Das Rheingold

Antonio Pappano
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
26 October 2018
Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
WotanJohn Lundgren
DonnerMarkus Eiche
FrohAndrew Staples
LogeAlan Oke
FasoltGünther Groissböck
FafnerBrindley Sherratt
AlberichJohannes-Martin Kränzle
MimeGerhard Siegel
FrickaSarah Connolly
FreiaLise Davidsen
ErdaWiebke Lehmkuhl
WoglindeLauren Fagan
WellgundeChristina Bock
FloßhildeAngela Simkin

The assault on Valhalla begins

Whatever you may think about Wagner as a human being, his politics, his poetry or the length of his operas, there are two things that most people would agree on: (1) his usage of leitmotifs is incredibly effective and earworm-generative and (2) he writes wonderfully for brass. As the Royal Opera embarked on its six-yearly assault on that musical citadel that is Der Ring des Nibelungen, last night’s orchestral performance was blissful: Sir Antonio Pappano’s forces mesmerising you with each familiar motif. The brass – the horns in particular – were at the forefront on every one: from the gentle rise of the sun over the Rhine to the sinking alarm of the ring motif to the weighty tread of the giants to the soaring, shimmering heights of Valhalla. Only in the fire god Loge’s motif are they absent, giving the strings their moment of prominence: you could almost taste the flames licking into every corner.

Given that Das Rheingold is such a male-dominated opera, it’s unusual to say that the female voices that will stay in the memory, none more so than Lise Davidsen, who lit up the stage with her Freia.

Davidsen achieves wonderful beauty of timbre at a power level that is simply immense: the continuing list of superlatives about her on these pages was amply justified once again. Three relatively small roles in this Ring cycle mark her Royal Opera débuts: she is surely bound for greater things. Dame Sarah Connolly was in fine form as Fricka, raising our anticipation for Act 2 of Wednesday’s Walküre, while Lauren Fagan, Christina Bock and Angela Simkin made for an exceptionally melodic and vicious trio of Rhinemaidens – their unrestrained, casual cruelty to Alberich being one of the more disturbingly vivid features of Keith Warner’s staging.

Male singing performances were mixed. John Lundgren was an impressive Wotan to look at, but he didn’t consistently stamp his vocal authority on the role: this was not a Wotan to make you sit up, hear and obey. Johannes Martin Kränzle’s Alberich tended to veer between extremes of cringing and overpowering rawness, his acting tending rather too much towards the Bond villain (although I have to admit that the trope of “instead of killing you now, Mr Bond, I’m going to spend enough time telling you how clever I am to let you off the hook” comes straight out of this opera). Alan Oke was more impressive as Loge, a clear and rather acidic voice pulling the strings of events on stage. Günther Groissböck made a particularly appealing Fasolt: both he and Brindley Sherratt’s Fafner gave us vocal underpinning as solid as the flawless bricks and mortar that the giants have built into Valhalla.

Warner’s staging is visually interesting throughout, with enough theatrical effects to make even the showman Wagner happy, from the swirling video projections that form the bed of the Rhine to the cleverness of Alberich’s Tarnhelm-powered transformation into massive, bigger-than-the-stage dragon or tiny fit-in-a-suitcase toad. Acting performances are generally good. But I don’t yet know where the dramaturgy is heading. There’s a general late Victorian/Edwardian feel to the costumes: Nibelheim is definitely a place of satanic mills with the Nibelungs cast as child labourers. The gods seem clothed almost as music hall magicians: is Warner casting them as nothing more than fading charlatans? There’s another Industrial Revolution political agenda, perhaps, when the top-hatted boss Fafner kills the cheerful workman Fasolt to grab the spoils. Some ideas are clear – the red rope of fate, the cubical Tarnhelm representing the intrusion of technology – but there are others which are striking but where I’m not sure of the point: a nasty burst of necrophilia from Alberich, or the fact that Freia’s body language shows her to be strangely attracted to the idea of going off with the giants even as she sings the opposite. Does the toy fighter aeroplane that so attracts Loge and Wotan simply incarnate technological prowess, or is there a deeper meaning to come?

Of course, Warner may simply be spinning out any number of threads whose meaning will become clear as they are tied together in the course of the rest of the cycle. And with Pappano’s orchestra on the blistering form displayed last night, I can’t wait…

David Karlin | 25 September 2018

The Guardian

Thrilling start to Warner’s steampunk surreal Ring

High drama and slapstick comedy blend perfectly under Antonio Pappano’s pacey conducting for the first instalment of Wagner’s epic cycle

Wagner’s Ring cycle is an epic on a scale unmatched elsewhere in opera, but its dramatic progress depends on the power of various mythological bits and pieces. Spear, helmet, sword, ring – as wielded by gods and heroes, and resounding in their musical form as leitmotifs, are the catalysts for four long nights at the opera. In his Royal Opera House production (now back for its third revival, with Antonio Pappano once again in the pit), director Keith Warner supplements Wagner’s symbolic toolkit with additional paraphernalia: Das Rheingold, the Ring’s first instalment, sets up the cycle’s backstory, but unfolds in Warner’s staging like a surreal TV shopping channel, with a flurry of carry cases and rubber fish, loud sartorial detailing and steampunk gadgetry.

