Das Rheingold

Reviewer's score

A new Ring Cycle at Covent Garden is bound to be big news. A production that is planned by Barrie Kosky, the most creative and controversial director in the opera world today, is a major event. This production is worth all the hype that has surrounded it. It is by no means definitive. Indeed Kosky, in his fascinating interview with A. J. Goldman in the ROH programme, pretty well declares that such an ambition is nonsense anyway. “it’s about corruption …. power … family … betrayal … the destruction of nature”. The production has many strengths but, for me, there are flaws and the biggest is a decision to ignore the magic in the story. However, that is clearly Kosky’s intention and so all the characters are recognisable people not mythic cyphers. What is gained, some people will say, is a clarity of storytelling and a heightened relevance to the contemporary world. It is about our apparent determination to destroy the planet we live upon.

The opera begins with the theft of the sacred gold from the bed of the River Rhine. The Rhine Daughters who protect the gold do not believe that anyone will be willing to forswear Love to gain the gold but the dwarf Alberich does just that. Scene 2 takes us to the the realm of the gods where Wotan is waiting to take possession of the new palace which has been built for him by the giants Fasolt and Fafner. Inexplicably, Wotan has promised to give them the goddess Freia as the price of the building, intending to avoid the payment with the help of Loge, the god of fire. Loge suggests they visit Alberich and steal the Rhinegold to pay the giants. In scene 3 they carry out the robbery but part of the hoard has been forged into a ring of power. Loge says it must be returned to the river but, while Wotan intends to use most of the hoard to pay the giants, he wants to keep the ring for himself. In the final scene the giants accept the alternative payment but demand all the gold including the ring. Wotan is eventually compelled to give way. As the gods cross the rainbow bridge to the new palace Valhalla the daughters of the Rhine are heard lamenting the loss of the sacred gold.

The set is dominated by the dead trunk of the World Ash Tree (a key item in Wagner’s version of the Norse mythology that underpins his drama) and the director and designer cleverly use its branches and knotholes in many ways – the Rhine daughters emerge from its nooks and crannies and the molten gold drips from its bark in Alberich’s domain. It is covered by a vast cloth for the scene where the gods wait for the giants’ arrival. The visual aspects of the production work well, avoiding any hint of the ‘horns and helmets’ cliché and, when the tree is eventually moved for the procession into Valhalla, the stage effects are marvellous.

The performances of all the singers are very fine – three are worth singling out. As Wotan Christopher Maltman is an imposing and troubled presence as he battles to reconcile his personal lust for power and his sense of an order on the verge of collapse. Christopher Purves as Alberich carries off both the flirting with the Rhine daughters and the loss of his gold to the duplicitous gods with panache. But the standout performance for me was Sean Panikkar as Loge. He leaps about the stage and cackles with manic glee as he helps Wotan, but it is clear that he is an outsider in the group and can see the writing on the wall. Antonio Pappano, as ever, produces a performance from the orchestra that is worthy of this great score, though I sometimes felt that his admirable determination to aid the singers meant that the instrumental sound was held back a little.

Kosky’s decision to have the earth mother Erda on stage throughout as an óbserver makes total sense in the context of his version of Wagner’s story but for me it was a distraction. I missed the power of those magical moments – Alberich’s curse against love, the dragon in Nibelheim, the appearance of Erda. But the final scene – the crossing of the rainbow bridge to Valhalla – is splendid musically and visually and the strengths of this production far outweigh it weaknesses. A triumph for the Royal Opera.