Das Rheingold

Antonio Pappano
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
7 January 2005
Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
WotanBryn Terfel
DonnerJames Rutherford
FrohWill Hartmann
LogePhilip Langridge
FasoltFranz-Josef Selig
FafnerPhillip Ens
AlberichGünter von Kannen
MimeGerhard Siegel
FrickaRosalind Plowright
FreiaEmily Magee
ErdaJane Henschel
WoglindeSarah Fox
WellgundeHeather Shipp
FloßhildeLiora Grodnikaite

Conducted by Antonio Pappano, designed by Stefanos Lazaridis, lit by Wolfgang Göbbel, and featuring Bryn Terfel’s debut as Wotan, Keith Warner’s Royal Opera House Ring cycle is the most eagerly anticipated operatic event of the decade. But Das Rheingold is merely the amuse-gueule. It may seem strange to refer to two and half hours of music like this but it is worth remembering that this opera was conceived as a “preliminary evening”. Here we have a composer sketching the backstory to an epic to be performed over four consecutive nights to an audience ignorant of cinema; raising many questions and resolving none of them. Which is not much help to a production team who are expected to deliver something that can satisfy a cinema-literate audience and stand alone as an entertainment until 2007 when the Covent Garden Ring is performed in its entirety.

Warner and Lazaridis’s source-book is eclectic; with images recalling the films of Fritz Lang, Orson Welles (Terfel’s harried, handsome Wotan is strongly reminiscent of the young Kane in Citizen Kane) and Ingmar Bergman, starscapes extrapolated from NASA space probes, an enigmatic spiral of DNA (down which Günter von Kannen’s Alberich paddles his dinghy), and the self-flagellating performance art of Günter Brus. Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s costumes are similarly diverse; ranging from the shimmering prelapsarian nudity of the Rhinedaughters, to the bel epoque evening wear of the gods, and on through 40 or more years to the lab-coats and cardigans of the dwarves. It is a rich and conspicuously expensive palette, and there are moments of theatrical magic in Das Rheingold: the faint light of the gold in the first few bars of the prelude, its bursting brilliance, and the flexible net of blue light that suggests the waters of the Rhine; the toiling Expressionist shadows of Alberich’s still invisible work-force; the solarized cloudscape beyond the windows of Wotan’s black marble palace. But there is a chasm between these assured design effects and the near-burlesque execution of some of Warner’s other ideas.

The giants’ entrance is cleverly set up with silhouettes but Fasolt (Franz-Josef Selig) sports earthy, extended fingers and clownishly elongated, dirty feet, while Fafner (Phillip Ens) reveals a hideously distorted conical pate when he removes his stove-pipe hat. In a movie, you could imagine swallowing this blunt grotesquerie. But in a movie a director could control his audience’s viewpoint through careful editing. On stage, there is no such control.

In the third scene’s audacious coup de théâtre – in which the entire stage is lifted to reveal the laboratory where Alberich and Mime (Gerhard Siegel) perform their pseudo-scientific medical experiments – Warner flirts still further with carnival excess. Latex body parts litter Nibelheim, along with lobotomised zombies whose acting is a little too effortful for my taste. Alberich’s transformation into a dragon (achieved laboriously with three actors in progressively larger prosthetics) and an animatronic toad brings to mind the Victorian freak show: clumsy, corrupting, vulgar, voyeuristic. Doubtless this is intentional. We should feel disgusted and repelled by Nibelheim. But the theatrical business is less suggestive than that first brief glimpse of the hammering shadows, and is strangely at odds with Warner’s calm unfurling of the individual characters.

Excepting the moment where the gods gather for a slide-show of Loge’s travels, Warner’s most successful scenes are one-on-one dialogues (which bodes well for Die Walküre). The exchanges between Wotan and Fricka (Rosalind Plowright) are surprisingly tender. Theirs is an old marriage but one that has yet to dissolve. Plowright’s acting is magnificent: her expression beautifully judged as she leaves for Valhalla and Wotan remains for a highly unlikely coupling with Jane Henschel’s dowager-like Erda. Fricka’s old money poise contrasts with the dissipation of Froh (Will Hartmann), Donner (James Rutherford), and their fluttering sister Freia (Emily Magee), and small touches such as her barely-concealed distaste for the muddy boots of the giants give nuance to a role that is all too often frigid and flat. Terfel and von Kannen are afforded the same treatment. Certainly, this is the most sympathetic Wotan I’ve seen, and Alberich’s self-mutilation as he curses the ring is a stroke of genius. Siegel’s crazed Mime promises much fun in Siegfried, and from the girlish Rhinemaidens (Sarah Fox, Heather Shipp, Liora Grodnikaite) to Terfel’s authoritative, troubled Wotan and Philip Langridge’s squirrely Loge, this is a superlative and cohesive cast.

