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Opera North Rheingold

6 Jul

The final complete cycle of Opera North’s much-praised Ring began at the Sage in Gateshead on 5th July.  It’s four years since my last complete Ring and it was high time for another.  On the evidence of this Rheingold it’s not going to be a disappointing week.

I often find Rheingold the hardest work of the four: it’s like a play: political, with dialogues and none of the lyrical love duets or vast monologues of the other operas.  It’s easy to feel, sometimes, that Wagner takes rather a long time as characters circle round each other and use that “hard will you find it O crafty but credulous god/nibelung/giant” formulation before actually getting to the point, while nothing that interesting happens in the music while they’re at it.  In a good performance, however, the politics and the tensions between the characters are fascinating and you begin to pick up the parallels with the sorts of political dilemmas between justice and self-interest, of emotion and intellect that are crucial to the cycle.

Opera North’s approach – an acted concert with images projected on huge screens together with surtitles and a very slightly arch narrative – gives you the essence of the piece and rather more.  The acting and characterisation is as good as you’d get in a full staging.  The closeness of the singers to the audience allows you to savour the words and see the expressions: it’s immediate, you’re not distracted by the additions that most directors feel they need to add and you can form your own ideas from the words and music.

So at this performance, I became aware of the fractured Wotan/Fricka relationship in a way that I’d never quite got before, together with that tension between the gods over how you treat the giants.  And, of course, the more I hear the score, the more I get the interplay of leitmotivs.

There are disadvantages.  There are times when you long for a stronger visual representation of Valhalla, of the Rhine, of the Rainbow bridge, where you would just like more space and more physicality about the performances and a a more concrete interpretation.

And it’s important to be honest that this isn’t a perfect performance.  The orchestral playing had its share of fluffs, the singers aren’t world class.  This Ring is limited by resources and by space.  What isn’t limited is the imagination and enthusiasm and these overcome any doubts.

Richard Farnes is central to this.  He has the orchestra expertly drilled and it makes a thrilling sound.  Those huge climaxes, the details sound glorious.  He paces the climaxes superbly and the playing and consideration to the singers helps you concentrate.  I was never bored or found my mind wandering.  The orchestra doesn’t disappoint.

And it’s a pretty good cast.  Only Michael Druiett makes a vocally dull Wotan, at the limits of his range and without the nobility of sound and sheer arrogance that you ideally want from a Wotan.  He manages, he’s acceptable, but I wanted a little more.

Otherwise, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacker is an outstanding, I would say world-class, Loge.  He seizes the dramatic opportunities, creating a cynical, dislikeable, but also sympathetic character.  His clear tenor sounds perfect for the role.  I loved the way he gentle played with the red handkerchief, representing the dead Fasolt, at the end.  Here was a Loge completely in control.

Jo Pohlheim was a powerful, clear Alberich.  Maybe I’d have liked a bit more intensity in the curse but he caught the craving for power and wealth and the hatred of the gods. Richard Roberts made a clear, servile Mime.

The other gods were strong: Yvonne Howard’s sensible, rather sad Fricka, Giselle Allen’s gorgeously sung, frightened Freia – personally, I wouldn’t have let Wotan near my golden apples after that experience.  Mark le Brocq and Andrew Foster-Williams were fine as Froh and Donner.  Perhaps I could do with a slightly darker, firmer mezzo than Ceri Williams’s for Erda, but she knew absolutely what her episode was about.

James Creswell made a clear, almost sympathetic Fasolt and Mats Almgren an ideally dark Fafner – the by-play between the two was marvellously clear and perhaps the only way in which costumes and a full staging might have helped could have been to accentuate the fact that the giants are, surely, rather terrifyingly powerful and have a strength that the gods just don’t.  Good, strong Rhinemaidens too.

A really good start.

 

 

Beginners’ Götterdämmerung

29 Jun

The title isn’t meant to be patronising but, as Opera North’s Ring reached its conclusion, it struck me that this was, pretty much an ideal staging for anyone new to the cycle.  It’s 35 years since audiences in the North East had a chance to hear the Ring on their doorstep and many at the performance at the Sage in Gateshead that I saw on 28th June would have been experiencing Götterdämmerung live for the first time.

