Farce, then tragedy
09/03/2003 - and 30 October
Richard Wagner: Das Rheingold
Inka Rinn (Woglinde), Marianne Andersen (Wellgunde), Leah Marian Jones (Flosshilde), Peter Sidhom (Alberich), Anne Mason (Fricka), Matthew Best (Wotan), Rachel Hynes (Freia), Carsten Stabell (Fasolt), Markus Hollop (Fafner), Matthew Elton Thomas (Froh), Michael Druiett (Donner), Peter Bronder (Loge), Alasdair Elliott (Mime), Mary Phillips (Erda)
Scottish National Opera orchestra
Richard Armstrong (conductor), Tim Albery (director)
It seems to be a law of nature (in the United Kingdom at least) that an opera company in crisis should do a Ring. Bernard Haitink conducted an exhilarating, skin-of-the-teeth cycle for The Royal Opera in the wilderness, and as it appeared in extremis, at the Albert Hall and in Birmingham in 1998; the English National Opera is effectively selling tickets to orchestral rehearsals, with a promising cast, for a cycle to be directed by Deborah Warner in 2005, while its board and staff are at loggerheads about its future. The Scottish National Opera has a simpler but no more tractable problem: it is running out of money. Perhaps it is a wish, if you have to go, to go down in style, a gesture of "Après moi, le deluge".
Yet the Ring is an impossibly expensive endeavour, even with the well-chosen local casts favoured by the ENO and SNO. It needs a massive orchestra, three of its four segments last more than five hours, and all four involve cosmic spectacles of fire or water. Wagner's desire for complete control of his audience's perceptions in the theatre foreshadows the labour intensity of the movies, as well as the audience's experience of them, but requires a new performance for every audience. And any production is doomed, if not to fail, then to fall short of the expectations of the paying customers. People who shell out for tickets and organize their lives to fit in a normal length opera without an interval and three long evenings within a week or two have to be obsessed. A part of the problem is that although the Ring can (like the Homeric poems) be seen as a comic strip, a series of episodes, perhaps without ideological coherence, linked by the involvement of already-mythic gods and heroes who have modern-looking personal problems, its role as the source of actual comic strips gives it a specious authority as "real" myth. Wagner's ambition and the inherent excess of opera combine to demand the sublime in every performance, and the risk of bathos is never far away.
The SNO's Ring visibly spares as many expenses as possible: each part has a single sparse set, designed by Hildegard Bechtler, and costumes, designed by Ana Jebens, are near-everyday dress. But from the opening moments of Rheingold in the Theatre Royal it was clear that rehearsal and ingenuity hadn't been stinted. Both the focus of the orchestra and the starry night-sky curtain suggested the inner force of myth rather than the external decor. The orchestral remained magical throughout, suggesting Wagner as the begetter of Zemlinsky and Mahler (and Disney's soundtracks), without either cuteness or bombast. The staging presented the work as it were literally, with waves for the Rhine, Wotan and Fricka asleep on a massive rock, and a cavernous workshop for Alberich's Nibelungs.
The singers projected clear-cut characters, not quite human on the whole but recognizable. Anne Mason's Fricka was both the discontented wife of a plutocrat and a controlling force of nature, and Matthew Best's Wotan the embodiment of power, determined to act with determination but without a real clue what he should do. Peter Sidhom's Alberich moved from sweaty confusion under the stimulus of three very naughty Rhinemaidens to embodied greed and ambition. Peter Bronder was a striking, unpleasant Loge in nasty casual wear and a synthetic-looking blond wig -- everything that is wrong with modernity in a nutshell. Alasdair Elliott's nerdy Mime was nearly brilliant being beaten up by the invisible Alberich, and promised a treat in Siegfried. The other gods and giants were similarly well-designed.
Rheingold is in a way fairly easy -- it is a lowish comedy of ideas (not a million miles from Mephisto's dealings with wealth and money in Faust) that doesn't really touch on deep emotions, except perhaps for Fricka's marital distress. Tim Albery's production seems to blend ideas and comedy into a gentle melodrama, with an economy of means that derives from total confidence in the work. If there is something of the superhero comic, or sit-com, about it, that may be because comics and sit-coms can communicate everyday grandeur and anxiety using the slimmest resources.