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Barrie Kosky, eat your heart out. We loved it, even though we all know you’d much rather none of us were present in some 1300 cinemas worldwide, and your work was confined only to those living in London or rich enough to afford travel, seat prices and hotels, so as to comply with your “if they have to travel to do it, then they should travel” dictum. If ever there were a statement that runs counter to the Royal Opera’s aim of bringing opera to a wide audience, then this was it. Of course, it’s clickbait, and Kosky is a master of shock tactics – it was an outrageous declaration, but it hasn’t done the show’s publicity any harm.
So, what did we northern oiks in our anoraks and jeggings make of this production? Brilliantly directed for the screen by Peter Jones, with not a camera angle askew, we were strongly aware that we were appreciating the singing, acting and playing at a range which could only be enjoyed by, say, the first dozen or so rows in the stalls. Anyone attending a performance in the house and seated in the balcony or amphitheatre, simply could not experience the intimacy which we felt, and the closeness to the characters and narrative.
It’s the singing, stupid, and boy was this a cast to treasure. It has been such a joy to see Christopher Maltman’s progress since winning the Song Prize at Cardiff in 1997, although anyone checking out his performance of ‘Can’t shake hands’ from Britten’s Billy Budd can hear the makings of a Wotan in that voice. Kosky’s concept of the character is as an arrogant, strutting would-be paterfamilias, strongly referencing Erich von Stroheim in gesture and mien, and Maltman gave it his all, singing with his customary warmth and crisp phrasing: both ‘Vollendet das ewige Werk’ and ‘Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge’ had the ideal splendour and portent.
He was almost outshone by the Alberich of Christopher Purves, no stranger to courageous acts of indignity on stage (his Saul at Glyndebourne fondly recalled) and as ever matching superb singing with utterly committed acting. One almost felt for him during the Rhinemaidens’ teasing. Those three ladies were more than usually vampish in the persons of Katharina Konradi, Niamh O’Sullivan and Marvic Monreal, and all gave wonderfully vivid performances.
“Brilliantly directed for the screen by Peter Jones, with not a camera angle askew…”
Sean Panikkar, making his house debut in the role of Loge, dominated the stage with his impassioned acting and superbly phrased singing; what a rare talent is here, and one which we can only hope will be snapped up by the Royal Opera House for many more roles. The same goes for the not-exactly Giants in the shape of Insung Sim and Soloman Howard, each carving out a distinct character with absolute commitment.
Brenton Ryan’s Mime revealed more of the human blacksmith than the oppressed servant, singing with achingly pleading tone, and the Froh and Donner of Rodrick Dixon and Kostas Smoriginas respectively managed to turn in some fine singing whilst revealing their characters’ weaknesses. Marina Prudenskaya sang with aristocratic hauteur as Fricka, Kiandra Howarth was a sweet-toned Freia, and Webke Lehmkuhl provided noble tone and phrasing for the voice of Erda.
So, what of Rose Knox-Peebles and her silent role as Erda? She is central to the director’s concept of the world of Das Rheingold, in which Erda represents not just Mother Earth but the passing of time, and she is naked because she is of herself, everything begins and ends with her, and she looks with increasing despair upon the gradual despoliation of what she has created. The scene in which Erda warns Wotan of the consequences of his actions was brilliantly done, the two characters locked in a mother-son embrace.
There is no Rhine in evidence here, Rufus Didwiszus’ set being dominated by the roots of the vast tree which later forms the centre of the Nibelungs’ world, with the dwarves represented by children wearing hideous paper maché heads. Kosky seems to have a liking for the symbolism provided by nurturing breasts, with Erda here providing the ‘milk’ of gold, in a similar way to the Witch of Endor’s mammaries giving sustenance in Saul. It’s a fascinating concept for Das Rheingold, the corruption of man’s avarice and the gods’ arrogance seen as originating from the same source as the earth which nourishes them all. A diet of runny vomit and golden delicious apples – what could possibly go wrong?
Maybe the second scene’s picnic and Polo mallets did not quite work as well as the rest – where was Grane, eh? – but the production as a whole is successful, not least due to the magisterial playing from the ROH Orchestra, with Antonio Pappano in full commander mode, obtaining lustrous sound from the woodwinds and positively glowing blasts from the brass. Some of the players had cast off their ‘customary suits of solemn black’ in favour of bright yellow T-shirts featuring the Musicians’ Union’s demand for ‘Fair Pay’ – a very clever way to bring to the attention of a wide audience via streaming, the fact that the players had taken a pay cut in response to Covid – a pay cut that has yet to be restored.
So, ignore Kosky’s demand that you get your asses down to London – go and see this superb production in your local cinema at its ‘Encore’ showings, from 24-26 September.
• Details of upcoming performances can be found here.
• Our first night review of Das Rheingold is here.