Tuesday, 2 October 2012
Das Rheingold at the ROH
Das Rheingold is an opera that's easy to like but hard to love. As an exposition to the Ring it works very well of course, but the lack of a romantic storyline, and lack even of much emotional content, is reflected in the music which is composed in short cinematic scenes, without much lyricism, and without the feeling of the large harmonic paragraphs that are such a feature of the preceding Lohengrin, and become ever more a feature of Wagner's dramatic construction in Walkure, Tristan and Meistersinger.
What it does provide is action at a rather rapid pace, at least by Wagnerian standards, and opportunity for directors to impress us with their ingenius solutions to the works numerous problems of staging (giants, transmogrification, a rainbow bridge, a river of gold). And to say there is no lyricism is unfair: the opening is one of the most glorious in all opera, the longest orchestrated crescendo before Ravel's Bolero, and one of the most evocative things the Ring. I've always seen this as a depiction of creation, so it was pleasing here that it was accompanied by images redolent of this idea. And the final 20 minutes, from Erda's warning onwards are truly gorgeous music, and a relief from the relative terseness of what came before, a slowing of pace, and return to the beauty of the opening.
What strikes one most about Keith Warner's production is how many jokes there are. Freia is an airheaded bimbo who regularly drifts into lala land, keeps forgetting about the dangers of her captors, staring at them through the glass and at one moment hilariously letting them in again just as the others have locked them out. The giants (a mole and an industrialist respectively) are sort of comedy characters too - a large top hat is removed to reveal an equally large and bulbous egg-head. Froh is nervy and camped up as is often done, and he also keeps playing with his lighter. There are lots of other little moments of comedy. Only Fricka and Wotan are "seria" characters in this divine comedy, and they all act as petty squabblers rather than gods of all creation. Design wise the aesthetic is vaguely steam punk, or maybe Harry Potter like if you prefer that comparison - Freia and Fricka are dressed as Mozartian Countesses (they are the reactionaries), whereas Wotan is in more modern attire and the rest are in some sort of steam punkish 19th century limbo. Alberich is a onesie wearing tyrant, with a science lab that is reminiscent of the early 20th century, certainly "future" compared to the rest. The sets are mostly very dark and shiny (disastrously in the case of the centre circle where Wotan is seen crouching under the stage in a reflection and stage hands are seen passing up various objects.)
A fantasy setting then. But it's not that atmospheric, and the boxy, contained feeling of the set reflects the non-epic scale of the story telling - it's engaging but nothing seems that important. At least not yet. Maybe things will gain in gravitas as the cycle evolves, and I do want to find out what happens. Of course I already know, but you know what I'm saying. (Sadly I may not beable to due to other commitments).
I've been worried lately that Bryn Terfel has started shouting a bit when singing loud, but here he was in very good form. The voice has lost some of the rich lustre and beautiful depth of ten years ago, but he is still very in control, can sing a lovely piano, and his textual acuity and beautiful German diction remain as keen and clear as ever. He is also a good actor, far better than the ham that people sometimes take him for, and his Wotan I am sure will continue to gain depth as he moves further into this repertoire.
Sarah Conolly was as good as expected as Fricka, and made the most of the little she has to sing in this opera. Here she was imperious and proud and in Wallhalla, seemed as much in charge of the gods as Wotan. So far she has largely focussed on lyric roles as her beautiful mezzo doesn't have the steel for truly dramatic singing, but she was quite at ease here and never once seemed underpowered. Her one truly lyrical phrase bemoaning the fate of the gods revealed a gorgeous legato line which made me thirsty to see her in the great Fricka scene in Walkure which will surely be a treat (I really hope I manage to get to see it).
Maria Radner has a lovely alto voice, and probably gets the best music to sing in the opera, but doesn't quite have the vocal heft to make Erda's appearance the earth shattering, soul stirring experience that it should be. Why not Eva Podlés!? I don't know how she's really sounding these days, but she was certainly impressive as the comedy role of the mother in Massenet's Cendrillon two seasons ago. No one ever sings Alberich's music beautifully, and Wolfgang Koch does well in this part, though is maybe a little bit too much of a comedy foil (though he has his very sinister moments, such as an attempted rape on a dissection table). Iain Paterson and Eric Halfverson manage fine as Fasolt and Fafner though neither exactly boom. Nothing too much to complain about though, and Rheingold is hardly a "singers" opera anyway.