Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Das Rheingold, Royal Opera, 16 October 2012

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Woglinde – Nadine Livingston
Wellgunde – Kai Rüütel
Flosshilde – Harriet Williams
Alberich – Wolfgang Koch
Wotan – Bryn Terfel
Fricka – Sarah Connolly
Freia – Ann Petersen
Donner – Peter Coleman-Wright
Froh – Andrew Rees
Fasolt – Iain Paterson
Fafner – Eric Halfvarson
Loge – Stig Andersen
Mime – Gerhard Siegel
Erda – Maria Radner

Keith Warner (director)
Walter Sutcliffe (associate director)
Justin Way, Michael Csar (first assistant directors)
Stefanos Lazaridis, Matthew Deely (set designs)
Marie-Jeanne Lecca (costumes)
Wolfgang Göbbel (lighting)
Mic Pool, Dick Straker (video designs)
Claire Gaskin, Michael Barry (movement)

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor)

Siegfried, Götterdämmerung, Rheingold, little likelihood of Die Walküre: not necessarily the most obvious, nor indeed recommendable, way of experiencing the Ring, though Wagner’s method and form in any case leave us with all manner of questions and experiences concerning history, memory, the past, the present, and the future. No matter: though one can never know the Ring too well, I have seen the production twice before and flatter myself that I have not entirely forgotten the works themselves either. After the dismal experience of Götterdämmerung, I was in any case feeling distinctly unenthused about the prospect of standing through Das Rheingold. Low expectations were probably no bad thing. Would they be fulfilled, exceeded, or somehow prove nevertheless too elevated?

Fulfilled really – though, on the whole, it was probably a bit better than Götterdämmerung. Keith Warner’s production is for the most part on safer ground here. The opening scene works well: I like the idea of having the initially nude Rhinemaidens clothe themselves as their behaviour becomes nastier; there never was a Golden Age in the Ring-cosmos but things only get worse. The gods’ realm benefits from richly-upholstered designs, though I think the portrayal of Froh is overdone; he is pretty much a cipher, a deliberately uninteresting aristocrat, in any case, but silliness was pushed too far. Wolfgang Göbbel’s lighting works wonders, especially in Nibelheim – Alberich’s transformations are probably the best I have seen – and during the storm of the final scene. I still do not understand why Nibelheim is a place of scientific experimentation, though. One could make all sorts of points about instrumental reason, but they need to be made. Here it rather appeared as if the setting of Warner’s Royal Opera Wozzeck had been modified a bit, and capital had bizarrely gone out of the window. Surely this must in some sense be a factory.

Antonio Pappano’s conducting remained disappointing. There were moments that impressed, but Wagner, whatever Nietzsche’s barbs, is anything but a miniaturist. The point is the composer’s art of transition, of which he was justly proud; Pappano simply seems unable to make the score work as a whole, quasi-symphonically. The Prelude was depressing, seemingly presented bar by bar; if ever forward momentum needs to be achieved in the most ‘natural’ fashion it is surely here. Without any intelligible sense of life, of momentum, the second and fourth scenes in particular dragged almost interminably. The orchestra for the most part played well enough, despite a few too many brass fluffs, but the anvils were both risibly underpowered and, on more than one occasion, disturbingly out of time. They almost might have been cowbells, albeit without Mahler’s sense of foreboding.

The Rhinemaidens, once past their opening bars, sang impressively – and acted with convincing coquetry throughout.  Wolfgang Koch’s Alberich lacks the blackness one might expect, but is always intelligently portrayed, with more or less equal attention to words, music, and gesture. His Mime, Gerhard Siegel is similarly good in those respects. (Why, though does Warner have Loge stay behind in Nibelheim to tie him up?! It only serves to confuse, especially when he seems about to immolate his captive and then does not.) Sarah Connolly sings beautifully for most of the time as Fricka, though I missed something more formidable in Wagner’s Hera equivalent. Ann Petersen made a lovely Freia though, and the love felt by Iain Paterson’s Fasolt seemed utterly genuine. He and Eric Halfvarson both acted their parts well, though the latter’s Fafner was a bit bluff. Andrew Rees was an attractively-voiced Froh; doubtless the over-acting had been pressed upon him. Alas, Peter Coleman-Wright proved at least as dreadful a Donner as he had a Gunther, his weakness of voice an embarrassment for one who should resound as the incarnation of brute force. He really ought to have been replaced. Stig Andersen lacked much sense of the sardonic as Loge; his stage portrayal – Warner’s idea of Loge as a magician intrigues – was stronger than his delivery of the vocal line. Maria Radner seems miscast as Erda; her voice is simply not deep enough to register the earth mother’s tones. That leaves Bryn Terfel as Wotan. He seems to garner plaudits from all and sundry, but to my ears he too often alternated between coarseness, even shouting during the final act, and  something perilously close to crooning. The words were delivered intelligibly, but there was little philosophical depth to his portrayal; again, stage presence was generally more impressive than vocal delivery. It was nevertheless probably a better stab at the role than his Wanderer in Siegfried.

Oh well: probably no reason to feel dispirited about missing Die Walküre then...



