The Royal Opera – Das Rheingold

Das Rheingold [Preliminary evening of Der Ring des Nibelungen; Music drama in four scenes]

Wotan – Bryn Terfel
Donner – James Rutherford
Froh – Will Hartmann
Fricka – Rosalind Plowright
Freia – Emily Magee
Loge – Philip Langridge
Erda – Jane Henschel

Alberich – Günter von Kannen
Mime – Gerhard Siegel

Fasolt – Franz-Josef Selig
Fafner – Phillip Ens

Woglinde – Sarah Fox
Wellgunde – Heather Shipp
Flosshilde – Liora Grodnikaite

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano

Director – Keith Warner
Designer – Stefanos Lazaridis
Costumes – Marie-Jeanne Lecca
Lighting – Wolfgang Göbbel

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 18 December, 2004
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

How quixotic opera scheduling in London can be. Having been devoid of Rings for some years, ENO and the Royal Opera embark on their cycles more-or-less simultaneously. Also, the Proms is programming concert performances over four years, and Das Rheingold received a stimulating performance on ‘authentic’ instruments from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Simon Rattle last August.

ENO is three-quarters of the way through Phyllida Lloyd’s production of the tetralogy and whilst I have not seen her “Rhinegold”, the scenario and images she and her team provided for “The Valkyrie” and “Siegfried” did not fit comfortably or easily with the composer’s scenic or dramatic intentions, quite apart from being at odds with what is suggested by the music.

Keith Warner’s conception is not a ‘back to basics’ one – i.e. placing the drama in the settings the composer intended which include under-water, under-ground and on mountain tops – but what he and his imaginative design team have devised is generally thoroughly convincing and gives the impression of stemming directly from the drama inherent in the music.

At quite a few points the orchestra served as a ‘character’ in its own right, with those on-stage reacting to themes and motives emanating from the pit. In fact, one can pay no higher compliment than to report that for much of the time, music, action and setting were fused as one, making a true totality – just as Wagner intended.

This is a production which invites repeated viewing and I cannot pretend to have assimilated all its symbolism after one performance, or that my interpretation is that intended by the director and his associates.

The most apparent aspect of the settings and attendant accoutrements is the preponderance of squares, rectangles and associated shapes and objects. Many Ring productions – starting, perhaps, with Wieland Wagner’s post-war Bayreuth productions – have, naturally, chosen the circle as a focus. In Keith Warner’s Das Rheingold, these were hardly in evidence. To be sure, the Rhinegold itself was a sphere contained within a large silver bauble, and clearly the focal point for the Rhine-maidens’ veneration.

The first scene seemed – on one acquaintance – the least effective or lucid. It is probably the most difficult scene of the Ring to ‘bring off’, given its intended setting – under-water. Projections of what turned out to be squares suggested the Rhine-maidens were climbing something formed of giant cobwebs. In fact the only clearly aquatic indication was the rowing boat in which Alberich made his descent. The scene was surrounded by large glass-panelled cupboards with open drawers which, in various guises, positions and quantities, were present in all four scenes.

The rather matter-of-fact reading of the Prelude (not assisted by wayward horns) did not set the scene ideally for the girls’ flirtatious gambolling, and a more vivacious articulation by the singers would have set-off the more tragic events which unfurl all too soon. The collective cries of “Rheingold” lacked an ecstatic, uninhibited quality. Individually, the singing was confident, with Heather Shipp’s Wellgunde perhaps being the most distinctive. She it was who was obliged to peer into Alberich’s trousers and articulate her distaste!

Günter von Kannen is a seasoned, distinguished exponent of that role but, initially, seemed a touch understated. His renunciation of love was not the tragic and decisive moment it needs to be, though the lack of tension from the orchestra at this point was undoubtedly a contributory factor.

During the subsequent orchestral interlude, Wagner’s fantastic image of the water darkening, sinking and then translating into clouds was not attempted; instead an image of the stolen Rhinegold – composed of small square segments – was shown against a black curtain. Its spinning – fitting surprisingly well with the swirls of the music – clearly reflecting the rotating of the world.

Wotan’s dreaming was mellifluously delivered by Bryn Terfel, making his stage-debut in the role. This was, already, a commanding, assured assumption encompassing many facets of this multifaceted character. High notes were ringing and authoritative, and he was especially effective later on when pondering his plight and demonstrating remorse for the shame and ignominy he had brought upon himself and the gods.

Perhaps some might feel a want of a darker, more truly bass-like timbre, but Terfel’s portrayal was convincing enough in itself, and his presence gave the chief of the gods credibility as the head of the clan. In fact the gods as represented in this production resembled nothing less than a dissolute royal family going to seed, clutching at straws to retain their status which has clearly been attained by dubious means, as the events of Das Rheingold – in particular Wotan’s own behaviour – clearly demonstrate.

