United 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)
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.
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.
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