Every box of tricks needs a magician and in this case it is Loge, demigod of fire and Wotan’s fixer, whose cunning is remade as a form of prestidigitation and techno-wizardry, performed to an audience of rather slow-witted gods. Slapstick comes as standard in this Valhalla: Freia fawns and pouts idiotically at the giant Fasolt, from whom she supposedly needs to be rescued; her ineffectual brothers, Donner and Froh, are dressed as if they have stepped out of a high-camp Edwardian panto and spend their time striking gallant poses with their weaponry; Fafner, the second giant, is human-sized except for an enormously protruding skull, egg-shaped and protected from the elements by a stovepipe hat, like a cartoon mad scientist. Even down in Nibelheim – here a creepy, dirty-white-tiled chamber where “operations” have been carried out on human bodies living and dead – Alberich plays with a model aeroplane and beats up his brother Mime while invisible (courtesy of that helmet) in a scene of pure physical comedy.

Johannes Martin Kränzle was an irresistible Alberich – imagine Marilyn Manson crossed with Thomas Gradgrind Wagner wasn’t known for his sense of humour and none of this is terribly funny. But his often-infantile characters inject much-needed energy into the proceedings of what even the composer called a “preliminary evening”. In some roles, the slapstick and the voice match: Andrew Staples’ Froh sounds comically underpowered at times, Günther Groissböck’s Fasolt is solid but stiff, and Alan Oke’s Loge narrow-bore and nimble. As the three Rhinemaidens, Lauren Fagan, Christina Bock and Angela Simkin blend beautifully and frolic with ease. Johannes Martin Kränzle is an irresistible Alberich – imagine Marilyn Manson crossed with Thomas Gradgrind – chewing on the German text and expressive to the nastiest outer reaches of his tone.

Elsewhere, though, the rough-and-tumble gags are in stark contrast to the poise and clarity of the musical performances. Thus, Lise Davidsen’s Freia (her much-awaited ROH debut) may look like a simpering bimbo, but the easy stream of vocal power that she summons tells a different story. Sarah Connolly’s long-suffering Fricka sounds a touch autumnal at times, but is all the more sympathetic for it; as her husband, Wotan, John Lundgrenhas a thrilling upper register and a similarly compelling stage presence, though only time will tell how the apparent lack of weight further down works in this hefty role.

Crucial to this sustained meeting of the sublime and the ridiculous is the ROHorchestra under Pappano: burnished brass, finely etched percussion, the strings a vast, perfumed warm bath. From the barely audible opening in an auditorium plunged into total darkness to the score’s euphoric, soaring close, this operatic pantechnicon is driven by Pappano, his sense of pace – and of the bigger picture – unsurpassed.

Flora Willson | 25 Sep 2018


Production gaffes mar Die Walküre, including direction that repeatedly contradicts the libretto, and a pathetic gas-mark-2 version of Brünnhilde’s burning mountain

Every few years Covent Garden stakes everything on a complete Ring cycle repeated four times over as many weeks – 16 performances in all. But it’s not much of a gamble, in that within two hours of the seats going on sale it sold out completely. And the show’s not new – this is its third revival.

But that’s Wagnerism for you: ever since Aubrey Beardsley did his famous black-and-white drawing of hushed devotees in 1894, the operatic world has been divided into those who worship at Wagner’s shrine, those who find the whole thing preposterous, and in-betweeners who love the music but fail to appreciate his psychological insights or his homespun cosmogony.

What is it about? The story is often given a Marxist spin, but the eminent Times critic William Mann once neatly expressed the consensus: the Ring was “a dramatic allegory about ethics … and the ethics are that love is everything, that fear is the beginning of death, and humanity’s struggle for power is rooted in fear”.

Covent Garden’s production is in the hands of director Keith Warner, who believes it concerns the end of one great arc of history – during which man believed the world was governed by gods – and the birth of a god-free age. He’s striven to couch a piece of 19th century Ibsenite realism in the context of archetypal Greek drama. His designer, the late Stefanos Lazaridis, created designs that suggest at once the Industrial Revolution and a place reminiscent of the sanatorium in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. His visual leitmotiv is a spiral, which translates into everything from a symbolic double-helix, to fans, to the propeller of a crashed plane.

