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The Rhinegold

by on 24 February 2023

Golden Delicious

The Rhinegold

by Richard Wagner

English National Opera at the London Coliseum until 10th March

Review by Mark Aspen

Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle (Der Ring des Nibelungen) is, of opera’s many monumental works, the most momentous.  It is not, however, without subtlety and wit, both in its music and its narrative, which leaven its philosophical ponderings.    However, director Richard Jones’ delicious new production of The Rhinegold, the prelude within the tetralogy that is the Ring, takes on the Wagnerian purists, to lighten it further with frippery and, dare one say … fun (try capturing a splenic toad in a Bierstein!).

Wagner intended his interpretation of Nordic mythology to hold allegorical insights of philosophic and indeed spiritual truths; but also it was to be a co-operation of all the arts (a Gesamtkunstwerk to use his term) that can be enjoyed on many levels.  ENO has added in a few more levels to widen its appeal as spectacle or musical mastery, as a work of art, as story-telling or simple entertainment.  And for the most part it succeeds splendidly.

There is plenty of 21st Century decoration.    John Deathridge’s English translation goes a bit overboard on the street-wise vernacular (no-way, brass-neck, you creep, cunning tart, gutted, gangsta scrum, klutzes; to name but a few) but contrariwise pays resounding homage to Wagner’s love of alliteration (“loot lurks in lustrous light”).  The characters’ costumes look like they have come from the bargain basement at TK-Maxx (after all, princes claim to shop there now).  However, they do give some pointers: the god of thunder Donner’s track suit has lightning zigzags; Erda, the wise goddess of the earth, wears glitzy pink pyjamas, but she has come from her slumbers beneath the soil; Loge, god of fire, has footwear like flames, blue boots, yellow socks, plus a shimmering hot waistcoat. 

Designer Stewart Laing also brings his eclectic touch to the colourful and constantly changing set.  An all embracing backdrop of glittering slit-drape starts the opera as the waters of the Rhine and at the finale becomes the rainbow bridge to Valhalla, the gods’ magnificent castle.  This is all brought to vivid life with Adam Silverman’s inspired lighting.  The Rhine shimmers as the slit-drape is ruffled by a dozen shadowy dancers, choreographed by Sarah Fahie.  The gods live in clouds, a cumulus of huge white spheres, like a mis-located Atomium.  The Nibelungs, who have become slaves to the dwarf Alberich, toil incessantly at a huge conveyer belt, shining up gold bars. 

There is plenty of gold about in this production (unlike last year’s Bayreuth Festival production, which dispensed with it entirely).  It is on trolleys, trucks and in great piles.  We first see it nurtured by the Rhine-daughters, when, with the help of puppeteers drawn from the black body-suited dancers, the glistening hoard is transmogrified into an over-sized, overfed and somewhat disquieting baby.  This seems to be how the Rhine-daughters see the gold, as a plaything, spoilt and over-fussed.  They treat the gold very lightly.  Throughout the opera, gold is tossed about with abandon, even trolley loads of it.  Indeed, from time-to-time a gold bullion bar floats across the stage, in Akhila Krishnan’s video projection onto a gauze front-drop.  The reality that gold is almost twice as heavy as lead is eschewed to favour the symbolism that all the protagonists treat the sheer emotional and philosophical weight of the gold with a lightness that leads to their downfall. 

The Rhine-daughters, fluently sung by the trio of soprano and mezzos, Eleanor Dennis, Idunnu Münch and Katie Stevenson, are coquettish teasers fresh from a workout in the gym in their fluorescent Lycra leotards.  Alberich first appears from a stage-trap onto the slippery slopes of the Rhine’s rocks, as a gangly testosterone-fuelled teenager.   However, when Alberich steals their gold and discovers its magical properties, he is obliged to renounce love.  Forging a finger-ring from the gold creates the cycle’s eponymous Ring, with its omnipotent powers, and propels Alberich into the opera’s key position of power.

Leigh Melrose takes Alberich’s propulsion and runs with it, transforming an awkward adolescent into a fearsome megalomaniac, bad, bald and brutal.  Melrose’s powerful plosive baritone fills the character of Alberich with psychopathic energy.  He terrifies his slave Nibelungs and frightfully abuses his own brother, Mime, who has forged the Tarnhelm, the magical helmet.  The vicious beating from a squad of cloned Alberichs is sickeningly realistic.   John Findon’s clear-voiced tenor underlines the subjugated state of the pitiful Mime.  Alberich has created a totalitarian gulag for the Nibelungs, all of whom, including Mime and Alberich himself, are branded “Nibelung” with, somewhat otiose, tattoos on their foreheads.

Alberich’s nemesis lies with the gods.  However, they have their own problems, as the fortress palace Valhalla, the vanity project of Wotan the chief among the gods, is nearing completion.  Its builders, the giants Fafner and Fasolt, want their agreed payment, which is Freia, the goddess of love and Wotan’s sister-in-law. Another attraction of Freia is that she keeps the apples of eternal youth, and herein lies a dichotomy badly addressed by Jones in this production.  She is portrayed as a simpering schoolgirl, all bunches and bobby socks. It is a portrayal not all-embracing enough (if you will forgive the pun) to cover the myriad attributes of the goddess of love.  It rather short-changes soprano Katie Lowe as Freia who clearly could give much more.

