The Rhinegold

Reviewer's Rating

After the recent travails of English National Opera it is a real pleasure to be able to say that their new production of Wagner’s ‘ The Rhinegold’ is an outstanding success, and in the best original, quirky, convention-ruffling ENO fashion.

Director Richard Jones has picked up on the fact that this opera is a ‘Vorabend’ or preliminary evening in the Ring Cycle, with a focus on providing backstory rather than detailed elaboration of character. He has developed from this insight a cartoonish tableau full of Rhine maidens in day-glo lycra and gods in track suits and spangly pyjamas, all more ‘Love Island’ than Valhalla. This kind of sharp, sassy seediness seems entirely appropriate for the squalid goings-on at the heart of this drama, where contracts are worthless, greed for gold substitutes for love, and lust for power is the ultimate aphrodisiac at the price of environmental degradation.

The message is much assisted by a precise and elegant singing translation from the Wagner scholar John Deathridge, which never gets in the way of the singers and unpacks a lot more nuance and plot detail than usual. The synergy between polished words and mellifluous singing is reflected in the fact that the English diction is excellent from the whole cast, so that you hardly need to let your eyes wander upwards to the surtitles, certainly not always the case at ENO.

The orchestra is on sparkling form right from the start: the famous initial evocation of the riverbed of the Rhine is notoriously hard to bring off live, often with many a cracked note in the exposed overlapping horn calls that evoke the creation of the world. But here, as throughout, Martyn Brabbins steered and balanced his forces faultlessly, sonically assisted by spreading the timpani and the four harps into the boxes either side of the pit, and some wonderful pre-recorded surround-sound effects, such as the clinking anvils in the descent through Alberich’s workshops to Nibelheim.

The large cast are uniformly excellent in both singing and acting skills, bringing each of the four long scenes to dynamic, plausible life. The three Rhine maidens blend very well with each other in voice and style; Leigh Melrose, as Alberich, shifts from a lubricious voyeur in the first scene (with a wig that makes him look alarmingly like Barry Humphries!) through to a power-crazed, shape-shifting maniac later on. John Relyea finds the balance between noble vocal gravity and slipperiness in Wotan’s character, setting up the ambiguities that makes him the cycle’s most fascinating character. The other gods all have fine moments, with Blake Denson finding a lot more than usual in the minor role of Donner and Frederick Ballentine finding an idealism as well as tricksiness in Loge’s manipulation of all the other characters. He also actually sings the part beautifully when others often just declaim it.

With so many transformations of shape and location in this work a lot hangs on the set designs and costumes and here Stewart Laing demonstrates once again that ‘less is more.’ For the Rhine a curtain of silver streamers suffices, while in the realm of the gods white globes on stilts stand in for clouds. Nibelheim is all low fluorescent lights, gleaming heaps of gold bars and a huge director’s desk, and fortress Valhalla, when it arrives, is as much prison as palace. The piling up of the gold as the ransom for the goddess Freia, is wittily achieved through presenting the giants as owners of a lorry with a loading bay, neatly reversed onto the stage.

The abiding memory of this production is its attention to significant detail through its attempts to tie the threads of the plot together and anticipate later developments, right down to the fire extinguisher on the wall of Valhalla in the final tableau. In this way it is reminiscent of Stephen Wadsworth’s Seattle Ring from a decade ago. Wagner said – rightly – that one of his greatest skills was in the ‘art of transition’, as the music mutates from one mood, harmonic framework, and set of motifs into another in proto-cinematic fashion. Richard Jones runs with that supple fluidity, incorporating a plethora of subtle references, gestures and character interactions that can only pay dividends as they are recalled and enacted in later parts of the cycle.