Photo credit: Marc Brenner

The jackpot of opera

The Rhinegold, English National Opera, Coliseum

Artillery Row

Here’s the trouble with Rhinegold: a prequel of a prequel to the main event, it’s not at all clear what it’s actually for — beyond setting the scene for what comes later. Richard Wagner, having written the script for a proposed one-off, Siegfried’s Death (later renamed Twilight of the Gods), found he had to create three gigantic back-stories to explain how things had wound up there, even before starting on the music. This, the first, details how top god Wotan gets himself into such a fix with this damn Ring, made out of gold nicked from the Rhine by an angry Nibelung (and subsequently re-nicked by Wotan before he has to part with it most unwillingly). In part two, The Valkyrie, we find out why he so badly needs to get it back, and the lengths he’s prepared to go to.

To complicate matters, ENO already performed Valkyrie over a year ago — I can’t remember exactly why, probably Covid. The only thing to do with The Ring of the Nibelung tetralogy is to treat it as an entirely new drama every time it’s performed: its size and ambition demand it. Its depths are so fruitful that different cycles of the four operas scarcely even seem to be telling the same story. Although the Arts Council’s fatheaded de-funding of ENO last November has now been more or less cancelled, the future of this particular cycle (which was supposed to go on to the Met in New York later) is still very much in doubt. So it’s all a bit involved.

Best to take the piss, in case anyone thinks you’re a Tolkienite idiot

What we learned from Valkyrie is that Richard Jones, the director, is genuinely interested in the lengthy conversations that make up much of the cycle, the way everyone gets their say — though only the smarter ones actually listen and learn. The core of that opera is the dawn of human love as the only weapon against the tyrannies of money, power and violence. Now, Jones has a long-standing beef with the characters of the Ring, notably Wotan: since his first go at directing the cycle, at Covent Garden back in the ‘90s, he’s had a major downer on the guy. To be fair, Wotan is (at least initially) a major lowlife as well as king of the Gods (whatever that means). Yet there were glimmers in Valkyrie that Wotan — although patiently still taking directorial abuse in being dressed as a kind of tragic Bill Bryson character — might have evolved in Jones’s imagination. Wotan’s dawning understanding is crucial to the whole caboodle, possibly the key to it all.

Here, Wotan rocks a look more Nick Cave than Bryson, with slicked hair and shiny suit. Is this a plus? It’s hard to say. The ascent of man to this elevated state is disparagingly depicted by cavemen dragging tree-stumps across the stage, evolving into Wotan with his spear. This sets Jones’s tone — he hates to take the Ring seriously until he’s forced to — but unfortunately it takes place during the magical intro, which should really happen in pitch dark, so here the creation of the world is unhelpfully decorated with titters from the audience. I mean I get it, obviously: the best way of dealing with the stupider aspects of the Ring — dragons, magic hats, all that drivel — is to take the piss, in case anyone thinks you’re a Tolkienite idiot. Still, there’s a time and a place for everything. 

Jones won’t have any truck with the grandeur with which the music endows the Wotan gang — pompous Valhalla tunes and all that: they are simply a bunch of grasping petty-bourgeois with tragic taste, the story a soap-opera of rivalry among thieves without honour. This makes Wagner’s treatment feel ridiculously grandiose, of course, and we have to defer our desire for it all to amount to something until the next episode — fine in a half-hour telly programme, less palatable in Rhinegold’s unbroken 160 minutes.

Amidst the cartoonish visuals and Primark clobber (trash-culture-spotters can have fun with all the references of hairstyles and so on), Jones is perceptibly back to something like his old form — as he actually was in Valkyrie, though few noticed because the opening night was so terrible. There’s more human interest and interaction in the first five minutes than in the whole of Rusalka over at Covent Garden, as Alberich does his thing with the Rhinemaidens at the start. This is usually a dreadful scene, a terrible way to kick off the 16-hour cycle, the would-be playful music and scenario incredibly leaden and unfunny, the poor Rhinemaidens subjected to all manner of indignities by the composer. Jones more or less rescues it with his originality and stagecraft and Sarah Fahie’s choreographed movement, with a striking representation of the gold as a human baby, brilliantly manipulated à la bunraku. The whole thing is set on fire by the brilliantly concentrated unpleasantness of Leigh Melrose’s Alberich, whose thwarted advances to the slippery girls prompt his red-mist, destructive tantrum and nihilist rage that crystallise the Ring’s big theme: love versus money, and the hideous intersections thereof.

On a night like this, nobody complains that the Coliseum is too big

The thing is, Jones takes this love angle very seriously. He makes you notice moments that matter for the first time and in quite a new way — the jackpot of opera, to be sure. When Loge sings of his worldwide researches into the motivation of humans (a species entirely absent from this opera, and not terribly well represented throughout the Ring, though its only true subject), the music pauses then melts into a magical kind of unclichéd refulgence as the idea of love emerges. Soon, a genuine and rather sweet bond emerges between the abused sister-in-law Freia, used by Wotan as collateral for his castle-building debt, and the builder/creditor Fasolt — more than Stockholm Syndrome, you feel, though she is a bit of a halfwit. This, inevitably, is destroyed by money: the gold and its concomitant curse on love (literal and figurative) already in operation.

That prefiguring of the Ring’s true subject is what rescues this staging from extremely diverting banality. The surface Jones creates, with designers Stewart Laing and Adam Silverman, is blingy and craptastic, all lamé trackies, showers of rainbow glitter and Jones’s beloved tinselly curtains. They make his bitchy points very effectively, and the characterisation is a joy, most of all (of course) in Frederick Ballentine’s extremely slippery and bumptious Loge — the unreliable fixer whom Wotan is enough of an idiot to rely on. There aren’t any weak links in the cast, which offers outstanding performances from John Relyea as Wotan, Madeleine Shaw as the shallow wife Fricka, John Findon as whining Mime, and Christine Rice as the earth-sprite Erda. She brings the thing to a juddering halt with her massively weighty prophecies of doom. 

The expanded orchestra sounds fabulous under conductor Martyn Brabbins’s measured but entirely convincing leadership. It’s a massive musical achievement, done with exceptional professionalism, every musical nuance in place, and some sensible tech solutions to (for example) the usual weedy anvils. On a night like this, nobody complains that the Coliseum is too big. It was packed — the first time I’ve seen it like that outside an opening night for years — and roared to the rafters at the end, almost like the old days. Wagnerians will do that, but this was some show.

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