The staging, as for the other operas tells the story simply. It’s very easy to follow the plot, the emotions of the characters are conveyed directly.  There are passages in Götterdämmerung where it’s quite easy for the mind to wander.  It didn’t here and it was a joy to be in an audience that was listening and engaging with barely a cough or a fidget.  The humanity of the characters was clear.  This was an accessible, clear and very, very good version.  This isn’t to say that I don’t miss the insights of more amitious productions (I won’t easily forget Brünnhilde being brought in with the paper bag over her head in Richard Jones’s production) but I don’t think, for example, that I’ve understood the words of the Immolation Scene so clearly or experienced a more immediate performance of the Waltraute scene than I have here.

As in the previous three operas, the performances have been led by the outstanding work of the Opera North orchestra under Richard Farnes.  Just watching Farnes, you have the sense of someone genuinely leading and in control and it is the clarity and the sureness of the pacing that I will take away from the these performances.  The two orchestral show pieces came off outstandingly well, as they ought to, but I’ll also remember the pauses, the management of the dialogue between singers and orchestra, the way in which he caught the dramatic mood, particularly in Act II and those dialogues between the characters so that the emotions were utterly clear.  This was compelling conducting.  Others may get more incandescence, possibly subtler playing, but this was hugely satisfying.

I don’t know how far this cast would work in a huge, acoustically challenging barn and having to ride over the orchestra. Here, stood in front, with nothing between them and the orchestra, they were excellent.  Alwyn Mellor hasn’t the sheer heft of many Brünnhildes but she conveys the wisdom, the sadness and the anger marvellously and her last scene was as moving as I’ve seen it.  Mati Turu Siegfried delivered his best singing in the narration at the end and, throughout, was enthusiastic, confident and you felt able to relax that he would be fine.  Mats Algrem made a lowering, vicious, disturbed Hagen who sang was magnificent malevolence.  Jo Pohlheim made his mark as Alberich.  Eric Greene was a nondescript Gunther, but Orla Boylan was a worried, basically decent Gutrune.  Susan Bickley was luxury casting as Waltraute and the sincerity and openness of her singing made her scene one of the highlights.  Good Rhinemaidens and Norns and predictably excellent work from the chorus.

I do hope they manage to put this cycle together and do them all in 2016 as they seem to be promising.  It’s been great to watch it being built up, but you can only get the whole experience by seeing them in close proximity.  The commitment and intelligence and sheer skill of the performances shows how wonderful Opera North can be and, as in all the others, we came out on a Wagner high, leitmotivs going round our heads and debating aspects of the work.  You can’t legitimately ask for more.

 

Opera North’s Ring continues

30 Jun

Opera North brought their Siegfried to the Sage in Gateshead on 29th June and I’m still on a glorious Wagner high – that one where the tunes go round and and round and you feel that anything is possible.

I described their approach when I wrote about Die Walküre last year.  It hasn’t changed much and it remains a very strong, simple way of getting the operas across.  The singers know what they’re singing about and act as committedly.  They communicate vividly to the audience.  You’re able to imagine those things that are so difficult in the theatre but so wonderfully managed by Wagner – Siegfried crossing the magic fire, the forging of the sword.  There are also one or two irritations.  The constantly changing images provide a mildly pleasant backdrop but don’t add much.  I also found reading the narrative distracting at times – at the beginning of Act II you want the stage to be as dark and black as the music rather than to read the surtitles.  The surtitles were projected over the images and, particularly, in the last act, really did not contrast well, so you couldn’t follow them as well as you needed.

What I suspect was missing most was the connection with the other operas.  It’s a year since Walküre and two since Rheingold.  It’s easy to forget the images of the previous operas and, in Siegfried, the references to what has gone before, the previous relationships are extremely important.  There’s a rumour that they’ll be doing the full cycle in 2015 and that would help.

The cast is good.  The discovery is Mati Turi as Siegfried.  He has the heft and the youthful ringing quality to the voice that make him sound like a genuine heldentenor.  His last notes sounded as fresh and as ringing as his first.  It’s not perfect – there were some passages which stretched him absolutely to his limits.  I wonder how he would come across in a larger house, with a less considerate conductor than Richard Farnes.   His acting was perfectly adequate for this performance and he created a nice sense of wonder in the forest scene.  He doesn’t look an obvious young hero but, frankly, with this voice, I’m unworried.

