Barrie Kosky’s Das Rheingold for the Royal Opera is a miscast, misconceived, mishmash of ideas

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner, Das Rheingold: Soloists, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor). Broadcast live (directed by Peter Jones) from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, to Cineworld Basildon, 20.9.2023. (JPr)

Christopher Purves (Alberich) and the Rhinemaidens © Monika Rittershaus

Watching this broadcast we were reminded it was nearly 20 years since the last Ring cycle (from Keith Warner) began with Das Rheingold and Director of Opera Oliver Mears revealed that this is a new one for the 2020s and hopefully into the 2030s (!) and they have been planning it for about six years. On the evidence of this Das Rheingold one wonders what they have been doing for all that time although they do say a camel is a horse (Grane?) designed by a committee. Mears wanted to get Barrie Kosky together with Antonio Pappano for the first time and explained how Kosky was returning to the origins of the Ring which was Greek tragedy, Greek theatre and so myth, poetry ‘the essence of what theatre is.’ He went on to say how the cast members were handpicked by both the director and conductor for not only their singing prowess but because they needed ‘strong theatre animals’. However clearly not, in my opinion, their total understanding of Wagner. His music demands dramatic truth from the singers with the emphasis on meaning and emotion. Too often in this Das Rheingold notes were sung accurately but there was a surfeit of emoting – Marina Prudenskaya as Fricka was the worst offender in this regard – and as an ensemble the cast did not do justice to Wagner and there wasn’t one who really created a believable – mythical or otherwise – character on stage. Any insight into Wagner’s less obvious musical and psychological strands of meaning and character appeared totally ignored.

Kosky who staged a Ring cycle in Hannover (2009-11) explained ‘I’m completely not doing what I did last time’ and how Rheingold ‘is that link to the Greek satyr play, you have a very large epic quality because it begins with the birth of time, or the birth of life, but once that’s done we are into a very specific domestic world here it’s a family drama.’ For Kosky, ‘it was important, I think, to find a starting point that the audience could go “Aha!”, that could develop, and that starting point for me was to actually put Erda – Mother Earth – onstage from the very beginning of the cycle. As we go through the next three instalments the audience will realise more and more what this means, that Mother Earth is dreaming so even though we tell the story of the gods and the family and then Alberich and the Rhinemaidens whatever, Mother Earth becomes an active participant in this production.’ All well and good but I would suggest that eking out the operas over four seasons demands we need to have some idea of what is going on now!

Though I doubt it very much, but the live experience may, just may, have been different in the opera house and this personal opinion of Das Rheingold could harden Kosky’s views – about opera in the cinema or online – since he recently said: ‘Livestream and television HD of opera has been one of the biggest disasters.’ I thought the exploitation of the elderly and clearly physically frail actor (the naked 82-year-old Rose Knox-Peebles) as Mother Earth was totally uncalled-for operatic voyeurism when she could be replicated by someone in a prosthetic body suit. And if this is deemed ok why does Christopher Purves as Alberich only strip to his Y-fronts (again not a pretty sight) and in the brief cross-dressing moment in his humiliation by the Rhinemaidens I am certain it is merely a prosthetic penis we see.

The artifice of theatre is on display throughout perhaps for artistic reasons or maybe due to lack of money. Initially we see right through to the back of the Royal Opera House stage with at the front is the huge, gnarled, fallen trunk of the World Ash Tree which probably died after Wotan tore a branch from it for his spear which he almost reluctantly wields during the opera. It has several knotholes large enough for characters to appear in and out from, particularly the fully-clothed Rhinemaidens at the start and later Alberich during his botched transformations into a dragon and a toad. Initially it is shrouded in black but part of it needs – remember it is 2023! – a gang of stagehands to uncover it and they will reappear on occasions to change things. Wagner might have had better stage machinery in 1876!

