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S & H Opera Review

Richard Wagner, Rhinegold, soloists, English National Opera, Paul Daniel, Coliseum, 4th March 2004 (MB)


Who would ever have thought that Wagner could look and sound so dull in the opera house? Anyone expecting this Rhinegold (or indeed probably this Ring cycle) to look like ENO’s last, almost 30 years ago, will be in for a shock for Phyllida Lloyd’s vision of Rhinegold is striking, though ultimately unimaginative, sparingly designed, but often undramatic. Moreover, it is cast unevenly and is often conducted flaccidly. For much of the performance we get ENO weaknesses rather than ENO strengths.

There is actually something quite Thatcherite (even down to the demotic libretto by Jeremy Sams) about this Rhinegold: it could easily be set in a time of property developers, a time when creativity was sacrificially slaughtered in favour of money (or Wagnerian gold). Our Rhinemaidens – in orange stilettos - are seen ‘earning a living’ as pole- dancers, Alberich no more than a visitor to a nightclub that could have been a mirror image of Madam JoJo’s in the mid 1980s, its decadence an escape from the brutality of the real world. Its blue taffeta curtains shimmer in the light – but only occasionally flutter like the ripples of the Rhine – then glow golden as if flooded with the lucre of rich spoils. Alberich’s ring is no more than a halo of light at first – poverty indeed. And poverty, too, in the house of the gods, an empty suburban flat with white-painted walls and doors, a bleached existence for characters bleached of individuality. Wotan emerges from his bath behind a shower curtain and enrobes himself in a white towel; Fricka, in dressing gown and slippers, admonishes him. When they finally dress it is as plain Mr and Mrs Thatcher, a picture of domesticity, one more bickering family among all the rest.

When Fafner and Fasolt enter to claim Freia for payment they do so as suited hard-hats, construction engineers in all but name, perhaps from the firm of Laing & Laing. Wotan’s spear, like so much that is unmagical in this scene, seems symptomatic of the age, its runes lit in red across the bottom of the stage like stock-market share figures. But, if anything symbolises this director’s view of the Thatcherite age it is when the gods begin to succumb to mortality, with withdrawal symptoms more akin to heroin addiction as they vomit in toilets and writhe agonisingly on the bathroom floor. Only Loge, even if he does resemble a typical Thatcher entrepreneur with his sharp glasses and leather jacket, seems to add flesh to the otherwise stale characterisation of what we have hitherto seen.

Lloyd gets into her stride with the decent to Nibelheim – neatly suggested as the basement to the gods’ suburban flat – and in virtually every respect thereafter the performance shifts musically, and dramatically, up several gears. Nibelheim is an oasis of rancour where the Nibelungs live in a world of terror – shaven-headed, in orange boiler suits, they throw themselves against transparent windows like imprisoned demons. Mime works forging the tarnhelm amidst discarded Amstrad computers as a molten fire blazes in the workhouse at the back. This is slavery, or cheap labour pure and simple and Lloyd focuses well on it giving much needed impetus to the action. Perhaps in the most astonishing scene of the production, Lloyd has her Alberich summon the Nibelungs bearing the gold through the floorboards of Wotan’s flat; Lamberto Bava never achieved anything better in his giallo films of the 80s and 90s. As the gold is hosed into the loft through a spider’s web of tubing the flat shimmers in a golden glow and when Fasolt and Fafner return to claim it Freia is seen in the bath being sprayed in it, Shirley Eaton style, as in Goldfinger. Erda (singing from the stalls) appears projected on the walls of the flat warning Wotan to yield up the ring and as the gods prepare for their journey to Valhalla - in the shape of a press conference, with the flashes of camera light reflecting the thunderstorm and lightening that Donner has created to clear the air – our gods cross on an Amazonian rope bridge into Valhalla. All simple directorial values that try to instil some magic into a production that is conspicuously lacking in them early on.

In many respects performances of Rhinegold – the most difficult of the tetralogy to stage - fall or succeed on it’s staging – and in all fairness this one is such a mixed venture that its virtues are often overshadowed by its weaknesses. Until the end of Scene II Lloyd seems locked in a mindset of making the opera so contemporary that everything seems lost beneath injudicious interpretative tinkering. In making her gods so indistinct from mortals, she has made them vulnerable to accusations of fallibility, and in that the drama of what Wagner intended is lost; these are no longer mystical figures but ordinary folk like you and me. It seems almost appropriate, therefore, that the lighter-toned Robert Hayward should be singing this Wotan because he brings to the role little authority and even less vocal substance. This is a Wotan whose wisdom is all but diminished by the very shallowness of his projection. Susan Parry’s Fricka suffers from similar vocal shortcomings. Claire Weston’s Freia – in a performance that arguably supports the necessity for surtitles in English opera performances – is shrill of tone and linguistically inaudible.

Lloyd does, however, get her best vocal performances where the drama is better drawn and the intellectual thinking is more muted. Andrew Shore’s Alberich, in probably the best-sung performance of the evening, brings a sense of abomination to his character that is chilling. Vocally he is more than up to the part, but more than that it is the subtle inflections he brings to his voice that impresses. His goading of Loge and Wotan – when he delivers his oration from a lectern above the workhouse – is effective, for example. And Tom Randle’s Loge – as it was in the first concert version ENO did of Rhinegold – is sophisticated in both voice and action. Patricia Bardon’s Erda, very far from being earthy, is heavenly, and the way her face is projected - larger than life - gives the only essence of godliness to the production.

The disjunct and uneven nature of the production is mirrored in the orchestral playing under Paul Daniel’s sometimes-cumbersome baton (tempi rarely seem ‘right’, I’m afraid). Opening, unfortunately, with horn playing where the true tone of the notes was smudged, the orchestra took some time to warm up – even the evocative strings at the beginning – in what should be a moment of pure ethereal beauty - seemed less mystical (more icy, in fact) than they might have been. The playing improved, but I am not sure that Daniel yet has the architectural grip over this score to give it sufficient dramatic drive. There were fine things: the anvil scene was menacing and once in Nibelheim the playing developed all the contours and nuances that Lloyd projected on stage. Too frequently, however, it often sounded understated and flat elsewhere. With a natural British Wagnerian on the podium (Mark Elder or Andrew Davis, for example) things might well have sounded both different and convincing.

The one unquestionable virtue of the production was the lighting, overseen by Simon Mills. Evocatively done during Alberich’s scene-stealing trickery it was a fine effort at making the transformation scene seem both realistic and magical. Elsewhere, it was never less than innovative. But performances of Rhinegold are built on more than this and Phyllida Lloyd’s is not yet a production to rank with those (Chereau, for example) that seem more easily able to inhabit the worlds of magic and humanity with balanced effect.

Marc Bridle

Photographer Neil Libbert, John Graham-Hall (Mime)




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