This sounds fine in theory, but in practice it’s problematic. The opening scene works beautifully, with the naked Rhinemaidens cavorting against a backdrop of undulating shapes suggesting gently swirling reflections, while Alberich looks lasciviously on. But the baronial hall in which Wotan and his family hang out is stuffed so full of clashing symbolic elements – ladders, ropes, globes, an antique telescope – that it’s more like a back-street junk shop. There are references to Dr Mengele’s vivisection experiments in Alberich’s subterranean kingdom.

Lazaridis’s imagination in no way answers the demands of this richly suggestive music – the covering of Freia with gold is clumsily done, the giants Fasolt and Fafner come over as a couple of bolshie workmen, and the transformations wrought by the magic Tarnhelm have an am-dram clunkiness; there’s too much prosaic literalism.

Since the preliminary part of the Ring – Das Rheingold – has the narrative simplicity of a cartoon strip, the singers have to work fast to establish their characters, and most of them do. Alan Oke’s fire-god Loge is an incandescent creation, ironical and insinuating, while Lise Davidsen makes a sublimely sung goddess of youth; Johannes Martin Kränzle’s cruelly charismatic Alberich is ably supported by Gerhard Siegel as his rebelliously downtrodden brother Mime.

The climactic intervention by Wiebke Lehmkuhl’s earth-goddess Erda makes the world stand still as it should. John Lundgren’s Wotan has a brilliant timbre, but here he seemed underpowered. Antonio Pappano keeps the thread of the music – two and a half unbroken hours – going majestically. It was a shame that the final Rhinemaiden chorus, which should ring out with bell-like charity, was semi-audible on opening night, but that could easily be sorted.

Production gaffes mar Die Walküre, the next stage of the cycle, including direction that repeatedly contradicts the libretto, and a pathetic gas-mark-2 version of Brünnhilde’s burning mountain, but the spell of this work depends primarily on instruments and voices. The woodwind play ravishingly, and with Stuart Skelton and Ain Anger as Siegmund and Hunding the singing is superb from the start. Sarah Connolly, as Fricka, calls her errant husband Wotan to order with implacable balefulness, and Lundgren finds the power to carry off his dauntingly exposed confessional aria. Nina Stemme, as the greatest living Brünnhilde, induces Lundgren to up his game in the farewell father-and-daughter duet, which sails off sublimely into the empyrean.

The timing of these performances may follow Wagnerian tradition, but in London it feels perverse. By starting at 4.30pm they exclude people who work nine to five, and, by allotting almost two hours to intervals, they seem to be pandering to gastronomes who fancy a bit of opera on the side. Those for whom intervals are simply pitstops need to take a good book.

Michael Church | 27 September 2018

Financial Times

Bursting with detail

Alan Oke’s brilliant portrayal of Loge is among the highlights of Keith Warner’s production, now in its final run

It is a good thing the Royal Opera does not still play the National Anthem at the opening of the season. It is hard to imagine anything that would more completely wreck the mystical atmosphere at the start of Das Rheingold, that low, rumbling E flat that signals the birth of consciousness.

It also announces the start of the 16-hour cycle of operas that makes up Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. Originally assembled in the early 2000s, this production is about to be seen for the last time and the Royal Opera’s schedule has been cleared to make room for four complete cycles.

Over nearly 15 years there has been plenty of opportunity to weigh up Keith Warner’s production. Always bursting with detail, it reads as though Warner has worked hard to embrace as many theories as possible, leaving him with a surfeit of small ideas and no clear single train of thought. In terms of stagings of the Ring from the past half century, it is probably closest to Patrice Chéreau’s now celebrated centenary Ring at Bayreuth, which similarly told a colourful parable of the downfall of Victorian industrialisation.

Das Rheingold has always been Warner’s best of the four operas. It is a shame that the production has lost its centrepiece in Bryn Terfel’s ever-absorbing Wotan. John Lundgren, his replacement, sings sturdily, but is rather one-dimensional. His nemesis, Alberich, is seen as a mad scientist in this production, carrying out unspeakable experiments on helpless victims (foreshadowing the Nazis?) and Johannes Martin Kränzle sings him with more intelligence than satanic power. Even he is outwitted by the double-dealing trickster of Alan Oke’s Loge, a brilliant new portrayal, with something of the circus conjuror about him.

Among the other assorted gods and dwarfs, Sarah Connolly is a dignified Fricka, Gerhard Siegel a less-whining-than-usual Mime, and Lise Davidsen a forceful Freia, clearly a Brünnhilde-in-waiting. There is a decent trio of Rhinemaidens, a strong pair of giants, and Wiebke Lehmkuhl delivers Erda’s gloomy prognostications in comforting, mellow tones. After more than a decade Antonio Pappano knows this Ring inside out and his performance, robustly played by the Royal Opera orchestra, throws every detail on to the canvas with bold splashes of colour. You are unlikely to be bored.

Richard Fairman | SEPTEMBER 25, 2018

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 48.0 kHz, 336 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast (BBC 3; transmission date: 27 October 2018)
A production by Keith Warner (2004)
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.