With this, the first part of Wagner’s groundbreaking tetralogy The Ring Cycle, English National Opera finally returned to its refurbished home after the cancellation of both Nixon in China and the advertised first night of Rhinegold. After the agonising delays, it was a pleasure to see “the People’s Opera” return to the glistening Coliseum, with its improved sightlines, expanded foyers and re-upholstered seats. However, it is sad to report that Phyllida Lloyd’s new production of Rhinegold – the first new translation of Das Rheingold into English for thirty years – was at times both incoherent and, frankly, just plain boring.
Lloyd is an unpredictable director – and none the worse for it sometimes. Her production of Verdi’s Macbeth for the Royal Opera in 2002 provided a welcome insight into an all-too-familiar story, and she is also responsible for the smash hit Mamma Mia! In taking on the Ring, however, she may have bitten off more than she can chew.
The Rhinemaidens of the opening scene were no longer swimming at the depths of the Rhine but pole-dancing (with somewhat rigid bodies) in a nightclub. A shimmering curtain at the back seemed to satisfactorily represent the river; but it was disappointing that the scene was played on a raised platform rather than on the floor of the stage, because the Ring is about “levels” of which the Rhine is the lowest and Valhalla (home of the gods) is the highest. Therefore it made no sense that Alberich should climb stairs to enter the club rather than descend to steal the gold from the maidens. Linda Richardson, Stephanie Marshall and Ethna Robinson as the Rhinemaidens all seemed embarrassed to be playing the scene in this way, and their vocal acting was also tentative – perhaps it will improve in time.
Although the decadence of the opening scene fitted the story fairly well considering Wotan’s moral reputation as repeated seducer both on earth and in Valhalla, the second (and longest) scene of the opera was so devoid of atmosphere that it seemed totally disconnected from the first. We are meant to be taken on a Lord of the Rings-type journey but are instead left to stare at a white sitting-room without furniture and a white bathroom for over half the duration of the opera (Scene 4 returns to the same setting). Wotan emerges from the bath in the opening scene sporting only a towel, and later Fricka enters carrying a tray of coffee whilst Wotan negotiates with the giants, unnecessarily comic touches which add nothing to the atmosphere and break what little tension has already been generated.
Scene 3 is set in Alberich’s kingdom, Nibelheim. The office-type décor was a more appropriate setting than that of the second scene, though the staging of Alberich’s magic transformation into a serpent and a toad was banally pantomimic. The gods’ entry into Valhalla in the final scene was staged using an I’m a Celebrity – Get Me Out of Here-style rope bridge, which again made a kind of sense on its own but seemed unconnected with the rest of the drama. Despite some effective symbolic gestures, this interpretation of Rhinegold doesn’t add up to very much. Sitting through two and a half hours of it without an interval made this one of the most endurious evenings I have spent at the opera.
One had hoped that the musical aspects of the evening would be worth waiting for, especially after the company’s successful concert performances of the Ring at the Barbican over the last two years. However – and perhaps it was due to first-night nerves or lack of rehearsal – Paul Daniel and the orchestra failed to ignite the excitement or capture the ambience of the work until the final twenty minutes or so.
Instead of coming to his podium with the usual applause that settles the audience down for the evening, Daniel opted to dim all the lights (including those in the orchestra pit) and creep to his place in total darkness. This meant that nobody knew the performance had started, and the opening of the opera is so quiet that everyone in the audience was confused for several minutes. The gesture implied a lack of confidence in the task about to be performed, and the restlessness of much of the audience (some of whom left before the opera’s conclusion) had a detrimental effect on the performance.
Among the cast only John Graham-Hall as Mime and Andrew Shore as Alberich can be counted as true Wagnerian singers. The former in particular possessed the warm tone and robustness needed to sing this music, and Shore was the only member of the cast to really throw himself into his character convincingly.
The women were particularly bad. Susan Parry as Fricka, Wotan’s wife, was entirely mis-cast vocally, sometimes resorting to shrieking to get her lines across, and Claire Weston as Freia was so unflatteringly built that one wondered why Wotan bothered to go to such lengths to win her back from the giants after they have taken her as payment for their building of Valhalla. Wotan himself was sung by Robert Hayward: his voice warmed up considerably through the evening but was insufficiently commanding to play the head of the gods.
Whether this combination of semi-competent singers and bewildering direction will withstand the compositional and dramatic longueurs of Siegfried remains to be seen. Let us hope that there is more dramatic unity as the other three operas in the cycle unfold – there has been none so far.