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Seen and Heard Opera Review



Wagner, Das Rheingold, Soloists, Orchestra of Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Antonio Pappano, Royal Opera House, 18th December 2004 (MH)



Here’s irony: ENO’s struggling to impress critics with its new ‘Ring’ cycle at the Coliseum while the Royal Opera launches its own which will, I suspect, deservedly be flavour of the month. The irony is that it is a team of brilliant old ENO hands at the helm: Stefanos Lazaridis’ sets, Jeanne-Marie Lecca’s costumes and Wolfgang Goebbels’ gorgeous lighting depict a darkling mix of nineteenth century oppressiveness and sinister modern technology; Keith Warner’s direction peoples the stage with grotesques from ETA Hoffmann or ‘Struwelpeter’ (red pony-tailed Loge in swallow-tails and spats, top-hatted Fafner, who removes his IK Brunel stovepipe to reveal the high, pointy head horribly fitted into it). The gods provide a faintly Edward Gorey touch of madness lurking beneath the frills, something nasty under the high-buttoned propriety. The action is as lively and as lucid as you will find anywhere in this scene-setting first chapter of greed, double-cross and disillusion. It could almost be the Coliseum in its powerhouse years.


But the Covent Garden band has an advantage: Antonio Pappano, whose conducting roots the work firmly in German romanticism. It’s said that Toscanini’s ‘Meistersinger’ was irresistibly rhythmic, while Beecham's was a patchwork of tunes. Pappano comes down on the side of melody, well-turned phrases, lyricism (he’s a great singers’ accompanist), looking back to Weber, even (and it’s not often Wagner reminds you of him) Mozart. The clanging of anvils as we descend to Nibelheim’s infernal workshop has sounded more overwhelming; the brass has its coarsely strident moments, the odd inaccuracy, if judged by Pappano’s immediate predecessor: Bernard Haitink still has the edge for sheer golden sound. But Pappano’s the theatre animal who breathes with the stage action – Haitink so disliked the old production he avoided even looking at the stage – and a wonderful ensemble performance of a masterwork flexing its muscles results.


So does a consistently mellifluous cast – again it must be Pappano’s doing, this smoothly vocalised Wagner free of barking declamation. Philip Langridge, a survivor of the old production, steals the show, as Loge often does, the fire-god, gofer and wide boy who’ll eventually help destroy them all. Rosalind Plowright’s own tall, flame-haired persona already makes Fricka into a formidable partner – and potential adversary – for Wotan; Will Hartmann’s Froh is dashingly dapper, Emily Magee’s Freia queries her worthiness of the gods’ sacrifice so beautifully as to make the answer obvious; and the two malevolent dwarves are done with effortless expertise by Günther von Kannen (Alberich) and Gerhard Siegel (Mime).


‘Die Walküre’ rides into view on March 5 when we get a broader view of Warner’s production: human love, thwarted divinity, the crippling responsibility of power plunging Bryn Terfel’s confident, effortlessly sung wheeler-dealer Wotan into bitter compromise. So far it looks promising, the air heavy with portent of tragedy both individual and cosmic. When the giants quarrel and Fafner kills his brother, the gods suddenly realise that the curse of the ring is taking effect. They sit at their dark furniture in their dark drawing room like the family in an O’Neill tragedy, heads bowed under the weight of a terrible and shared knowledge. The ‘Ring’ is underway.



Martin Hoyle


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