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Le Charme discret des dieux (The Discreet Charm of the Gods)

Teatro Real
01/19/2019 -  & January 22, 25, 27*, 30, February 1, 2019
Richard Wagner: Das Rheingold
Greer Grimsley (Wotan), Raimund Nolte (Donner), David Butt Philip (Froh), Joseph Kaiser (Loge), Albert Pesendorfer (Fasolt), Alexander Tsymbalyuk (Fafner), Samuel Youn (Alberich), Mikeldi Atxalandabaso (Mime), Sarah Connolly (Fricka), Sophie Bevan (Freia), Ronnita Miller (Erda), Isabella Gaudí (Woglinde), María Miró (Wellgunde), Claudia Huckle (Flosshilde)
Orquesta Titular del Teatro Real (Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid), Pablo Heras-Casado (conductor)
Robert Carsen (stage director), Patrick Kinmonth (sets & costumes), Manfred Voss (lighting)

(© Javier del Real/Teatro Real)

Madrid’s Teatro Real has embarked on a Ring Cycle, offering one instalment per year, using Robert Carsen’s 2004 Cologne production. While some in the audience were not thrilled with the gloomy sets from a recycled, and some say dated production, others found Carsen’s acerbic vision even more relevant fifteen years hence. Wagner’s original theme of Love and Power is slightly updated. Two main themes intertwine: that man has so degraded Earth through his greed; and that the characters in the work are a reflection of our hierarchical society, with exploitation as its driving force. During the prelude, suited men, resembling today’s white collar middle class, are hurriedly smoking, eating or reading the paper as they briskly walk to work, disposing of cigarette butts, newspapers and other waste. As the prelude reaches a crescendo, the walking becomes running and ever more waste is created. Pablo Heras-Casado and the Orquesta Titular del Teatro Real’s performance of the prelude was masterful, attentive to the music’s haunting chromaticism. The usually alluring Rhine Maidens are here presented as three vagrant women surrounded by waste, guarding their gold in a water-filled automobile tire.

Greer Grimsley is one of today’s leading Wotans, yet his attempt at portraying an imperious Wotan, domineering in his household as the Gods are with lesser races, was not convincing. Despite his charisma, his voice is not sufficiently robust to truly inhabit the role, and at moments, some notes were strained. English mezzo Sarah Connolly is also a veteran Fricka, having interpreted the role in Bayreuth and at Covent Garden. She impressed with her acting and excellent diction as much as with her singing. Samuel Youn may not have the ideal voice for Alberich, but thanks to his excellent stage presence and solid technique, his portrayal was compelling. Joseph Kaiser made the most of his role conveying Loge’s cynicism through excellent acting and delicious phrasing. The Canadian lyric tenor’s voice has blossomed in recent years; his versatility and his excellent command of languages never cease to impress. Sophie Bevan’s lyric soprano was perfect for the role of Freia. Her timbre is refreshingly beautiful and well-suited to the role. She was convincing as the terrified Giants’ hostage, and touching in her affection shown toward her murdered captor Fasolt, in a rare moment of tenderness, in this bleak interpretation of Rheingold. Mikeldi Atxalandabaso, a regular character tenor on Spanish stages, stood out as Mime – his debut in the role – thanks to his excellent diction and acting. Albert Pesendorfer as Fasolt and Alexander Tsymbalyuk as Fafner were vocally secure Giants. They seemed at ease dramatically in their toned down roles as union leaders rather than mythical creatures. Raimund Nolte as Donner and David Butt Philip as Froh, however, failed to realize their small but consequential roles, both vocally and dramatically. Ronnita Miller’s dark contralto, clear diction and poise gave life to the brief but important role of Erda. The Rhine Maidens were more than adequate. Vocally, Claudia Huckle was most noteworthy, as Flosshilde.

Carsen’s Wotan wore a military uniform resembling Chile’s Pinochet or some other dictator. The Gods’ abode was filled with construction material used to build Nibelheim. The packed furniture gave the feel of an imminent move to the Gods’ new home. These Gods unconvincingly act as stiff aristocrats: Fricka ressembles Margaret Thatcher more than a real blue blood, Donner and Froh act like spoiled golden boys, with one smoking cigars and the other playing golf; Freia tends her apples out of a red suitcase. In this Walhalla, irreversible damage to the environment has already been done and in this production, the apples – the source of the Gods’ youth and vitality – don’t grow on trees, but are a commodity kept in a red suitcase. Armies of servants are at the Gods’ disposal, constantly catering to their bosses’ various whims.

In Teatro Real’s production, Fafner and Fasolt are not mere giants, but union leaders with scores of orange-clad workers clamouring for their promised wages. Given current events in France and throughout Europe, perhaps yellow vests would have been apt. Wotan and Loge connect to the Nibelungen’s realm through a manhole, further demonstrating the stratification of the races in the Ring (and in today’s society). Alberich rules over creatures who can only crawl, indicating the paralysis and indentured slavery of many labourers at the bottom of society. When the trickster Loge convinces Alberich to transform into a snake, the crawling men coil together into a semi-circle to represent the slimy serpent. Such a transformation was more impressive than Alberich’s invisible change into a toad.

At the end of the opera, when Fafner murders Fasolt over the newly-acquired gold, the latter’s corpse is left on the ground. The waiters bring in champagne and the Gods merrily celebrate their move to Nibelheim around Fasolt’s corpse. This powerful image resembled a caustic scene from a Luis Bunuel film. In a non-grandiose fashion, the Gods look over the horizon presumably towards their new home: no imposing castle or rainbow are seen, just falling snow. Again, this looked more like a nouveau riche crowd in Zermatt or Gstaad revelling in their presumed wealth and power. During the opera’s final strains, marking the procession towards Nibelheim, the Gods are followed by regiments of servants carrying their status-bearing furniture and Louis Vuitton trunks, and they in turn are followed by men in uniform. Only a cardinal or two were missing to make this a scene lifted from Bunuel’s Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie.

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