Das Rheingold – Music drama in four scenes to a libretto by the composer [Preliminary evening of Der Ring des Nibelungen; sung in Jeremy Sams’s English translation]
Wotan – Eric Greene
Loge – Brenden Gunnell
Fricka – Chrystal E. Williams
Freia – Francesca Chiejina
Froh – Amar Muchhala
Donner – Byron Jackson
Erda – Gweneth-Ann Rand
Alberich – Ross Ramgobin
Mime – John-Colyn Gyeantey
Fasolt – Keel Watson
Fafner – Andrew Slater
The Rhine Girls
Woglinde – Zoe Drummond
Wellgunde – Felicity Buckland
Flosshilde – Georgia Mae Bishop
Birmingham Opera Company Actors
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Richard Willacy – Director
Stuart Nunn – Design
Matthew Richardson – Lighting Design
Sheelagh Barnard – Project Director
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 1 August, 2021
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham
It was three decades ago when the then City of Birmingham Touring Opera mounted its first production of Wagner’s Ring cycle as a statement of intent that the now Birmingham Opera Company has followed up in numerous productions. Time, then, to reconsider what has been achieved over this period and, moreover, to tackle anew what had remained Western opera’s most radical and provocative but also equivocal achievement; at a time when the very raison d’être of Western culture is under scrutiny – in certain quarters, even attack – as never before.
On one level this was not Wagner’s Rhinegold as intended – COVID factors having led to the decision to move from the planned location of Port Loop to Symphony Hall in a semi-staging which, if it inevitably diffuses the assaultive element that characterizes BOC’s approach, does not detract from its intent. Essentially, this is a production which brings various defining traits from the present or recent past – such as fake news, the gig economy, establishment nepotism, racial and gender exploitation – into a productive collision in which theatrical disjuncture and emotional dislocation are more relevant than any wanton attempt at dramatic unity. Certainly, its unfolding ‘in the round’ – on a raised stage between orchestra and audience – enhances the fluidity of action crucial to this preliminary evening of Wagner’s conception; in the process, setting down markers that can be elaborated and intensified over the course of the trilogy to follow. Costume and lighting further this ‘less will, in time, become more’ strategy, keeping the onstage action relevant but not straying too far from the drama as played out in the music.
A strategy such as also informs the translation of Wagner’s libretto by Jeremy Sams. Not for the first time, the latter has found a viable means with which to render this composer’s often combative if sometimes effortful prose into an English as is immediate and streetwise while never seeking to belittle, let alone ridicule, its ambition. Overhead microphones convey what is being sung with only minimal blurring or distortion, while the placing of the singers vis-à-vis the orchestra vindicates the absence of surtitles as just one more unnecessary distraction.
Most of the singers have been encountered in previous BOC productions. Eric Greene has the vocal heft and authority necessary as Wotan, and while his tone is on occasion strained or his expression vacillating, these serve to extend the range of an already absorbing figure. Chrystal E. Williams has the full measure of Fricka in her innate caution and social hypocrisy, while Francesca Chiejina’s Freia is at once vulnerable and anguished through so being a victim of circumstance. Amar Muchhala is a mellifluous Froh and Byron Jackson a forceful Donner, while Gweneth-Ann Rand offers a brief though mesmeric cameo as Erda. Brenden Gunnell otherwise steals the show as a Loge whose Machiavellian scheming is replete with touches of camp humour and tendency to quickfire violence, in a portrayal of the utmost distinction.
Ross Ramgobin initially feels too elegant as Albreich, though his portrayal intensifies as the drama proceeds – leading to a confrontation in Nibelheim of visceral impact then a ‘curse’ of vengeful anger. John-Colyn Gyeantey strikes just the right note of wheedling hopelessness as Mime and Andrew Slater is (rightly) emotionally circumspect as Fafner, ceding the limelight to Keel Watson’s eloquent Fasolt until the latter’s fateful demise. As to the ‘Rhine Girls’, Zoe Drummond, Felicity Buckland, and Georgia Mae Bishop are well differentiated as Woglinde, Wellgunde and Flosshilde – even if their characterization feels too knowing to have made the disastrous mistake that sets events in motion. The actors acquit their numerous roles ably, not least in representing the social ‘underclass’ that unwittingly serves the aspirations of any era.
Playing in its accustomed venue, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra gives a vital and committed account of Wagner’s multivalent score – only relatively downsized compared to the stated requirements and rarely, if ever, lacking textural depth or dynamic impact. That this was made possible by a continued removal of raised sections on the platform more than compensates for any lack of clarity in heavily scored passages; those more inward passages having a delicacy and translucency ideal in context. Making his debut as Music Director of BOC, Alpesh Chauhan directs with assurance and insight – a little too literal, perhaps, in the opening scene, but with a growing sense of where the drama is headed while characterizing those scenic transitions with a flexibility to suggest a natural opera conductor in the making.
A sense of the departed Graham Vick presiding over this production was hard to avoid. What transpired this evening, however, more than suggests the viability of this Ring cycle is secure – as, one hopes, is BOC in its quest to make opera relevant for the present and for the future.