Between the Rhine and Valhalla

Wagner’s work glimmers in an 18-karat production: A Review of Barrie Kosky’s “Das Rheingold”

Royal Opera House audiences have been greeted with the first in a complete cycle of Richard Wagner’s “Ring” tetralogy due to conclude in 2027, an ambitious undertaking of Das Rheingold. The prospect is certainly an intriguing one. In the director’s chair is Barrie Kosky, whose work across opera, theatre, and operetta has given him a distinctive, if not always traditional, operatic style. Conducting is Antonio Pappano, whose track record promises a certain level of assurance. While the production aims for the stratosphere, it doesn’t always fully transcend its earthly confines – a perfectly commendable, albeit not flawless, start to what promises to be a memorable journey through Wagner’s mythological landscape.

This is more than just an opera; it is the gateway to one of the most audacious and monumental works of art ever conceived, the Ring cycle. Comprising four operas and intended to be performed over several days, the Ring cycle has shaped modern perceptions of opera, mythology, and the very act of artistic creation. Wagner takes his audience on an epic journey through a world of gods, giants, and dwarves, exploring themes of power, sacrifice, and destiny.

“Das Rheingold” serves as both a prologue and a microcosm of the vast thematic canvas that Wagner sets out to explore in the entire Ring. At its core, it delves into the profound implications of power and ambition. Its narrative centers around a golden ring, a seemingly simple object that nevertheless harbors the capacity for immense power. But this power is not without a price; it demands a forsaking of love and moral qualms, posing questions about the cost of ambition and the boundaries we will cross for the sake of supremacy.
The story begins on the banks of the Rhine, where the Rhinemaidens guard the precious, titular gold.

Alberich, a Nibelung dwarf, renounces love to steal this gold, forging it into a ring that grants its possessor immense power. This act sets off a series of events involving Wotan, the king of the gods, and Loge, the trickster god of fire. Together, they descend into Nibelheim, Alberich’s realm, to seize the ring and the gold. Wotan uses this treasure to pay the giants Fasolt and Fafner, who have constructed the gods’ new fortress, Valhalla, and taken goddess of love Freia as ransom. However, surrendering the ring comes at a terrible cost, cursed as it is to bring misery and death to its possessors, imbuing the gods’ entry into Valhalla with a sense of foreboding which foreshadows the tragedies to unfold in the rest of the cycle.

Readers unfamiliar with Richard Wagner may recognize the similarities with J.R.R. Tolkien’s work. Each delves into the theme of the corrupting force of power, symbolized by a coveted ring. While Tolkien denied any direct influence from Wagner, both mined the same mythological source material of medieval Germanic texts which themselves told of much older stories.

It is productive to understand Wagner in relation to ancient Greece. His concept of the “Gesamtkunstwerk” or “total work of art” drew inspiration from ancient Greek tragedies. In Wagner’s view, ancient Greek drama represented an ideal fusion of music, poetry, and dance into a unified and transcendent art form. The Greeks, especially during their festivals like the Dionysia, combined these artistic elements in service of both communal and religious experiences. Wagner aspired to recreate this synthesis, but updated for his contemporary, German, audience.

The Rhine, serving as the opening setting of the opera, is not merely a river but a symbol of Germany itself. This idea finds an echo in Hölderlin’s poem ‘The Rhine’, where the river becomes not just a landscape but a spiritually potent force, and humble Germany possessing a profundity on par with that of Greece.
Within this symbolic tableau, Wagner’s Rhinemaidens serve as guardian-naiads of the Rhinegold, singing its praises. In this imagery of bright laughter dancing over the waves, Wagner may have consciously sought to emulate Aeschylus’ own reference to the “uncountable laughter” of ocean waves shimmering in the sun:

“Rhine-gold, Rhine-gold! Radiant joy,
thou laughest in glorious light!
Glistening beams thy splendor shoots forth o’er
the waves!”

