Frankfurt Opera’s Das Rheingold Avoids Cheap Sensationalism

24/04/2018

Wagner, Das Rheingold: Soloists, Frankfurt Opera and Museum Orchestra / Sebastian Weigle (conductor), Frankfurt Opera, 19.4.2018. (GT)

Frankfurt Opera’s Das Rheingold (c) Barbara Aumüller

Cast:

Wotan – James Rutherford
Donner – Brandon Cedel
Froh – AJ Glueckert
Loge – Kurt Streit
Alberich – Jochen Schmeckenbecher
Mime – Michael McCown
Fasolt – Alfred Reiter
Fafner – Andreas Bauer
Fricka – Tanja Ariane Baumgartner
Freia – Sara Jakubiak
Erda – Katharina Magiera
Woglinde – Elizabeth Reiter
Wellgunde – Judita Nagyova
Flosshilde – Katharina Magiera

Production:

Director – Vera Nemirova
Design – Jan Kilian
Costumes – Ingeborg Bernerth
Lighting – Olaf Winter
Dramatist – Malte Krasting
Revival Director – Orest Tichonov
Video – Bibi Abel

This production by the Sofia-born Vera Nemirova was premiered in May 2010 and was successfully received for its innovative, planetary design. My acquaintance was initially through the DVDs (on Oehms) which can only offer a general idea of the conception, but hearing live this prologue for Der Ring des Nibelungen it made quite a powerful impression. The design by Jens Kilian is somewhat like one staged at Bayreuth many years ago, but this is wholly effective in the transforming scenes, sometimes tilting to the audience and later tilting away allowing the underneath section to depict Nibelheim. The backdrop was a blue tinted screen which changed shades throughout according to the action on stage.

The opening bars in E flat on the strings accompanied a glowing golden ring as if hovering before us, and as the light grew we could see the waves of the Rhine turbulent and writhing, then a great series of circles like Saturn’s rings making up the main stage with two rings rotating and opening to allow the characters to enter. The opening scene saw all three Rhinemaidens rising from the central circle, frolicking, and dancing, and all equally coquettish and full of nastiness towards the covetous Alberich who quickly after his appearance was disrobed by the Rhinemaidens one by one, down to his underwear. The hoard of gold appears from the central ring and a gleam reveals it to the avaricious dwarf when he discovers that he can no longer pursue his sexual desires. The Rhinemaidens were appropriately sensual, dressed in their racy costumes, taking licentiousness to the very limits. Jochen Schmeckenbecher was Alberich and portrayed this part with all the consummate greed and evil required both vocally and by his acting.

The golden hoard is in bags and a clever idea was Alberich donning himself in gold costume after he steals the hoard. The arrival of the gods on an open space on top of the mountain is done with the revolving of the great ring so it faces the audience tilted as a platform on which almost all the action takes place.

The Wotan of the British baritone James Rutherford has a great presence and fine voice.  Another asset of this production was the Loge taken by Kurt Streit who descends like a circus juggler from the heights; he throughout showed a remarkable presence and excellent voice. The Fricka of Tanja Ariane Baumgartner was a late change owing to the indisposition of the previously engaged singer, yet her performance was one of the highlights of the evening, having great characterization and marvellous vocal gifts. Ms Baumgartner portrayed the loyal wife seen tying Wotan’s laces and hugging him in support. Katharina Magiera was another late change in the cast in which she was Flosshilde and made her debut also as Erda, Woglinde was Elizabeth Reiter and Wellgunde was equally well sung by Judita Nagyova.

The transformation scenes were achieved by the ring structure revolving and revealing the lower section for the descent to Nibelheim, with one ring opening to allow characters to climb out in the case of Fasolt and Fafner, while the Rhinemaidens emerged through the central ring. This almost magical design makes this production unique and is central to the entire Ring cycle. The costumes design by Ingeborg Berneth for Fasolt and Fafner were that of heavily armed soldiers, whilst that of the gods were late 20th century, and the costumes of the Rhinemaidens owed much to that of the Lorelei temptress in long silvery white sequinned dresses.

The Freia of Sara Jakubiak was excellent and the scene of her being taken hostage by the giants was blatantly sexual, as was the scene where the giants claim the horde with it being piled on her body marked out on the floor. When Freia is taken away by the giants, there is no doubt about what awaits her until Wotan can pay his debt. Following his arrival from the heights, Kurt Streit’s Loge is a particularly fine portrayal with his piercing tenor and sharp acting. The descent to the Nibelheim is achieved through revolving of the ring structure until we see the reverse side turned up to show Mime’s workshop. Throughout there is a brutality and violence that is often frightening and startling, notably the scene of Alberich’s capture and his torture. This remains with the murder of Fasolt by Fafner in a quite brutal manner. The Nibelungs (played by children) bring up the golden hoard and watch its settlement of Wotan’s debt.

The scene of Loge and Wotan taking the ring from Alberich was bloody and horrific, and the appearance of Erda with her three children was eerily portrayed. Donner strikes his hammer and then the gods appear as elderly and seemingly tired ghostly figures, while below the ‘real’ gods appear again in modern dress on front of the stage and descend down into the front row of the audience and take champagne at the side of the theatre while the lonely Loge ascends above the stage gyrating over the Rhinemaidens cavorting below. This final denouement of the opera summonses the listener’s judgements about the entire Wagnerian ideology and what this opera really is all about. The orchestra of Frankfurt Opera and Museum were magnificently conducted by Sebastian Weigle who maintained a flowing momentum to this prologue to Wagner’s tetralogy. In my opinion, the Frankfurt Ring is a welcome addition to present-day cycles for it avoids the cheap sensationalism of some productions over recent decades which have nothing in common with Wagner’s original conception and makes this one of the best Ring productions today.

Gregor Tassie  

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