All I knew when I signed up to review this cycle well over a year-and-a-half ago was that it involved projection screens rather than scenery, and would bring us the musical forces of Opera North. All well and good. In between times I’ve been told of positive reports concerning both the theatrical and musical side of proceedings, but after this opening salvo I have to say that the “staging” is no such thing, and indeed isn’t even that notoriously fluid concept, a “semi-staging” (or at least not one that remotely works to the narrative and dramatic advantage of the piece in hand). This isn’t any kind of “staging of” at all so much as a sort of “Beginners Guide to” Wagner’s Der Ring, bereft of insight, intelligence, any kind of usefully illustrative information and even the merest ability to tell the story theatrically. Instead, all the three juxtaposed small square screens do stuck up in the Choir Stalls – reminiscent to me of 1960s Cinerama, except that that was ten times this size – is carry the white-on-white surtitles parcelled out over the heads of the relevant singers, together with miserably badly designed projections of water and clouds, punctuated continuously by, not Wagner’s own stage directions to describe both physical and scenic activity, but by some brain-numbing drivel written in Barbara Cartland-esque idiot prose describing what we’re not seeing – at the very moment we’re not seeing it – all in the past tense, together with the odd flight-of-fancy gloss such as describing Freia as “not in the springtime of her youth”. Who wrote this garbage? And who for? Half-wits? Readers of Mills and Boon? And bad as this all is, there’s worse.
Nobody is remotely properly costumed for their role – all in variants of evening dress, except the giants, in matching Paul Smith grey suits with natty red socks and matching pocket handkerchiefs! – and there’s not a solitary prop that would help to show what the story actually is. Ergo, no gold (either for Alberich to steal in scene I, or to be piled up in scene iv), no hammer for Donner to swing, no spear for Wotan to wield, no Tarnhelm for Alberich to put on, and, most pitifully and ruinously to the simple mechanics of the plot, no damn ring for Alberich to wear, Wotan to steal, Fasolt to keep and Fafner to snatch. I’ve never seen such a pile of pitiable Am Dram in my entire life, as the entire cast, lined up on a teensy yard-wide strip of forestage simply emote away furiously, eyes stage-front, without for the most part ever even looking at the people around them they’re supposed to be interacting with (so ta-ta to Personenregie, the only example of which I detected all night long was Loge always having to flaunt flickering “jazz hands” every time his fire motif sounds in the orchestra, beyond embarrassing to have to witness, and which for him was then incomprehensibly extended to include the Rhine motif as well, so that poor Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke spent most of the evening looking as if he was in the last stages of Parkinson’s). This isn’t direction, it’s pitiful incompetence, and I cannot believe anybody could take this badly-designed, ill thought-out, ludicrously UNstaged concert performance seriously as drama. Apparently – hard to work out, this, since the press kits failed to include the proper Opera North programme that might have shed some light on intentions, if not their woeful execution – the whole thing (“concept” – yeah, right – “designs”, “concert staging”) has been devised by one Peter Mumford, about whom I know nothing, and on this basis can only say I’ve no desire to know more. If the rest of the cycle resembles this theatrically, it’s dead in the water. And if you can’t get some theatrical mileage out of Rheingold with properly used and designed projections, why bother at all? Just put the singers’ music stands back in place and let them get on with it: it couldn’t be any less involving and more amateurish than this miserable mess.
Most vocal interest in any Rheingold inevitably centres on the singer of Wotan. Here it was Michael Druiett*. I’ve never heard him before, and can’t say that after this exposure I’m in any hurry to remedy the omission. He’s not young – and since he’s not singing either of the subsequent, older, Wotan roles, one rather wonders why he’s been cast in the first place – and the voice is not ideally steady, either in terms of emission, or, particularly in faster-moving passages, pitch. The tone is soft-grained and lyrical, quite without declamatory force or bite, and neither the top, nor especially the bottom, of the voice has any real presence. He’s at his best in slow-moving passages with long note values in the middle of the voice, but by the end of Abendlich strahlt he had alas sung himself to a standstill and couldn’t sing the last line at all. True, I’ve no idea what Mumford expected him to do, but whatever it was, nothing came across dramatically except a kind of stilted nervousness, which would be a strange “concept” to have of the Wotan of Das Rheingold (though God knows I wouldn’t put it past any director these days).
