Photo Credit: Monika Rittershaus

High-octane despair

Das Rheingold, Royal Opera House

Artillery Row On Opera

As opening stands go, this Rheingold — the first of four operas in Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, but less than a sixth of its total minutes — is definitely more Cook and Vaughan than Crawley and Duckett. It is sturdy, a bit wary, not remotely tempted to go for the clown suits and first-ball reverse ramps we got from the ENO effort back in February. Talking of which, I’m beginning to lose count of the Rings on offer lately around England (including some in the Arts Council-approved pubs-n-car parks variety). Maybe it’s just me, but surely this epic gains in impact when you get a bit of a breather between times.

Kosky gives us the end of the world right at the beginning

It’s always hard to say where a particular cycle might be going after only the first evening: the Ring is a work that bears apparently limitless reinvention. Rather like the Tosca I reviewed recently, the intervening, eventful century-plus of political-industrial hooha has added massively to its resonance. Nowadays pretty much every version you see will wring its hands about the exploitation or destruction of the earth: the former is baked in, in the way the natural gold, lying blamelessly in the earth, becomes an instrument of money and violence. The latter comes naturally to the doomy Cassandras who go in for the directing game. On this occasion, it’s the Australian Barrie Kosky, who can usually be relied on to do something headliney, giving us this cautious opener (he burned his fingers dishing up a notably hated version in Hanover a few years ago).

Not only does Kosky give us the end of the world right at the beginning, with the blackened smoking trunk of a fallen tree in a blasted wasteland, but he would seem to be presenting the whole thing as a big flashback — seen from the unhappy perspective of the Earth Goddess herself, Wagner’s Erda, weeping over the annihilation. (How typically anthropocentric. Actually, when we’ve finally nixed ourselves, anything that clings on in nature will be throwing a massive party, cf the whole dinosaur/mouse jazz.)

That’s fine, represented by having Erda on stage the entire time in the form of a naked crone watching or remembering the action. This means the Prelude doesn’t take place in darkness, which is what everyone except directors wants. (By the way, Kosky tells us in a lengthy interview in the programme that the Ring is an allegory — whaddaya know?) Instead, we get that tree on an empty black stage, draped in warehouse covers, with Erda being sad, before some stage crew take the covers off and reminds those who had forgotten that we are in a theatre.

It’s nonetheless a good and potent design, by Rufus Didwiszus, lit in a million evocative ways by Alessandro Carletti: sometimes a tree, sometimes a symbol (yoked up in industrial braces and resource-sucking pumps in the Nibelheim scene, or like smashed, carbonised hands extruding from the earth). It means there’s no Rhine, natch. Our Rhinemaidens are more gothy dryad than nixie, but this at least makes the first scene of Alberich’s fruitless pursuit of the girls a little less mortifying than usual. (Is there a worse first scene in opera? Discuss.)

That Alberich is sung by the undoubted star of the evening, Christopher Purves, effectively as Wotan’s less-stupid twin. He abandons his nice suit initially for underpants and then something more sensible as the industrialist slave-driver of Nibelheim. The strongest parts of this evening belong to him: the Nibelheim scene is where it springs to life, initiated by the descent-to-Hell interlude where Tony Pappano’s conducting catches fire. The power of Alberich’s contempt for and envy of the lazy, epicene gods adds up to a sort of clear-sighted nihilism, expressed in the most forceful performance.

Erda and Donner’s thunderclap unleashes harps and the rainbow bridge

Those gods are represented by a German-flavoured (i.e. even worse than the English variety) family of posh equestrians (jodhpurs, polo sticks) whose life seems to be a literal picnic. There’s nothing new about that, or about the relationship between smug CEO-type Wotan (Christopher Maltman, slotting very comfortably into the role) and carpy wife Fricka (a slightly fruity Marina Prudenskaya). It’s a solid scene, with occasional vivid images and strong performances — the giants are particularly good, and the huge brass accompaniment they get is one of the joys of the evening — but again, nothing unexpected. You always have high hopes for late-entrant Loge, the pyromaniac godlet who persuades Wotan to do all sorts of crazy things. Bumptious charmer, the only actually intelligent (if profoundly cynical and amoral) character on stage, Loge usually lights up the scene. Sean Panikkar ticks all the boxes, in fact rather too much, trying to combine a kind of Reservoir Dogs hoodishness with a cartoonish, psycho giggle and an air of wired instability. An adviser who wears his unreliability like a comedy hat, he winds up being less convincing than he might. Perhaps not surprisingly, he’s no romantic either: his peroration about love making the world go round is delivered in a Vegas-style spotlight that we obediently accept as cynical. That is a bit odd, since Loge seems here to define the central issue of the entire Ring.

As mentioned, things heat up musically and dramatically as Wotan and Loge take their trip to the netherworld, finding Erda there horridly hitched up to a big milking machine to help pump the sludgy gold out of the earth. Alberich’s malice jolts everything to life: this really is a very jaded view of human motivation, very du jour with its insistence on defining industry and economic ingenuity as basically the absence of love. The somewhat partial theology of slack-jawed Gen Z is now the absolute orthodoxy of our cathedrals of art.

The high octane continues with Alberich’s kidnap and torture, your opinion of Wotan getting steadily dimmer even as Alberich very accurately maps out the immutable future — worry, envy, strife, catastrophe — and everyone ignores him. This is all very intense, the orchestra nailing the power and neurosis in unnervingly powerful ways. The great scene builds up unbearable tension through the squabbles over paying the builders, with Freia effectively waterboarded in a bath of liquid gold as Wagner makes neat points about commodification. Then bang, on comes Erda to give Wotan a big hug and tell him, nicely this time, what Alberich already pointed out. Pappano paces the payoff beautifully, all the anxieties of 150 minutes wound up and then exploded by Erda and Donner’s thunderclap that unleashes all those harps and the rainbow bridge — here a load of multicoloured glitter, the gods gambolling around like kids in a snowstorm. Fabulous ending. Nobody notices there’s no Valhalla, or that the night is very black …

Like I said, it is a solid start with a deeply satisfactory conclusion, though I’ve never found Pappano the most exciting Wagner conductor. What next? Well, Kosky has kept his options open, no mistake. Is it too much to hope for a bit of Stokesy as Siegmund in The Valkyrie, coming up next year?

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover