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Rheingold at the ROH

17 Oct

A complete Ring in London is still enough of a rarity for me to want to catch it when it comes, even if it does play havoc with the rest of my social life and bedtimes.  I chose the third cycle of the ROH’s latest lot of them and, on 16th October girded my loins for this marathon.

I often find Rheingold the most difficult of the operas to get into. Not always – I very much enjoyed it at ENO in Phyllida Lloyd’s production where, with excellent diction and a good English translation, it was rather like listening to a play. It’s an opera of bargaining, politicking without any particularly sympathetic character.  It crams in quite a lot of action but it can also seem to take quite a long time for it to happen in. Am I the only one who finds my mind wandering during parts of the second and this scenes? Or the interminable time it seems to take to build up the gold round Freia?

These feeling arose quite a bit at this performance and had, I think, quite a lot to do with Keith Warner’s staging. I found it a cluttered, frustrating staging in 2004 and 2007 and, although he’s altered it quite a bit, it still feels like a production that assumes a level of knowledge of the influences on Wagner that even those of us who are quite familiar with the operas don’t necessarily possess and one which seems to try be too clever.

Some of what he does seems unnecessary. The first figure we see on stage is a man carrying a branch.  “Aha”, say those of who know the plot, “that must be Wotan carrying the branch of the World Ash Tree”. If memory serves, we don’t actually get to learn about that until we meet the Norns three operas later [Actually in Siegfried].  If Wagner wanted us to know about Wotan and the tree, he could quite easily have written this but, in fact, it’s of limited interest to the story.  More, I think that Wagner’s opening music presents a world of darkness and innocence which is wrecked by the theft of the gold and where what went before is of little immediate interest. That is the way the narrative goes.  The next person we see is, I think, Erda ensconced in the middle of the stage – again, Wagner tells us about her when she comes on later and so it’s quite hard to see what the point of putting there is. Finally we see the Rhinemaidens.  Now these additional characters appearing early do no real harm, but it’s hard to seee what their significance is either.  it’s typical of an approach that adds commentary and symbolism like confetti.

There are other minor irritants: anyone can see that gold isn’t nearly enough to cover Freia even with the ring and tarnhelm and how, exactly did it get turned into the image of, presumably, Freia with which Fafner kills Fasolt? Why are the gods strewn asleep on what looks like Wotan and Fricka’s living room/conservatory when there must have perfectly satisfactory bedrooms for them? Freia is seen anxiously looking out of the window throughout the beginning of the second scene – to me the music for her entry requires more of a run in than the few paces downstage allow. Alberich’s boat looks clumsy. At the end Wotan unwraps Nothung before sneaking off to pay Erda a visit – Just So We Know.

There are good things.  The picture of Nibelheim as a nightmarish tyranny is very well done and provides images that actually add to the understanding of what it might be like.  At the end, as the gods climb their ladders towards Nibelheim, what looks like a huge ring descends as if they are now trapped by it.  I loved the picture of Loge elegantly flambé-ing one of the golden apples at the end.  But for each of the images that provoke thought or help understanding there’s another that just seems unnecessary and distracting.

There’s also some really good acting and characterisation and the musical side is generally strong.  Bryn Terfel makes a violent, arrogant, unpleasant Wotan who sang with great intelligence and beauty.  He was matched by Wolfgang Koch’s bitter, enraged Alberich who delivered his curse in the last scene with just the right intensity to set the disaster in motion.  Sarah Connolly was a glorious Fricka singing with all the strength and beauty that her Glyndebourne Brangaene had led me to expect: there was a real confidence and certainty about her character.  Stig Andersen was a good, subtle Loge though I think that the god of fire should be slightly more mercurial – he caught the cynicism very well.  Iain Paterson is a great Fasolt – singing with power, intelligence and, as perhaps the only half-sympathetic character on stage, looking the most human also.  Eric Halfvarson’s Fafner promises well for Siegfried.

I thought the Rhinemaidens were good but was less happy with the lesser gods, who sounded under-powered to me.  Gerhard Siegel repeated his excellent Mime.

The greatest part of the evening, however, for me came from Antonio Pappano and the orchestra.  I don;’t think I’ve heard the horns parts in the prelude played quite so beautifully and expertly.  as ever, Pappano accompanied the singers marvellously, while getting the flow and the pacing of the piece  as good as I have heard.  On purely musical grounds this looks to me as though it’s shaping up to be a pretty marvellous Ring.  I just wish that, visually, this was a engrossing and clear as what was going on in the pit.