Royal Opera House – Wagner’s Das Rheingold – with Christopher Maltman, Christopher Purves & Sean Panikkar; directed by Barrie Kosky; conducted by Antonio Pappano

Das Rheingold – Music drama in four Scenes to a libretto by the composer [Preliminary evening of Der Ring des Nibelungen; sung in German with English surtitles]

Wotan – Christopher Maltman
Alberich – Christopher Purves
Loge – Sean Panikkar
Fricka – Marina Prudenskaya
Freia – Kiandra Howarth
Voice of Erda – Wiebke Lehmkuhl
Donner – Kostas Smoriginas
Froh – Rodrick Dixon
Mime – Brenton Ryan
Fasolt – Insung Sim
Fafner – Soloman Howard
Woglinde – Katharina Konradi
Wellgunde – Niamh O’Sullivan
Flosshilde – Marvic Monreal
Erda – Rose Knox-Peebles

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Antonio Pappano

Barrie Kosky – Director
Rufus Diwiszua – Set Designer
Victoria Behr – Costume Designer
Alessandro Carletti – Lighting

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 11 September, 2023
Venue: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

The Royal Opera House’s 2023-24 season opens with this first instalment of Barrie Kosky’s new Ring, which will unfold over the next four years. In this same year that London also saw another new Das Rheingold (Richard Jones’s for English National Opera) it’s hard not to draw comparisons between the two, especially as some similarities are important and more than incidental. Both bring forward from the beginning of the final opera, Götterdämmerung, the symbol of the cosmic World Ash Tree, at which Wotan drank (and sacrificed an eye) and from which he seized a branch (becoming his spear of authority) paralleling Alberich’s rape of the gold at the beginning of the cycle.

Whereas in Jones’s version those parallels were drawn in snappy episodes between the opera’s Scenes and so rather imposed upon it (however insightful it is as an idea and set amidst a fair degree of comedy) Kosky places the concept of the despoliation of nature centre stage and with thoroughgoing consistency, though also with more than a dash of his usual theatrical bravado. The desiccated tree forms the huge centrepiece, black and ashen like used charcoal, and the earth is embodied in the person of Erda throughout, depicted as a wizened old woman, looking back over the ways in which the world’s inhabitants have exhausted her resources.

Like Jones’s production, Kosky also foregoes any real rainbow bridge – rightly so as, in a barren and parched world with sulphurous smoke, there can be no moisture through which light can be refracted – in favour of an iridescent shower of ticker tape. Initially it seems a needlessly kitsch stroke, seeing that the defunct tree trunk has been removed from the stage and so no deeper ironic comment can be made in relation to it. But in fact, it works better than for Jones (or than omitting it entirely) as it aligns with Kosky’s trademark strategy of consciously framing the operas he mounts as works of theatrical artifice. Here, that ploy is set up before Wagner’s music even starts, as the rear of the set simply shows the backstage of a theatre before crepuscular facades close it off as the figure of Erda (acted by Rose Knox-Peebles) comes on. It only opens up again for that hollow triumphal ending in which Erda’s gleaming, statuesque form is revolved as a golden mascot – standing in for the yellow and orange of the other rainbow colours showered down – now liquidated and valorised as a meretriciously valuable but capitalised commodity by the warring tribes of the drama just past. (It also makes a neat counterpart to the idea of false consciousness, skilfully pursued in Jones’s own previous production of the Ring for Covent Garden, which dramatised the theme of Ludwig Feuerbach’s philosophy about the gods as figures who are similarly exalted and turned into empty archetypes.) Also, when the curtains are drawn for the set changes between each Scene, the theatre’s gold leaf proscenium arch is mischievously illumined – the first time drawing the connection between what Alberich has just seized and Wotan’s new, glistening castle about which we are shortly to hear in the next Scene. But evidently that spectacle is to direct our thoughts to our own consumption of resources when the backstage set is revealed again at the end, and the gods look out into the auditorium at us, as they survey where they may be about to take up residence. 

Up to the end, Erda is effectively and ironically identified as the Rhine gold itself. Having stood by for much of Scene One it is she whom Alberich seizes, after the three Goth-like, but fresh-voiced, Rhinemaidens have humiliated him and the gold first appeared like some radioactive effluent oozing out of the tree, a by-product of the earth’s industrialisation. In Scene Two Erda’s servitude is apparently more innocuous, as she waits on the gods, like a Lyons tea house maid, at their rather Edwardian picnic party, in which a huge rug conveniently hides the defunct tree from sight and memory while they consume their food and drink. But as Loge taunts them after the giants have kidnapped Freia (for once drawing out here a more than merely mythological significance to her golden apples which keep the gods young, as they grow grey like the environment around them here) – what hope can there be for nourishment and sustenance once the earth is a depleted wasteland, incapable of yielding any more wholesome produce?  