Michael Druiett was also stretched absolutely to his vocal limit as Wotan.  He managed to get through it – the voice sounds good and he knows what it’s about, but you good hear the struggle.

Annalena Persson was back as Brünnhilde – her clear, steely voice sounds good for the role and she managed the shifts in Brünnhilde’s emotions beautifully.  You needed to make no allowances in the duet as both singers made it sound joyous and charted the way their attraction goes really intelligently – even though you were aware that Wagner takes a huge amount of time to get it there.

Richard Roberts made a cringing, intelligent Mime – nicely sung and interracting well with Siegfried.  Jo Pohlheim struck me as a major discovery as Alberich – a great, grainy black voice and a lowering presence who made the most of his scene with Wotan.  Mats Almgrem as Fafner was equally good – a superb black voice and he made you sympathise with the dragon.  Ceri Williams was a firm, strong-voiced Erda who made a lot of her scene with Wotan – she struck me as very promising indeed.  Joanne Dexter was the understudy Woodbird and was very good indeed.

The star, of course, is the English Northern Philharmonia and Richard Farnes.  Farnes and the orchestra relish the climaxes and the different colours of the score.  He paces these marvellously and guides you through the themes and the ideas really coherently.  It sounds great in the Sage.  The orchestra is good even if you don’t get the sheer skill and sheen of more expensive ones.  You were aware of exactly how difficult it is – the jaunty end to the second Act needs a bit more precision, the horns at the end of the opera a bit more precision and clarity.  But you have to admire the skill commitment and intensity of this performance.

Roll on Götterdämmerung.

 

Götterdämmerung – Susan Bullock stars

27 Oct

So it’s over. Götterdämmerungcame to an end on 24th October and I feel a mixture of huge satisfaction and admiration for the works, of exhaustion after four evenings of very hard work, regret that it’s all over and an element of frustration at the bits that didn’t quite work or were downright perverse.

The great things first. I thought Susan Bullock grew into a fabulously good Brünnhilde.  It may not be the fullest or most grateful voice, but how I admired her sheer stamina and feeling at the end of the immolation scene, that she could probably go on for quite lot longer had Wagner written the music.  She is an intensely communicative singer – singing the words, conveying the meaning and the emotion behind it.  She conveyed the intensity of her love for Siegfried, the sheer bewilderment and humiliation in the Gibichung’s hall and, at the end, the realisation of her role and the joy at the prospect of reunion with Siegfried.  Watching this portrayal grow has been one of the glories of this Ring.

Stephan Vinke is, again, a very strong Siegfried – not the most mellifluous, rather dry of tone but he has the stamina for the role and creates a believable innocent (one day I may do blog about the relative intelligence of tenor roles in opera – Siegfried runs Manrico pretty close). He acts alertly and struck me as highly convincing. His final words about Brünnhilde were very moving.

John Tomlinson makes a wonderfully black Hagen pretty much dominating the stage and his vast voice, black as ink, his completely believable acting, conveying the evil and bitterness of the role was a joy. I thought he created a sense of regret and bitterness in the scene with Alberich that I’ve not seen in other portrayals.  The voice may not be as fresh as it was a few years ago, but it still sounds pretty much ideal for this role.

I wasn’t greatly convinced by either of the Gibichungs – two of the least grateful roles in the cycle, but Rachel Willis-Sørensen struck me as having a voice that might well have a very strong future in Mozart and Strauss.  Rhinemaidens and Norns were all very strong indeed.  The chorus was strong and as exciting as it should be.

I’ve praised Pappano’s conducting and the orchestral playing.  I think that Pappano’s huge strengths are his consideration for the singers and the sheer clarity of the textures, the way that he brings out the themes and commentary as an organic part of the score.  He gets the dark, threatening side excellently but there were times when I missed the sheer energy and the huge climaxes that I’ve heard in more romantic readings. At the end of all the operas, I’ve felt a little earth bound, in the sense that I haven’t quite had the themes playing around in my head for the next 24 hours.

