Richard Jones’ staging marks a staggering accomplishment by the entire English National Opera company.
After last season’s lacklustre staging of The Valkyrie, which inaugurated English National Opera’s new Ring Cycle, there was a sense of trepidation as to how the preliminary evening in Wagner’s Norse-inspired saga would fare. Richard Jones, usually one of opera’s most daring and iconoclastic directors, appeared to have run out of steam – his Valkyrie mostly a rehash of tropes and ideas from his previous two stagings – so what would he make of The Rhinegold? I’m delighted to report that he delivered an astonishingly assured, inventive, witty, subversive and original staging of Wagner’s introductory opera. The two and a half hours sped by, there was never a dull moment, and each of its four scenes bristled with energy and theatricality.
Before the first, rumbling E flat sounded on the double basses, we were given a short, pithy visualisation of the crux of the entire Ring Cycle – the ascent of man and the despoiling of nature. This segued nicely into the opera itself, where the Rhinemaidens, appearing fresh from a pilates class, guarded the gold – here a scary looking gold baby – which Alberich wrenched from them upon renouncing love. Aided by a ninja-like movement group, clad in black, the sense of the undulating Rhine was cleverly evoked.
Stewart Laing drew on a plethora of inspiration for his bedazzling designs, ranging from the absurdist, Dada-esque to the downright outlandish, but they were always visually arresting, if as far away from convention as you could imagine. He and Jones have mined the depths of the work, and while much of the staging was irreverent, it came from a deep understanding of Wagner’s source material and caught the essence of the work to perfection. Part parable on the evils of greed and capitalism, and part parable about the corrupting lust for power, Jones and Laing left no stone unturned in driving its message home.
The Rhinegold has always been my favourite instalment of The Ring, as apart from one explanation into how the gold was stolen, the story is told in real time, containing none of the back story that pervades the rest of the cycle. And it’s cinematic in its scope – something that the creative team seized upon. There was also plenty of dark humour, and some laugh out loud moments as well – Alberich’s oversized beer tankard that ultimately proved to be his undoing, the giants’ rebuff to Froh’s bravado and Erda’s greeting to Wotan. These knockabout elements were juxtaposed with others that were deeply disturbing – the violence in Nibelheim, the nonchalant attitude of the gods towards Freia, Alberich as deranged psychopath. It’s down to Jones’ ingenuity that these were able to coexist, often simultaneously.
“…an astonishingly assured, inventive, witty, subversive and original staging of Wagner’s introductory opera”
There were too many insightful, deft touches to mention here – not do I want to give away spoilers – but Freia and Fasolt’s ‘connection’ was brilliantly handled, and having the three young Norns appear in Nibelheim, who looked rightly appalled by what they witnessed was a stroke of genius – how else would they gain their knowledge? The stagecraft was at times breathtaking. I’ve never seen Alberich’s transformation into serpent, then toad, done better, nor have I witnessed a more thrilling visual interpretation of the rainbow bridge. The final image of the evening is one of the staging’s most powerful. Suffice it to say that one man’s fortress is another man’s prison. The entire stage shimmered under Adam Silverman’s innovative lighting plot, setting the seal on a staging that oozed flair. I cannot wait to see it again.
Musically, things fared much better than they had in The Valkyrie. Music Director Martyn Brabbins had seemed out of his depth previously, but here he was transformed. True, the opening scene gave the impression his foot was hovering over the brake pedal too much, but after that he led a judiciously paced, lively and insightful account of this wonderful score. Crucially it complemented the staging perfectly, and he was rewarded with playing from the ENO orchestra that often verged on the incandescent. Warm, rotund brass playing, vivid woodwinds, lyrical strings and robust percussion all combined to deliver Wagner playing on an exalted level.
The singing was first rate as well. Leigh Melrose has given many outstanding performances at the Coliseum over the years, but none finer than this portrayal of Alberich. Unhinged, despotic, and prone to regular outbursts of violence, he was a dangerous, enigmatic stage presence who actually sang the role without resorting to shouting or barking. His voluminous sound filled the theatre with ease, his diction was perfect, and his curse chilled the blood. As his nemesis, John Relyea was a formidable Wotan, his plush, dark bass-baritone filling out Wagner’s vocal lines with an outpouring of rich, noble sound. He caught the duplicitous nature of the character to perfection.
Frederick Ballentine brought bags of temperament and fine lyrical singing to the role of Loge, infusing the character with a sense of ennui and world-weariness that was the perfect antidote to everything that was going on around him. Madeleine Shaw was an imposing Fricka, both musically and dramatically. Katie Lowe (Freia) and Blake Denson (Donner) excelled in their roles, while Julian Hubbard (Froh) gave notice of a major talent with his heroic, ardent tenor.
With a harmonious trio of Rhinemaidens (Eleanor Dennis, Idunnu Münch, Katie Stevenson), a foreboding, gloriously-sung Erda (Christine Rice), a telling Mime (John Findon), and two giants who could hardly be bettered (Simon Bailey and James Creswell), this was an exceptional cast.
Let’s hope that even at this stage, the rest of this Cycle can be salvaged, as on the basis of this exhilarating, thought-provoking, innovative Rhinegold, it would be criminal if it progressed no further. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a staging of this work more – there are seven performances remaining in the run. Miss it at your peril.
• Details of future performances can be found here.