EDINBURGH FESTIVAL: Das Rheingold, Scottish Opera, Festival Theatre, August 2000 (MB)
The Ring cycle has never been performed complete at the Edinburgh Festival. This Das Rheingold is part of an ambitious scheme to correct that and give Edinburgh its first integral cycle in 2003. If this fascinating and compelling production is anything to go by it will be well worth the effort and money. From the ashes of despair and poverty that seems to have been Scottish Opera over the past few years a new phoenix has risen to give much needed virility to a festival that is fast losing its international appeal.
What impresses most about this production is not so much Tim Albery's imaginative direction but the conducting of Richard Armstrong. The simple expressiveness of the language of Das Rheingold can often be taken for granted, but not here. Every motif that is later re-invented emerges from this first instalment, and Armstrong masterfully lets them grow, not least from the melodic theme that accompanies the depiction of the Rhine itself. In fact, the opening image of the Rhine (with rippling waves set on a dividing panel) seemed almost to bring forth a cascading, flowing lyricism from the orchestra. The opening stillness leading to its surging power was magnificently handled. It was just as symbolic as the orchestra's brilliant response to Alberich's command as he orders his workers back to the cleft. The dissonance was at once shattering as it was terrifying, the crescendo as harrowing as the howling screams of the Niebelungs. This is a vision of a Ring cycle that seems as fluid and as momentous as the river itself. If this pace is maintained throughout the whole tetralogy then the final image of the Rhine and a burning Valhalla at the close of Götterdämmerung will set the seal on a remarkable cycle.
The production itself has been hampered by lack of funds and is not without its problems. Tim Albery has purged the stage of many of the special effects which make this first instalment so eventful. Alberich's transformations from dwarf to dragon and then to toad, for example, are not compelling but perhaps this is almost intended when so much of the Ring is an exploration of the imagination. Similarly, the descent to and ascent from Niebelheim is not as visionary as it might have been and I completely missed the ageing of the Gods as they are deprived of Freia's golden apples which give them eternal youth. But there are compensations. This is not a literalist production (even given budget restraints). Albery seems to have taken on board that there are political and economic undertones to the work, and evokes this not by complex scenery but by subtle dress codes. Valhalla, for example, is simply a gleaming glass tower and the rainbow bridge is a simple perspex job. Fasolt and Fafner, Valhalla's architects, are modelled in blue overalls, whereas the Gods themselves are kitted out in kilts. Alberich, in plus fours and dishevelled jacket and tie, just looks nasty. The contrast between the Rhinemaidens in their sluttish dresses and Fricka in her Burberry are also cleverly articulated. Much else is left to Wolfgang Göbbel's lighting as it darkens to suggest the gloominess.
None of the cast are seasoned Wagnerians. Matthew Best as Wotan impresses the most with a deep, sonorous tone even if he lacks the sheer stature of someone like John Tomlinson. He is meticulous in giving us a picture of the early Wotan, one who is deceitful as well as anti-heroic. It will be fascinating to see how he develops the role in Die Walkürie next year. Peter Sidhom is a thrilling Alberich, and no more so as he places his curse on the stolen ring. Carsten Stabell and Marcus Hollop were convincing giants. Anne Mason endowed Fricka with unrelenting bitchiness.
This was a memorable start to Scottish Opera's new Ring.
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