OPERA: Das Rheingold; Muziektheater, Amsterdam

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The Independent Culture
The E flat of the Ring's opening welled up out of total darkness, even in the pit. Then a small light appeared, not on stage but at the end of the conductor's baton. Gradually, as the Rhine began to flow, the pit was lit up, section by section, while the stage remained in darkness. A magical effect, the first of many from the lighting designer Wolfgang Gobbel. Characteristically, it illuminated the music.

Pierre Audi's new production of the Ring in Amsterdam breaks with the stage tradition Wagner himself initiated, of the invisible orchestra. In the Muziektheater's contorted space, the pit is always open but, as in the Monteverdi cycle, it is here encircled by a walkway. This is used to great effect for scenes such as Alberich's curse and Erda's intervention (Anne Gjevang on magnificent form). The Residentie Orchestra's performance was distinguished more by occasional excellence (eg the feather passage heralding Freia's return) than by a sense of the score's architecture. Overall, it sounded pallid: the Nibelung terror made no impact at all. On the other hand, as it were, conductor Hartmut Haenchen does collaborate: he used his left hand to incarnate Alberich-as-a-frog, while continuing to conduct with his right.

George Tsypin's stage was dominated by two large platforms suspended at an angle in the air, one opaque, one transparent and made of plastic- covered glass. When the excellent Rhinedaughters ran on to the latter, apparently floating in mid-air, the audience held their breath. Their games with the formidable Alberich of Henk Smit, swollen-headed and clad in a dirty mac, had great spirit. The pace slowed in the first gods' scene. A screen at the back showed video projections (arbitrary, enlarged details of the stage action and repetitive sequences of chains in slow motion). There was also little sense of a marriage between Fricka (Reinhild Runkel) and the Wotan of John Brocheler, who will doubtless flesh out the character in the later works. Carola Hohn as Freia, Jurgen Freier as Donner and Albert Bonnema as Froh sang their solo moments well, but all the gods were impeded by Eiko Ishioka's luxuriantly pleated costumes. Presumably they were meant to suggest a decadent nobility, salon samurai. Unfortunately, voluminous sleeves encouraged them all to indulge in swooshy operatic gestures. They used to be known as "cloak business". The first-rate Giants (Peter Mikulas as Fasolt and Carsten Stabell as Fafner) wore bulbous, mud-caked skin outfits. The Nibelungs' costumes seemed more arbitrary - the oppressed mass comprised faceless ET clones, but for some reason Mime was a scaly, hairy bug. Thankfully, the ever resourceful Graham Clark made Mime entirely his own. Loge, a camp, bald, epicene figure in black, fretfully manipulating a length of silk, was faintly reminiscent of Leigh Bowery. Chris Merritt became steadily more convincing and authoritative in the role. It's sometimes given to faded tenors, and proves a revelation sung in bel canto style with immaculate articulation.

Das Rheingold is notoriously hard to stage on its own, since it needs to anticipate what comes later. On this showing, Amsterdam's new Ring has begun very promisingly: the crucial architecture is already in place. Die Walkure follows in January.

Further performances: 11, 14, 17, 20, 26 Sept, Waterlooplein 22, 1011 PG Amsterdam (+31 20 625 54 55)

Antony Peattie