MUSIC / A child's view of Wagner's cosmic panto: Das Rheingold - Royal Opera House

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The Independent Culture
And so it begins again. A single E-flat stirring in the lower depths of string basses, a haunting motif breaking in one horn and then another and another until eight are heard in majestic undulation. The Rhine, the Rhinemaidens, the Rhinegold, the curse, the gods, giants, dwarfs. Wagner's cosmic pantomime looks towards the millennium, and at Covent Garden, in the last new staging this century, producer Richard Jones and designer Nigel Lowery take us by the hand. Literally. Prepare to be a child again, prepare to shed all preconceptions, but don't expect to be awed by what you see. In an age of video games and virtual reality, the first instalment of this new Ring is decidedly low-tech. It's back to the playpen, folks.

The front cloth provides your first clue. A cheerfully nave contemporary painting, a child's view of man and beast in a hostile world. And you know straight away that Jones likes to turn things on their head when he chooses to open the proceedings by lowering rather than raising it. Jones is naturally capricious. His is a quirky, sometimes infantile imagination. He enjoys pulling the rug from beneath big ideas, cutting them down to size, taking them as he finds them. But then, part of the wonder of The Ring is this heady mix of innocence and high-flown philosophy. And you should never underestimate Jones. The best cartoonists are the sharpest intellects. His ideas may be cute, sometimes misguided, often crudely executed, but there's always a compelling reason for them.

As if to underline those elements of possession and greed so central to Wagner's myth, the Rhine here has a human form, a human waterline. Blue figures traverse a curved plateau bathed alternately in purple, lime green, orange light. These are Jones's colours. The Rhinemaidens (newborn babes, all three) are plumped out in Rubenesque second-skins, as much an allusion to their 'lewd bathing' as to the traditional shape of Wagnerian sopranos. Alberich is 'an operator', a used-car salesman in an Arthur Daley hat and deep-sea diving flippers. And the Rhinegold: that is symbolised as a golden slipper - a flimsy pantomime allusion, but one that carries unexpected weight when Alberich, having renounced love, brutally asserts lust and rips his prize from its owner. On the threshold of Valhalla (all we see of it is a giant red chimney pot), you know you are on the roof of the world because a jet plane passes by, and never mind the rainbow bridge, these foolish gods blindly, excitedly follow the star - a Christian symbol making for a nice twist at the close.

The best thing about this is the clarity of thought and motivation, beautifully articulated by a stellar cast (honorary mentions for Ekkehard Wlaschiha's incisive Alberich and Robert Tear's deftly sung Loge, more on others anon). The worst thing is the paltriness of the theatricality. It's a narrow line that runs between nave charm and downright hokeyness. Events on stage are as yet pulling too strenuously against, even belittling the magnificence of the narrative unfolding in the orchestra under Bernard Haitink. The humans take the stage in Die Walkure Let's see if they bring more heart and weight to the proceedings.

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