The one unqualified success of this presentation of Das Rheingold, the first of the four Ring Cycle operas that the Mariinsky Opera is bringing to Birmingham this week, was the performance of the orchestra. Conductor Valery Gergiev achieved a fine balance in the pit, and while his interpretation seemed to be very direct and straightforward that was entirely intentional. All of the music’s beauty is there on the page, but Gergiev revealed just why it takes someone of this experience to bring it all out. Never, for example, has the Valhalla leitmotif felt quite so sumptuous, or moments such as Alberich summoning the dwarves to fetch the gold possessed such striking power.
If, however, the musical output was exceptional the staging was far more problematic. It makes reference to Ossetian as much as Norse mythology, with Gergiev, who conceived the production himself in 2003, stating “I’m Ossetian myself, and the Ossetian mythology is also quite rich and epic”. The difficulty is that very few audience members would have been experts in Ossetian legend making it difficult to grasp any specific references. With the stage dominated by four giant overhanging monoliths, and strewn with ancient rocks, statues and rune stones, it seemed as if the emphasis was more on the notion of ancient ritual as opposed to any specific culture. With some of costumes and head masks seeming Egyptian, it felt as if we were staring at a huge jumble of ideas that did not always serve the drama, or indeed music, well.
For example, the whole point of starting Das Rheingold in E flat major and continuing in this key for five minutes is to create the most watery effect possible, as befitting the Rhine. Therefore, introducing movement on stage that works to any sharper a rhythm and does not the capture the total fluidity of movement to be found in the music is only detrimental to the effect.
Many of the interactions were also marred by certain staging decisions. Fasolt and Fafner appeared as heads protruding from ancient giant statues that were wheeled on and off. This meant that the two singers could not move at all so it was left to a small group of minions scattered beneath them to push and pull Freia about, tussle with each other as the giants argued over the division of the gold, and even to kill Fasolt. Placing an additional barrier of activity between the giants and anyone else hardly helped us to appreciate Fasolt’s total love for Freia, the pair’s own differing characters and their relationship with, or treatment by, the gods. Similarly, the Rhinemaidens were perched on three rocks and stepped down from these one by one to ‘woo’ Alberich, almost as if they were presenting a series of set pieces. They individually felt quite seductive, but by not working together more they did not feel either tempting or cruel enough, leaving the scene to seem silly and weak.
Some of the staging did work far better. It was a nice touch to have the toad played by a child dressed as Alberich, in what is not an entirely serious moment anyway, although portraying the dragon with a head and two rows of scales that never came together to form a coherent whole hardly helped the beast to feel awe inspiring. The gold was portrayed effectively with the material that sits in the Rhine doubling as the hoard that Alberich is forced to hand over. With this existing as a huge mound, open on one side, we were presented with a simple solution to the problem of how to cover Freia (Anastasia Kalagina) with gold. She simply sat within it as pieces were introduced to fill the gap.
The singing varied in standard between the very good and rather ordinary. Sir Willard White was tremendous as Wotan, bringing to the fore all of the thickness in his bass voice to produce a sound possessed of shimmering resonance. Ekaterina Gubanova was every inch his equal as Fricka, revealing her own burnished, rounded voice to the full.
Mikhail Vekua as Loge did not initially come across as so dynamic a trickster, but soon established himself as a quiet all-knowing presence and an exceptional actor. His disdainful glances at Wotan were superb, and his sense of sickened sorrow as the gods prepared to ascend to Valhalla was highly moving. Vocally, he was splendid (he plays Siegfried on Saturday), and he could suddenly hit the audience with a power that they simply weren’t expecting.
Evgeny Usanov also impressed as Donner, although a weaker lower register and a few shaky moments as he dispersed the storm undermined his ultimately strong baritone voice. Edward Tsanga was superb as Fasolt and Mikhail Petrenko good as Fafner, although I doubt we have yet heard the best of the latter who is also playing Hunding, Fafner in Siegfried and Hagen this week. Of the Rhinemaidens, Ekaterina Sergeyevna as Flosshilde really stood out.
Unfortunately, there were a few occasions when individual performances were undermined by the production’s concept. Edem Umerov had his weaker moments as Alberich but his stronger ones would have made up for these more had his performance not been undermined by a ridiculous mustard coloured costume, complete with bald wig, pointy ears and green gloves to give him elongated fingers. True, the Rhinemaidens and giants despise him, and the gods look down on him, but we still need to be able to take the dwarf seriously as a force, and everything here made him lack any gravitas.
Andrey Popov came across strongly enough as Mime (and as the Holy Fool in Boris Godunov at the Barbican on Monday) to make me look forward to his performance in Siegfried. His soliloquy, however, when he hear him lament the innocent, care-free times in Nibelheim is the one occasion when we see a more humane side to his character, so to present it in such a histrionic fashion was rather disappointing.
I would never judge an entire Ring Cycle by its Rheingold and given that the weakest aspect was the staging, which may take on slightly less significance since no other opera is required to portray so many different realms in so short a space of time, there is every reason to look forward to the rest. If the orchestra continues to play at the same standard, there will be much to enjoy, and with each opera featuring an almost entirely different cast (most of the main characters are played by different people in each), every opera should present its own adventure.
On the night of Das Rheingold, however, it was the final segment that really stunned. The killing of Fasolt may have missed the mark but the numbed reaction of the gods was highly effective. Then as the Rhinemaidens lamented their loss, the monoliths rose, the lighting (which was strong throughout) really came into its own, and Gergiev genuinely brought the music home, it felt as if a touch of heaven (if not for us Valhalla) had come to rest in the Birmingham Hippodrome.
The Mariinsky Ring Cycle continues at the Birmingham Hippodrome until 9 November 2014 with Die Walküre on 6 November, Siegfried on 8 November and Götterdämmerung on 9 November. Tickets are available for the individual operas. For further details and to book visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website.