Which brings me, finally, to the conducting. Antonio Pappano’s Das Rheingold is not lush, luminescent, architectural or reverential. It is instead transparent, organic, almost rhapsodic, and strikingly intimate. In the very best way, his prelude sounds sight-read. From the front of the stalls, its newness was intoxicating; the sensation one of floating in harmonic amniotic fluid. The playing of the horns was beyond compare, the ascent up through the different instruments giddying. With a relatively light-voiced cast and singing of lieder-like clarity and subtlety, Pappano’s Das Rheingold is most notable for its delicacy. No, I didn’t feel overwhelmed in the way I might expect to feel after Die Walküre, Siegfried, or Götterdämmerung. I did however feel seduced, surprised, provoked, and very curious to see and hear the rest of this Ring. As a preliminary evening, Das Rheingold is a striking success.

Anna Picard | 26 December 2004


London’s third Rheingold of the year was the most eagerly awaited. After the production that launched English National Opera’s Ring cycle in February, and Simon Rattle’s period-instrument performance at the Proms, Keith Warner’s staging for the Royal Opera promised something special – not only the start of Covent Garden’s new cycle conducted by ROH music director Antonio Pappano, but also Bryn Terfel’s debut in the role of Wotan.

Terfel at least does not disappoint. His singing is glorious from first note to last, effortlessly authoritative, sumptuously toned, every particle of the text relished and individually coloured. Wotan is a role he seems to have been born to sing, and in a single performance he defines himself as the leading interpreter of his generation. Whenever Terfel is singing everything else onstage ceases to matter, although in fact the general musical standard of the performances is high, underpinned by outstanding orchestral playing and constantly alert if not especially revealing conducting. Pappano’s qualities as a Wagner interpreter remain to be confirmed, though, and the remaining instalments in this Ring cycle will test them more critically.

The production itself is far more problematic. Stefanos Lazaridis’s designs are characteristically complex, regularly moving to alter the stage geometry. Alberich (the ever reliable Günter von Kannen) first appears rowing a boat, which moves down the full depth of the ROH stage as the lighting creates watery imagery around him; between the second and third scenes, the entire acting area lifts to reveal a hugely elaborate Nibelheim below. Yet the stage pictures are too elaborate and cluttered, and never allow the sense of visual or dramatic space that Rheingold needs; Warner’s direction provides little clarification.

Ideas are showered on the action; there are enough allusions in what Warner puts on the stage to support any number of more disciplined production concepts. References to 19th-century England abound – Wotan is the epitome of an early industrialist, holding court in a Victorian drawing room complete with a huge refracting telescope, while Fafner (the excellent Philip Ens) appears in a stovepipe hat like a reincarnation of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The Nibelungs seem to have been created by Alberich and Mime (Gerhard Siegel) from torsos and body parts in an inescapable reference to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, while Erda (Jane Henschel, not at her most convincing) watches all the action from an armchair to the side of the stage – and makes her final pronouncement got up like Queen Victoria in a widow’s weeds.

The trouble is that none of this matters dramatically; none of these ideas offer any new insights into the motives of Wagner’s characters or their relationships to each another. There’s no spark in Wotan’s relationship with Rosalind Plowright’s Fricka, no real focus to Philip Langridge’s pony-tailed Loge, no obvious reason for portraying Donner and Froh as fops. Some of the glosses seem just that – Wotan fondling a sword (Nothung presumably) during the last scene and then going off to couple with Erda (fathering the Valkyries) as the curtain falls tells us nothing except to reassure us that Warner knows what is going to happen in Die Walküre.

The ending is feeble and the appearance of the rainbow bridge awkwardly contrived. One remembers what the previous, unjustly maligned production at Covent Garden achieved at that point on a fraction of the budget; Richard Jones and his designer Nigel Lowery told us things about these characters and their relationships then that Warner and his team never even suggest.

Andrew Clements | 20 Dec 2004

New York Times

The ‘Rheingold’ Gods Are Bored but Well Dressed

The new production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle that began unfolding at Covent Garden here on Saturday with the opening of “Das Rheingold,” is a triumph for the orchestra and the singers.