The virtues and vices of Warner’s production haven’t changed much since Walküre. There is the wonderful direction of the singers, achieving marvellous acting performances and an understanding of their motivation and real imagination.  There are some great stage pictures.  I loved the statue of Wotan looking over the end of the second Act, reminding you of his responsibility for Brünnhilde’s predicament and his inability to help.  Hunding snapping off his spear for the oath scene for a great touch.  There are some things that I just don’t get – why we see Alberich in his boat on a life-support system (why does he need a boat anyway?), what’s all the algebra about?  Why is the Gibichung Hall like the Tarnhelm?  What irritates me more, however are the bits that look to me like sheer clumsiness.  I like the idea of the gods’ statues being melted down in the immolation scene but getting the crowd to attach them to the ropes seemed obvious. I can see why you need to have a platform the last scene of Act II but it did bounce a lot which was distracting and looked amateurish.  Having a splash of water as the Rhinemaidens return to the Rhine is amusing once, tiresome and predictable on repetition.  It’s one of those productions which you feel could have been vastly improved if the design budget had been halved.

There’s never going to be a production of the Ring that gets all the subtleties and ideas in there or a cast that can completely satisfy you musically.  For all my complaints, this was a hugely engaging, enjoyable and satisfying four evenings, that I’ll remember for Bullock, Terfel, Tomlinson and Pappano in particular and for the intensity of the acting.  What I’m less sure about is whether I want to see it again.  The days of Rings every year seem to have gone for ever but I bet Pappano will want to have another go at it before he goes and I can’t see the house running to a new production for that.

Siegfried – Not the ideal first opera

22 Oct

During the long interval of the performance of Siegfried on 21st October, I struck up a conversation with a guy who had been wandering past the Royal Opera House about 20 minutes before it started and, on the off-chance, had got a standing ticket in the Balcony for £17.  This was his first opera.  It isn’t one that I’d choose for my first opera but he seemed to be coping pretty well and hats off to him for standing all the way through.

The more I thought about it, the more I felt that it must be quite difficult to make a lot of it without the knowledge of what has gone before.  For me the most interesting thing about Siegfried is the way in which the characters you have seen before develop – the resonances from the previous operas and the ironies.  How can you remotely understand the emotions going on in the Wotan/Erda scene or the Wotan/Siegfried one without a knowledge of what has gone before?  I think the sense of the old order apparently being thwarted by the arrival of youth and innocence has greater resonance if you have seen the earlier pieces.

As before, there are some wonderful things in Keith Warner’s production and some deeply frustrating ones.  I don’t understand why you need to have a ‘plane have crashed into Nibelheim for the first scene and I found the conscious artificiality of the forest murmurs scene unnecessarily funny.  I think that to have Siegfried just lie back on the mattress while going through the magic fire is a complete cop out.  I wonder if there were some technical problems with the projections – they didn’t seem that well co-ordinated and I don’t remember feelling so frustrated last time I saw this production.  I’m not sure why Wotan needed to kill Erda at the end of their scene together and I’m not sure what having what was, I think, the Woodbird around for the first scene and climbing into the bear costume brought.  Above all I found Mime changing into rat frequently while trying to make Siegfried drink the poison very tiresome and silly.  Can’t Warner trust us and Wagner?  I can’t blame Warner for the early snapping of Wotan’s spear but I did wonder if all was well backstage.

But there are some greatnesses too.  The second act, round Neidhöle is really well done – huge, cavernous darkness and a picture of Fafner on his own, seated, clutching the gold model of Freia and I love the circling stage at the beginning of the third act with Wotan apparently combatting the elements as well as everything else – splendid image of the turnoil he’s feeling.  The direction of the acting is fine and he catches the jokes in the text.  I didn’t find this as fascinating an evening as I did Walküre or, indeed, the Richard Jones production before this, but it’s still a hugely intelligent evening.

I’ve at last seen Terfel’s Wanderer/Wotan and, as before, I admire it enormously.  He manages the conversational elements superbly and his phrasing and ability to sing softly make you understand the subtleties of the role.  He was particularly fine in the scenes when he is playing with Mime and Alberich.  I felt that Tomlinson last time round got more of the elemental anguish and doubt of the first scene of Act III.

