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Heil und Lebe Wohl

Royal Albert Hall
09/28/1998 -  
Richard Wagner : Das Rheingold
osemary Johns (Woglinde), Gillian Webster (Wellgunde), Leah-Marian Jones (Flosshilde), Ekkehard Wlashicha (Alberich), John Tomlinson (Wotan), Michelle DeYoung (Fricka), Rita Cullis (Freia), Kristinn Sigmundsson (Fasolt), Matthias Höle (Fafner), Timothy Robinson (Froh), Alan Held (Donner), Philip Langridge (Loge), Robin Legatte (Mime), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Erda)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Bernard Haitink (conductor)

The Albert Hall tonight was remniscent of the old Soviet Union, with queues everywhere -- for the Ladies, for the bars, and down two flights of stairs for programmes. But the massive applause that greeted Bernard Haitink was deeply affectionate and certainly not orchestrated. And the performance of Das Rheingold itself was a powerful and painful reminder of what the Royal Opera can do if only it has the management and resources to support it. While it is truly cheering that Haitink seems to have recovered from major heart surgery, there was a strong sense of foreboding tonight after the cancellation of the current Royal Opera season from January.

Das Rheingold is light entertainment only in contrast to the rest of the Ring, but this performance flew by. The semi-staging, with the cast in concert dress, which used a stage in front of the orchestra platform and some lighting effects, was based on Richard Jones' controversial production of 1996. It kept a few props and all of the characterizations, with complete success in the hands of a nearly impeccable cast.

The Rhinemaidens were at least as alluring in little black dresses and blue scarves as they were previously in latex. They delivered both the playful anarchy of their opening games and the portentousness of their final warning at either end of a production that brought out the comic-sinister-tragic cycle of greed and stupidity. Michelle De Young was a Junoesque, big-voiced Fricka and Rita Cullis rather subdued as Freia. Catherine Wyn-Rogers was a resonant Erda.

John Tomlinson pretty much owns Wotan, but his performance was fully integrated into the production and anything but automatic, a natural leader struggling for authority and integrity in chaos, but always ready for a pragmatic compromise and definitely with limited vision. It wasn't quite a surprise that Fafner and Fasolt caught him out the same way he did Alberich.

Philip Langridge was equally interesting as a spivvy Loge, with a dark red shirt and slimy manners. His singing was always full of character and strange angles. Ekkehard Wlashicha as Alberich started out as comically stupid, and ended as a near perfect counterpart of Wotan, delivering a deeply threatening curse. He's neither a dwarf nor an elf, of course. The giants were even heavier, in character and vocally, but showing a glimmer of a sense of higher things along with the comic stupidity. Timothy Robinson was a lovely-voiced, cheerful Froh, and Alan Held a solid Donner (with a hammer from the tool box).

As ever, the orchestra and Bernard Haitink were even more crucial to the success of the performance than the singers. They delivered an incredible amount of detail over the boom of the echo in the hall. Haitink, understandably, lacked the energy he showed in the Barbican Mephistofele six months ago, but he and the orchestra made up for any lack of energy with both style and substance.

It is heartbreaking to think that, although the singers who performed tonight will certainly be back in London again, it is quite possible that Haitink will choose not to remain long in a position that must be deeply demoralizing. And the future of the orchestra is equally uncertain, with the risk that the superb ensemble will be lost. There are performances of Die Walküre on 29 September, Siegfried on 1 October and Götterdämmerung on 3 October in the Albert Hall and of the complete cycle in Symphony Hall, Birmingham on 5, 6, 8 and 10 October. See them if you can. On the basis of this one they will be terrific. But that last Götterdämmerung may be hard to take.

H.E. Elsom



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