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Into Valhalla

03/06/2004 -  and 6, 11, 13, 17, 19 March 2004
Richard Wagner: The Rhinegold
Linda Richardson (Woglinde), Stephanie Marshall (Wellgunde), Ethna Robinson (Flosshilde), Andrew Shore (Alberich), Robert Hayward (Wotan), Susan Parry (Fricka), Claire Weston (Freia), Iain Paterson (Fasolt), Gerard O’Conor (Fafner), Andrew Rees (Froh), Darren Jeffrey (Donner), Tom Randle (Loge), John Graham-Hall (Mime), Patricia Bardon (Erda)

ENO Orchestra

Paul Daniel (conductor), Phyllida Lloyd (director)

At the end of the ENO’s new production of The Rhinegold, the singers, following stage convention, look out into the auditorium at the new-build Valhalla. Wotan seems to be gushing not about an imagined building but about the gleaming refurbished Coliseum itself. It is probably not very original to wonder what sort of contracts and extortions were required for the ENO to enter its glorious home, and whether their consequences will end in the death of the old order. Certainly, the various offers available for tickets to Tosca, the next production in the reopened house, suggest that Raymond Gubbay might be cast as Alberich, though the Savoy, where he is about to start a year-round commercial season of popular operas in English, is unlikely to be as muggy as Nibelheim.

Musically, The Rhinegold showed the ENO company and orchestra in good form: a seething, swelling Rhine (rising in a completely dark house), glorious, untiring Rhinemaidens, magical sport with Alberich, through well-paced and entertaining divine melodramas to a magnificent procession over the rainbow bridge to Valhalla. Paul Daniel clearly knows what is going on at every moment of the massive, intricate music drama.

Phyllida Lloyd’s production was also still classic ENO. Starting from the thought that everyone in The Rhinegold acts purely out of the quest for gain, she set the action and located the characters in an urban netherworld. It was probably Docklands: Wotan and Fricka were just about moved out of a spacious loft, and it is easy to visualize Valhalla as Canary Wharf. But it could be Essex, Russia, or almost anywhere in the world that is a bit sleazy. The Rheinmaidens were pole-dancers; Flicka’s relatives were marginally criminal (Donner has a baseball bat); the giants were hard-nosed building contractors; and Loge was a dodgy lawyer. For those who enjoy the comic fairy tale shape of Rheingold, it is probably a touch depressing, or at least soapy when it should be fantastic. But Lloyd makes the point well that the tragic heroism of the rest of the cycle springs from Wotan’s tawdry self-interest, and that of the others in this opera. It will be interesting to see how the putative nobility of the Volsungs, Siegfried and Brünhilde is developed.

The singers were mainly those who took part in the concert performances. Robert Hayward’s Wotan was a polished thug, resembling (at least) the actor who plays Alistair Campbell for Rory Bremner. He didn’t make the music sound easy for him, but he has undeniable vocal power and control. Susan Parry’s put-upon Fricka and Claire Weston’s earth-motherly Freia (who went all Stockholm with Fasolt) were well characterized and musically fine, as were the other gods and giants. If none of them was exceptional vocally, the drama was engaging enough for that not to be a problem for most of the audience. Andrew Shore’s Alberich, a kind of subterranean Nathan Detroit, was splendidly horrible, and impeccably audible, as was Tom Randle’s energetic, slippery Loge. Patricia Bardon as Erda was authoritative and magnificent, with cheekbones to die for projected on to the upper stage.

Richard Hudson’s set was impressively economical and quite effective, creating strong effects with simple set elements and lighting. The Rhein was a blue-then-gold lit bead curtain, through which the Rheinmaidens flitted naughtily. Nibelheim was a mass of writhing shadows and bodies, dark enough for easy disappearing by Alberich, though there was a certain shortage of serpent in the serpent transformation. The gold was transported like oil in glowing yellow pipes from Nibelheim, to a loft above Wotan’s apartment and then into a bath to cover Freia. A convenient solution of a staging problem that, typically for this production, also made a powerful point.

HE Elsom



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