Wagner - Das Rheingold

ONP Bastille, Wednesday March 10 2010

Conductor: Philippe Jordan. Production: Günter Krämer. Sets: Jürgen Bäckmann. Costumes: Falk Bauer. Lighting: Diego Leetz. Wotan: Falk Struckmann. Donner: Samuel Youn. Froh: Marcel Reijans: Froh. Loge: Kim Begley. Alberich: Peter Sidhom. Mime: Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke. Fasolt: Iain Paterson. Fafner: Günther Groissböck. Fricka: Sophie Koch. Freia: Ann Petersen. Erda: Qiu Lin Zhang. Woglinde: Caroline Stein. Wellgunde: Daniela Sindram. Flosshilde: Nicole Piccolomini. Orchestra of the Opéra National de Paris.

It doesn’t take long to sink in. You’re sitting there in the dark with the orchestra scraping away, singers tootling about on stage in a smudge of lights and colours and movements, your neighbours are coughing and sneezing and rooting around for tissues or sweets, and it dawns on you: I’m bored. So it was with Das Rheingold on Wednesday night. Now I know it’s a matter of taste and some people hated Bob Wilson’s Ring. But for me, at the Châtelet, with so little apparently happening, time flew; at the Bastille, with so much variety and activity on stage, it dragged. And as with Das R. you can’t escape for over 2 hours, I even found myself thinking back to the excruciating L’Amour de Loin, my all-time reference in matters of aching bums. Though an experienced friend rightly pointed out you can’t judge a Ring from its prologue – things that seem silly at first might make more sense later in the series – this bodes ill for the longer evenings to come, even if they offer escape at half time.

My conclusion re the production was: under-rehearsed, unconvincing and unconvinced. The critics keep saying it’s all déjà vu and I see what they mean: not carbon-copy déjà vu, but a kind of compendium of (often good) ideas already seen in productions over the years, from producers as diverse as Kokkos, Sellars, Serban, Zambello or Fura dels Baus, rehashed in brighter colours and clever lighting but with less conviction and to less effect. It was one of those shows where you wonder if with more rehearsal time and better acting, thanks to a different director, it might have been got to work.

It opened in the Rhine. In it. Well, actually not, but in a lot of dry-ice steam in clever lighting and with one of the evening’s several striking images (only a few striking images don’t necessarily make a coherent staging): a shoal of red-gloved hands, brightly lit from beneath, writhing about behind the Rhine maidens like hyperactive goldfish. The maidens were in slinky, flesh-coloured, sequinned mermaid dresses, trimmed with pink down and lined in red, with red sequinned nipples and pubes, frolicking on long-roped swings. Alberich looked more or less like a miner just up from the pit, which is normal; but the shenanigans with the maidens set the unconvincing, not-quite-well-done-enough tone of the whole show. The large sphere of gold made its appearance in a giant, inclined mirror. The déjà vu had already clicked in: the swings, oddly but inevitably, recalled the Bastille’s Lucia di Lammermoor. The mirror, if you replaced the golden ball with a horse’s head, the Châtelet’s Les Troyens. And on it went…

The gods, when they appeared, were lounging on and around a giant globe of the Earth, ribbed with bright green strip lighting and accessible by a steel ladder or stairs, eating golden apples. Male and female, they wore pink plastic torsos, buxom for the women, muscular for the men – an ideal form hiding a more decadent reality, I guessed* (they took their torsos off when drooping for want of apples). There was nothing remotely heroic about them (Donner frequently brandished a ridiculous little silver hammer to no effect at all), a fact that undermined Wotan’s character all evening. Climbing up and down the globe was tricky, letting slip lack of rehearsal again. On the right were vertical white banners marked “Germania” in gothicky letters. In the distance, men in dark overalls were polishing up a gigantic metal structure: Valhalla. The giants were got up like guerrillas in dark fatigues; when payment was refused, the house was invaded by more guerrillas in balaclavas, builder’s tools sprouting from their backpacks, waving red flags while red tracts showered down from the roof. Loge, the most successful, best-acted character of the show, was a kind of nutty professor in clownish makeup who sprang out of a trapdoor in the globe.

This is getting long, I must get a move on… The Nibelungen were besmirched, bare-chested miners with pit helmets and "knee-boots" to help them get around. By this stage a giant, serrated pendulum had worn its way through a fair bit of the golden globe and the lads, kneeling in serried ranks to right and left, swung back en masse as the blade approached. They played the dragon, which might have made more sense if they hadn’t crept in from both sides instead of one. They played the toad, too – all of them hopping around like kids at Kindergarten. That didn’t work either. Nor really, did the raising, on red ropes, of a giant silk curtain, covered in sky, that, released, became a sea of clouds (I couldn’t see a rainbow, though there’s one in the photos of the set designs) as Valahalla advanced in a blaze of light and the gods ascended its steps, gingerly.

Just as you must be careful not to judge a Ring from the trailer, so must you be careful not to condemn the music from the patchy acoustics of the stalls of the Bastille. Also, the sets were not designed to reflect sound back at the audience: often the singers had nothing behind them but the (amazingly) vast stage. But certainly the Rhinemaidens were weak (“even” the Rhinemaidens, as Le Monde put it, while my neighbour remarked that it must be possible to find people able to sing them). Struckmann was disappointing until the final scenes – saving his voice till the end? Mime was a good deal better than Alberich, whose curse fell flat. Sophie Koch was alright but not exactly sock-popping (but perhaps later in the series, when she has better stuff to sing?). Ann Petersen was unconvincing… Peter Sidhom was very good ("a discovery," said one of my friends), but only Kim Begley and Qiu Lin Zhang (who seems to sing nothing else but Erda) were really up to scratch.

The whole show, singing and acting, lacked conviction; and while I agree that Jordan had the orchestra playing transparently and full of internal detail and all that… I do wish (as I often do, I admit) he’d injected more energy into it. Those droopy Rhine maidens... It may not, however, have been his fault if there was no deafening, Berlin-style “wall of sound” brass effect as the gods moved into their new house: we were in the stalls, where orchestral noise has trouble reaching over the edge of the pit. It may well have been a good deal more impressive upstairs.

To sum up, a Rheingold in which the “best bits” are Loge, Erda and the lighting is a shaky start to a Ring in a house that hasn’t had one since 1957. I fear for my bum in the coming episodes...

*It would certainly be the case if I myself unbuckled a plastic he-man torso.

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