Antonio Pappano, the Royal Opera’s music director for only two years, is thoroughly at home here, in the space and in the score, which comes to seem like a space in which we are moving around, or like a landscape through which we are journeying. The big moments are beautifully prepared. Details are placed as if at different distances.

Loge’s flickering fire music — one realizes what a lot of it there is — is bouncily defined without getting in the way of the steady onward flow. Pacing and sound are consistently and wonderfully satisfying, yet fresh.

Several members of the cast are regulars in their roles. Günter von Kannen is everybody’s favorite Alberich, and rightly so. He opens his mouth and reveals what sounds like a dark cavern of the soul: the voice not of willful evil, which would have something to hide, but of total loss, which is fully open to view. He does not need a lot of inflection, which would diminish and sentimentalize the effect. All he has to do is sing from the lonely hole in which he exists, and in doing so he becomes a tragic figure.

Philip Langridge, similarly, has been everywhere as Loge, though here he pulls out a new vocal strength and fullness, while keeping up an extraordinary capering agility. With his long plait of red hair and his seemingly elasticized legs, he has the same bounce as his orchestral music. The clownish look is in some unsettling synergy with the free delight he projects through his singing. This is the trickster as overgrown child.

With these supreme stalwarts, one member of the cast is new: Bryn Terfel, taking on the role of Wotan for the first time. It is glorious to hear this beautiful voice in this music, to hear, indeed, a lyrical Wotan, a lord of the gods who is still young.

Young as he is, though, he arrives in this opera with a considerable back story. Despondent and troubled right from the first, he sings almost all his lines looking down at the ground and away from those he is addressing. His voice is majestic, but it is also often gentle: gentled by reflection, anxiety and guilt. The music sounds like song, in that the words are beautifully sounded but the expression is at some remove.

Wotan here is in a trap, and he knows it from the beginning. There is no escape. There is nothing he can do. Outbursts of full presence — commanding when they appear — are rare. He can see it all coming; Erda’s warning and Alberich’s challenge are confirmations he does not require.

One problem with this interpretation is that it leaves the character with little room for development during the course of the opera. Another is that it gives him nowhere to go now. How is this dejected Wotan to deal with Fricka’s disputation and Brünnhilde’s disobedience in “Die Walküre”? We must wait until March to find out.

Meanwhile, there is much else to admire in this “Rheingold.” Rosalind Plowright is an authoritative Fricka, and Emily Magee a radiantly appealing and vulnerable Freia, though encumbered with a bad directorial idea in her little flirtatious waves at Fasolt. As for that touching giant, he is very sweetly and affectingly sung by Franz-Josef Selig, while Phillip Ens, as his brother Fafner, is properly calculating.

The production, which grabs at various possibilities held out by the generous 19th century, has these two appear as an engineer (Fafner, in stovepipe hat over a grotesquely distended egg of a head) and a workman. The divinities are gentlefolk made for a life of bored ease in the place where they find themselves: a grand penthouse dining room at the edge of the universe. Fricka and Freia are dressed as if by Worth, with themes of autumn and spring that this confident, mature Fricka might have something to say about . Froh and Donner, nicely sung by Will Hartmann and James Rutherford, are in Fortuny robes.

Nibelheim has become Frankenstein’s laboratory. Dispensing with the chorus (the shriek as Alberich displays his ring is made by one amplified male voice offstage), the production has a few actors and dummies in the roles of experimental victims, creating a scene that is at once unpleasant and unconvincing. It would be complete bathos without the frighteningly good interpretation of Gerhard Siegel as the mad-scientist Mime, careering around with a wild limp and singing with a crazed expressiveness that remains thoroughly musical.

Excellent, too, is the trio of Rhinemaidens: Sarah Fox, Heather Shipp and Liora Grodnikaite. Appearing at first naked, with lighting by Wolfgang Göbbel that makes them look like spirits of nature, they slip something on when Alberich arrives (oddly, in a rowboat that slides in starts noisily down something like a bobsled run), but their singing all through is free, full and natural.

As may already be clear, the production, by Keith Warner, has a lot of problems and not many solutions. Strong as many of the individual characters are, not much is happening among them. Erda — sung by Jane Henschel with an unusual and effective light tone of weariness — is watching it all from a chair at the side, and one wonders why.

Paul Griffiths | Dec. 20, 2004


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 | Royal Opera House, 18th December 2004

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
192 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 202 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast (BBC 3, 17 January 2005)
A production by Keith Warner (2004)
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.
Also available as telecast