Das Rheingold

Antonio Pappano
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
20 September 2023
Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
WotanChristopher Maltman
DonnerKostas Smoriginas
FrohRodrick Dixon
LogeSean Panikkar
FasoltInsung Sim
FafnerSoloman Howard
AlberichChristopher Purves
MimeBrenton Ryan
FrickaMarina Prudenskaya
FreiaKiandra Howarth
ErdaWiebke Lehmkuhl
WoglindeKatharina Konradi
WellgundeNiamh O’Sullivan
FloßhildeMarvic Monreal

Dreamtime Rheingold from Kosky and Pappano at The Royal Opera

The programme for The Royal Opera’s new Rheingold makes much of Wagner’s admiration for Greek drama, but it’s an older myth that inspires Barrie Kosky, reminding one of his Australian roots: the Aboriginal Dreamtime. We see the story unfold as it is dreamed – or reminisced? – by the Earth Mother Erda, physically on stage for almost the whole opera in the naked, grey-tressed, painfully thin figure of actor Rose Knox-Peebles. When Erda is given her voice, as she wraps Wotan in her arms and a shaft of light, Wiebke Lehmkuhl singing the role from darkness at the side of the stage, it’s not a stentorian contralto; her voice carries not just authority but also the pure beauty of nature, a truer and more potent force that Freia’s youthful charms could ever be.

Kosky conjures excellent character acting from his whole cast to match their excellent Wagnerian singing. Christopher Maltman is a Wotan of the very highest quality, his rounded baritone projecting enormous nobility as he contemplates Valhalla. We hear that nobility but we know that it’s false, because at every turn, he displays the character of an organised crime boss, his voice frequently turning savage to match. Christopher Purves, as Alberich, is truly his evil twin, the dark-elf to Wotan’s light-elf, matched in looks as well as vocal power. Extreme as Alberich’s thoughts and actions may be, Purves never overacts and the confrontation between the two Christophers is electric. Kosky’s many light relief gags land successfully.

It’s not just Erda whose style isn’t quite in the Ring norm. Marina Prudenskaya is a mellifluous Fricka, more at home when charming Wotan than berating him. The two giants are far from lumbering bassi profondi: Insung Sim as Fasolt and Soloman Howard as Fafner tackle Wotan in steely, clear voices. Sim turns on his own nobility when declaring his love for Freia. Where Loge can be played as the boss of the whole show or a criminal gang’s fixer, Sean Panikkar plays him as a Puck-like spirit of nature, dancing around the stage, bursting into laughter at the most inappropriate moments, accompanied superbly by the skittering strings that denote the licking flames – but also able to deploy a strong, attractive legato. The three Rhinemaidens, Katharina Konradi, Niamh O’Sullivan and Marvic Monreal, expertly flip between idle chatter and the ecstasy of gold – and, later, despair and nostalgia.

Sir Antonio Pappano’s Ring conducting is like fine wine: it was great early on but keeps improving with the years. In Rheingold, the orchestra must create the lightning changes in mood that Wagner keeps coming towards you at a dizzying rate. The leitmotifs need to be drilled into our brains – not just in the obvious moments like the mentions of the ring or Wotan’s vision of Valhalla, but also in the little snatches and sneak previews (the giants’ theme enters the fray long before the giants themselves). We also want to revel in the luscious, full throated gorgeousness of that brass-laden Wagnerian sound. Pappano and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House delivered on every count to an extraordinary degree. With the exception of some ham-fisted sound reinforcement and effects for Alberich’s transformations and the Nibelungs’ anvils, this was as complete an orchestral Rheingold performance as you’re likely to hear.

Rufus Didwiszus’ set is a giant fallen tree which spans most of the width of the stage. If works brilliantly for the opening scene, enabling Kosky to stick surprisingly closely to Wagner’s stage directions as Alberich slips and slides as he tries to catch the Rhinemaidens weaving in and out of clefts in the tree. It also works well for Nibelheim where, in a spectacular tableau, the gold (liquid in this whole production) is being milked from Erda’s breasts by a giant steampunk-style pump, the rape of nature made explicit. But like many one-set designs, it works less well in other places. Victoria Behr’s polo party costumes are a fun touch for the lazy gods (as well as a political dig at kleptocracy, given that polo was the favoured sport of 19th-century kleptocrats) but the canvas partially concealing the tree isn’t convincing. And we’ve seen a rainbow bridge fashioned from a shower of glitter before, including Richard Jones’ ENO staging in London earlier this year.

