Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Das Rheingold review – The Royal Opera embarks on a new Ring Cycle

11 September 2023

Maverick Australian director Barrie Kosky directs the first instalment of Wagner’s epic music drama at Covent Garden as an ecological catastrophe in the making

Das Rheingold

Das Rheingold at the Royal Opera House, London (Photo: Monika Rittershaus)

Gone, seemingly, are the days of audiences being plunged into stygian darkness at the start of a performance of Das Rheingold. Like Richard Jones’ exemplary staging for ENO earlier this year, at Covent Garden we’re also greeted by a fully-lit stage, here open at the back and sides with all the backstage equipment on view – a massive piece of scenery to the fore, concealed by a tarpaulin covering. We also witness a dumb show before that magical, E flat pedal is heard in the orchestra. Jones gave us a visual metaphor for the ascent of man, whereas here a frail, naked old woman gingerly makes her way across the front of the stage, before shielding her eyes. Stagehands remove the tarpaulin to reveal a gnarled, burnt out section of the World Ash Tree – and only then does that E flat sound from the pit.

The woman in question is Erda, and the story is told through her eyes. Whether we’re witnessing the action in flashback remains to be seen, but given she’s on stage throughout, 82 year old actor Rose Knox-Peebles was mesmerising in this silent role and is crucial to Barrie Kosky’s concept of the work. Although the Australian director went on the record before opening night to emphasise that his staging wouldn’t solely revolve around the devastating effects of a climate catastrophe, the despoliation of nature is evident from the very start. It’s worth remembering that Wotan fashioned his spear from this tree, and that, as they say, is why everything started falling apart.

Rufus Didwiszus’ set works well enough in the first (the depths of the Rhine) and third (Niebelheim) scenes – less so in the second, and fourth – covering it with a garish ‘woodland’ throw doesn’t really disguise it, as the Gods picnic in front of it, while it’s physically pushed by stagehands to the back of the stage as Donner summons up thunderous fogs and mists. And this raises another point. Given stagehands move the set and assorted props around the stage in full view of the audience, why was it deemed necessary to lower the House curtain between scenes? 

The gold is ingeniously depicted in liquid form, oozing from the crevices of the tree in the first scene, then in Niebelheim being milked from a convulsing Erda by a contraption that wouldn’t have been out of place in Dr Mengele’s laboratory. The giants later cover Freia in it to ascertain if there’s enough to satisfy their payment terms for building Valhalla. Victoria Behr’s costumes are in a timeless/contemporary vein – black lace garments for the Rhinemaidens, polo garb for the gods, while the giants are presented as gangsters, complete with handguns.

“…Rose Knox-Peebles was mesmerising in this silent role and is crucial to Barrie Kosky’s concept of the work”

Das Rheingold

Christopher Maltman (Photo: Monika Rittershaus)

While Kosky brought his usual flair to directing the singers, there was not much theatrical magic on display, and when this did materialise in the form of a shower of multi-coloured confetti to represent the rainbow bridge at the close, well, we’d seen this before in ENO’s staging. Still, Kosky’s is a marked improvement on Keith Warner’s fussy, over-intellectualised version which this one is replacing, and it left me feeling impatient for the next instalment, Die Walküre, which is due next season. It will be intriguing to see where Kosky takes us.

Many of the singers were performing their roles for the first time, which brought a freshness to the musical proceedings which isn’t always the case in Wagner performances. Christopher Maltman has already sung the Walküre Wotan (Naples) and Amfortas (Parsifal, Geneva), so is steadily adding these heavier roles to his repertoire. Here, his singing was magnificent. The voice has grown darker over the last few years, and now possesses the kind of vocal heft that’s required for Wagner. He brought a wealth of lieder singing experience to the role which allowed him to savour the text, which he enunciated with crystal clear diction. Watching him grow into the role over the coming years is a mouthwatering prospect, as he looks set to follow in the footsteps of two of this country’s finest Wotans – Norman Bailey and John Tomlinson.

As his nemesis, Christopher Purves was an exemplary Alberich. He actually sang the role, as opposed to barking it, and portrayed the character as fully-rounded and three dimensional, evoking revulsion and sympathy in equal measure. Sean Panikkar was a thrillingly voiced, sardonic Loge (role debut), whose vivid stage presence put the character front and centre of the action. The giants, Insung Sim (Fasolt) and Soloman Howard (Fafner) were nicely delineated dramatically, and sung with resonant, sepulchral tones. Marina Prudenskaya was a mellifluous Fricka, whilst as the voice of Erda, Wiebke Lehmkuhl was warm and rich in tone.

With telling vocal contributions from Kiandra Howarth (Freia), Rodrick Dixon (Froh), Kostas Smoriginas (Donner) and Brenton Ryan (Mime) this was a cast without a weak link. And not forgetting, of course, the fantastic trio of Rhinemaidens – Katharina Kondradi, Niamh O’Sullivan and Marvic Monreal who got the evening off to such a magnificent start.

In the pit, Antonio Pappano led a perfectly balanced, often nuanced account of this miraculous score, and secured fine playing from the Orchestra. It was a shame that the anvils sounded so tinny, but that was the only blemish on an otherwise memorable first night.

• Details of upcoming performances can be found here.

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