Friday, 8 April 2016

Das Rheingold – Jahrhunderthalle, Bochum (Ruhrtriennale) – 12 September 2015

Alberich (Leigh Melrose) steals the gold from the Rhinemaidens. Photo: Michael Kneffel
Review from the March 2016 issue of The Wagner Journal

Wotan Mika Kares
Alberich Leigh Melrose
Loge Peter Bronder
Mime Elmar Gilbertsson
Fricka Maria Riccarda Wesseling
Fasolt Frank van Hove
Fafner Peter Lobert
Freia Agneta Eichenholz
Erda Jane Henschel
Donner Andrew Foster-Williams
Froh Rolf Romei
Woglinde Anna Patalong
Wellgunde Dorottya Láng
Floßhilde Jurgita Adamonytė
Sintolt the Hegeling, Servant Stefan Hunstein


Conductor Teodor Currentzis
Director Johan Simons
Designer – Bettina Pommer
Costumes Teresa Vergho
Lighting Wolfgang Göbbel
Electronic music Mika Vainio
Sound design Will-Jan Pielage

Nibelheim (l to r): Loge (Peter Bronder), Alberich (Leigh Melrose), Mime (Elmar Gilbertsson), Wotan (Mika Kares)
For his first major production as artistic director of the Ruhr Triennale for 2015–17, Dutchman Johan Simons staged Das Rheingold in a former gas turbine hall, a building originally used to provide the heat for the neighbouring steel works’ blast furnaces. A site of exploitation of both natural resources and manpower: the perfect venue for a critique of capitalism. As Simons remarks in the programme, ‘In Das Rheingold Wagner told the history of the Ruhr. A story of industrialisation that destroys nature, of labour and exploitation and finally the fall of the powerful.’ The director’s aim was to return Wagner’s drama to the crucible of revolutionary ideas from which it was born in the late 1840s, and, taking advantage of a festival situation where experimentation is expected, he did more than simply stage Das Rheingold as it stands. In collaboration with Finnish Techno specialist Mika Vainio, he audaciously ‘broke open’ the uninterrupted 150-minute span of Wagner’s score with a handful of interpolations of newly composed electronic music. At least the originally billed four hours had been reduced to under three by the time the production came to fruition.

At one level this intervention was highly effective: as soon as one enters the turbine hall in advance of the performance one is surrounded by the deep throbbing of E flat major harmony, from which the first written notes of the music eventually emerge. It is a neat way of expressing the primeval, always-been-there nature of the opening chord, the matter from which Wagner’s Rhine and whole musical world is conjured and which has by then had time to seep into one’s very being. The first hiatus in which an electronic roar intervenes at the moment of Alberich’s curse is somewhat more crass, but the longest and most significant ‘break-out’ from Wagner’s score comes during the descent to Nibelheim, where the hammering of the anvils is taken to enormous lengths and extremes such that it feels as if the whole edifice in which we are sitting is being hammered into submission. Meanwhile, over the top of this tumult, the gods’ ever-present servant Sintolt the Hegeling – an extra character in Simons’ staging named after one of the silent heroes brought to Valhalla during the Ride of the Valkyries – finds a voice at last and launches into a sustained, yelled denunciation of capitalism: the worker revolts. Patrice Chéreau’s comparable exposé of the work’s political theme in his famous 1976 Bayreuth staging was demure by contrast. And there, perhaps, stands the crux of this one-off production: overall, and perhaps in keeping with the industrial architecture that surrounds it, it is raw, aggressive and unsubtle.

Treating Das Rheingold as a stand-alone music drama is a not unreasonable project: it is self-contained enough in that it has a beginning, a middle and an end and the loose ends that remain can be tied if, as here, it is taken as a parable on the evils of money. Indeed, I have rarely seen as downbeat or pessimistic an ending as in Simons’ vision: the Valhalla that the gods have bought from the giants’ handiwork proves to be nothing more than a façade and the over-stuffed dynasty is left to shuffle off in despair, while Alberich and Mime huddle together for comfort in a stagnant pool with the Rhinemaidens brooding over them and Fafner desperately clings on to the lump of gold over which he has killed his brother. This bleakness and its visual power, when set against the surging D flat of the closing music’s false pomp, make up for some of the rather predictable gaucheness elsewhere: Freia the goddess of love portrayed as a dominatrix, teasing the servant with her whip; Alberich mounting sex-doll alter-egos of the Rhinemaidens; Fricka going berserk when she can’t break down Valhalla’s door. But there are aspects, too, that are more perceptive, such as Erda’s presence from the start, grimly viewing the rape of her natural domain; or Wotan and Loge disguising themselves as miners to secrete themselves into Nibelheim (the Tarnhelm, appropriately, is a miner’s helmet). What is missing, though, is the sense of myth that Wagner himself stated was the way by which an audience could take in his political messages. So no ‘magical’ elements: no toad, no Riesenwurm, not even a rainbow bridge.

The staging is divided between a towering Valhalla façade behind the orchestra and, in the foreground, a trio of shallow pools among the crumbling remains of a plaster ceiling, complete with upside-down chandelier, to represent the cyclic nature of civilisation’s rise and fall, of building anew on the ruins of the old. This layout necessitates quite a bit of traffic flow of singers between the desks of long-suffering instrumentalists, who seem in danger of having their music stands kicked over at any moment. It nonetheless gives a central, visual focus on the orchestra itself and its ranks of brass, line-up of requisite six harps and forge-full of anvils is undoubtedly an impressive sight – we thus see the players as workers, too, just like the Nibelungs, if under a less fearsome overlord than Alberich in Greek conductor Teodor Currentzis. As a rather audacious counterpoint to all this infidelity to Wagner’s original score in formal terms, the orchestra plays on period instruments, with Currentzis’s Perm-based orchestra MusicAeterna imported specially for the festival run. The sound produced was far from the lean, ascetic one that often goes with HIP territory and string tone was full and generous, the woodwind characterful in the best sense and the brass penetrating yet rounded. Despite the deliberate interruptions, Currentzis’s conducting was broad-spanned yet allowed plenty of detail to emerge. And he wasn’t above a bit of showmanship, getting his string players to stand for the most climactic moments, such as Nibelheim’s hammering rhythm, and he had the whole orchestra on its feet for the closing bars.

Given the size of the acting area, the volume of the venue per se and the presence of the additional electronic music, it was perhaps understandable that the singers had to be miked-up. But, at least from where I was sitting, there was no dislocation between sight and sound and what amplification there was proved unobtrusive and the balance natural. And whatever doubts one might have had over the effectiveness of the staging and concept, there were no such misgivings when it came to the singers. Mika Kares’s Wotan had plenty of colour in his voice and despite the driven nature of his characterisation never resorted to bluster. As his nemesis, Leigh Melrose’s Alberich was a character possessed and, while his singing sometimes veered towards Sprechgesang in its expressive veracity, his vocal accomplishment and acting were compelling. Peter Bronder’s experienced Loge was put to good use as the one figure who manages to rise above the general greed and immorality. Maria Riccarda Wesseling’s Fricka, though a little over-acted in places, was vocally warm and sincere and there was a real treat in Jane Henschel’s sonorous Erda. There were no weaknesses among the rest of the cast, among whom must be commended actor Stefan Hunstein’s meticulously performed Sintolt ‘the Marxist’, the anger and force of whose outburst sum up the mixture of admiration and frustration that are the abiding impressions of this Wagnerian experiment.

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