ENO The Rhinegold

Wagner
The Rhinegold

[Part One of the Ring Cycle. Sung in Jeremy Sams’s English translation]

Gods:
Wotan – Robert Hayward
Donner – Darren Jeffery *
Froh – Andrew Rees
Fricka – Susan Parry
Freia – Claire Weston
Loge – Tom Randle
Erda – Patricia Bardon

Nibelungs:
Alberich – Andrew Shore
Mime – John Graham-Hall

Giants:
Fasolt – Iain Paterson
Fafner – Gerard O’Connor

Rhinemaidens:
Woglinde – Linda Richardson
Wellgunde – Stephanie Marshall
Flosshilde – Ethna Robinson

Orchestra of English National Opera
Paul Daniel

Phyllida Lloyd – director
Richard Hudson – designer
Simon Mills – lighting

[* Role sung by Paul Napier-Burrows at this performance]


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 13 March, 2004
Venue: Coliseum, London

No artistic undertaking has ever had the depth of ambiguity in its content to match that of Wagner’s Ring cycle. When all has been said about Norse legend as seen through the lens of bourgeois culture, Wagner’s tetralogy remains available to a host of interpretations according to ideological conviction, aesthetic preference or merely personal prejudice. Having ’broken in’ its latest Ring through a series of concert and semi-staged performances over the past three years, the time was ripe – not least with the reopening of the Coliseum – for English National Opera to put the drama back onto the stage.

One salient aspect of our understanding of Wagner’s epic is its drawing of a fine line between morality play and existential farce – something that Phyllida Lloyd’s staging brings out in full measure. Utilising the white oblong set familiar from ENO productions of a decade and more, she presents the Rhinegold as cosmic kitchen-sink melodrama: one in which the Rhinemaidens are pole-dancers at an archetypal ’down-town’ nightclub (seemingly run by Loge), Alberich a seedy client who snatches the gold in retaliation for their rebuffs, and Wotan the proud owner of snazzy new pad unable to pay the builder-giants the agreed price. So far, so believable in terms of abstracting the narrative out of its 19th-century context and planting it firmly in the present era.

Other aspects of the plot are less easily explained from this vantage, and may present additional obstacles as the cycle progresses. Thus Alberich’s snatching of the gold – viable simply in terms of the nightclub’s ’holdings’, but hardly something that necessitates renouncing love. And would any such low-life crook use it to establish an underground den devoted to genetic experiments, manned by a mob of boiler-suited cyborgs? On the other hand, equating Freia’s golden apples with Wotan and Company’s mandatory ’fix’ would have been plausible at a time of opiated upper echelons and has all too great a resonance today. With the help of Richard Hudson’s claustrophobic set designs and often luridly suggestive lighting from Simon Mills, Lloyd’s depiction of incest and corruption at the heart of ’East End-heim’ is vindicated – at least for now.

Vocally, this is a well-sung if not yet fully ’in character’ staging. Robert Hayward is a strong, secure but rather anonymous Wotan – less a knowing master-of-ceremonies than a ’big(ish) noise’ caught on the back-foot when it comes to his shady dealings and no doubt shadier lifestyle. His failure, thus far, to rise above giants and other gods alike robs the narrative of some of its dramatic focus. As Fricka, Susan Parry has relatively little to react against when it comes to her husband’s authority, though she acquits herself ably enough. Claire Weston is an accurate but rather shrewish Freia – clearly as happy to be Fasolt’s sidekick as she is Wotan’s ’moll’ – Andrew Rees a properly lightweight Froh, while, at this performance, Paul Napier-Burrows’s commanding offstage voice co-ordinated with the vocally-indisposed Darren Jeffrey’s onstage Donner most convincingly. Gerard O’Connor and Iain Paterson were respectively ruthless and (fatally) accommodating as Fafner and Fasolt, Patricia Bardon made a starkly ominous contribution as Erda, while the three Rhinemaidens were neatly delineated as to vocal colouring.

Pride of place vocally, however, must go to Andrew Shore’s Alberich and Tom Randle’s Loge. Shore has nastiness and viciousness aplenty, yet also a perverted integrity necessary to gain understanding – if not sympathy as such. There can have been few so comprehensive assumptions of the role in recent years, and he is ably complemented by John Graham-Hall’s wheedling, put-upon Mime. Randle is a natural as Loge – not the sly charlatan as he used to be played, but a chameleon able to switch between character according to context, and with the intelligence to foresee that the machinations of others will inevitably end in tears. Numerous latter-day productions have made Loge the focal point of Wagner’s ’preparatory evening’, and Randle ensures he assumes that role here effortlessly.

Paul Daniel came in for a fair degree of criticism over his conducting of the concert performances. True, he doesn’t always increase tension to the degree needed – the transitions into and out of the third scene went for relatively little – but the astute pacing and care for balance he showed over the course of the work (Wagner’s shortest music-drama or longest single-act, depending on your viewpoint) was Wagnerian conducting of no mean distinction. Some less than judicious horn playing just where it matters most – in the prelude and transition to the second scene – was unfortunate, but outweighed by the attentiveness of the ENO orchestra’s playing through much of the evening.

So, a Rhinegold full of its own ambiguities and half-measures, which nonetheless did justice to both the spirit of the work and its execution. Not that the cycle gets easier in any respect here-on-in: Lloyd and Daniel will be well aware of the trials ahead – such as making the Ring as much an obsession for listeners experiencing it from the outside as for those characters trapped irredeemably within.

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