“The Rhinegold” by Richard Wagner at The London Coliseum
Reviewed by John O’Brien
Last night’s performance of “The Rhinegold” was doubly daunting. Not only is “The Ring Cycle” the Mount Everest of the Opera repertoire but last nights offering was 2 hours 40 minutes straight through with no interval.
What about the loo break I thought to myself?
In the end I needn’t have worried. The 2 hours plus flew by and the opera itself was so well done by the English National Opera (ENO) that the narrative was crystal clear no difficulty understanding it whatsoever. I always think that if time in the theatre flies by then you’re enjoying yourself and by definition its a good show. That was certainly the case last night. One minute it was 7.30 and then the next it was 10.10pm and the curtain call.
I know many people (myself included), have the idea that Wagner is difficult. Well I can now say that this is not so. The ENO have a mission to bring opera to the general public. This production of “The Rhinegold” is accessible, enjoyable and hugely entertaining. I was pleasantly surprised by how much humour there is in it.
In short it’s a successful show which informs, educates and above all entertains its audience and is well worth seeing. If you want an introduction to Wagner this is as good a place to start as any. By a wonderful coincidence it provides the perfect companion piece to the BBC’s current drama “The Gold”about the Brinks Matt robbery. The themes and characters are uncannily similar although “The Rhinegold” was first performed in 1869. That’s because the human condition doesn’t change. Power, money, sex and gold. These are timeless themes.
“The Rhinegold” is the first of a four part opera. Wagner said it was a “preliminary evening.” As such it’s like a massive trailer for what’s to come. Thrillingly it works. I can’t wait to see the next three parts. Wagner was the ‘boxset’ producer of his time. Luckily for us we don’t have to go to his purpose built theatre the Bayreuth (a footballing equivalent would be Wembley Stadium) in Munich.
Richard Wagner (born in 1813 and died in 1883 – aged 70) was a real visionary. He came up with the idea that his operas were not really operas but rather Gesamtkunstwerk (roughly translated means something like “total work of art”) – that is to say words, dialogue, visuals, music and drama all coming together to create something unique. Again using a footballing analogy its like the Dutch team of the 1970s who invented “total football” where every player in the team was comfortable on the ball. Think of Wagner as the Johann Cruyff of his day. Wagner’s E flat major is to opera what the Cruyff turn is to football.
The cast, crew and creatives at ENO have done a magnificent job in realising Wagner’s vision of Gesamtkunstwerk. It’s a fantastic example of teamwork. And the result is way more than the sum of its parts. It’s extraordinary. And that is why the time flies by – time becomes irrelevant as one is so immersed in the moment, that the willing suspension of disbelief is effortless and voluntary. It’s a great work of art because Wagner has created a world that is so utterly convincing.
The director, Richard Jones has very cleverly created set pieces that resonate. For example the representative of the underclass Alberich the so called “Black Dwarf ” lives underground and comes up onto the stage from below. This is both comic and yet eerie at the same time. The Gods carry spears and hammers and live up in the clouds. This is suggested by huge white igloo like lights. The giants are a cross between Bill and Ben the Flower Pot Men and Ronnie and Reggie Kray (if you’re old enough to remember them!). At once risible yet menacing. The Rhine-daughters are dressed in fluorescent exercise gear, like three synchronised swimmers at the Olympic Games.
Stewart Laing’s set designs are both original and effective. I particularly liked the panic room to which the Gods retreat. Suggesting that the castle and the gated home have a lot in common. The video projections of gold bars complete with serial numbers by Awhile Krishnan add a hypnotic and mesmerising sense of gold’s incredible hold over the human imagination. Spandau Ballet’s music video for their 1983 single Gold came to mind. A nice touch of humour is the removal van that comes to collect the gold.
The music works its magic almost unnoticed. E flat major just keeps washing over one again and again. All credit to the conductor Martin Brabbins for making this seem so effortless. The singing is clear. But if you do miss a word or two then like me just look up and scan the captions screen above the stage. Leigh Melrose as Alberich is outstanding. Like Shakespeare’s “Richard The Third,” he reminded me of Lawrence Olivier in the 1955 film. He admits that he wants the gold so that sexy women will faun over him. The leader of the Gods is played by John Relyea in an eye patch, suit and phallic spear:-
His wife Fricka (Madeleine Shaw) and daughter Freia (Katie Lowe) are helpless passive victims who can only wait for men to sort things out. The most intriguing character on stage is Loge (brilliantly realised by Frederick Ballentine) a Henry Kissinger like go-between as he pulls the strings and manipulates with a humour and a world-weary shrug of the shoulders which belies the image of Wagner as some overly serious high Victorian. Loge is as cynical and amoral as they come. A wonderful comic creation.