Monday 18 September 2023

Das Rheingold at the Royal, or, An Analytical Experience

 It was interesting to see this production so close to Barrie Kosky's Dialogues at Glyndebourne earlier in the summer. There as here the production can be defended on a textual basis (and there are some striking close readings) but the overall argument for me came at a cost of emotional engagement and dramatic tension. 

Kosky's central thesis appears to be that the Earth (Erda) is being exploited and ruined by everybody else on stage. He thus makes the character of Erda much more present than would usually be the case. Almost the first image we see (before a note has been played) is a practically naked Erda walking very slowly across the stage. The most effective deployment occurs in Scene 3 when she, or more precisely her breasts, are hooked up to Alberich's mining machinery. Elsewhere I wasn't convinced having her hovering around in scenes, so far as I could judge from the Amphi largely ignored by everybody else, added a great deal. And I think it comes at a cost - sometimes this is just distracting (some of the wandering about as with other aspects of the movement), but it also for me reduced the impact of Erda's intervention in the final scene. I'm sure the intention is to heighten not diminish our concern for her, but I'm afraid for me it had rather the opposite effect.

The approach does offer Kosky a clever solution to the Entry of the Gods into Valhalla given the evident financial limitations of the production. A spotlight on the figure of Erda cleverly implies the Gods moving through space to some place in the skies. We'll come back to the rest of the ending later.

The main bit of set (designer Rufus Didwiszus) is a very large tree branch, plus the tree itself (plainly the damaged world ash) which reminded me rather too much of Christopher Alden's Opera North Norma some years back now - though I was interested to find re-reading my post on that show that his tree annoyed me less at the time than I'd thought it did. I was baffled by the fact that we open with the backstage shutter raised - except that presumably it is in some way supposed to explain, within the world of the production, the fact that that shutter has to be raised and lowered in full view later in order to clear the tree for the Entry of the Gods. I couldn't make out how the shutter and the backstage space beyond it related to the main stage in terms of the production and as a result I found that set change cumbersome. Generally speaking, despite the fact that the set is minimal, set changes are noticeable and contribute to a failure to keep the drama moving along enough - the Glyndebourne Dialogues had similar problems.

Kosky's solution to the problem of the gold seemed plainly inspired by "golden flood" in the text and works well in the opening scene and in relation to the mining environment of Scene 3 but gets into difficulty when it comes to securing Freia's release. Kosky plays up the humiliation angle here (again defensibly in textual terms) by having the liquid gold poured over Freia in a bath that has to be wheeled on for this purpose. This slows things down when they really need to keep moving to the climactic confrontation. In addition, because some of the buckets to be carried by the supernumeries would plainly have offered too much risk of spillage it's visibly clear (at least I should think from anywhere higher than the Stalls) that not all the hoard has been used to cover Freia when we get to demands for Tarnhelm and Ring. Because Kosky then insists on sending everybody off for the Erda-Wotan confrontation (despite the fact the stage is almost entirely darkened) a giant has to wheel the bath off, making it evident that this is a physical challenge which, for his character, it shouldn't be. As an aside Kosky really does nothing in costume or staging to set the giants physically apart from the gods. Other productions I've seen (the Albery Scottish Opera Ring which I still pine for someone to revive especially) have also got much more out of Fasolt's love for Freia, Kosky lets it pass as far as I could see unmarked.

Kosky goes for a familiar approach with the Gods of diminishing their stature to begin with, portraying them as croquet playing empire builders, dangerously close to caricature, with Froh and Donner particularly mocked - notwithstanding the failure to make the giants look like giants there is no doubt who would win in a fight. While I'm perfectly prepared to accept that the Gods have sown the seeds of their own demise before the curtain opens I personally think it's a mistake to make that too obvious. I do think they need a bit more grandeur and glamour, done straight not mocked as seemed to me the case with the costuming for the Entry of the Gods, to give the drama somewhere to go in the later operas.

I mentioned earlier the feeling that this is a financially limited production. This shows in the dropping of the curtain for all the major scene changes (so that the ash tree can be re-dressed), and in that Entry of the Gods. I quite liked the rainbow confetti effect but there wasn't for me enough to it to cover the amount of music it has to match. It also doesn't find the same kind of point that Albery got with his rising rainbow cages in which the Gods stood eating apples and tossing the cores nonchalently away. With some things the production doesn't even try - the Tarnhelm transformations are just feeble (again I pined for the flame & giant claw of the Albery Rheingold), and there's no attempt to give even a hint of a magnificent palace (unless brightly lighting the proscenium arch in the interludes was supposed to convey that it was standing in for Valhalla).

No movement director is credited so I assume that Kosky is responsible for the people management. From the Amphi I rarely thought the production found the tension in interactions and small looks and gestures that regular readers will know I highly prize. There are some pretty clumsy entrances (the first entry of the Giants in particular has none of the drama thundering in the music), and rather too many occasions when people seem to be scurrying ineffectively round the tree branch. Ideas are also not always followed through. It's clever to have the giants scoop up the apples before making off with Freia, and to have Loge grab the only one remaining and torture the Gods by refusing to surrender it is a nice touch. But the Gods crawling across the stage towards him was overdone and given they're supposed to be desperate that none of them snatched up the mostly eaten apple after Wotan has discarded it was annoyingly inconsistent.

There are some minor sillinesses - the attaching of what looked like a fake penis to Alberich in Scene 1 - yes we know the Rhinemaidens are emasculating him you don't need the attempted cheap laugh, and the overdone killing of Fasolt with I think Donner's hammer which having to my eye been invisible to that point spends the early part of that scene leaning conspicuously and bizarrely against the wall. Characters are remarkably careless with their treasured objects in this production - Alberich leaving the Tarnhelm lying about for anyone (in this case Wotan) to casually pick up was also odd. We'll draw a veil over Fasolt's overdone screams (a repeat of a similar misstep in Dialogues).

Overall, though, it's not that it's a production to have one desperately closing one's eyes, or reduced to bafflement, but it left me too much at an emotional distance, and too often noticing the clunkiness of scene changes, or wondering why characters were moving in a particular way. It also doesn't do enough to keep the drama moving forward.

And that brings us to the second snag of the afternoon. The Orchestra play beautifully and it's a powerful and deserved gesture to bring them on stage for the curtain call. But I remain unpersuaded by Pappano as a Wagnerian. Rheingold can be both disjointed and the conversations can have their longuers. I personally think that this makes musical momentum crucial and, for me, Pappano didn't find enough of it. Two places in particular where I sought more dramatic build were the confrontations with the Giants in Scenes 2 and 4. I also found Erda's monologue painfully slow.

The standout performance among the singers for me was Sean Panikkar's Loge, this was my first encounter with him. He has a lovely stage energy which carried easily to the Amphi, and was married to well characterised singing. The three Rhinemaidens (Katharina Konradi, Niamh O'Sullivan and Marvic Monreal) were similarly impressive particularly in their opening scene. The other roles are all solidly sung. Christopher Maltman (Wotan) and Christopher Purves (Alberich) both had vocally commanding sections but at other times, in the Amphi at any rate, either needed more heft, or the balance with the orchestra needed more checks.

In sum what this afternoon never really succeeded in doing was suppressing the critic in me and making it just a matter of emotional engagement with these characters and their dilemmas. And because I personally rate achieving emotional punch over intellectual argument in live performance I ultimately found this a mixed afternoon. That said, the intellectual argument has enough points of interest to make me curious as to how Kosky's interpretation will develop through the cycle. And it also has to be admitted that Rheingold is not the easiest show to achieve that emotional punch with - for that the big test will be Die Walkure, which presumably we can expect next season. 

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