We also had a new Siegfried.  Stephan Vincke is a new name to me.  The voice is on the dry side but he has huge stamina and appeared to be singing with the same freedom and energy at the duet as he was at the start – in fact, slightly more so.  It’s not a particularly beautiful sound and there are times when it would be nice to have a little more freedom and heft – but he more than gets through the role and he acts it engagingly – just the right amount of naive cynicism.

I thought Susan Bullock even better tonight than she had been in Walküre.  There was slightly more steel in the voice this evening and, best of all, she brings out the femininity and wisdom of the role.  I remember in particular how beautifully she sang the “Ewig bin ich…” passage (when the Siegfried Idyll bit comes in) – there was a raw honesty about this.  She conveyed the emotions of the woman outstandingly – everything felt true – though how much someone who hadn’t seen Walküre could get out of this scene, I don’t know.

Wolfgang Koch was a lowering, nasty Alberich, Gerhard Siegel was just right as the petty, small-minded Mime, Sophie Bevan a lovely, clear Woodbird and Maria Radner was a fine Erda.

Pappano and the orchestra did fantastic things in the second Act – they caught the tension and danger, together with the beauty of that act beautifully.  I’ve heard more incandescent love duets – I remember both with Haitink and, I think the last time here, catching the train home with the themes at the end rolling around my head – not so much this time.

So this was a civilised was of spending a wet Sunday and I got a lot out of it.  I hope that my acquaintance wasn’t entirely put off opera.

Die Walküre – Triumphing over the set

20 Oct

I’m still on a high after the ROH Walküre on 18th October.  Most of the reasons why I was ambivalent about Rheingold are still there, but the wonderful things about this performance overcame them and I found myself increasingly engrossed and in a way which transcended the feeling that I was “at the opera”.

The programme talked about family relationships looking at fathers and children. But it also struck me that there is something strong in this opera about marriage and we see two different failing or failed marriages which you cannot but contrast with the love of Siegmund and Sieglinde.  In Act I you have (very vividly depicted here) the abusive nature of the Hunding/Sieglinde marriage where Hunding has Sieglinde completely in thrall. And then there’s the Wotan/Fricka scene where Fricka pretty much by virtue of going on and on and applying emotional blackmail, trounces Wotan.  What interested me particularly in this performance was that Bryn Terfel’s Wotan suggested a respectful tenderness towards Fricka and a suggestion that this is a relationship that has endured, however unsatisfactory it may be, albeit at the same time that he was rather patronisingly telling her that she didn’t know what she was talking about.  This wasn’t just the marriage of convenience between two people who hate each other, as you often see.  With Sarah Connolly’s implacable, emotionally secure but deeply unhappy Fricka, this scene was one of the most fascinating of the cycle so far.

But Walküre is, pretty much, Wotan’s opera and Terfel demonstrated what a wonderful Wotan he is. What I admire most about him is his ability to sing this music softly and as if it were dialogue in a play. This huge man, with a vast voice, can sing softly and tenderly creating a hugely moving character.  He knows absolutely what Wotan is thinking and communicates it – passages you expect to be loud and hectoring become persuasive, explanatory. I got the depth of his love and trust for Brünnhilde and his anger at her betrayal, the bitterness at sacrificing Siegmund and the sheer regret at the loss of them both.  One of the things that he brought out for me, as well as the love, was the transition from the god who, at the start, still thinks he can control everything and, by the end realises that he can’t, that his role is simply to watch.  And that gives a link to Siegfried.  I’m looking forward impatiently to his Wanderer.

Last time I saw this here, Susan Bullock stepped in as Brünnhilde for an ill Lisa Gasteen and I remember being astonished by her assured performance then.  With proper preparation this time, I thought she was very fine indeed. It’s not a voice I would instantly think of for the role – it’s not as full and powerful as, say, Nilsson (who is?) and it also lacks the voluptuousness of Eva-Maria Westbroek who, as Sieglinde, sounded as though he voice was bigger.  And yet there is a steely stamina there and, like Terfel, an ability to use the words and music to convey the thoughts. I don’t normally think of the Ring as  particularly moving series of operas – fascinating and interesting but not that emotional – but when Bullock talked to Wotan about love in Act III, the colours that she found there, combined with Pappano’s achingly responsive conducting, brought tears to my eyes.  This was someone who had been changed by her experiences in Act II.  Bullock’s hoydenish opening turned into someone who had chosen what was to follow.  The dialogue with Wotan was so intense that she caught you up in her joy when he announced that he’d be surrounding her with fire.  The way that she developed the character in this opera bodes well for the rest of the cycle.

