Keith Warner's arresting production of Wagner's Das Rheingold last night launched the Royal Opera House's new The Ring cycle to a predictable volley of cheers (90 per cent) and jeers (10 per cent) from the capacity audience. Inspired by the films of Orson Wells, Fritz Lang and Ingmar Bergman, and designed by Stefanos Lazaridis, Warner's lavish staging boasts an ambitious central coup de théâtre, a surprising degree of black humour, slapstick, sexual violence, and imagery that recalls the pseudo-scientific medical experiments of B movie nightmares.
Viewed as a conservative director in the German opera houses where he mostly works, Warner is here regarded as something of a radical. Das Rheingold is only his second production for Covent Garden, and though traditionalists will dislike the more graphic aspects of his interpretation, this is less shocking a production than that of his predecessor, Richard Jones, 10 years ago.
For the musical director, Antonio Pappano, a close friend and frequent collaborator with Warner, Das Rheingold is the boldest gesture yet in his ongoing campaign to revitalise Covent Garden. Under Pappano, the orchestra of the Royal Opera House has gone from being among the world's greatest opera orchestras to being arguably the finest. Last night's transparent and intimate account of the Prelude was the stuff of dreams.
Despite technical hitches with the hydraulics, this was a stunning opening night. For Bryn Terfel, the Welsh baritone who makes his Royal debut as the doomed god Wotan, it was also a career-defining performance. Terfel's Wotan has been eagerly anticipated in the opera world, and though his voice is still light for this most demanding role, his natural affinity with the German language and ease of communication makes for a compelling, lyrical and sympathetic portrait of Wagner's anti-hero.
As Wotan's wife, Fricka, mezzo-soprano Rosalind Plowright gives an edgy, dramatically convincing performance, marred only slightly by wide vibrato. Philip Langridge's Loge underlines Covent Garden's obvious advantage in securing high-profile singers for even the relatively minor roles, while the lissom Rhinemaidens - Sarah Fox, Heather Shipp and Liora Grodnikaite - blend exquisitely as a trio. But it is Günter von Kannen's rageful, bitter Alberich and Gerhard Siegel's cowering Mime that dominates this production and promises most for the subsequent operas in this Ring cycle.
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