Given that Kosky’s staging is probably heading for environmental apocalypse, the set is pretty dark and post-apocalyptic even here at the very beginning of the cycle, which makes it hard to imagine quite where the director can take it from here. But that is all part of the excitement of a new Ring. This production has provided musical excellence and plenty of ideas to tease as to how the cycle will continue.

David Karlin | 12 September 2023

The Guardian

Uncluttered staging is a compelling start to Kosky’s Ring cycle

‘I want somehow to develop this world which is, on the one hand, full of recognisable human beings with all their flaws, and all their anxieties, loves and hatreds, but at the same time I want to deal with something which is epic, mythological and unexplained,” says Barrie Kosky in an interview included in the programme for his new production of Das Rheingold, the first instalment of a complete cycle of Wagner’s Ring for the Royal Opera, due to be completed by 2027.

What Kosky’s Rheingold offers is an uncluttered presentation of the narrative, blessedly free of philosophical theorising, but with a message that is clear from the start. The charred, fallen remains of the world ash tree, which binds the universe together in Wagner’s mythology, dominates the stage in Rufus Didwiszus’s set, and before even the famous, unfathomably deep pedal E flat has been sounded in the orchestra to conjure that operatic world into existence, the extremely old, extremely frail figure of Erda, the earth goddess, is seen dragging herself across the stage, as if trying to comprehend what has happened to the world for which she had cared for so long.

Played with compelling poise and presence by the actor Rose Knox-Peebles, and later briefly given creamy voice from offstage by Wiebke Lehmkuhl, Erda is an ever-present observer of everything that follows, all of it perhaps conjured out of her memories or dreams. The Rhinemaidens (Katharina Konradi, Niamh O’Sullivan and Marvic Monreal) play kiss-chase around the fallen tree, teasing and humiliating Christopher Purves’s easily seduced Alberich before he steals their gold, while Wotan, Fricka and their relatives are first seen picnicking in front of the tree like an Edwardian family, complete with riding boots, headscarves and croquet mallets; costumes (by Victoria Behr) are unspecifically contemporary throughout.

In Nibelheim, Alberich’s workers, played by children wearing a variety of curiously deformed heads, collect the “gold” in liquid form as it gushes from the ash tree, apparently extracted by a contraption somehow connected to Erda. The Tarnhelm transformations, through which Alberich torments Mime (Brenton Ryan) and is then tricked and captured by Wotan and Loge are rather underplayed, though the ripping of the ring from Alberich’s finger is bloodily graphic.

As per Kosky’s credo, all these characters are clearly defined in terms of human qualities that are easily recognisable, whether it’s Christopher Maltman’s bumptious, bullying Wotan, Marina Prudenskaya’s haughty, coquettish Fricka, Sean Panikkar’s hyperactive, scene-stealing Loge, or the giants Fasolt and Fafner, played by In Sung Sim and Solomon Howard as a couple of wide-boy builders, who are likely to retile your roof whether it’s needed or not.

The production is careful to avoid anything too reductive or stereotypical, though it’s only in the final scene, with its glittering, stage-filling depiction of the rainbow bridge to Valhalla, that there’s any sense of the majestic or the mythic. Musically, though, it has all the right sense of scale and weight throughout – Antonio Pappano’s conducting always has the measure of both the score’s grandeur and its intimacy, and vocally the cast has no weak links. Maltman’s voice seems strikingly darker than last I heard it, Purves is as compelling a communicator as ever, each morsel of text crystal clear, and Panikkar makes every cynical aside count. Above all, though, this is a Rheingold that really makes you want to find out what is going to happen next.

