Thursday 18 October 2007

Das Rheingold, Royal Opera, 17 October 2007

Royal Opera House

Woglinde - Sarah Fox
Wellgunde - Heather Shipp
Flosshilde - Sarah Castle
Alberich - Peter Sidhom
Wotan - John Tomlinson
Loge - Philip Langridge
Fricka - Rosalind Plowright
Freia - Emily Magee
Donner - Peter Coleman-Wright
Froh - Will Hartmann
Fasolt - Franz-Josef Selig
Fafner - Phillip Ens
Mime - Gerhard Siegel
Erda - Jane Henschel

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano (conductor)

Keith Warner (director)
Stefano Lazaridis (designer)
Marie-Jeanne Lecca (costumes)
Wolfgang Göbbel (lighting)

What a difference expectations make! When I had last heard Das Rheingold at Covent Garden, it had been at the beginning of the Royal Opera’s preparations for these complete cycles. Then I had been fortunate enough, on the occasion before that, to have heard Bernard Haitink conduct the Ring in semi-staged performances at the Royal Albert Hall: one of the greatest musical experiences of my life. To have said that the Covent Garden performance, with much the same cast, broadly the same production, and the same conductor as the present cycle, had disappointed would have been to put it mildly. The good news is that things have improved considerably, doubtless helped by the lowered expectations, although the improvements remain real and substantial.

Talk about removing the clutter from the production proved to be more than mere spin. On this occasion, Keith Warner’s vision shone through far more clearly, less unencumbered by the designs than had previously been the case. We are only at the beginning of the cycle, of course, but it seems that the overarching idea is a good one, with firm grounding in Wagner’s intentions. Standing with its intellectual roots in the thought of Ludwig Feuerbach and other Young Hegelian writers, this Ring bids fair to tell a tale of supersession of the rule of the gods, first created by men but subsequently coming to rule over him, by man. The Young Hegelian critique of religion informed attacks from writers of the subsequent generation, such as Marx, Bakunin, and Wagner, on other aspects of the pervading alienation they witnessed, notably with regard to the state and economics. And so, as the commentator Peter Wapnewski has written concerning the entry of the gods into Valhalla, ‘The gods are on dangerous ground, but they fail to recognise the fact, dazzled as they are by their own splendour, their foolish arrogance, and their delight in illusions. They are participating in a glorious, richly costumed dance of death.’ Where before, confusion had reigned, and it was difficult, even for those of us who flattered ourselves we ought to know what was going on, to determine this, a relatively streamlined presentation now aids our understanding. The final scene’s dance of death is brought out in all its illusory, deceiving and self-deceiving pomp, whilst Loge, with his coruscating criticism, detaches himself from his masters and begins to play with the fire that will consume them and their fortress of politico-religious deceit. Musically, however, this discrepancy could have been depicted more strongly, the orchestral triumph appearing rather unmediated. It was too beautiful, although the Rhinemaidens’ lament certainly made its point, as had the mysterious intervention of Jane Henschel’s fine Erda.

Much of the earlier action worked well too. The first scene, ‘a complete tragedy in miniature’ (Warren Darcy), told a story, again far more clearly than before, of Alberich, spurned by the Rhinemaidens on account of his ugliness, brought to a stage of frustration at which he would foreswear love in order to win the Rhinegold. Peter Sidholm’s characterisation of Alberich before the Fall was most impressive, in that here was an eager, bumbling dwarf, driven by what Wagner called his liebesgelüste (‘erotic urge’), not the monstrous tyrant of the third act, nor the embittered prisoner of the fourth. Indeed, Sidholm acknowledged all these stages of Alberich’s tragic progression, with no harm done to more purely musical considerations. The Rhinemaidens too impressed, perhaps more individually in vocal terms than when in chorus. But their role as amoral sirens – a just state of affairs must be created rather than merely discovered in Nature – was well portrayed. Their movement now seemed less uncertain. I am not sure that Wotan’s presence, observing events, added much to our understanding, but nor was it especially distracting. Much orchestral colour was brought to the fore, suggesting that Pappano had learned well his lessons as sometime répétiteur to Daniel Barenboim, whose Wagner has always exhibited greater colouristic tendencies than his ‘Teutonic’ reputation might allow. Yet there lacked a sense of true stillness, of a sound that had always been there, with the crucial opening E flat, the subsequent development of the Prelude therefore falling somewhat short of the spontaneous generation that is its lifeblood. Dynamic contrasts were not as great as they might have been, much of the orchestral direction tending towards what Pierre Monteux tellingly dubbed the indifference of mezzo forte. This of all scenes needs more gradations of light and shade. On the credit side, the music flowed far better than on the Rheingold’s first outing, in which perennial stops and starts had prevented the musical melos from ever really announcing itself.

