(Palace Nova, October 2023) Reviewed by Philippa Thomas
Barrie Kosky’s Das Rheingold worked superbly in the live screened London Royal Opera performance seen by some lucky Adelaide Wagner lovers at our Palace Nova Prospect cinema this month. The screening included a short explanatory interview with Kosky and conductor Antonio Pappano, where Kosky explained that his own planned Ring cycle deals with “recognisable human beings with all their flaws” within a context of “the unexplained“. His stress is on the origins from Greek tragedy rather than Norse mythology. Many opera critics have reviewed this production positively – both Pappano’s conducting and the strong cast having “no weak links” (Andrew Clements The Guardian 12/09/23). It is also noted in the media press that even though Pappano is shortly leaving his post as Music Director of the ENO, he will return to conduct the remainder of the Kosky Ring Cycle.
Each scene of Rheingold here happens among the charred ruins of the huge, dying ‘World Ash Tree’ which seems a clear reference to mankind’s despoiling of our planet. The Earth goddess Erda appears first on stage, and inhabits each scene as the ever-present observer, sometimes hiding her face in despair. Kosky has cast her as an impossibly ancient, vulnerable and totally naked figure, no longer able to protect her realm, but Erda is mute, her role beautifully sung off-stage by Wiebke Lehmkuhl. In the beginning, the Rhine maidens emerge from ash tree’s sprawling roots while a stream of gold leaks out of it from a subterranean Nibelheim. Soon appearing on stage, Alberich’s slave workers, tiny children wearing deformed adults’ head costumes, who are frantically collecting and carrying off the liquid gold, complement the overall grotesquery of the storyline. The final rainbow “bridge,” rendered as torrents of glitter as the gods approach Valhalla, does convey Wagner’s majestic and magical vision of the gods’ world.
The costumes are, of course, contemporary but not too over-done or stereotypical; for example, the gods in one scene are all suitably aristocratic, sporting Edwardian polo-playing breeches, boots and polo clubs, while the Rhine-maidens in revealing black and glitter garments, heavily made-up, cavort and frolic like vulgar music hall dancers teasing to the absolute extreme their audience of one – Alberich.
The cast are uniformly excellent in their singing and their acting fully is realised in screen close-up. In the Adelaide cinema screening, this viewer especially enjoyed Sean Panniker’s Loge. This fire god, twirling and smirking, is truly unnerving. Christopher Maltman’s excellent stage persona and voice renders a convincing and even sympathy-deserving Wotan. Christopher Purves as Alberich is no dwarf, but clumsy and sinister and thoroughly convincing as Wotan’s obsessed rival. He is also vocally very impressive “with his own arresting baritone” (Sam Smith’s review in Opera Online). For this Wagner fan, Kosky’s start on the Ring tetralogy was absolutely worth seeing![This review originally appeared in the October/November 2023 Newsletter of the Richard Wagner Society of South Australia. It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author.] [TVC adds: This review sounds as though Mr. Kosky might be finally hitting his straps, after the disastrous The Magic Flute and The Golden Cockerel.]