Down in Nibelheim, more gunge seeps from the tree and has been collected in buckets by the diminutive Nibelungs with hideous, deformed heads. Seemingly making a reference to Frank Castorf’s own sardonic take on the Ring for Bayreuth, in which his central, serious point was that the liquid gold is to be interpreted as oil (the valuable commodity that powers socio-economic development, as well as greed), that briefly also appears to be the idea here. But a much younger Erda is strapped up by her breasts to pipes which feed a machine to extract her milk, and Alberich relishes the (no doubt ultra-processed) product. It probably doesn’t particularly matter what the golden substance is to be interpreted as, and indeed it has stood in for any number of things or concepts in however many productions, but clearly there is a direct connection between the fertility of Mother Earth, and the nurturing and sustaining of human life – an exchange which has become abused and perverted.

The crux of that relationship is made most dramatically potent in Scene Four as Erda’s warning to Wotan to give up the ring is heard (but not seen) in Wiebke Lehmkuhl’s chillingly cutting, offstage delivery, while her embodiment on stage embraces the god in a complex concentration of ideas and histories (focused under a spotlight). In what seems like a dramatic realisation of Deryck Cooke’s argument (in his book I Saw the World End) about the other gods functioning more simply as projections of different aspects of Wotan’s character rather than personalities in their own right, the god – having been rather aloof from his peers before this point – now comes into close confrontation with the one other character who his most central to the narrative in Kosky’s retelling of it. It alludes to their erotic relationship, as Erda will bear to Wotan the Valkyries. But it also seems like a reversal of the German folk theme of Death and the Maiden, as it is the essentially timeless Erda who brings to the apparently energetic Wotan knowledge of the gods’ downfall, resignation and death. In her elderly, almost witch-like state, however, perhaps Kosky also harks back to his characterisation of the Witch of Endor in his acclaimed Glyndebourne production of Handel’s Saul where, in a graphic symbolising of the blasphemy (in Jewish theology) of the Israelite’s king seeking wisdom from this pagan, unenlightened source, she suckled him from her drooping breasts. Likewise, Erda metes out something of the same warped comfort to Wotan here, Kosky maybe also exploiting the metatheatrical coincidence that Christopher Purves takes the role of the god here, as he did Saul before.

Compared with the accomplished stagecraft, musically this underpowered first night felt in many ways rather more like a dress rehearsal. Sir Antonio Pappano and the ROH orchestra give a not especially urgent account of the music, volume remaining within a fairly-narrow range and tempos cautious but not probingly flexible. Indeed in this longest of continuous operatic scores, quiet or silent moments actually seemed to dissipate tension (particularly in the transition between Scenes) rather than carrying it through, virtually rendering the piece as a series of discrete movements. The Prelude didn’t really create dramatic expectation, but simply piled up the successive instruments without accumulating weight or energy.

The singers also tend to seem tentative and not fully engaged. Christopher Maltman bestows some gravitas and authority in his performance as Wotan but not always, though in vocal terms he certainly remains at the centre. Purves’s Alberich begins with a catarrhal muttering (even if he is submerged in the tree) and doesn’t entirely shake that off. He is clearer elsewhere but doesn’t exhibit terrifying power or evil (at Nibelheim or when cursing the ring) but only (an almost ineffectual) scheming. Sean Panikkar is the one unqualified success as an excitable, voluble Loge with vocal avidity to match, precisely bringing his skills to bear on this role that is made by Kosky to be almost as dramaturgically important as Erda. Loge is enlisted as a vital partner in the ironic, comical framing of the whole narrative, as when he is spotlighted, like a cabaret star, for his Scene Two monologue recounting his fruitless travels over the earth to find a substitute for Freia as payment and also the Rhinemaidens’ bewailing their missing gold (knowing full well that Wotan wouldn’t give that up); and also his irreverent miming in similar karaoke vein when the water nymphs, offstage, again lament their lost treasure at the end.

Marina Prudenskaya is more a goading Fricka than lustrous and lyrical; Kiandra Howarth’s Freia is arrestingly powerful by contrast, as the character who is distressingly harried and pawned, but would become hectoring over longer stretches. Insung Sim is appropriately eloquent as Fasolt, the giant who shows some capacity for the warmth of human emotion in his passion for Freia, though as the murderous giant Fafner, who isn’t so moved, Soloman Howard’s fluttering wide vibrato doesn’t register as fearsome enough. Within Mime’s typically whining music, Brenton Ryan manages to incite sympathy for the character’s browbeaten situation.

Much more could still be said about the thought-provoking connections which Kosky proposes in this production. As should be clear, however, this is a hugely rewarding experience, that draws fresh sustenance from Wagner’s virtually limitless drama and turns it into a coherent, satisfying interpretation but set within a compellingly theatrical, ironic context. Although the themes will presumably be developed in subsequent instalments, it feels like a complete drama in itself, not requiring any familiarity with the other parts of the tetralogy. Even if musical standards don’t overwhelm, the production is still riveting.

Further performances to September 29

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