Madrid’s Ring Cycle Begins with a Stirring Das Rheingold

19/01/2019

Wagner, Das Rheingold: Soloists and Teatro Real Orchestra / Pablo Heras-Casado (conductor), Teatro Real, Madrid, 17.1.2019. (JMI)

Teatro Real’s Das Rheingold © J. del Real

Production:

Director – Robert Carsen
Sets and Costumes – Patrick Kinmonth
Lighting – Manfred Voss 

Cast:

Wotan – Greer Grimsley
Alberich – Samuel Youn
Loge – Joseph Kaiser
Fricka – Sarah Connolly
Fasolt – Albert Pesendorfer
Fafner – Alexander Tsymbalyuk
Erda – Ronnita Miller
Freia – Sophie Bevan
Mime – Mikeldi Atxalandabaso
Donner – Raimund Nolte
Froh – David Butt Philip
Wellgunde – María Miró
Woglinde – Isabel Gaudí
Flosshilde – Claudia Huckle

Over the coming years, Teatro Real will offer the complete Ring at the rate of one title each year. Das Rheingold is back on the stage here for the first time since 2002, and it got the cycle off to a strong start with a superb orchestra, a well-known production and a pleasing cast.

This Robert Carsen production premiered in Cologne in 2000. I have a special admiration for Carsen whom I consider to be one of the greatest stage directors today. His works can be more or less groundbreaking, but they always respect the music and the libretto. Here the Canadian director has followed an ecological path, and in the Prelude we see a series of extras walking and running along the shore of the Rhine, throwing junk into the river. The appearance of the Rhine daughters takes place in a garbage dump – what the Rhine has been become due to pollution. The gods form the court of a military dictator, whose grandiloquence and lust for power will lead them to their final destruction. The idea has a sound foundation, although lances, armor and horns are missed.

In the second scene there are numerous construction pieces, while in the Nibelheim scene the stage is naked except for Alberich’s slaves and some cases where the gold is supposedly stored. In the final scene we return to the gods; the construction elements disappear as the scene is ending and the back of the stage opens up to show an attractive, snowy landscape. The costumes are modern and nicely suited to Carsen’s concept.

The direction of the actors is good overall, but there are moments when things do not work as well as one would expect. If the appearance of the gold in the first scene is unconvincing, so too are the supposed transformations of Alberich into a dragon or frog. This moment, which often tests the imagination of a director, here is anything but imaginative: Alberich never disappears from the view of the spectators who are the ones to put their imaginations to work.

One of the points of interest of these performances was undoubtedly the presence of Pablo Heras-Casado at the head of the musical direction. His Rhine scene was not totally successful, but both the Nibelheim scene and the final one were brilliant. It has been 12 years since I first saw him conducting opera (Le nozze di Figaro in Bordeaux), and he is definitely in an excellent moment. Under his baton was the Teatro Real orchestra which proved once again that it’s the best pit orchestra in Spain. I look forward to the future installments of the Ring.

Wotan, whose importance in this opera is indisputable, as it is in Die Walküre, was sung by baritone Greer Grimsley. As on earlier occasions when I have seen him in the role, his voice was powerful, but his singing was a bit monotonous – and he is not an outstanding actor either. There are just too many open sounds in his interpretation, and I think the occasion deserved a more important Wotan.

A pleasant surprise was bass-baritone Samuel Youn in the part of Alberich whose performance was flawless both vocally and dramatically. It underlined the need to have had a more important Wotan to face him. Tenor Joseph Kaiser in the part of Loge was totally convincing, while mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly was an adequate Fricka in vocal terms but not a remarkable interpreter.

There were last-minute changes in the Giants. Ain Anger had been announced to sing the role of Fasolt, but he had to cancel due to illness. He was replaced by Albert Pesendorfer who was very good and displayed a great mastery of the character, as did bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk as Fafner.

Ronnita Miller made a very positive impression in the part of Erda, singing with a sonorous voice that was appropriate to the character. This time, Erda did indeed sound like a contralto.

In the secondary characters, Sophie Bevan was a correct Freia. Mikeldi Atxalandabaso was an impeccable Mime, proving once again that he possesses a voice that has no problem reaching the audience. Raimund Nolte as Donner and David Butt Philip as Froh were both impressive, but the Rhine daughters – Isabel Gaudí (Woglinde), María Miró (Wellgunde) and Claudia Huckle (Flosshilde) – were more irregular in vocal terms.

Teatro Real was at about 95% of capacity. The audience was warm at the final bows, with the biggest ovations for Samuel Youn and Pablo Heras-Casado. Robert Carsen was received with both applause and booing.

José M. Irurzun

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