Historical spotlight: Richard Wagner’s “Rheingold”

130 years ago, the Berliner Philharmoniker gave their first concert performance of an opera

Once a year, the Berliner Philharmoniker become an opera orchestra – during the Easter Festival, which took place for the first time 50 years ago in 1967. Herbert von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker began an ambitious project in the Salzburg Festspielhaus: the performance of Richard Wagner’s Ring. They started with Die Walküre, and the prelude to the tetralogy, Das Rheingold, with Thomas Stewart as Wotan and Brigitte Fassbaender as Fricka, followed a year later. The work was revived for the 1969 festival. In conjunction with a further revival in 1973, a film recording of the opera was made, the only video documenting a Karajan staging of a Wagner opera that exists – and which can be viewed in the archive of the Digital Concert Hall.

Commemorating Richard Wagner

Although the Berliner Philharmoniker gained worldwide recognition as interpreters of Wagner’s operas as part of the Easter Festival, the first performance of Das Rheingold by the orchestra was actually given 80 years earlier, on 15 February 1887. Richard Wagner died on 13 February 1883, and since that date, the Berlin Wagner Society commemorated his death every year with a memorial concert. Although the concerts which the Society had given with the Berliner Philharmoniker had so far included excerpts from Wagner operas, the decision was made for the fifth commemoration to give a concert performance of Das Rheingold. The musical director was Karl Klindworth, a close friend and admirer of Wagner, who since 1882 had lived in Berlin where he worked as a piano teacher, pianist and conductor. The cast of singers included several famous names: Karl Hill in the role of Wotan had sung Alberich at the premiere in Bayreuth in 1876, and Anton Erl from Dresden, who sang Loge, was considered one of the leading tenors of his time. As can be seen in the programme booklet, the Philharmoniker grew in number to 100 musicians.

“An absurdity in evening dresses”

“The orchestra, which in all material respects did its job well, frequently lacked the necessary refinement,” stated the review in the publication Signale für die musikalische Welt. While the musical and vocal performance was viewed favourably, the reviewer thundered against the form of the concert performance: “Allowances can be made for the Rhinemaidens scene being transplanted to the concert hall, but the whole of Rheingold in evening dresses, tails and white gloves is an absurdity.” The Neue Berliner Musikzeitung also noted that of all Wagner’s music dramas, Rheingold needed scenery. “But for the sake of the music, this presentation deserves thanks.” After all, the most recent performance of the work, which had also been the Berlin premiere, took place at the Hofoper six years previously. However, interest in the event seems only to have been moderate – the critic also mentioned the large number of empty seats and standing places. While public and press reacted somewhat reservedly towards the unusual concert presentation, Wagner himself may perhaps have warmed to the idea. After all, he once remarked about a performance of Parsifal, “Alas! I cannot stand all this costume and grease-paint business ... and after having invented the invisible orchestra, I would like to create the invisible theatre!”

Rheingold in the Digital Concert Hall

Karl Klindworth
(Photo: Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)