An earthy, austere Ring

  • Themes: Culture

Barrie Kosky’s highly anticipated Ring Cycle opens with a Rheingold that turns the focus onto Erda, the earth mother, the work’s presiding presence.

Opera House – in pictures Das Rheingold directed by Barrie Kosky for the Royal Opera. Photograph: Monika Rittershaus/Royal Opera House
Das Rheingold directed by Barrie Kosky for the Royal Opera. Photograph: Monika Rittershaus/Royal Opera House

Arguably the most important figure in Das Rheingold, Richard Wagner’s preliminary evening of the Ring Cycle, is not usually on the stage for long. Erda, the weary, gnarled earth mother, who has seen it all, who knows what has been, what is and will be, often emerges from within the earth itself, for a brief moment, to warn Wotan, father of the gods, of the fatal power of the Ring. Not so in Barrie Kosky’s new production, the beginning of another Ring Cycle at the Royal Opera House, to be unveiled over the next three years. Erda is visibly present from the off, wizened, despairing at the state of the earth, in a remarkable and gracefully brave performance by 82-year-old Rose Knox-Peebles – and voiced by Wiebke Lehmkuhl – who but for a brief episode in a maid’s outfit, is naked throughout the two-and-a-half hour performance. Her constant presence roots the production in the eternal, the cyclical and recurrent, echoed in the writings of those philosophers – Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche and, above all, Schopenhauer – most influential on Wagner’s complex, problematic and ultimately inexhaustible world view which informs his great epic drama.

The Australian Kosky is very much the man of the moment, and his partnership with conductor Antonio Pappano, for whom this Ring is his luxurious Covent Garden swansong, is a fruitful if flawed one, met with an ecstatic reception by the opening night’s audience. The production is explicitly an act of redemption – another central theme of Wagner’s work – for Kosky’s Ring debut in Hanover in 2009, which the director regards as catastrophic – and has not been afraid to say so. The set, by Rufus Didwiszus, is stark, dominated by a seemingly carbonised World Ash Tree – environmental themes abound, as they do in Wagner – from which emerge the three Rhinemaidens, in tight Gothy lace, to humiliate – by very starkly exposing – the dwarf Alberich, portrayed with rich complexity, and no little humanity, by Christopher Purves, who flees with their precious Ring.

As we await the appearance of Valhalla, home of the gods, built by the giants Fasolt and Fafner, we meet one of the flaws of the production: the perfunctory nature of the transformation scenes, from the Rhine to Valhalla, from Valhalla to Nibelheim – Alberich’s subterranean realm, peopled with grotesque child slaves – and back again. Kosky makes do with the house curtains falling and rising between scenes, which halts the drama somewhat. We expect more from him.

When Valhalla is unveiled, the gods are a cross between German junkers and the Windsors (not so far apart), the women with headscarves, the men brandishing croquet mallets, which turn out to be lethal. The Wotan of Christopher Maltman, new to this part, is a revelation, and promises much for the future of this cycle. Lyrical, without being too light, befitting of a celebrated lieder singer, his acting is exemplary, as is his diction, a feature of this production. Not least when he cuts the Ring – and the finger that bears it – off Alberich, captured in NIbelheim as he demonstrates the Tarnhelm manufactured by his unfortunate brother Mime – a superb performance by Brenton Ryan. Wotan revels wildly in the power the Ring bestows on him, albeit briefly. Wotan’s wife Fricka is a steely, seductive Marina Prudenskaya – one looks forward to her development in Die Walkure. Perhaps the night’s only disappointment is Loge, Wotan’s mercurial, demigod companion, who is too knowing; Sean Pannikar’s energetic performance, relished by the audience, offers little sign of the thinking on his feet that marks the best characterisations of the role, whose influence persists, via Wagner’s fiery leitmotif, to the end of the cycle, despite Loge’s lack of physical presence after Rheingold.

The gold, over which Alberich, Wotan and the giants contest, is a yellowy, sickly effluent, a corrupting poison at the heart of the drama. It is a strikingly original coup by Kosky, though the gods’ return to Valhalla, following the murder of the giant Fasolt by his brother Fafner – to whom the Ring has passed – owes more than a passing resemblance to the recent, acclaimed production at English National Opera, tinsel falling from the ceiling, hit with the colours of the rainbow. It remains striking for all that. And orchestrally, the climax of Das Rheingold surpassed its beginning – the emergence of the E flat motif that embodies the Rhine and opens the cycle came too quickly for me – where was the barely audible rumble? Perhaps we were too focused on Erda.

Das Rheingold is at the Royal Opera House, London until 29 September.


Paul Lay