Before the music begins Mother Earth enters and what we see will be her reminiscences of times past  – dreams are nothing new in Wagner productions – and frequently she roams around or will be spotlit on a turntable. Mother Earth only regains her dignity when briefly acting as the (clothed) servant for the gods at their post-polo match picnic. Why polo you may well ask? Apart from their riding boots it looked like a champagne-quaffing party you might see during any interval at Glyndebourne. The normal-sized Fasolt and Fafner brandish their guns and seem just a couple of cowboy builders. Worst of all is Loge with Sean Panikkar tasked with rushing around and forever cackling just like The Riddler familiar from Batman. This change of scene only needed a massive picnic blanket draping the tree trunk.

(l-r) Sean Panikkar (Loge), Brenton Ryan (Mime), Rose Knox-Peebles (Erda) and Christopher Maltman (Wotan) © Monika Rittershaus

One of the most unforgivable things is that the curtain comes down between the major scenes chopping Rheingold into four parts. For the descent and ascent from Nibelheim Antonio Pappano whipped his excellent orchestra – many in T-shirts demanding fair pay – into a frenzy depicting an express lift full of ticking clocks (or so the anvils sounded in the cinema) going down and up while tempos seemed to fluctuate elsewhere. The ‘gold’ in the opening scene looked like porridge mixed with honey or golden syrup and could represent the sap from the tree or suggest oil. An ecological Ring is also nothing new! Whatever it is Alberich tastes it at one point. (Actually the gold Alberich first seizes and carries away looked like a brain in close-up.) In Nibelheim the gold is collected in buckets after being produced by a steampunk machine attached to Erda’s breasts. The Tarnhelm is part of a Halloween skull mask and – surprise, surprise – Alberich actually has a ring which eventually will be cut from his finger. The Nibelungs (played by young, masked children) have swollen disfigured heads as if the result of exposure to radiation or a genetic experiment (no explanation for this, yet). Back with the gods, a tin bath appears for Freia to be concealed by the gold and Fafner will despatch Fasolt with blows from a polo mallet. There is no rainbow bridge and the gods are now dressed as if guests at the recent ‘Vogue World’ at the start of London Fashion Week and are showered in rainbow glitter (again not a new idea) during the extended end to Das Rheingold which is totally at odds with what we had seen before.

None of this would have mattered if the voices we heard were uniformly suited for their roles. No complaints about the excellent Rhinemaidens (Katharina Konradi, Niamh O’Sullivan and Marvic Monreal) and whilst Christopher Purves first sang Alberich ten years ago, this role debut at Covent Garden sounded as if it has come a little too late for him. In general Wotan’s family members are blandly characterised by Kosky and equally blandly sung. Notably, Marina Prudenskaya’s Fricka had a hooty sound and appeared to be inhabiting an entirely different production. It is usual for there to be some chemistry between the lovelorn Fasolt and Freia but here Insung Sim and Kiandra Howarth barely reacted to one another. Best of the singers – along with the Rhinemaidens – were Brenton Ryan’s much-abused Mime, Soloman Howard’s brutal Fafner and the unseen Wiebke Lehmkuhl who sang Erda’s ‘Weiche, Wotan, Weiche!’ with a rich and wonderfully even contralto voice.

As for Wotan himself, Christopher Maltman is a sublime Lieder singer and is also a distinguished Verdi baritone but this is Wagner and his Wotan, for me, while concentrating on poetry and nuance, lacked individuality, much authority and emotional depth. Maltman’s Wotan looked and sounded a twin to Purves’s Alberich though this may well be Kosky’s idea since he will refer to himself and Alberich (in Siegfried) as ‘Licht-Alberich’ and ‘Schwarz-Alberich’.

Based on what we have seen and heard here I am not holding my breath that Kosky can bring anything revelatory to Die Walküre and anyway the year we have to wait is much too long a break between the operas.

