Saturday 4 March 2023

Wagner - Das Rheingold (London, 2023)

Richard Wagner - The Rhinegold

English National Opera, London - 2023

Martyn Brabbins, Richard Jones, John Relyea, Leigh Melrose, Frederick Ballentine, Madeleine Shaw, John Findon, Christine Rice, Katie Lowe, Julian Hubbard, Blake Denson, Simon Bailey, James Creswell, Eleanor Dennis, Idunnu Münch, Katie Stevenson

The Coliseum, London - 26th February 2023

I wouldn't expect every production of Das Ring des Niebelungen to be as elaborately layered and provocative as a Frank Castorf Ring cycle, as irreverently humanising as a Dmitri Tcherniakov production or as distinctive and gloriously impenetrable as the Achim Freyer Mannheim Ring, but you would like a new production of Das Rheingold to open with at least some new ideas and twists that you could look forward to being developed further down the line. Such expectations however have already been suitably adjusted in view of the fact that Richard Jones's Die Walküre, or The Valkyrie, has already made its appearance at the ENO before the first part of the tetralogy and it didn't seem to offer anything new or promising. The same goes even more so for The Rhinegold which, aside from modern costumes, plays it fairly straight and safe, having nothing much new to add to Wagner Ring mythology, but as with the first/second installment, nonetheless putting it across in an entertaining and enjoyable manner.

What is perhaps more notable about the performance I attended at the Coliseum was the audience that turned out to fill the hall; an audience on average younger than you would often see at opera and it turned out to be also an appreciative one for what Wagner's Das Rheingold has to offer, or at least for Richard Jones's version of what The Rhinegold has to offer. That's all the more interesting since this is the first opera I've seen there since the Arts Council England's shortsighted, misguided and philistine threat to cut and remove funding for the ENO. While the future of this Ring cycle and the company still lies in the balance, it was nonetheless heartening to see this kind of turnout and support for the artform. The ENO's programme brings me, like many others, into London to see productions like this every year and has done for many years in the past, paying for flights, accommodation and meals that contribute to the UK economy, and I hope to continue to be able to do so in the future...

...As I did for The Valkyrie in 2021, and what largely was written then - by me as well as others - holds true to The Rhinegold. As engaging as it was, engaging also to a significant extent with the narrative of Wagner's original stage directions, it didn't have anything new or insightful to say about the work. By the same token, other than perhaps for a few moments, neither did it betray the tone and character of the work. There were certainly a few quirks and some ideas that didn't quite strike the right note in the right place - the sombre contemplative notes of the opera's origin myth flowing into the shimmer of the Rhine were somewhat sacrificed to a semi-comic routine of a naked man dragging a large branch from the world ash tree across the stage that is eventually crafted into Wotan's staff/spear. There is a meaningful point to be made here, the ecological exploitation of the planet setting us on a path to destruction, but the message is somewhat lost in this routine. Elsewhere however the key scenes were at least delivered with appropriate impact, musically, narratively and in the fine singing.

You would think that if you are going to make such an issue of the forging of Wotan's staff - or spear in its eventual form - that it might become a prominent feature or motif throughout, and while it certainly featured and was wielded to such effect, it wasn't to any evident purpose, and certainly not to any purpose that I can recall becoming any clearer in Die Walküre. In fact, the downside of performing the two operas out of order tends to emphasise the disconnect between them, in the overall look and appearance, in the inconsistency of the costume design (Wotan in a purple-blue neat suit here for some reason takes to sporting a bright red puffa jacket in Die Walküre) and set design (the steel shuttered Valhalla becoming more of a log cabin in Die Walküre). Should the ENO's Ring cycle make it to its conclusion (one can only hope, as it is still very much worth it), the idea of each of the constituent parts being distinct from each other is a unique feature (Castorf's aside, even though they were all connected by a very strong and consistent anti-capitalism theme) that should at least keep things interesting.