Andrew Clements | 12 Sep 2023


Barrie Kosky’s Das Rheingold for the Royal Opera is a miscast, misconceived, mishmash of ideas

Watching this broadcast we were reminded it was nearly 20 years since the last Ring cycle (from Keith Warner) began with Das Rheingold and Director of Opera Oliver Mears revealed that this is a new one for the 2020s and hopefully into the 2030s (!) and they have been planning it for about six years. On the evidence of this Das Rheingold one wonders what they have been doing for all that time although they do say a camel is a horse (Grane?) designed by a committee. Mears wanted to get Barrie Kosky together with Antonio Pappano for the first time and explained how Kosky was returning to the origins of the Ring which was Greek tragedy, Greek theatre and so myth, poetry ‘the essence of what theatre is.’ He went on to say how the cast members were handpicked by both the director and conductor for not only their singing prowess but because they needed ‘strong theatre animals’. However clearly not, in my opinion, their total understanding of Wagner. His music demands dramatic truth from the singers with the emphasis on meaning and emotion. Too often in this Das Rheingold notes were sung accurately but there was a surfeit of emoting – Marina Prudenskaya as Fricka was the worst offender in this regard – and as an ensemble the cast did not do justice to Wagner and there wasn’t one who really created a believable – mythical or otherwise – character on stage. Any insight into Wagner’s less obvious musical and psychological strands of meaning and character appeared totally ignored.

Kosky who staged a Ring cycle in Hannover (2009-11) explained ‘I’m completely not doing what I did last time’ and how Rheingold ‘is that link to the Greek satyr play, you have a very large epic quality because it begins with the birth of time, or the birth of life, but once that’s done we are into a very specific domestic world here it’s a family drama.’ For Kosky, ‘it was important, I think, to find a starting point that the audience could go “Aha!”, that could develop, and that starting point for me was to actually put Erda – Mother Earth – onstage from the very beginning of the cycle. As we go through the next three instalments the audience will realise more and more what this means, that Mother Earth is dreaming so even though we tell the story of the gods and the family and then Alberich and the Rhinemaidens whatever, Mother Earth becomes an active participant in this production.’ All well and good but I would suggest that eking out the operas over four seasons demands we need to have some idea of what is going on now!

Though I doubt it very much, but the live experience may, just may, have been different in the opera house and this personal opinion of Das Rheingold could harden Kosky’s views – about opera in the cinema or online – since he recently said: ‘Livestream and television HD of opera has been one of the biggest disasters.’ I thought the exploitation of the elderly and clearly physically frail actor (the naked 82-year-old Rose Knox-Peebles) as Mother Earth was totally uncalled-for operatic voyeurism when she could be replicated by someone in a prosthetic body suit. And if this is deemed ok why does Christopher Purves as Alberich only strip to his Y-fronts (again not a pretty sight) and in the brief cross-dressing moment in his humiliation by the Rhinemaidens I am certain it is merely a prosthetic penis we see.

The artifice of theatre is on display throughout perhaps for artistic reasons or maybe due to lack of money. Initially we see right through to the back of the Royal Opera House stage with at the front is the huge, gnarled, fallen trunk of the World Ash Tree which probably died after Wotan tore a branch from it for his spear which he almost reluctantly wields during the opera. It has several knotholes large enough for characters to appear in and out from, particularly the fully-clothed Rhinemaidens at the start and later Alberich during his botched transformations into a dragon and a toad. Initially it is shrouded in black but part of it needs – remember it is 2023! – a gang of stagehands to uncover it and they will reappear on occasions to change things. Wagner might have had better stage machinery in 1876!

Before the music begins Mother Earth enters and what we see will be her reminiscences of times past – dreams are nothing new in Wagner productions – and frequently she roams around or will be spotlit on a turntable. Mother Earth only regains her dignity when briefly acting as the (clothed) servant for the gods at their post-polo match picnic. Why polo you may well ask? Apart from their riding boots it looked like a champagne-quaffing party you might see during any interval at Glyndebourne. The normal-sized Fasolt and Fafner brandish their guns and seem just a couple of cowboy builders. Worst of all is Loge with Sean Panikkar tasked with rushing around and forever cackling just like The Riddler familiar from Batman. This change of scene only needed a massive picnic blanket draping the tree trunk.

