committed suicide after being abused by the Giants) this whole dialogue had the feel of the opening of The Godfather Part 1. And Hunding was present throughout making the outcome even more chilling. The farewell scene at the end of Die Walküre was memorable for what happened after the singing was done. A wall descends between Brünnhilde and Wotan. Once it touches the ground Wotan collapses in grief. At that moment Fricka comes on stage with a drinks trolley carrying a bottle of champagne and a single candle (the magic fire?) presumably to celebrate her victory. Wotan takes one of the glasses of champagne from Fricka but proceeds to pour it on the ground, takes off his wedding ring and drops it into the empty glass which he hands back to Fricka. He then picks up Brünnhilde’s hat from the ground, puts it on, signalling his transition into Wanderer, and walks away. The end of the marriage and the beginning of the end for the gods. Chilling. Another magical moment was the entry of the vassals in Act 2 of Götterdämmerung, a terrifying image as the back wall of the white cube space lifts up to present a group of men in black with red masks advancing through smoke. Wished the rest of the production had such moments of stage beauty.

In the Tcherniakov Ring the image of Brünnhilde alone on stage at the end of both Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung placed her at the centre of the message for this production – the one person that successfully transitions from institutionalised experiment to free civilian. At the end of Die Walküre the Lecture Hall in which Act 3 took place receded upstage with Wotan, arm outstretched, farewelling his favourite child as she took centre stage (literally) for the second half of the tetralogy. Similarly at the very end, when Valhalla burns and the Rhine bursts its banks, Brünnhilde appears on an empty stage carrying a suitcase, the Schopenhauerian words that Wagner did not use to describe the end of the world scroll on the back wall (shades of what XXX did at the end of the Stuttgart Götterdämmerung in 1998). Erda walks on to greet Brünnhilde and offer her the toy Grane, she refuses it. She then pulls the stage curtain with the plan of E.S.C.H.E. down, having left the experiment she now stands alone in our world – a survivor, a refugee, an exile?

As previously mentioned nature is absent from this scientific world except for an ash (esche) tree (the source from which Wotan derives power and knowledge but also in its dying stage the harbinger of “Das Ende”, as well as the play on words for the institute’s name) at the centre of the only space which may be considered to be “outside”, a semi-circular courtyard. There is a room with live rabbits in cages which may also be considered to represent “nature” but its true meaning is inaccessible. The passing of time is effectively represented by the aging characters, the fashion and also the furniture in the rooms. In Götterdämmerung there is even an obvious change in management with the Gibichungs redecorating the conference room and Wotan’s office with modern wall panelling and furniture.

The importance of a Ring production rests with the director’s concept of the whole tetralogy and the designer’s visual execution of that concept. In the case of both Schwarz/Cozzi and Tcherniakov, they succeed but only partially. Tcherniakov confidently filled the Unter den Linden stage with multiple meticulously detailed “rooms” that shifted, lifted and spun, using the stage machinery and technology to the full. Schwarz and Cozzi in Bayreuth seemed cowered by the size of the stage and perhaps the history associated with the theatre. Whilst the set pieces that made up the luxury estate were beautifully detailed, they seemed pale and simple on the vast Bayreuth stage.

(1) Michael Cooper, “Harry Kupfer, Director and ‘Opera King of Berlin,’ Dies at 84”, The New York Times, 3 January 2020.
(2) Josef Oehrlein, “Signale aus der Götterwelt: Ein Gespräch zur Siegfried-Premiere mit Ruth Berghaus,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 8 November, 1986.
(3) Martin Bernheimer, “Kupfer’s Controversial New ‘Ring’ in Bayreuth : High-Tech Kitsch”, Los Angeles Times, 14 August 1988.