S&H Opera/Concert Review

Wagner: The Rhinegold, ENO, 26 January 2001 (MB).

Those expecting ENO's forthcoming Ring cycle to be an imminent event will be disappointed. It is not scheduled to appear in its completed stage version until autumn 2005. In preparation for this major undertaking, however, ENO's first Ring for 20 years, there will be a full concert cycle in late 2002, preceded by a concert performance of the second opera in the tetralogy, The Valkyrie, in spring next year. Based on this concert performance of the God-feuding first part it should be very special indeed.

It is not rare to hear isolated acts of Wagner's Ring cycle performed in concert, but to hear an entire opera in this way is unusual. Surprisingly, it worked very well - aided in part by some evocative lighting and a great deal of one's own imagination. At the opera's start, a rising mist and a sapphire-blue stream of light (at a stretch, the Rhine) spill across the stage accompanied by the opening E flat motif. For the descent into Nibelheim itself, and the forging scene (with gloriously resonant anvils) a fiery red mist swarms like molten lava backstage. Spotlights, however, are not always successful in highlighting characters - and seemed to be badly off-line, clearly affecting the sight of people sat in the boxes adjacent to the stage. Costume was minimalist, and invariably black, and large boxes were the simplest of thrones for the Gods. Phyllida Lloyd, a talented director, should make much more of this evident in her complete staging, dark as it will inevitably be.

As was the case in the Edinburgh Festival Rhinegold, it is Alberich, evil to the bone, who rather steals the show. Andrew Shore [left], making his debut in the role, was simply stunning. One of many examples of his artistry was his innate ability to make us believe this is one of the most odious creations in all Wagner. His inflections were terrifyingly real. The curse, delivered after Wotan and Loge have fooled Alberich into parting with the ring, was breathtaking in its scope and spine chilling in its delivery. He sang constantly with the clearest of diction, and has a voice big enough to ride over the orchestra, notably just before he descends to the sinister kingdom of Nibelheim to forge the ring from the Rhinemaidens' stolen gold.

Tom Randle, making his debut as Loge, was also formidable. By far the most 'active' actor on stage, he had a physical stature that belies his height. He perhaps played Loge with more comedic bantering than is ideally the case, but he sang gloriously throughout. Matthew Best, Scottish Opera's Wotan as well as ENO's, sang with ringing tone - although for much of time he looked bored with what was going on. He is a believable Wotan, with a stature to match but, as in Edinburgh, he doesn't quite have the ability to dominate the stage in the authoritarian way we expect of Wotan. Of all the Gods denied Freia's rejuvenating apples he was the one who seemed most in need of them. This is the frailest of Wotans (although I imagine he will make much of the considerable emotional demands imposed on him in Valkyrie). Stephen and Mark Richardson were, respectively, a towering Fafner and Fasolt, and Patricia Bardon was a formidable Erda. If she tried too hard to be the great Wagnerian mezzo, with a sometimes unwelcome wobble to her voice, it was not a disaster. She spellbound a packed Coliseum in her warning speech to Wotan.

Paul Daniel conducted a lithe performance of the score and encouraged superb playing from the ENO orchestra. Brass, perilously exposed in the opening of the opera, were not always in tune with one another, but where it matters - at the great climaxes and the opera's close - they were magnificent. Strings were plush sounding (which is not always the case with this orchestra), and on-stage harps and percussion were dramatic partners.

This was a thrilling evening that showed ENO somewhere near its considerable best. It bodes well for the complete cycle.

Marc Bridle


Further concert performances of The Rhinegold are on 30 January and 2 & 6 February.

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