The Rhinegold/ENO, The Coliseum, London<br></br>La bohÿme, Royal Albert Hall, London

Boozy bankers. Can it be Wagner?
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The Independent Culture

Everyone wants English National Opera to succeed. Gubbay or no Gubbay, it does more for access and affordability than any other London company. Pappano or no Pappano, it still has the better track-record in experimental productions of unusual repertoire. Power-house or poor-house, people love the Coliseum. Which is why even those reviewers barred from the first performance will be generous when writing about The Rhinegold, which opened last Friday after an embarrassing series of postponements and cancellations.

As the first part of ENO's first Ring Cycle for 30 years, and the first production in their newly-refurbished home, much depends on the success of The Rhinegold. Too much, perhaps. Some £41m has been spent on improving the public areas of a theatre that lacks adequate storage facilities, while the hiring and firing of Sean Doran and Nicholas Payne, the industrial action of the chorus, an unfortunate string of critical and popular flops, the semi-resignation of Paul Daniel and the abrupt cancellation of Nixon in China have zeroed Oscar Wilde's one-liner that "there is no such thing as bad publicity". For cast, director, conductor and orchestra then, The Rhinegold is forced to defend the dubious wisdom of launching a Ring Cycle that will, on completion in 2005, be running head to head with that of the Royal Opera House and pushed into the unpleasant position of single-handedly justifying public investment in ENO.

Is it fair for one production to be carrying so much excess baggage? No. Is it right that a critic should be swayed by any of these factors when writing about it? Again, no. So bear with me while I attempt the zen-like objectivity of a reviewer arriving at the Coliseum for a new production by a happy and prosperous company with no managerial controversies and no need to defend its artistic and social manifesto in the advent of a third London opera house. See the new loos! Admire the smart uniforms! Feel that business-class leg-room! Brush the carpet-fibres from your hems! And remember the one mitigating factor that is, under the terms offered to critics whose deadlines prevented them covering the second performance of The Rhinegold, essential to this review: lack of stage-time.

To the great credit of director Phyllida Lloyd, lack of stage-time - which is to say lack of rehearsal time in the Coliseum itself - had little obvious effect on the theatrical elements of the first performance of The Rhinegold. The physical and facial acting of the cast was largely excellent, Simon Mills's lighting relishably sharp, and give or take a few Sweeney-esque shouts of "Now!" and "Move it!" from the stage-crew, Richard Hudson's sets looked variously handsome, witty, clever and silly in much the sequence one imagines they were intended. Wagner's hierarchy is translated here through a three-tier letter-box format that has the gods as politicos in an executive apartment, the Rhinemaidens (Linda Richardson, Stephanie Marshall and Ethna Robinson) as pole-dancers in a glittering dive, Mime (John Graham-Hall) in an underground laboratory of the type frequented by Peter Lorre, and the gold pumped through tubes like cellulite in a liposuction procedure. This is NSM - or Non Specific Modern - Wagner: a chain of familiar visual tropes distorted through off-kilter proportions and unfamiliar contexts. Hence Wotan (Robert Hayward) and his family are leaving a home that is - with its surreally low door-jambs - too cramped for them. Hence Fricka (Susan Parry) packs her old clothes into a charity collection bag. (And what fun the crew must have in selecting which charity to use.) Hence Fasolt (Iain Paterson) and Fafner (Gerard O'Connor) are boozy bankers on the last train to Beckenham.

So far, so accessible. But I wonder whether accessibility has gone too far? In the flat vernacular of Jeremy Sams's translation we get greed rather than hubris. And for all the fun with frogs and screwdrivers, one presidential photo-opportunity on a cloud-borne rope-bridge - think Primary Colours meets Indiana Jones meets Mary Poppins - does not a magical landscape make. The comparison with Tim Albery's Scottish Opera production, which played on domestic and cinematic imagery with more sophistication, is an unfavourable one thus far. (And questions still remain over Arts Council policies that prevent any venue south of Liverpool from hosting Albery's Ring Cycle.) Less favourable still is a musical comparison of the two. Even allowing for lack of stage-time - which must have distracted the singers a great deal - something is awry if Loge (Tom Randle) can steal the show from Wotan and Alberich (Andrew Shore) quite so comprehensively. Hayward and Shore may develop vocal authority and character across the Ring but among the cast they were only the most obvious examples of singers forced into generalism through panic. No such excuses for the orchestra - who've played each part at the Barbican and seem not to have improved one jot - and no excuses for Paul Daniel, who conducts well enough with better orchestras but still seems incapable of producing as good a sound as guest conductors do with his own. Though the roar of the crowd was far stronger than the smell of new paint at curtain-call, Rhinegold needs more work and it isn't just a question of stage-time.

Five weeks and counting until Savoy Opera opens for business. But however entertaining the idea of rival sopranos screeching Es in alt across the Aldwych may be, I don't buy the notion of impending "opera wars." Comparing ENO's programme with that of the Savoy is not comparing like with like, and the "look what Glyndebourne achieve without public subsidy" yadda-yadda is irrelevant to all but the Royal Opera House. No, the closest parallel here is Opera North - a company whose balance of invention and tradition seems ideal - and they're several hundred miles away, so I wouldn't be too concerned about Raymond Gubbay's target-audience if I were ENO. Unless, that is, Francesca Zambello were in charge.

Zambello's post-war production of La bohème - currently playing at the Royal Albert Hall under the Gubbay aegis - is a model of what can be done in a difficult venue. To be sure, the combination of unhelpful acoustics, a massive arena, and closely microphoned voices and orchestra makes this show a less than glorious aural experience. Theatrically, however, it combines intimacy, simplicity and spectacle to great effect. The relationships between the four starving artists (Peter Wedd, Grant Doyle, Wyn Pencarreg and Dean Robinson) are more tenderly drawn here than in any other production I've seen, while Mary Plazas captures Mimi's conflicted personality with astonishing sensitivity. A production that can use space this confidently while providing central performances worthy of the closest camera-work is a rare thing indeed and far too good to be cordoned-off from the cognoscenti.

'The Rhinegold': English National Opera (020 7632 8300), to 19 March. 'La bohème': Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (020 7838 3100), to Saturday