Wagner has a knack of polarising listeners like no other composer and the latest production, directed by Barrie Kosky at the Royal Opera House and live-screened at the Corn Exchange on 20th September, will likely do the same.
The plot of Das Rheingold – the first of the four operas that make up the Ring Cycle – is set in a mythical mountainous landscape, home of the gods, and the River Rhine below. The mermaid guardians of the hoard of gold in the river – too busy annoying the subterranean dwarf Alberich (Christopher Purves) – lose it. Battle commences for possession and the ring, fashioned from it, that guarantees its owner world-domination. Alongside is the rather more domestic tale of an over-spent god, Wotan (Christopher Maltman), making promises to all and sundry to get his castle Valhalla built and doing dodgy deals with unsavoury characters to slide out of paying.
So far, so Wagner. Then comes this production. Now, Das Rheingold isn’t the first very silly opera story. The music and the voices are straight-forward enough and this production is no exception. The sumptuous singing, supported by Antonio Pappano’s mature and muscular orchestra, were simply gorgeous – a fine wine of operatic experience. But what to do about that story?
Making the figure of Erda – Mother Earth herself – its centre is at once a master-stroke and a very bad idea. Enter (before anyone else and for quite a while) Rose Knox-Peebles, an octogenarian whose mostly naked, painfully thin and half-dead body silently prowls the stage throughout the performance – unacknowledged by any performer. While applauding the notion, and indeed the performance, there’s something way too literal about the representation of earth’s doom and the onward spinning of time; there are more elegant allegories. And her ancient frame was robbed of voice. When Erda sings, we hear the divine, and much younger, contralto Wiebke Lehmkuhl.
The single, multi-purpose set (a giant fossilised tree stump) was great in Act 1, with lithe mermaids squirming its nooks and crannies, but lost its composure when a custard-coloured blancmange (the gold!) ebbed from it while Alberich was stripped of his suit and trussed up in a dress, with his penis poking through. It’s got nothing to add to the Act 2 drinks party and family row, briefly plays some part in the deception that sees Wotan get the ring, and is shoved aside while the stage is filled with purposeless glitter confetti in the finale, while the leading ladies – having swapped polo garb for balloon dresses for no identifiable reason – sway and swish about with the other gods. You knew the glitter was coming, as occasional strands made their way to ground through the performance, but why have it?
Barrie Kosky is a maverick in the best possible way, always achieving clarity of story. So what, if not all of his ideas quite worked. The music and voices were superb. All in all, there is much to look forward to in this new Ring Cycle.
Photos by kind permission of The Royal Opera House