One of the most unforgivable things is that the curtain comes down between the major scenes chopping Rheingold into four parts. For the descent and ascent from Nibelheim Antonio Pappano whipped his excellent orchestra – many in T-shirts demanding fair pay – into a frenzy depicting an express lift full of ticking clocks (or so the anvils sounded in the cinema) going down and up while tempos seemed to fluctuate elsewhere. The ‘gold’ in the opening scene looked like porridge mixed with honey or golden syrup and could represent the sap from the tree or suggest oil. An ecological Ring is also nothing new! Whatever it is Alberich tastes it at one point. (Actually the gold Alberich first seizes and carries away looked like a brain in close-up.) In Nibelheim the gold is collected in buckets after being produced by a steampunk machine attached to Erda’s breasts. The Tarnhelm is part of a Halloween skull mask and – surprise, surprise – Alberich actually has a ring which eventually will be cut from his finger. The Nibelungs (played by young, masked children) have swollen disfigured heads as if the result of exposure to radiation or a genetic experiment (no explanation for this, yet). Back with the gods, a tin bath appears for Freia to be concealed by the gold and Fafner will despatch Fasolt with blows from a polo mallet. There is no rainbow bridge and the gods are now dressed as if guests at the recent ‘Vogue World’ at the start of London Fashion Week and are showered in rainbow glitter (again not a new idea) during the extended end to Das Rheingold which is totally at odds with what we had seen before.

None of this would have mattered if the voices we heard were uniformly suited for their roles. No complaints about the excellent Rhinemaidens (Katharina Konradi, Niamh O’Sullivan and Marvic Monreal) and whilst Christopher Purves first sang Alberich ten years ago, this role debut at Covent Garden sounded as if it has come a little too late for him. In general Wotan’s family members are blandly characterised by Kosky and equally blandly sung. Notably, Marina Prudenskaya’s Fricka had a hooty sound and appeared to be inhabiting an entirely different production. It is usual for there to be some chemistry between the lovelorn Fasolt and Freia but here Insung Sim and Kiandra Howarth barely reacted to one another. Best of the singers – along with the Rhinemaidens – were Brenton Ryan’s much-abused Mime, Soloman Howard’s brutal Fafner and the unseen Wiebke Lehmkuhl who sang Erda’s ‘Weiche, Wotan, Weiche!’ with a rich and wonderfully even contralto voice.

As for Wotan himself, Christopher Maltman is a sublime Lieder singer and is also a distinguished Verdi baritone but this is Wagner and his Wotan, for me, while concentrating on poetry and nuance, lacked individuality, much authority and emotional depth. Maltman’s Wotan looked and sounded a twin to Purves’s Alberich though this may well be Kosky’s idea since he will refer to himself and Alberich (in Siegfried) as ‘Licht-Alberich’ and ‘Schwarz-Alberich’.

Based on what we have seen and heard here I am not holding my breath that Kosky can bring anything revelatory to Die Walküre and anyway the year we have to wait is much too long a break between the operas.

Jim Pritchard | Covent Garden, to Cineworld Basildon, 20.9.2023


Strikingly impressive Das Rheingold from the Royal Opera House

One might argue with Covent Garden’s pre-publicity claim that this Rheingold is‘a bold new imagining’, but this first collaboration between director Barrie Kosky and conductor Anthony Pappano brings a wonderfully fertile partnership that held me in its grip throughout its 150 minutes. This new production, the first at the Royal Opera House for nearly 20 years, confirms Kosky’s credentials as a seasoned Wagnerian whose experience until now has been acquired in Germany variously at the Staatsoper Hannover, Bayreuth and Berlin’s Komishe Oper. But he’s also a director with form in the UK – his 2018 Carmen at this address brought mixed reactions, while his Dialogues des Carmélites at Glyndebourne earlier this summer has been much admired. Whether radical or provocative, Kosky probes new ideas, creates fresh insights and rarely follows a conventional path.