Atqui est said...

You should think yourself lucky that you are not attending Die Walküre. Not only will you miss Warner's continued ineptitude, Pappano’s Verdian Wagner (and that is being kind) but you will not need to suffer the horrors of Simon O'Neill's nasal pneumatic "singing". Why anyone would want to suffer any of this is beyond me. The only reason I could suggest is that the audience of the ROH has simply no grasp of Wagner in performance.

I feel your review was perhaps to kind on the ROH orchestra. Of course, this may simply be that it sounded much different on the Radio. I simply could not force myself to attend another performance and felt that it might be better without the visuals this time. However, it sounded to me that it was an orchestra not only better suited to Puccini but simply at a loss with Wagner. He can, after all, show weaknesses in the best of orchestras. So bad was it ,that I was forced to turn it off. Whether this was the a fault of the players or the conductor remains to be seen. Perhaps you might want to listen again on BBC Iplayer?

From what I heard vocally, it was not the worst Wagner, but why, does the ROH no longer invest in good and world class Wagner performers ? This is the sort of cast and conductor one would expect in a provincial opera company. Next year Verdi's early, vastly flawed and inferior Nabucco is presented with Plácido Domingo. In Die Walküre we are presented with O'Neill. I blame those who insist in suffering mediocrity and purchase tickets.

You have my utmost admiration for your suffering tonight.

Mark Berry said...

You may be right concerning the orchestra. I certainly did not feel great enthusiasm in that respect, but was almost scrambling around to find something positive to say. I did have the sense, though, that the musicians would have sounded more compelling under a better conductor. What I fear is that, if things go on like this, the good work from Haitink's era will be lost completely; maybe it already has been, though the orchestra sounded wonderful when Bychkov conducted Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. I am not sure I can bear to hear it again on iPlayer...! And I am very sure that I have no desire whatsoever to hear Simon O'Neill as Siegmund.

You are surely right about elements of the ROH audience. A woman standing next to me insisted upon rooting through her handbag as soon as the Prelude began. Had it been a better performance, I should have minded more. Worse still was the conversation conducted beforehand by some very self-satisfied yet uncomprehending people seated in front. One woman turned to the man with her, presumably her husband, since it is difficult to imagine these were anything other than true-blue campaigners for Conservative Party family values, and said, 'Of course we don't like this music very much do we? And it goes on so long. But when the Opera House does it, it's like part of the Season, like going to Glyndebourne. There are some nice bits too, or is that something else?' One's only comfort is that she must have had a miserable time, though I noted her applauding vigorously at the end.

Joseph Alder said...

I almost totally agree with Dr Berry and - to a degree - the author of this comment. I have long held that London audiences and mainstream critics indeed have 'no grasp of Wagner in performance'.
The best Wagner commentary is to be found here and on 'Seen and Heard'.

I cannot reflect on Simon O'Neill (yet) but would be loath to blame the orchestra but aim the barbs directly at Pappano who has worked for Barenboim although seems to have learnt nothing from him. He simply has not studied the 'Ring' sufficiently and just does not 'understand' the music. He seemed to be dampening the orchestral sound to match Bayreuth and accommodate his less-able singers but all this did was to smooth out the drama Wagner wanted from the music to such an extent that moments sounded like Beethoven or Mozart at times.

A number of voices were just too similar with little differentiation for their roles (lack of space stops me elaborating here). But for instance, Terfel seems to have little vocal authority or volume anymore and needs to sing from the front of the stage and sip water from time to time.

After a very poor opening (as slow as Goodall but without the onward impulse) when I almost lost the will to live it picked up during the Loge, Mime and Alberich moments - three singers that at least had some sense of Wagner's vocal 'style' - and although overly long at about 155 minutes, to its credit in the theatre it did not eventually seems as long as some 'Rheingolds' can.

So it was bad enough if compared to the distinguished history of the 'Ring' at Covent Garden ... but not AS bad as it might have been.

Atqui est said...

I may have been perhaps a little "harsh" on the ROH Orchestra yesterday. I think it was simply that I was so disappointed that it was still so "poor" even without Warner's visual ineptitude. I am listening again now, and feel that you are correct in "pointing the blame" at the conductor.

It remains, however, at best a "provincial" performance and something of a disgrace to an opera house with the resources of the ROH. But perhaps I am being unfair to provincial opera where I have seen and heard far better Wagner the last few years. It is more annoying if one has experienced either Verdi or Puccini under Pappano which have, if I am truthful, been rather good in general. Why oh why can the man not understand where is strengths are and stick to them?

While you are completely correct, I think, about the state of Wagner "reviewing" in the "mainstream" press, I hear the same nonsense from people who should know better and clearly do have the required knowledge. One has to wonder what influence the ROH's, ever increasing, advertising budget has? But perhaps that is unfair.

Dr Berry: Your comments about the audience members that you experienced do not surprise me one bit. Alas, opera has always attracted the clueless, who appear each season because "it is the thing one does". But as a man who has studied Wagner I am sure you are more than familiar with his thoughts on that matter.

It is pleasing to read an honest and intelligent review. Please keep it up.