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Wotan builds his dream house

01/26/2001 -  and 30 January, 2, 6 February 2001
Richard Wagner: The Rhinegold
Matthew Best (Wotan), Leslie John Flanagan (Donner), Rhys Meirion (Froh), Susan Parry (Fricka), Orla Boylan (Freia), Tom Randle (Loge), Patricia Bardon (Erda), Andrew Shore (Alberich), John Graham-Hall (Mime), Mark Richardson (Fasolt), Stephen Richardson (Fafner), Linda Richardson (Woglinde), Christine Rice (Wellgunde), Rebecca de Pont Davies (Flosshilde)

ENO Orchestra
Paul Daniel (conductor)

The ENO's concert performances of The Rhinegold, in a new English translation by Jeremy Sams, are the first step towards a fully staged Ring cycle in 2005. Sung mainly by ENO regulars, few of them with much of a track record in Wagner, it turned out to be a fascinating start. The benefits of a house company, of casting for dramatic appropriateness as well as voice, and of starting by getting into the music, were all obvious.

The concert performance was actually at least semi-staged, on a shallow platform apparently made from bits of last season's scaffolding, plus a few blocks. A lighting designer, Marian Staal, was credited, but no stage director unless that was the job the "co-ordinator" Michael Walling did. There were black flats behind the platform, with a full length space between that was lit to reflect the setting -- dark for wherever the gods are pre-Valhalla, blue for the Rhine and red for Nibelheim. The singers wore heavily adapted black concert dress, with quite a few garments recognisable from other ENO productions. They sang direct to the audience and mostly downstage, but acting, and moved around as if in a staged production when not singing. So Mime acted being beaten up on one side of the stage while Alberich acted beating him up from the other. This turned out to be very effective, partly because all the singers could act. The singers managed to provide the essentials of a visual drama without the overhead of dealing with the scenery and effects, and they were able to concentrate on the music.

Paul Daniels and the orchestra in turn concentrated on the drama of the music, from the opening crescendo from silence and the submerged-sounding Wagner tubas onwards. The Disneyesque pictorial elements were all there, but somehow nothing seemed pre-determined. The Rhine, and everything else in the universe, was powerful precisely because it was unpredictable. In fact, if the ENO has a musical house style for Wagner, it could be the highly charged presence in a moment that could vanish or go on indefinitely that Daniel at times got out of the orchestra. Mark Elder's Parsifal two years ago was even more druggy in effect. Then as well the drama benefited. But Nicholas Lehnhof's humane drama might not have been Wagner's, whereas tonight's definitely was.

The company for the complete Ring will obviously develop depending on the availability of the singers and the director's choices. But this group would form an excellent starting point. The Rhine-daughters all had potential as Valkyries. Both Christine Rice and Rebecca du Pont Davies demonstrated how sexy true mezzos can be in their music, liquid and elemental without a trace of operetta naughtiness. Linda Richardson was equally alluring as the soprano girlie. Susan Parry was perhaps a socialite Fricka, high-class horsy rather than air-headed, mainly concerned with moving into her des res and not making a connection between that and Wotan's treatment of her sister. Orla Boylan was a lovely, suitably earth-motherly Freia, and Patricia Bardon a luscious Erda.

Matthew Best was an unpleasant a Wotan as you would hope not to meet, slimy and twisted. He sings incredibly loudly, with some haywire pitches and not a lot of focus. While his dramatic presence and his ability to sing the music are unarguable, he's the one performer in this group who you might want to see replaced. But Best has Wotan stamped on his forehead. The other men, in contrast, were unlikely but in the event terrific. Best of all was Andrew Shore as Alberich. Centred and good-looking, he was surprisingly far more attractive than Wotan. He managed to suggest a low-life streak that made you think of a high-class London criminal from one of this year's movies. He doesn't have a lot of voice, but he knows exactly how to use what he has. He produced a few passages of near Sprechstimme in the first scene, but moved fully into the music as Alberich's sense of his own power grew. If Shore had a lot more voice, it would be very interesting for him and Best to swap roles.

Tom Randle as Loge was also quite outstanding, more outwardly theatrical than the other singers. He adopted a west-coast character, somewhere between John Adams the composer and an über-geek with designer specs, full of laid-back double talk. He made Jeremy Sams' excellent text extremely funny.

John Graham-Hall was a vulnerable Mime, promising to be very funny as the neurotic parent of Siegfried. Two Richardsons were a plausible pair of giants, Mark Richardson as Fasolt quite lyrical on the subject of Freia, Stephen Richardson as Fafner initially bovine and apparently barely sentient, but smouldering slowly up to the shock of his murder of Fasolt.

The audience in the Coliseum was entranced throughout. You never felt that it would be nice to have a break. Though it seems a bit unfair of Wagner to sit everybody down for two and a half hours and then begin with the sound of running water.

H.E. Elsom



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