(„Rheingold! Rheingold! Leuchtende Lust,
wie lach’st du so hell und hehr!
Glühender Glanz entgleißet dir weihlich im Wag!“)

Barrie Kosky’s “Das Rheingold”, Royal Opera House

When we get to Kosky’s actual staging, however, it is not a river but a tree that most commands our attention – a huge dead “world ash tree” which the Norse called Yggdrasil. Present throughout the performance and morphing to suit the various scenes, this is our main visual anchor. This tree is the ethereal playground of the Rhinemaidens, who torment Alberich as they scamper teasingly in black lace, going in and out of the trunk. A blanket is strewn across it, picnic-like, in the gods’ mountain summit. In the grim realm of Nibelheim, it becomes a hellish forge.

Amidst this backdrop stands Erda, who remains a constant, unsettling presence. An ancient, chthonic mother-goddess with a warning, a voice from pre-Aryan Europe. She is, until the end, ignored and compromised: naked, a servant, and in one scene biomechanically bound into a fearsome milking contraption. In a contemporary reading, her neglect is a simple ecological metaphor. But in the end, it’s this relic of the deep before-times who finally persuades Wotan to part with the cursed ring. The longhouse vindicated?

The treatment of the gold itself, bright and molten and carried in buckets, works well. This choice pays dividends when Freia is subsequently smothered in it in a tub. The deployment of lighting accentuates this, the stage awash in golden hues during key moments and with a theatrical use of spotlights a few times too.

The vocal performances are nothing short of exceptional. Christopher Maltman’s Wotan is authoritative and commanding, embodying the stentorian patriarch to the hilt. Alongside him, Sean Panikkar’s Loge offers a model of athletic vigor, leaping and frolicking without any compromise to vocal quality. Pappano’s orchestration is a triumph, injecting a vigor into Wagner’s score and making the game of leitmotif-spotting as exciting as it should be. Of the few sonic weak spots, one was Soloman Howard’s (Fafner) German diction, which left something to be desired.

Costumes tread a familiar path, cleaving to the trend of putting characters in a vaguely besuited 20th-century-to-contemporary aesthetic: see Wotan, Fricka and co in aristocratic poise, as if they’d just returned from a reunion at an alpine boarding school, and Loge and Alberich in simple black. This is an animated performance, which between the darts of light, flows of gold, and puffs of smoke always has something happening visually. The acting is equally energetic and grabs our attention in all the right ways.

This being said, Kosky’s playfulness is sometimes overindulgent. At the beginning and end of the performance, backstage elements are made visible – a breaking of the fourth wall by way of the first wall, so to speak – in a way that feels out of place. Panikkar’s Loge, although deftly acted, at times stretches expressiveness to the brink of comedy. Something similar could be said of Alberich’s sexual humiliation at the hands of the Rhinemaidens or indeed the tottering masked children playing Nibelheim’s dwarves. Compare this with Kosky’s 2017 staging of another Wagner work, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, at Bayreuth, which took a nominal comedy and made it rather more slapstick than Wagner would have conceived.

While Kosky’s direction is undeniably bold, there seems to be a cautiousness, almost a skittishness, in fully grappling with Wagner’s eternal, otherworldly ambitions. It’s as though he sidesteps the daunting depths of the material. While he dares to innovate, he appears less willing to dare the gravitas and metaphysical earnestness that this work demands for a truly transformative experience, though this is hardly an issue unique to this one director.

The final scene in Kosky’s staging, in which masses of stage snow fall to depict a rainbow bridge to Valhalla, was memorable and had more than a touch of the sublime to it. It is a shame then that the production should hover on the precipice of the profound without ever making the fateful leap. Nevertheless, this is a thoroughly enjoyable production which bodes well for a Ring cycle that should satisfy both Wagner enthusiasts and newcomers alike.

★★★★☆

John Smoke is the pseudonym of a writer from London.


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