The others were of an equally high calibre.  Westbroek was a generous, beautiful Sieglinde.  Simon O’Neill has the heft and stamina for Siegmund but if, like me, you’ve always thought that heroic warriors were, well, fit and probably youthful, then he can’t really be a visually acceptable Siegmund. John Tomlinson was a vicious thug of a Hunding and, as ever, it’s wonderful to hear his voice and his intelligence in Wagner.

Pappano was in complete accord with his singers and, even if the orchestra wasn’t as completely secure throughout the evening as it had been in Rheingold, this was a reading that sounded “right” in that it worked with the production and the singers so that the emotions, the ideas were reflected in the orchestra.  He weaves the textures in the score beautifully – I remember particularly the passage for ‘cellos and woodwind in the first scene as Sieglinde and Siegmund have their nervous introductions – the two voices there were perfectly balanced and gave huge pleasure as well as commenting on what was going on onstage.

Keith Warner has to take a lot of the credit for a performance as intelligent and effective as that.  His direction of the interaction between the characters is outstanding and shows such knowledge and thought of the text that it’s a privilege to watch.  And yet you admire this in spite of sets and the sheer clumsiness and occasional inconsistencies of parts of the staging and the sheer heaviness of the set.

Perhaps I’m just too literal, but in my experience you do not have a fan working in a room where there is also a blazing fire (Siegmund warms himself against it).  The furnishings chez Hunding suggest wealth (and, indeed, Hunding suggests that he has wealthy patrons so some of this has clearly rubbed off).  They include a nicely upholstered chaise longue with ram horn decorations which is clearly also a shrine to Fricka and one which Brünnhilde is put to sleep – ürather a good touch).  If this is right, I think that Hunding might want to keep his wife in something rich rather than the typical Sieglinde-fustian that she wore here.

It’s a very busy set.  Hunding’s house is set clumsily within the Magic Mountain set that we had for the gods in Rheingold and which is now derelict for Act II of this (looking slightly like the preparations for a house clearance).  When the house flies up for the end of the love duet, the steps up to it have to fold up like the steps into an aircraft – and you’re watching that rather than concentrating on the lovers.  There’s still the ladder leading to Valhalla until Siegmund destroys it with Nothung after the Todesverkündigung – a nice, flashy gesture but is this the right place in the cycle for it or is it even appropriate? I felt that the revolving wall revolved rather too often while the door placed in it looks random, inelegant.

And you feel there are self-imposed hindrances.  It’s a nice idea for Brünnhilde to descend by the ladder from Valhalla but isn’t that really compromised by her undoing her safety harness when she gets to the bottom: wasn’t there another solution?  You feel that Terfel has to worry too much about where to leave his spear and his cloak and when to put them on again.  The mattress for the Valkyries’ ride just looks random and silly.  More seriously, I didn’t get why Sieglinde had to wander round the stage during the Todesverkündigung and I found that this, together with the projection of the rotating wall frustratingly distracted me from what Miss Bullock and Mr O’Neill were doing in one of the most important scenes in the entire cycle.  I think it’s a definite failure that you are left looking at the white wall while Wotan puts Brünnhilde to sleep behind it.  Presumably this is to give Terfel the time to attach the contraption to his hand so that he can hold the magic fire in the next scene and to find a way of getting a spear and breast plate for Brünnhilde by the chaise longue, two items that have rather obviously not been part of her acoutrements for the rest of the opera.  This feels like laziness.

I don’t underestimate the problems of staging the Ring but it’s frustrating that so much that is strong and good in this performance is compromised by a design concept that simply doesn’t have the flexibility that’s needed.  The singers and conducting triumphed over the problems and made for a great evening.  I just felt that it might have been easier for them without the distractions.

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.