This production was given a lukewarm reception by the London critics when it was staged at the Royal Opera House so I was surprised to discover just how good it is. My benchmark is the film of the 1992 Bayreuth Ring, conducted by Daniel Barenboim but it appears to me that this Rheingold is superior to Bayreuth's in several important respects.
The earlier film is fastidious in sticking to Wagner's stage directions so when Wagner says bottom of the Rhine, we get bottom of the Rhine. When he says giants, dragon, frog, we get giants, a dragon and a frog. Surprisingly, the ROH version also manages to accomplish most of these. The opera opens convincingly underwater, achieved by clever lighting. The Rheinmaidens are skinny-dipping. A bit of gratuitous nudity gets an opera off to a good start, although a slow-motion replay reveals that they are wearing merkins. Alberich arrives in a boat, shooting down a ramp to the bed of the river so that he looks as though he's on the log flume at Alton Towers. This is the very same Alberich, Günter von Kannen, who appeared in the 1992 film, looking 13 years grumpier and singing equally well.
The second act takes us to Valhalla, where we see Bryn Terfel's Wotan for the first time. He really looks the part with a convincing prosthesis creating his blind eye. He sounds magnificent. He has the makings of a great Wotan. Sadly, he lost his voice during the London run and again during the run of Die Walküre. Let us hope that he does not turn out to be the Jonny Wilkinson of opera, brilliant but fragile. Wotan lets Loge, the god of fire, do his thinking for him. The veteran Philip Langridge is a revelation in the role. Always an excellent tenor, his acting ability has sometimes left something to be desired. Here, he hustles round the stage manipulating gods, giants and dwarfs alike. He makes Loge's role much more central to the opera than I have seen it before. He wears a baldy wig and granddad spectacles, making him look disconcertingly like Sven Goran Eriksson. When the giants appear, Fafner has a pointy head and Fastolt has big hands, like Kenny Everett. They cast giant shadows but otherwise they are disappointingly human in size. The compensating advantage is that they can play a much more realistic part in the drama.
Alberich's lair, in Act III, looks like Frankenstein's laboratory. There are body parts strewn around and the Niebelung slaves all have brain transplants. Alberich shows off his Tarnhelm, or magic helmet to Wotan and Loge. It looks suspiciously like a large Rubik's cube. This may be director Keith Warner's little joke. Alberich says: "With this Tarnhelm I can take any form". Not if my memory of struggling with a Rubik's cube in the 1980's is anything to go by. Alberich puts on the Tarnhelm and becomes a convincing dragon. Then, challenged by Loge, he becomes a convincing (radio-controlled?) frog, only a few inches high. I think Keith Warner is setting a trap for himself here. When he gets to Götterdämmerung, the final part of the Ring, he will realise that the hero has to spend a considerable part of the opera wearing the Tarnhelm. It will be difficult for Siegfried to sing wearing a Rubik's cube on his head.
This production looks the best I have ever seen and sounds the best that I have ever heard. The use of modern camera techniques means that the action is shown very much in close-up, even though it is a live broadcast. This means that it tells the story more clearly than the 1992 film. I suspect that we see even more than the punters sitting in the gallery of the ROH. The frog and the Ring itself must have been very indistinct to them. The BBC make the mistake of using Michael Portillo to introduce the film and to make inane comments about the performances at the end. At least he does not talk during the performance but, with three more parts to go, I am sure they are working on that. One thing he does say, which is not apparent from watching the film, is that Erda, the Earth Goddess, is on stage throughout the opera, observing everything. During the closing bars, Fricka, Wotan's wife and the goddess of marital fidelity, tries to coax Wotan to join her in Valhalla. At the last moment he changes his mind and returns to bestride Erda: a portent of events in Die Walküre.
Glossary for non-English readers Alton Towers English theme park; Jonny Wilkinson Accident-prone English rugby football superstar; Sven Goran Eriksson Ex-manager of the England football team; Kenny Everett Dead English comedian; Michael Portillo English clown.
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