Das Rheingold LiceuDas Rheingold at the Liceu. Image by Antoni Bofill.
REVIEW OF DAS RHEINGOLD, LICEU APRIL 2013
The best moments by far in this season’s presentation of "Das Rheingold" at the Liceu are the five minutes or so when Ewa Podlès, as Erda, warns the god Wotan of the disasters ahead. Her voice was strong and powerful as always, and she received deservedly enthusiastic applause at the end of the 155-minute performance. (I often wonder how performers entertain themselves when they have to hang around behind the scenes in costume for most of the evening, waiting for the curtain call!)
'Rheingold' is the prelude and opener for Richard Wagner’s four-part 'Ring of the Nibelungen.' The composer wrote the four plays out of order, which explains some of the dislocation and repetition that irritates some people. Rheingold is not as tuneful and engaging as the other three works, and it is the hardest to listen to if it isn’t brilliantly presented. This, alas, was not a brilliant production: certainly adequate, but not engrossing.
As is often the case in the Ring, the performers appeared to have a tough time competing with the orchestra. Wagner was a tough composer and an impassioned orchestral composer. He also, apparently, intended the original Bayreuth orchestra to play underneath the stage, which would effectively reduce its forcefulness. The way it is done today, with the orchestra in the pit in front of the stage, makes it hard for the conductor to rein in the instruments and give the singers their rightful place. On top of which, the orchestral music is absolutely as important as the singing and not just an accompaniment.
The Liceu orchestra performed beautifully, with freshness and passion. But conductor Josep Pons could have modulated its sound to create a more equal partnership with the singers. At times it felt as if we were listening to a long symphonic poem, with the singers trapped behind a wall of instrumental music. On occasion, even from close up they were inaudible, particularly in the case of Freia, an already colorless role sung lightly by Erika Wueschner.
The production, originating in Köln, Germany, was by the Canadian Robert Carsen. I may not have liked it, but I did respect his vision of a decaying, doomed world, ill-served by Wotan as banana-republic dictator. The opening moments offered an ever-clearer clue that this was going to be an ugly Rhine: forget the sparkling water, verdant rushes and sexually-teasing water-nymphs of yesteryear. As the overture began, a solitary man walked across the stage eating something. He then tossed it away and strolled on. Another man appeared, and another and another, all doing the same thing at ever greater speed. The message was clear: despite their respectable appearance, they were a bunch of destructive litter-louts.
So when the curtain went up on the Rhine Maidens and their haunt, we were not surprised to find a rubbish dump full of tires and industrial waste being picked over by three of the most unappealing, sluttish Maidens ever. It is hard to even imagine the presence of the magical gold that will be stolen by Alberich and made into the all-powerful ring that sets off the whole downfall of the gods, and the three remaining and much more exciting segments of the story which the Liceu will be presenting in coming seasons.
In the 2004 production, Wotan, sung by Falk Struckmann, was more impressive than the current Albert Dohmen, who was short on drama. The character felt a bit empty. The blackmailing giants, Fasolt and Fafner, came across heartily, especially Fasolt, sung by Ain Anger. Both Kurt Streit as Loge and Ralph Lukas as Donner were highly satisfying. Mihoko Fujimura, as Fricka, has a lovely voice but despite a career centered around Wagner, her voice seemed more suited to the heavier Italian roles, such as Tosca or Turandot. But she, like the rest of the singers, was battling against the overpowering orchestra.
It was a long evening. The tradition of playing Rheingold without an intermission is punishing to much of the audience. Two hours and thirty-five minutes is too long a time to enjoy or endure such a demanding work without a break, and one’s capacity for concentration diminishes. Wagner had no pity but it might be a kindness and an improvement if some opera house broke tradition and gave us a break, literally.