Despite dire threats of defunding by the Arts Council, the English National Opera staged a thoroughly professional and intriguing new production of Rheingold, the opening opera to Wagner’s four-part The Ring of the Nibelung. It joins Walküre (the second opera in the Ring) staged just over a year ago in a new cycle, jointly with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Walküre is more immediately appealing to an audience (boy meets girl, they fall in love and he dies protecting her), but Rheingold (spelled Rhinegold by the ENO, as it’s performed in English) is what gets the immense tragedy started. The clarity of this staging is a welcome relief from some heavier and more intellectually fraught productions.
The central conflict of the Ring is love versus its nemesis — repressive power symbolised by the ring Alberich forged using the gold he stole from its guardians, the Rhinemaidens. Musical motifs are integral to the drama, and the ring itself is represented by a dissonant, self-enclosed phrase — in contrast to the authoritative descending scale of Wotan’s spear. This represents the treaties by which Wotan lives and rules, but to get the giants (Fasolt and Fafner) to construct Valhalla he agrees to pay with the goddess Freia, a promise he has no intention of keeping. Thus he sows the seeds of his own downfall and that of all the gods in the fourth and final opera, Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods).
To resolve the problem he relies on the fire god, Loge, who disapproves of the whole venture. All Loge can do in the circumstances is accompany Wotan to the world of the Nibelungs, where they trick Alberich and steal his gold, including the ring, and the Tarnhelm that allows its wearer to assume any desired shape. Wotan hopes to have it both ways, achieve world domination yet not give up love (lose Freia). But, like Alberich, who could only make the ring after renouncing love, Wotan will have to renounce power over the following three operas.
To put all this on stage a director has to have a vision. Many have decided to undermine the whole thing with a simplistic interpretation, overlaid with subtleties that no audience member can fathom without reading an extensive essay in the programme.
Not so Richard Jones. Everything is here to be understood. The power of Alberich is emphasised at one point by having multiple Alberichs on stage, and the loss of love is subtly shown between Fasolt and Freia. When Wotan fails to redeem Freia, the honest Fasolt who would dearly like her to stay gives her a handkerchief to dry her tears, and when he himself is beaten to death by his brother Fafner she returns the favour by covering his dead face with the same handkerchief. There is real brutality here. Alberich strikes out furiously with a baton against his Nibelung slaves and his brother Mime, while Fafner beats his brother Fasolt’s face most terribly as he kills him to gain sole control of the ring. Heightened emotions are shown to be part of its effect.
The casting was superb, with the American bass-baritone John Relyea as a splendidly insecure Wotan, and Leigh Melrose as a loveless yet determined Alberich. Simon Bailey and James Cresswell in their grey overalls were strong and convincing giants, and the American tenor Frederick Ballentine was a tremendous Loge, whose monologue about his extensive knowledge of the world became deeply lyrical as he sang about the charm and value of a woman (Weibes Wonne und Wert). These excellent performances were complemented by a robust portrayal of Mime by John Findon, a commanding Fricka by Madeleine Shaw, and fine singing from the Rhinemaidens (Eleanor Dennis, Idunnu Münch and Katie Stevenson). As the gods Freia, Donner and Froh, Katie Lowe, Blake Denson and Julian Hubbard all performed well, and Christine Rice sang an excellent Erda, the mysterious goddess who rises from her sleep to warn Wotan of impending doom if he retains the ring. An unusual aspect of the production is that she is accompanied by young Norns (weavers of fate) who will reappear as mature singers at the start of Götterdämmerung.
Musically this was a terrific performance, under the baton of the ENO’s excellent music director Martyn Brabbins. Altogether an achievement to be hugely proud of, only overshadowed by the continued aggression of the Arts Council, who want to close down this bastion of excellence, and showplace for young singers, at the London Coliseum (half the principals in this performance either are or had been ENO Harewood Young Artists).
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