Fricka was very decently sung by Yvonne Howard, accurate, and every inch the wheedling, self-interested bürgerliche Hausfrau to watch. And there was an excellent trio of Rhine maidens – Jeni Bern, Madeleine Shaw and Sarah Castle – vocally full-bodied and well-blended, that put the ROH’s more recent exponents to shame. Even so, the star-turn on the distaff side was Giselle Allen, surely the most radiant and soaring Freia I can recall hearing, and one to watch in terms of subsequent vocal developments (she’d have been infinitely better as Elisabeth in the ROH’s recent Tannhäuser than the singer we did get). Mark Le Brocq and Andrew Foster-Williams, as Froh and Donner (or, as Götz Friedrich used to call them, Gay and Thick) were both fine, though the latter’s once very smooth instrument is getting a bit bumpy in pursuit of declamatory power. I can’t say I much cared for Mats Almgren’s singing of Fafner, at once both hollow-toned and gravelly – and the sight of the giants done up as Gilbert and George hardly helped – but James Cresswell’s Fasolt was an exemplary piece of singing, immaculately focussed and effortlessly projected on the grandest scale, the voice one long, rich wallow in deep black oil. Would Wotan really be beyond his range? Even if the role took him a smidge higher than his usual repertoire, I can imagine him handling it effectively. If Ms. Allen was the queen of the cast, Mr. Cresswell was its undoubted king.
Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke was, I thought, rather too small-scale vocally as Loge (the one character most at the mercy of such directorial “innovation” as was on offer). “Durch Raub!” really needs to stop everyone and everything dead in its tracks, particularly the audience, but was here not sufficiently pointed up by the conductor and simply too conversationally sung. Richard Roberts’ Mime seemed to sport more sheer voice, though whether he can handle the altogether more fearsome range of the role in Siegfried remains to be heard. Jo Pohlheim, who was clearly the audience’s favourite at the end, made for a thoroughly effective Alberich (notwithstanding having to “climb” rocks that weren’t there – cautious walking along the singers’ seats hardly counts – don and doff Tarnhelms that weren’t there, brandish rings that weren’t there, undergo physical transformations that weren’t there, get tied up by ropes that weren’t there, you get the idea) but one whose singing, considered simply as singing, left something to be desired. The voice isn’t notable for steadiness, and as the evening progressed, numerous little rasps and momentary croaks started to pepper the line with increasing frequency, to the point that I wasn’t at all sure he’d make it to the end of the Curse (he did, just, though at times like this, I’m always reminded of what Gustav Neidlinger, the greatest of all post-war Alberichs, had to say about the role, which he categorised as being ruinous to any voice in its prime and best avoided). Still, Mr. Pohlheim has the scale of the role, and in any properly organised scenic realisation I can imagine him being wholly effective.
Richard Farnes conducted without fuss or fancy, getting through the score in a perfectly unexceptional 152’, though some moments struck me as underpowered (the opening, for one, where the bass-line was very hesitantly drawn indeed, and a general sense throughout of bass-lightness which can hardly be accounted for acoustically by the cellos and basses each fielding just the one chair below the norm, an oddity when elsewhere you run to the luxury of twelve anvil-bashers and six harps). But generally the orchestra of Opera North gave a perfectly decent account both of the score and of themselves, without rivalling memories of the Met orchestra the last time I heard this score live (which, to be fair, you wouldn’t really expect them to). But I have certainly heard performances of Das Rheingold that carried more frisson and bite, more sonorous weight and, for what of a better term, more dramatic “zing” in the unfolding than we had here, and that’s an observation unconnected to the wholly spavined inadequacy of this particular visual presentation. So, in the interim
3½* for the musical side of things
0* for the visual
Stephen Jay-Taylor © 2016
*Editor’s note: although no announcement was made that he was indisposed, Michael Druiett would like it to be known that he was suffering from tonsillitis and was singing against advice