This second scene was set in a room which was surely intended to be overlooking the newly constructed Valhalla. It was pointing diagonally upwards, with marble walls, floors and a fireplace bespeaking opulence and, like the other settings, suggesting the characters were trapped within its confines. A striking window (with rectangular glass panels) looked out onto clouds that subtly shifted.

Fricka was strongly characterised by Rosalind Plowright, who made her considerably more than the cipher she can be. Her firmly etched singing was full of nuance and Fricka’s personality was much more varied and interesting as a result.

It was a mistake, I think, to have Freia – the feisty Emily Magee – await the arrival of the giants, who should drag her along with them as they arrive to demand payment for their labours. Huge shadows appeared suggesting Fasolt and Fafner. The latter, with a stovepipe hat, initially appeared to be Abraham Lincoln, but a photograph in the programme of Brunel wearing similar head-covering suggests the latter may have been the intended personage.

The shadows were soon supplemented by the presence of Franz-Josef Selig and Phillip Ens who were physically much less impressive. Selig was fine at suggesting Fasolt’s lovesick pining after Freia, whilst Ens’s sense of burning desire when he learns of the Ring’s power was compelling. Neither, however, implied beings of monstrous size since both were vocally rather lightweight.

James Rutherford and Will Hartmann made positive contributions as Donner and Froh respectively, whilst Loge was presented as a complex individual by Philip Langridge. His range of expression was wide, and his shifty demeanour suggested his discomfiture at being fully associated with the gods. He was there under sufferance only at Wotan’s request and insistence. Langridge conveyed the sense of Loge being used to assisting Wotan getting out of tricky situations, and his rapport with Terfel in their many exchanges and glances was excellent.

Nibelheim is invariably presented as a dark, dingy, smoky underground locale. Here, it was the most brightly lit of all, and the location was clearly a kind of experimental laboratory, strewn with limbs and cadavers. Those beings that weren’t thus fated were clearly a species of automata, with body parts mutated. Alberich commanded all mercilessly, and Günter von Kannen was brutal in his subjugation of the Nibelungs.

When Wotan and Loge arrived, there was a most effective piece of stage business, when the Nibelungs noticed Wotan and visibly acknowledged his authority and the possibility that he might assist them. Such a moment bespoke perceptive intelligence on the part of the director.

The Tarnhelm – customarily a piece of simple chain mail – enables its wearer to change shape or become invisible. Here, it was a white box, with small square glass panels, placed over the head. When goaded by Loge, Alberich dons it first to become a giant serpent and then a toad. In both instances, Alberich was transformed into versions of the unfortunates he had experimented on, with fleshless limbs, rather like those seen in the recent “Mummy” films. These were disturbing images – rightly so – rather than the clumsy embarrassments they can be when insufficient thought is given to what Wagner the dramatist intended or implied.

Having spirited the ‘toad’ Alberich away into a suitcase – a neat solution to an awkward moment to realise – Wotan and Loge return to Valhalla.

Their goading of Alberich was uncomfortable, and Terfel’s brutish wrenching of the ring from Alberich’s finger horribly violent. Alberich’s curse was chilling enough, but we felt little sympathy for his plight, given what we had seen of his treatment of the Nibelungs.

I did not care for the hoard of gold being brought up in suitcases by Mime (the characterful Gerhard Siegel) alone, since this is the last time we see Alberich in command over his subjects. To replace this with Mime laughing at his brother was not so effective.

Neither was Loge’s sporting of an umbrella during Donner’s conjuring of a storm. This was an unnecessary piece of silliness.

At the front of the stage, throughout, was a black object which was difficult to make out. It transpired that this is where Erda was sitting watching the proceedings and from where she pronounces her oracular warnings. Jane Henschel’s dark tone was ideal in conveying a sense of impending disaster.

After the storm has cleared, the clouds through the window became a brilliantly-lit rainbow – as Wagner intended – though this should facilitate the gods’ crossing over into Valhalla. Keith Warner has them climb ladders but, in another original stoke, Wotan does not. Instead, much to the visible distress of his wife Fricka, he ravishes Erda. It is from this union that the Valkyries will be born.

So, much of the drama and characterisation, then, was both original and effective but not gratuitously distracting nor at odds with Wagner’s intentions.

From an interpretative point-of-view, this Das Rheingold was not particularly impressive. Indeed, Antonio Pappano seemed content for the music to play itself. Not necessarily a bad thing, but this deprived crucial moments of their significance – both musically and dramatically.

The staging was strong enough to compel attention – how much more gripping the whole would have been with matching intensity from the pit. The orchestra played well enough, though there were not illuminating touches such as others have encouraged from these players in this theatre.

Nevertheless, given the vitality of the production and the calibre of the cast, the Royal Opera House’s latest Ring cycle is definitely one to see.

  • Remaining performances: 21 December and 4, 7 & 10 January at 7.30
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on 17 January; on BBC2 on 25 March
  • Royal Opera

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