Wagner - Das Rheingold

Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Saturday May 29, 2010

Conductor: Daniel Barenboim. Production: Guy Cassiers. Sets: Guy Cassiers and Enrico Bagnoli. Costumes: Tim Van Steenbergen. Lighting: Enrico Bagnoli. Videos: Arjen Klerkx and Kurt d'Haeseleer. Coreography: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Wotan: René Pape. Donner: Jan Buchwald. Froh: Marco Jentzsch. Loge: Stephan Rügamer. Alberich: Johannes Martin Kränzle. Mime: Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke. Fasolt: Tigran Martirossian. Fafner: Timo Riihonen. Fricka: Doris Soffel. Freia: Anna Samuil. Erda: Anna Larsson. Woglinde: Aga Mikolaj. Wellgunde: Maria Gortsevskaya. Flosshilde: Marina Prudenskaya. Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro alla Scala, Milan.

An excellent (supposedly working) week in Italy, which had already taken in Maria Stuarda in Palermo, ended on the (very) high point - again thanks to my extraordinarily hospitable colleagues there – of Das Rheingold at La Scala, conducted by Barenboim. Well, not quite “ended,” as once more there was a delicious Italian dinner afterwards in the most entertaining company, but this is an opera blog, not a food column, so Das Rheingold it will be.

I had joked, when a Facebook friend mentioned my week of “lovely operas,” that “lovely opera” hardly seemed right for Rheingold. Yet that is what, under Barenboim and intriguingly to me, it became. I’m no rabid Wagnerian (or Wagnerite: that always gets their goat), far from it. But never before had I heard Wagner as I heard it last night, played as German high Romanticism of sheer loveliness and sung like Lieder – by a cast, as you can see, of a very high order. I say ‘high Romanticism,” not “late” and even less “post,” as this to me was the amiable Germany of Schumann and, in his sunnier moments, Brahms. I rarely go in for visual metaphors (and am not, strictly speaking, a nature-lover), but elsewhere, commenting on my evening out early this morning, I did say it was like basking in a landscape of mountains, forests and rivers... perhaps an idealised one in a great painting or tapestry. Now of course, someone who really knows how Wagner should be played, some self-appointed online Wagnerian guru, might rage that Barenboim had got it all wrong, that singing Wagner like Lieder is a travesty and the cast were all duds (not to mention what he might have to say about the staging and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s ballets). But as far as I’m concerned, as the average opera-going ignoramus (OK, OK, I know we aren’t supposed to call the hallowed Ring opera), in La Scala’s gorgeous acoustics, with the orchestra on outstanding form and with this cast, it was really a privilege to be there.

I thought I might save myself some effort and keep things short by saying that the cast made such a good team, consistent in (super) singing and (super) acting quality, that there was no point in singling anyone out: we could move directly to the production. But I know, for example, that at least one fan (of the singer, not of my writings) wants to know how Rene Pape fared. Well, Rene Pape isn’t quite what he was, but what he is is very good indeed (and a great deal better than what we got in Paris: comparing 2010’s Rheingolds and concluding easily but with a sigh that Milan is going to get a better run than Paris, one friend of mine declared “I’m fed up with Joel”) and certainly good enough for me. His presence remains commanding, his facial expressiveness remains fascinating and though he may sing with a touch less force, he continues to sing with the customary humanity and elegance.

Elegance seems to have been the parti pris of this Lieder-like approach, presumably possible only in outstanding acoustics. Until I looked up his name afterwards (we’d dashed in late, delayed by sudden torrential rain, a bonus for Milan’s Asian umbrella-sellers: there’s nowhere for fancily-dressed opera-goers to shelter between the gaping mouth of the Vittorio-Emmanuele gallery and La Scala: you can only make a sprint for it across the square and hope that the pedestrian lights will be in your favour in front of the theatre) I thought Stephan Rügamer must be English. Instead of a grimacing caricature of a Loge, he gave us a wry, dandyish, puckish one, singing like a Langridge or, very nearly (but fortunately not quite) a Bostridge. He was loudly applauded. Johannes Martin Kränzle as Alberich had a bit too much rapid tremolo for my taste, but even so… Doris Soffel was a suitably haughty Fricka, Mime was excellent, Erda was the towering alto I last heard in a harrowing Verdi Requiem in Brussels, towering even more here as she rose through the ground to about 15 feet in height, and putting in some moving singing. The Rhine maidens were a good deal better than our Paris ones… I don’t really need to go through the cast one by one: in all, unless my memory is failing me (surely not!) this must have been the best all-round cast I’ve had in a Ring instalment.

The staging was relatively simple, in part simply because, when there are ballets about, you can’t have many sets or props; but it told the story clearly, and though modern dance may not always be welcome in opera, you can often ignore it and, in this case, the dancers made themselves useful. So, at the rear were giant panels of stone. On these were projected videos, more evocative than figurative, in deep, rich colours (and, thank Wotan, much less corny and tree-hugging than Bill Viola's for Tristan): ripples of water for the Rhine maidens then bright golden lights for the gold; what looked like a giant open-cast mine for Valhalla, breaking into a mass of naked bodies: asleep, sick, dead…? as the gods started losing their force. When the (normal-sized, black-suited) giants appeared, their shadows appeared giant-size; and when the giants fought, their giant shadows fought all the more violently. Erda, as mentioned, rose through the ground to about fifteen feet while the projections showed a vast landscape: perhaps the same as the Valhalla mine-scape, but at twilight, dotted with twinkling cities in the gloom. When the gods entered Valhalla, the projections carved deep reliefs into the stone - sculpted bodies, recalling Greek or Roman friezes (but also recalling the naked bodies that appeared when the gods were out of apples).

Sometimes a square, metal, cage-like structure descended; for Alberich, it was festooned with security cameras projecting live videos of the stage action on to the stones behind. The dancers, here, followed Alberich around and formed a throne wherever he chose to sit - a clever symbol of absolute subjugation to absolute power; they, too, formed the helmet, dragon and, more successfully, toad. They were also, later, Alberich's shackles (I did say they made themselves useful). Sometimes there were enigmatic props: a rapidly-spinning globe whenever the gods were assembled (a golden apple?); one vertical shaft of red laser-light pinpointing the spot where Fafner clubbed Fasolt.

The costumes were more or less of Wagner’s period (and Fricka had the kind of stiff-corseted, straight-backed, bustled court dress, albeit shabby, that was missing in Palermo's Maria Stuarda), but de-structured and wonderfully dusty or, for the likes of Alberich and Mime, involved animal skins and hoods. The “ring” was a magnificent, sparkling glove: Zwarovski, no doubt…

As I said, the story was limpidly told, as it was in Bob Wilson’s totally different production at the Châtelet. But there, you had to make more concessions; here there were few if any to make, and no doubts whatsoever about the musical quality. Milan is in for a much better Ring, as already mentioned above, than at the Paris Opera this season and next; and if both come out on DVD, this will be the one to go for, I suspect. Sadly, I won’t be in Milan to find out for sure.

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