Jim Pritchard

Director – Barrie Kosky
Set designer – Rufus Didwiszus
Costume designer – Victoria Behr
Lighting designer – Alessandro Carletti

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 (silent) – Rose Knox-Peebles

9 thoughts on “Barrie Kosky’s <i>Das Rheingold</i> for the Royal Opera is a miscast, misconceived, mishmash of ideas”

  1. I was less impressed in the cinema than in the ROH but from my £25 seat in the Upper Slips (only £5 more than cinema)..the sound is so much better than through loudspeakers…the production gelled superbly and I felt this could be a truly great cycle. Berlin’s Komische Oper is my favourite opera house so I am a Kosky fan but I stand with the many 4/5 star reviews of this Das Rheingold. I do agree that Loge’s cackling was a big flaw.

    Jim Pritchard replies: Thanks very much for your interesting comment comparing in the house and cinema. I am wary of the difference loudspeakers may make and that’s why I tried to base my thoughts on the seeing rather than hearing. Continue to enjoy your opera going!

    • Thank you Jim Pritchard for this candid review. I attended on the strength of many reviews praising singers and orchestra. Maltman’s Wotan was well sung, but dressed as a badly dressed merchant banker (do merchant bankers play polo?) he was unable to exude any gravitas or presence. Purves’ Alberich was better, but did we have to see his (presumably prosthetic) penis. Not as unsettling, though, as seeing Ian McKellen’s real one in Lear. Apart from the Rhineless Rhinemaidens, the women were disappointing, Prudensksaya’s Fricka in particular was unconvincing, either as Mrs Merchant Banker or as Mrs Chief God. Another modern director’s self indulgent offering.

  2. Spot on! Though generally well-performed, I thought this production a failure and I would not wish to see a revival.

  3. I saw it live and in the cinema and found it an enthralling piece of theatre albeit not without some flaws but what Ring production does not have some? I thought the underlying story and the characters emerged well. Although I sometimes hate them, I have an open mind to new approaches (do you Jim?). In this production I thought the dark light Alberich/Wotan and the extraordinary actress playing Erda (particularly when she consoled Erda) and the emphasis on the despoliation of nature (undoubtedly one of Wagner’s themes) made for a very interesting evening and the orchestral playing was magnificent. Unlike many Rheingolds it never dragged.

    Jim Pritchard replies: Thank you Michael and well-argued comments to S&H are always appreciated. Re: ‘open mind’ I suspect you are new to reviews on S&H because that I have always had over decades reviewing Wagner at Bayreuth and much more elsewhere (reviews on this site) and I am often at odds with the mainstream critics (or critics’ cabal as I sometimes think of them). If my mind narrows it is over the singing and not the staging. Who know what life has in store for me in 2027 when this Ring is believed to be concluded. I want it to tell me something (with a degree of coherence) now, sorry! Wagner is interested in Nature but not necessarily its despoliation (apart from the World Ash Tree) but front and centre is the exploitation of HUMAN nature. Anyway continue to enjoy your Wagner and whatever else!

  4. Thanks Jim

    I was relieved to read your less than effusive review. I had begun to think it was me… Wagner experiences have been limited to the joyful Opera North stagings so I approached the ROH livestream with a real sense of anticipation and excitement. I like to think that I’m a broadminded and open-minded culture vulture but I found the whole Erda thing exploitative and embarrassing and the staging clumsily rudimentary. I stayed the course (just). Did you review the Opera North cycle?

  5. PACE the disgruntled and disappointed, I found this production musically riveting, visually stupendous and philosophically persuasive. Obviously I was attuned to what was intended to be conveyed, having no preconceptions whatever, and being damned grateful for the opportunity to enjoy art at minimal cost or inconvenience, thanks to the cinema relay. My conclusion is that to derive the most benefit from art, or indeed from life, an open mind is sovereign.