Having seen a number of impressively sized B-big giants, Fasolt and Fafner’s entrance as a pair of solid but nearing retirement boiler-suited builders was rather dissatisfying, but these two sibling constructors more than made up for that in their big performance and rounded maturity of voice.  Plus, they do look almost as if they could be twins.  English bass-baritone Simon Bailey brings a subtlety to the role of Fasolt, in showing his developing avuncular affection for Freia.  Under pressure from the gods, the giants have agreed to commute the debt to payment in gold (lots of) but take Freia hostage as collateral.  American bass James Creswell plays the greedy-for-gold Fafner as a supercilious cynic, which makes his murder of his reluctant brother believable.  Fafner’s bludgeoning of Fasolt to death is truly horrific in its callousness.

In the worldview of the Ring Cycle even the gods, or especially the gods, are not beyond cupidity for the gold.  When Loge, the god of fire and Wotan’s Mr.Fixit, brings news of the theft of the Rhine-daughters’ gold, Wotan sees the opportunity to get out of his bargain with the giants.  Donner (a sturdy performance by American baritone Blake Denson), has already tried force, swinging his sledgehammer threateningly.  Fricka, goddess of marriage and Wotan’s wife, has also tried to intervene on behalf of her sister, bringing the voice of reason, in the form of silky-toned mezzo-soprano Madeleine Shaw.

Canadian John Relyea, in his ENO debut, brings a commanding presence in the role of Wotan.  His resonant and velvet-textured bass-baritone gives a majestic feel to the character.  Wotan’s ash spear, hewn from the World Ash Tree, carries the laws of the universe inscribed on its shaft, so he should know better that to subvert them.

The subversion is orchestrated by Loge, the cunning fast-talker diplomat of the gods.   In this role, American Grammy winner Frederick Ballentine almost steals the show.  His quicksilver movements lend an energetic ubiquity to his scenes and the precision and lightness of his tenor voice highlights the wit of the character.   His interaction with the shape-shifting Alberich is like a fast fencing match.  He punctuates each point scored with impish glee, as he outmanoeuvres Alberich even as, with the help of the Tarnhelm, Alberich transmogrifies into a fearsome dragon and then, incautiously, into the aforementioned toad.   

The dynamic struggle between the two continues even as the captive Alberich is relieved of the gold and venomously curses the ring and all it stands for.

Greed and the seeking of power have founded the possession of the gold on three crimes: the theft from the Rhine-maidens, its commandeering from Wotan and the murder of Fasolt.  It is no wonder that Erda deems it appropriate to rise from the earth, as the goddess of wisdom, to warn of the ultimate doom this will all bring, as all the classes of creatures are set one against another.  Here she is accompanied by the Norms, the weavers of destiny (strangely dressed as Girl Guides), whom we don’t normally see until Götterdämmerung, the final opera of the tetralogy, who make Wotan contemplate the sands of times running from their fingers.  The opulent voiced mezzo-soprano Christine Rice is superb as the motherly Erda.

Martyn Brabbins conducts the ENO orchestra, augmented to 89 players including hand-bells (as Donner’s anvil) and four harps.  He takes the orchestra forward with assurance, pace and a gloss that grows as the opera develops over nearly three unbroken hours of superb music.

Those harps come into their own as the rainbow bridge is created, accompanying the gorgeously lyrical signing of tenor Julian Hubbard, as Froh, god of spring and of poetry, in a particularly beautiful passage that leads to the climax.  The bridge is quite a spectacle of lustrous glitter falling relentlessly in a continuous fly-drop and is wonderfully lit in, well, all the colours of the rainbow.

Right at the beginning the orchestra is a little cheated of Wagner’s splendidly dramatic prelude, which progress in volume from almost inaudible, and in register, double-basses, bassoons, and so on until the rising horn arpeggio, the nature motif.  A visual foreword is inserted of a naked man (much to the delight of a nearby lady in the audience) dragging in the hewn limb of the World Ash Tree, then becoming more clothed as the tree withers (reminiscent of the fall of Adam).

Chronology has been side-lined in this Ring Cycle, since ENO performed The Valkyrie, the second opera of the Ring last year.  However, if you consider The Rhinegold to be a prequel, it has been inserted in a modern cinematic way after the chronological narrative is well underway.  But then again Wagner himself wrote Der Ring des Nibelungen in a very haphazard order over three decades.   Nevertheless, the future of ENO’s Ring hangs in the balance, due largely to the box-ticking mentality of the Arts Council England.  Siegfried has been now be postponed by ENO, as has the co-production with the Met.  So hunker down.

At the conclusion of ENO’s Rhinegold, the gods retreat into their new Valhalla, a harsh concrete bunker, a blockhouse far different from the sumptuous palace intended to house the gods and fallen heroes.  They pull down the steel shutters against the Rhine-daughters wailing for the loss of their gold … and of innocence, leaving the gods to contemplate the evil that is now wrought in the world.

Mark Aspen, February 2023

Photography by Marc Brenner

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