Wagner: Das Rheingold

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, November 1 2005

Conductor: Christoph Eschenbach. Production, sets and lighting: Robert Wilson. Wotan: Jukka Rasilainen. Donner: Laurent Alvaro. Froh: Endrik Wottrich. Loge: Arnold Bezuyen (replacing David Kuebler). Alberich: Sergei Leiferkus. Mime: Volker Vogel. Fasolt: Franz-Josef Selig. Fafner: Günther Groissböck. Fricka: Mihoko Fujimura. Freia: Camilla Nylund. Erda: Qiu Lin Zhang. Woglinde: Kirsten Blaise. Wellgunde: Daniela Denschlag. Flosshilde: Annette Jahns. Orchestre de Paris.

Perhaps the final performance, on November 1, of the current run of Das Rheingold illustrates the fact that, though we do it all the time, you can’t judge a production from a single evening. I’d read and heard all kinds of worrying things about it: “singing zombies” in a stultifyingly static production, devoid of all humour, with shaky effects where any Wilson show needs to be a precision machine; a catastrophic orchestra, too light, too heavy and too slow; singers miscast, with thankless timbres, hopeless intonation, no acting skills, losing their voices by the end of the evening…

Perhaps there was some truth in all of these: the partner of one of the singers, present at dress rehearsals and every performance, told me each night was quite different. But perhaps, too, on Tuesday a certain last-night magic cast its spell over the whole venture to make everything come right; and perhaps we were in the right seats, near enough to hear and see in detail; because what we heard was a remarkably strong, even cast and what we saw was gripping (though certainly highly stylized) storytelling supported by images of great beauty.

I myself had had misgivings about the Orchestre de Paris in Wagner, but apart from the odd fluffed horn note in those famous rising arpeggios at the start, they were on fine form. The textures were certainly clear, and the volume was, say, Beethoven-sized rather than Berlin Bruckner.

But as a result, the cast could actually sing their parts lyrically, rather than screaming and shouting themselves hoarse. For example, the first time the Rhinemaiden sang of “renouncing love”, she did it softly, to moving effect. As to tempi, they were moderate: the Rhinemaidens’ song was almost a lilting waltz, and at times there was possibly a lack of urgency, but by then I was so wrapped up in the singing and acting that it was of no real importance.

The overall level of these was, after those mixed reviews, quite unexpected, and Wilson’s hieratic, stylized approach, his archetypal characters, the “Nô-meets-silent-movie” expressionism and gesture created a sense of the unfolding of a timeless myth, yet respected Wagner’s indications (all the props were there), while avoiding the potential ridicule of attempting a “naturalistic” production.

Jukka Rasilainen came in for a great deal of stick on both accounts (singing and acting) but on Tuesday night, apart from slight unsteadiness and lack of volume at the very bottom, he had no vocal weaknesses, and his acting, mainly through facial expression and eye contact with David Kuebler’s Loge, made him a wily Wotan, with something of the ageing beau about him, manipulating those around him to his own benefit while maintaining an aura of respectability like many a senior executive I’ve known. Kuebler could have no vocal failings, as he didn’t sing. He acted the part of a crafty, somehow “Joker-ish” Loge while Arnold Bezuyen, flown in one hour before the curtain went up, sang excellently from the side.

It was true that Fafner was relatively weak and that Camilla Nylund’s Freia somehow lacked charisma, but apart from that there’s little more to say: you simply don’t expect to hear such a strong, coherent cast in Wagner today.

As to Wilson’s production being shaky, well, maybe by Tuesday everything was run-in because all you can say is: it worked. The use of light and shade, bright, pinpoint spotlighting and black silhouettes, geometric costumes and angular gestures, facial expressions familiar from Japanese prints, sudden dramatic shifts, and, yes, wry humour, were spot on and we were fascinated from start to finish.

Even the usually grumpy little old lady next to me, no great fan of modernity, had to admit that, with Die Zauberflöte, it was one of the two best Wilson productions she’d ever seen (she hasn’t seen La Fontaine’s Fables yet). Forgetting her lumbago, “Sensass!” she exclaimed. That’s French for sensational.

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