    Jim Pritchard replies: I respect your opinion and my mind is always open to new (coherent) ideas but I must take odds with your suggestion that when watching this there should be ‘no preconceptions’. There are two very important ones and – while what you said about the performance may be true in a general sense – those preconceptions are that it is supposed to be Wagner and Das Rheingold!

  6. I went to see it on 20th September. I found most of it very disappointing visually. The singing was overall of high quality, but I agree with the reviewer that none of the singers brought any life to their characters. Alberich in his underpants pouring gold jelly over his head was just absurd. Erda was a complete distraction throughout. The whole polo theme was awful; (Donner’s storm call ruined as he frantically waved the thing around himself like a lunatic). Loge’s continual cackling, Fasolt and Fafner pulling threatening the gods with hand guns…just dreadful. 3/10.

  7. At last a review much of which I could agree with. I’ve admired much – though not all – of what Kosky has done in the past but this was such a disappointment. Though I haven’t read all of his words I believe he laid into the current Bayreuth ‘Netflix’ Ring which of course has had much derision from several quarters. I find this unprofessional. By all means criticise the work of dead directors but to do this irritated me. Especially when it’s had so much and in some cases unfair criticism.

    To be as brief as possible in terms of singing I admired the Fasolt, the Rhinemaidens, Erda and Loge though I can understand the characterisation could be irritating and the Donner too. Totally agree with you about Alberich and Wotan. The former is not a patch on the best Alberichs I have heard like Johannes Martin Kränzle not enough tonal depth or characterisation and by the time we got to Alberich’s curse he was frankly sung out. A singer I have admired so many times most recently in Innocence and when I thought about it, is this the biggest role he’s sung? But surely too late. Though I found Maltman better than I was expecting there was no authority in the stage persona, is this really the leader of the Gods? And I have never seen a Rheingold where the Fricka and the Loge made such little impact which I think was down to the direction.

    I can accept the set for what it was though why we had an open stage at the start which was sealed off within minutes baffled me. Then the old chestnut – I remember so many productions in the 70s and 80s where a single set was used and always it worked for one act maybe two but then didn’t work for the rest and this is what happened here. And as a result the curtain came down in Wagner’s continuous transformative interludes which I hated. We should see Wotan/Loge’s journey down to Nibelheim and how feeble were those anvils? But the set had to be adapted. Yet what did Donner’s hammer blow bring? 12-15 stage hands moving the tree to the back of the stage in full view. Here we have a 21st-century stage with a revolve and the potential for so much but this was disappointing. And again the Bayreuth Ring has so many characters in suits which Kosky doesn’t like but yet…er? And as for the glitter so feeble. I didn’t see the ENO Richard Jones production I’ve totally given up on RJ but I was told he did something similar as did Stefan Herheim apparently in his recent Berlin Ring which is now on DVD. I am very open minded about productions and don’t want to see an original staging from 1876 but I’m seriously wondering whether I want to bother with the rest until it’s done complete with the new music director. Because please tell me why Antonio Pappano is regarded as a good Wagner conductor. He’s all we’ve had at ROH for so long in the Ring. I remember Colin Davis in that wonderful Götz Friedrich production (and he gave Ted Downes a cycle) so much better so much interpretation and of course Bernard Haitink and at Bayreuth Kirill Petrenko. It’s just bland, straight through reading nothing interesting whatsoever in terms of interpretation and this from a conductor who has been involved with it from the days when he was Daniel Barenboim’s assistant at Bayreuth. It would have been a good way for London audiences to get to know the new music director to let him conduct one a year.

  8. Re the comment on Erda being exploited [in the review and Jeremy Horsell below]:

    I was one of two Erda’s and I certainly did NOT feel exploited – rather I felt privileged to be have been given a wonderful opportunity to be part of something so grand and, above all, to have been accepted by the singers, all of whom were generous and kind and welcoming to a complete newcomer. I particularly owe appreciation and gratitude to Chris Maltman who, as Wotan, had scraggy, octogenerian me, climbing up him every other performance.


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