This first instalment of Wagner’s entire Ring cycle, to be completed in 2027, dispenses with any mythical Nordic landscape. There are no watery scenes evoking the Rhine, nor do we encounter videoed images of Valhalla. Instead, this Rheingold opts for a more stripped-down approach and is neatly devised by set designer Rufus Didwiszus. Dominating each scene are the ruins of the ‘world ash tree’ sprawled across the stage like a helpless beast, its outstretched lower trunk seemingly grasping for survival. From its gnarled body the Rhinemaidens emerge to tease Alberich, while liquid gold leaks from a sewer-like opening in its flank. By the time we reach the subterranean Nibelheim, a Heath Robinson style steam machine (though nothing remotely cartoonish) pumps gold from the tree’s roots to project an utterly monstrous image. It’s clear this production is an unambiguous warning about mankind’s destructive powers and a cri de coeur towards the violation of our world’s natural resources.

Silently observing these events, and arguably Kosky’s finest interpretative moment, is the figure of the Earth goddess Erda – a frail old woman, entirely naked, whose compelling performance is taken on opening night by the 82-year-old model Rose Knox-Peebles. Even before the first stirrings of the Rhine music, she appears as a haunting presence creeping across the bare stage as if in a reverie, a gesture of despair as she hides her face in her hands as she sees or recollects the world’s desecration. Is she dreaming or reminiscing? Kosky explained in the souvenir programme that he ‘wanted to explore the idea that we are watching the dreams and hallucinations and visions of Mother Earth’. With his comment that Erda is ‘dreaming our story’, this Rheingold is no longer merely a mythological tale concerning power and love, betrayal and greed, but becomes a more personal narrative. Whatever Kosky’s intention, the use of a mainly mute Erda is a striking conceit. Wiebke Lehmkuhl sings the designated role offstage with great distinction while simultaneously the silent Erda wraps herself around Wotan in a plea for him to surrender the ring torn earlier from Alberich’s finger.

This is one of several visually arresting moments. Others include the deformed heads of the child slave workers transporting buckets of gold, the Goldfinger-like immersion of Freia in a tin bath as payment to the Giants and, in the final scene, the overlong confetti rainbow indicating the God’s arrival at Valhalla. I found this surfeit of glitter over grandeur overdone, when surely the music conjures something stately. Not was I entirely convinced about the polo party scene where a lavish picnic is laid out for Wotan’s family all curiously dressed in Edwardian attire by Victoria Behr. That said, it brings a lighter touch before the giants kidnap Freia.

Designs and costumes aside, what really lifts this Rheingold is the standard of acting and singing, with many of the cast new to their roles. Each performance is vividly projected with a star turn coming from Christopher Maltman as an urbane and sonorous Wotan. Until recently associated as a lieder singer, he has acquired considerable power and authority necessary for this role. Christopher Purves as Alberich is no less persuasive vocally, and despite his single-minded ambition and warmth of tone he contrives, albeit unwittingly, to sound almost amiable. Throughout his humiliations at the hand of the Rhinemaidens and then Wotan, one cannot help feeling some sympathy for him. Sean Panikkar’s cackling Loge grows in stature, and he makes the most of the stage with his pirouetting to create a truly unsettling character.

Elsewhere, Brenton Ryan’s grumbling Mime, Marina Prudenskaya’s haughty Fricka and Kiandra Howarth’s anxious Freia are vividly portrayed and all sing with lustrous tone. Strong impressions are also created by Insung Kim’s Fasolt and Soloman Howard’s Fafner, while Kostas Smoriginas (Donner) and Rodrick Dixon (Froh) are equally assured. So too are the well-balanced trio of Rhinemaidens: Katharina Konradi, Niamh O’Sullivan and Marvic Monreal. In the pit Antonio Pappano creates an impressive ebb and flow in his handling of the score, maintaining an ideal balance and coaxing fine playing from the players of the Royal Opera House. Both this initial performance and production bodes well for the rest of the cycle.

David Truslove | Royal House Opera, Covent Garden, London; 11th September 2023

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kBit/s CBR, 48.0 kHz, 356 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast (BBC 3, delayed broadcast 7 October 2023)
A production by Barrie Kosky (2023)