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...