The crucial transition between the first two scenes, in which the ring motif metamorphoses into that of Valhalla, showing Alberich and Wotan to be dialectically related in their pursuit and acquisition of power, was not heard to best effect. A particularly jarring moment came with what should have been the magical – in many senses – first statement of the Valhalla motif proper: the harps and tubas were simply not together. It sounded as if the latter were late, rather than the former early, but rhythmic vagueness made it difficult to tell with any certainty. The rest of this first statement was not delivered without blemish either.

Thereafter, the music settled down and again was far less subject to stops and starts than had been the case the first time round. The gods’ heavenly residence was clearly a place of wealth and illusion, which is as it should be. The influence, in terms of a frankly plutocratic portrayal, of Patrice Chéreau’s legendary Bayreuth production was no cause for shame; any production of the Ring must by now come to terms with its predecessors, and will profit from considering reception history as an integral part of its own message. The Zeus-Hera relationship of Wotan and Fricka was well observed. John Tomlinson’s Wotan was as much of a stage presence as it always has been, and his keen attention to the text and its implications cannot be commended highly enough. There is sometimes a more pronounced wobble to his voice than was once the case, but the dramatic truthfulness is such that this is really only a matter for pedants. Tomlinson is so immeasurably superior to Bryn Terfel in the role that the Royal Opera should be thanking its lucky stars that the latter so gracelessly withdrew at very short notice. Rosalind Plowright correctly resisted the temptation to make Fricka too much of a monster: her interest in the ring, once Loge informs her that it might tie her husband more closely to her was sharply characterised by a telling shift in vocal quality.

The prospect of a fine Loge stealing the Rheingold show is always a distinct possibility. It certainly happened at the English National Opera, where Thomas Randle was more or less the only positive aspect of an otherwise execrable production, both scenically and musically. Here, Tomlinson’s Wotan was far too strong to cede the stage to Philip Langridge’s quicksilver Loge, but this was a fine performance. His busy stage action was well directed by Warner; the combination of this with his vocal modulation presented a Loge who was, perhaps more than any I have seen, the very incarnation of instrumental reason. Any tendency towards caricature was firmly resisted, but he remained an outsider. The contrast with Franz-Josef Selig’s lovelorn Fasolt, the only character who truly gains a hold over our emotions in this frigid world, did credit to both artists. Other parts during this scene were sung well enough, without any particular insights. It is, however, worth adding that the insights to be gleaned from deliberately cipher-like parts such as Freia and Froh are few and far between. Will Hartmann certainly beguiled in a properly ineffectual fashion in the latter part, which is probably as much as one can expect. His pseudo-oriental (Orientalist?) garb was puzzling, but did no great harm. Phillip Ens’s Fafner, the ‘pure seeker after power’ (Deryck Cooke) ought really to have been more imposing, both here and, more crucially, in the final scene.

Nibelheim might be considered more controversial. This is not straightforwardly the realm of capital as would generally be understood and certainly as Wagner intended. However, if one takes a broader view of economic power being a form rather than the determining form of power – that is, somewhat vulgarly, if one tends towards Wagner’s proto-Nietzschean will-to-power rather than to Marxian dialectical materialism – than one can see this portrayal of a dark world of cruel scientific experiments as far from entirely out of keeping. This was a development of Wagner readily comprehensible to students of the post-Freudian Marxism of the Frankfurt School, and of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment in particular. It seemed to me to have much in common with Warner’s fine Covent Garden Wozzeck, which dwelled on a similar theme. It is certainly one with which Wagner, and the later Wagner in particular, would have sympathised, given his increasing hostility towards scientific domination. For once, the Tarnhelm’s transformations of its wearer were credible on stage, although, sadly, the Tarnhelm music lacked the rootless, phantasmagorical mystery, born as much of its instrumentation as its harmony, which is so vital to full expression of its seductive horror. Sidholm’s Alberich, as I have already mentioned, was a man transformed by his new status, and his interactions with Gerhard Siegel’s creditable Mime, and with the visitors to Valhalla, were strongly portrayed, as also they would be during the final scene. If Siegel’s Mime was not a portrayal that burned itself into the memory, it wisely heeded Wagner’s warning that Mime must never lapse into caricature, and paid due attention to musical as well as stage considerations.

The two other transformation scenes, descending to and ascending from Nibelheim, lacked somewhat in dramatic impact, although the purely scenic realisation was well handled. Pappano is not a natural Wagnerian, but his reading of the score has improved almost out of recognition. There is still something of a sense of adhering too much to the leitmotifs as signposts, rather than understanding leitmotif technique, in Carl Dahlhaus’s words, as ‘the binding together of a music drama through a dense web of motivic connections from within’. It was not sufficiently clear that Wagner’s writing is to a considerable extent symphonic, or at least post-symphonic, nor that the entire network of interrelated themes may be seen to derive from the individualisation of, to quote Wagner himself, ‘a few malleable Nature motifs’. Yet the dramatic flow was significantly superior, both on stage and in the pit. Haitink will never, I am sure, be forgotten by those of us who heard him, but this was, all considered, a better Rheingold than I had dared hope.