Other than that, Jones didn't give you too much to think about, or at least - like the Rhinemaidens wearing gym gear - nothing worth thinking to hard about to try to see any kind of rhyme or reason behind it (too fit for Alberich to catch? - as I said, you could find reasons if you like, but nothing worth the effort). In terms of look and appearance, the scene of Alberich being bewitched and teased by the Rhinemaidens was, as you would expect, colourful, attractive and slightly camp in a simple basic way, the Rhine represented by a surrounding curtain of glitter, Alberich arising from a hole in an otherwise fairly bare stage (making it all less effective if you are viewing it from a high vantage point in the Gallery). As with The Valkyrie, black clothed 'invisible' figures helped move things around, here permitting Alberich and the Rhinemaidens some swimming and floating movements, which worked well enough.

Aside from the obligatory avoidance of anything in terms of traditional costumes, it was pretty much according to the libretto, or at least to the same intent and purpose. The gold of the Rhine was initially shaped as an child-size baby puppet (manipulated by the black figures), but soon took a more traditional form, again through a series of transitions, from a crumpled sheet to flattened ingots and eventually, believe it or not, to an actual ring of a size that you can fit on your finger. An actual ring, I tell you! I'm not used to such literal fidelity in a modern production of Das Ring des Nibelungen. Nibelheim on the other hand resembled not so much a heavy industry factory as a production line in a bakery, with the dwarfs wearing chef caps. As I said, don't think too much about it...

The majority of Das Rheingold of course takes place in Valhalla and Jones didn't reveal too much of that, the giants presumably withholding the keys to the newly constructed abode of the Gods until they had received the agreed remuneration for their labours (nope, no hint of any commentary approaching Castorf's emphasis on that aspect), so it might well have been the log cabin we see in Die Walkure. The shimmering curtain remains in the surround, and we have conglomerations of white globes on stilts that could be abstract clouds. Again, I wasn't inclined to think to much about it other than it was all pleasant and decorative enough. What matters more is what take place within it.

What takes place within it sticks fairly closely to the original storyline. Aside from Freia being transported on the back of the Giants' work van, the exchange rate for her is indeed measured against the accumulation of trays of Rhine gold ingots to her height - and don't forget to throw that tiny Ring in. That's fine as far as it goes, but essentially what Richard Jones and conductor Martyn Brabbins working together successfully achieve is getting the necessary impact for each of those key moments and scenes. The brutal killing of Fafner by Fasolt (a dummy brought on in an off-stage switch) battered about the head with a gold ingot was particularly forceful. The arrival of Erda (with the Norn as three schoolgirls? Your guess is as good as mine), sung impressively by Christine Rice, also created the necessary gravity and impact, together heralding the tragedy of the curse of the Ring that will (we hope) play out in future installments. The shimmering fall of rainbow glitter for the bridge to Valhalla, and the lockdown against the Rhinemaidens at the conclusion seemed an appropriate way, in Richard Jones terms if nothing else, for everything that came before.

Some moments of levity in the Tarnhelm episode were balanced in this way by the gravity of what the Ring's preliminary evening prologue lays down, and the balance was supported by the characterisation and singing. As noted above, Christine Rice in particular made that small but significant and truly Wagnerian impression as Erda, but there were notable performances also from John Relyea as Wotan, Leigh Melrose as Alberich, and a suitably shifty portrayal of Loge by Frederick Ballentine. Madeleine Shaw's Fricka and Katie Lowe's Freia contributed to the family dynamic alongside the entertaining comic action hero shapes thrown by Julian Hubbard's Froh and Blake Denson's Donner. The giants might not have had much physical stature in this production but I enjoyed Simon Bailey and James Creswell's Fasolt and Fafner.

I can't say that Martyn Brabbins' conducting of the orchestra made a huge impact - maybe I was focussing too much on giving the production and sets design more thought than it merited after all - but neither did I notice anything that felt out of place in pacing, delivery, the surge of leitmotifs or in the whole continuous flow of this marvellous work. Some of the music press appear to have been more generous about this production - whether it's a show of solidarity with the proposed fate of the ENO, I couldn't say, but such sentiments can be excused, as the loss of the ENO in London would be a serious blow for opera lovers, for London, for arts, culture and for tourism. I don't expect Bayreuth at the Coliseum, but who in any other part of the country - certainly not here in Belfast - is going to have the resources to present not only an entertaining and accessible Ring cycle to a diverse audience, but a solid programme of great opera every year? If not in the Coliseum, at least keep the ENO funded and in London. Its loss would be very much regretted and missed by this opera-goer at least.

Links: English National Opera