United Kingdom Wagner, Das Rheingold: Soloists, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden / Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 11.9.2023. (CC)
So to a new Ring at Covent Garden, courtesy of director Barrie Kosky. This is not Kosky’s first Ring rodeo – he directed the cycle at Staatsoper Hannover from 2009-2011, a production Kosky himself describes as ‘deeply unsatisfying … a patchwork quilt of ideas’ which ‘failed to cohere’. The big question therefore must be whether things have improved since then.
In a sense one cannot fully appreciate or evaluate Kosky’s Das Rheingold until one has the full story – the three days of the Ring that remain. Kosky takes on environmental issues, showing the Nibelheim scene as a steampunk industrial factory mercilessly exploiting the natural world (plus, parts of the machine are attached to Erda’s breasts as if her milk goes in and gold comes out). The stage has one common factor in Rufus Didwiszus’s sets that is immobile throughout – the World Ash tree, from which Wotan ripped his spear. Now laid out on the ground, a shell of its former self, blackened, useless, it is a symbol of the death of Nature, it serves as hiding places for Rhinemaidens in the first scene while ‘playing’, and offers space for host of other activities as the evening progresses. Given the log’s omnipresence, it is strange that the production slices the work into its constituent scenes, four Wagnerian sausages, with a curtain down during the orchestral transitions, like, some sort of guillotine. So much for the Art of Transition.
Alberich wears a suit and tie; the Gods and Goddesses in the second scene are clearly upper-class toffs, looking as if they are off to hunt some foxes (they have a picnic instead, complete with the waitress from Fawlty Towers). There is a polo reference, as well (and a polo stick clubs Fasolt to death, violently). Most notable, though, is the character of Erda, a naked, wizened old woman (Rose Knox-Peebles) who takes on the role of watcher and who wanders onto the stage before the low E-flat pedal is sounded. Kosky sees the Ring as ‘the dreams and hallucinations and visions of Mother Earth. She [Erda] is dreaming the story, in fragments’. It is fitting of course that Erda – Gaia – is seen as a living person. Why she rotates at one point like a sort of rotisserie Earth Mother though, who knows?. Perhaps the cycles of life in a microcosm?.
But Kosky also talks in a programme essay about a ‘collective dream’ in relation to myth, which is pitching this too high. The mythic is relegated to near the bottom of the pile, and with it the universality of Rheingold.
The gold itself is clearly malleable and will I am sure reoccur in different guises. The giants load it up by the bucket load. Here the gold is the molten, custardy sap of the World Ash Tree (a sort of ‘Rhinegoo’, one might say). This same sludge is used to cover up Freia (in a bath at the time; maybe it came from Lush; alternatively, I am sure custard fetish is a thing). The close of the evening comes in the form of glitter rain – bringing with it a real sense of déjà vu from Richard Jones’s recent ENO production (click here). Too much of a sense of déjà vu, for sure. Kosky aims to address some ecological issues (reminding us of the industrial activities of Wagner’s time and linking them to our own) but so far nowhere near as convincingly as Stephen Langridge’s Gothenburg Ring.
A group of children act as Nibelungs, wearing oversized masks that seem to be a reference to the denouement of the classic film Don’t Look Now. It is neither spooky, nor amusing. And also worth noting is that this, so far at least, is a waterless Ring; just as Stefan Herheim’s Glyndebourne Pelléas et Mélisande in 2018 was a near-waterless zone. The parallel is telling, as in both cases it did feel like another vital element (pardon the pun) was stripped away.
Vocally, things are better. There are three strong Rhinemaidens (Katharina Konradi, Niamh O’Sullivan – who impressed so much as Asteria in Vivaldi’s Bajazet in 2021 – and Marvic Monreal), and a fabulous Mime from Brenton Ryan (so much more than the Alberich-subsidiary one sometimes hears, here full of character). Christopher Purves rarely disappoints, and here he certainly did not as Alberich, each word relished and delivered with textbook diction. Alberich’s Curse was properly malevolent, the pitch held perfectly against the tritonal dissonance below.
Those who associate Christopher Maltman with Lieder singing need to experience the authority of his Wotan, a fully-formed reading of the musical text, strong of voice and with real dramatic presence. Surely this is a personal triumph for him.
Perhaps his wife, the Fricka of Marina Prudenskaya, could have had a little more character and force; I enjoyed her Bayreuth Götterdämmerung (for Frank Castorf in 2016, review here) and expected to find more live. Kiandra Howarth not only sang the role of Freia but also doubled as Woglinde at the Arcola Theatre for Grimeborn’s 2019 Rheingold (see Jim Pritchard’s review here). She is a strong, convincing presence and I look forward to hearing more from her..
A pity the Loge, Sean Panikkar, was somewhat disappointing. An affected laugh does him no favours (anything the laugh achieves he could have done from within the music itself); James Schouten, singing Loge in Regent Opera’s Rheingold at Freemasons Hall recently, set a standard that Panikkar simply cannot match.
As to the giants, Soloman Howard as Fafner and Insung Sim as Fasolt appeared as a pair of (pretty normal sized) gangsters, or at least thugs with gangster mentalities, both eminently believable in their greed and emotions. Kostas Smoriginas was a fine, confident Donner, swinging his hammer for all he was worth; Rodrick Dixon’s Froh was perhaps more anonymous.
When Erda actually sings, of course, it is with maximal effect. This was the voice of Weibke Lehmkuhl, certainly making the most of her lines and in fine voice. But the true stars were the orchestra. The sheer level of commitment combined with the accuracy verged on the miraculous. The players seemed completely at Antonio Pappano’s bidding, and he seemed to conduct with laser focus. The level of detail audible was remarkable. Pappano’s interpretation does rather seem to be a work in progress, though. Marked by its often-swift speeds, he found himself unnaturally putting on the brakes for harmonic twists and turns that needed underlining.
A very, very mixed Das Rheingold, then, with some superb singing and orchestral playing. As to the production, one awaits Die Walküre with interest.
Director – Barrie Kosky
Set designer – Rufus Didwiszus
Costume designer – Victoria Behr
Lighting designer – Alessandro Carletto
Woglinde – Katharina Konradi
Wellgunde – Niamh O’Sullivan
Flosshilde – Marvic Mondreal
Alberich – Christopher Purves
Wotan – Christopher Maltman
Fricka – Marina Prudenskaya
Freia – Kiandra Howarth
Fasolt – Insung Sim
Fafner – Soloman Howard
Froh – Rodrick Dixon
Donner – Kostas Smoriginas
Loge – Sean Panikkar
Mime – Brenton Ryan
Voice of Erda – Weibke Lehmkuhl
Erda (silent) – Rose Knox-Peebles
Actors – Álvaro Clemente, Rohan Jenin, Rosy Sanders