It's almost comical to observe that as the reviews gradually pour in for the first performance of Keith Warner's Royal Opera production of Das Rheingold as part of a complete cycle, the critics who roundly dismissed it when it was new cannot help but award it four stars - albeit begrudgingly - and admit they were impressed.
To those of us who admired and championed it from the start, it's good to see Warner's detractors ditching their unfounded dismissal and instead coming under his intoxicating, insightful and inventive Wagnerian spell.
The ideas flow constantly and there's never a dull moment in the director's extraordinarily imaginative interpretation of the story. Both on the micro level of Rheingold and the macro level of the entire Ring, Warner ties the drama tightly together. The narrative is clear; the symbols are striking; the range of emotions varied. A few things have changed since the production was new in 2004 - for instance, Erda now appears through the hole in the middle of the floor rather than sitting in her chair the whole time, and Fricka hands the hammer to Donner in the final scene to augment the idea of her active control of the course of fate - but they are not so significant that anybody should be surprised by the sheer stimulation of the experience. It was always this good.
All four scenes are intriguing. Warner does not take enormous liberties with the plot, which is conventional in its broad outlines. Yet he also invigorates it. For instance, the Rhinemaidens are completely nude at the beginning when swimming in the water and only dress themselves when danger appears in the form of Alberich; a video projection gradually turns the water of the river into an image of the world, representing the universality of the tale.
The main set, which returns in Die Walküre, is a surreal living room in which the gods dwell as a 'normal'- if such a word can be used for this dysfunctional bunch - family. They dress in Victorian costume, and nineteenth century imagery, such as a large open fireplace, a chess set and a cloche, is used to evoke a society of the past anticipating future technological advances. A telescope dominates the set, representing their tormented foresight into their doomed future.
When Wotan and Loge descend to the Niebelheim - a cleverly staged journey involving climbing down a ladder while the floor goes upwards - they discover the horrific consequences of Alberich's power and world domination generally, gained by stealing the ring. The dwarf is not merely lord of all he surveys. He is experimenting with genetic engineering and tampering with nature, regardless of the innocent victims whose bodies are distorted, damaged or simply burned on the fire on the way. The drastic outcome of allowing science to meddle with the natural course of the world is no less relevant a subject for today's audience than it is for the gods as they approach their twilight. For me, this was the beginning of a stunning second half to the performance and the most powerful of Warner's messages.
Another nice moment in the Niebelheim scene is when Wotan departs not only with the gold and the Tarnhelm but Alberich's model aeroplane as well. It's a further small message about the threat of technology, and the image comes full circle in the opening scene of Siegfried when Mime is shown trying to perfect the 'new' invention. Conversely, Warner's engagement with the epic, the adventurous and the comic comes to the fore in all kinds of arresting ways: the gold is kept in a kind of magic bubble in the opening scene; the giants appear as enormous silhouettes before coming through the door; Alberich's transformations are staged with Spielbergian flair; the rainbow at the end points towards the future while ladders descend from the sky, leading into the unknown; and the top of the set is dominated by an enormous ring, a reminder of the circularity and continuity of events. This production really does show the director's grasp of a striking number of aspects of the piece.
After a rather tepid start, Antonio Pappano's conducting became the anchor of the performance. The primacy he always gives to the voice has interesting consequences in Wagner, a composer whose operas are often regarded as symphonic and are too frequently conducted with little sympathy for the singers. The upshot of this approach is to allow the singers much more range of expression than is often the case, as well as providing sensitive accompaniment and leaping to the rescue on the rare occasions of lapsed synchronicity between pit and stage. Nevertheless, there is still weight to the playing, which is always high romantic rather than light and classical; even beautiful passages of playing by the solo violin and wind players are part of a large and well-stacked texture. Construction, too, is carefully observed: Pappano realises that alighting on structural cadences is the key to making Rheingold move quickly.
Bryn Terfel's over-publicised departure from the Ring was swept into the background at this performance, because John Tomlinson was simply magnificent as Wotan. A tentative beginning worried me for a couple of minutes, but it quickly became clear that Tomlinson's pre-eminence in this role is undimmed. He knows the music and the text backwards; he projects a still-powerful middle register with astounding power; when he's on the stage, every part of his being is Wotan. A couple of strained notes high above the stave are scarcely worth mentioning, because the rest of Sir John's singing and his role portrayal were immaculate.
I particularly enjoyed Tomlinson's rapport with Rosalind Plowright's Fricka; they seem far more of a believable married couple than did Terfel and Plowright when the production was first shown. Well-matched both physically and in terms of age, the pair were the focus of the scenes involving the whole family of gods. In particular, one felt Fricka's silent and gentle domination of Wotan: her insistence on his saving Freia was nicely book-ended with a touching moment near the end, when she gently comforted him at the front of the stage once he'd given up the treasure. Plowright remains a compelling and powerful singer-actress. (Don't forget to read our recent interview with her, in which she discusses performing the role with Tomlinson, here.)
The rest of the singing was often uneven; all the performers worked hard as a team and seemed well rehearsed, but there were minor problems with nearly every singer. Peter Sidhom initially seemed nervous and was under-projected until the Niebelheim scene; after that, he improved immeasurably, and the curse was powerfully delivered. I was very disappointed with the three Rhinedaughters, who lacked tone and were not rhythmically rigorous (though Pappano and the orchestra were also less than magical in the first scene as well). Christopher Wintle's essay on listening to the Ring in the superb programme rightly refers to their 'erotic taunting' of Alberich, but I found them somewhat blank. And though Philip Langridge remains miraculously lively and witty as Loge, there isn't the lavishness in his voice that there once was.
However, Emily Magee was splendid as Freia; the giants were both excellent, particularly Franz-Josef Selig's big-voiced Fasolt; Will Hartmann was in lyrical, almost Italian, voice as Froh; and although her intonation was shaky at times, Jane Henschel's deep contralto evoked the character of Mother Nature (Erda) rather colourfully. I can't help but suspect that things will improve in general as the cycle continues.
At the end of the production, Wotan suddenly stops climbing the ladder up to Valhalla and retreats through the hole in the ground to return to earth and create havoc by fathering the Wälsung children. It's typical of Keith Warner to provide us with so striking a curtain to the opera - and it leads us onto the next leg of the adventure with fervent anticipation.
Photo credit: Clive Barda
Read our interview with Rosalind Plowright about this production here.
Students take note: a number of tickets remain for the student-only performance of Das Rheingold on 12 October 2007, with the same cast and production, and young conductor Rory Macdonald. Tickets start at £3; for £37.50 you can sit in an Orchestra Stalls seat that would normally cost £212.50. Don't miss this opportunity to be involved in a unique event: for more information, check out the Royal Opera's website here. You need to sign up to the Travelex students scheme and have a valid Student Card to be eligible, but it really is worth persisting.