DAS RHEINGOLD London 2023 A review by Nigel Gallimore
DAS RHEINGOLD London 2023 A review by Nigel Gallimore
Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen.
23rd September 2023.
7.30 pm ROH, Covent Garden.
The story of humanity, the evolution
of the human race and society: a critique by Nigel Gallimore.
A new Ring Cycle at the ROH is always a huge event and this one, by the gifted director Barrie
Kosky, caused much excitement when it opened on 11th September. Sue and I attended the
performance on 23rd of September, where I guess any glitches on opening night had been
Wagner did not set words to music: the words were merely the projection of an already
conceived musical emotion into the sphere of speech (Ernest Newman, “Wagner as man and
music,”1924). So to explain The Ring, we need to understand the leitmotifs and motifs,
because this is the epicenter of Wagner’s musical genius. To quote Newman again, ”there is
no need to discuss the philosophy of Wagner’s mind, Wagner wasn’t a philosopher, he is
simply a perplexed and tortured human soul and magnificent musical instrument.”
Wagner’s harmonic ideas, polyphonic constructions and orchestral sound are packaged in a
motivic system of musical speech. The motifs evolve musically and conceptually; contracting,
expanding, merging, inverting and reversing in pure Gesamtkunstwerk. In telling the story of
the gods and their doom, Wagner is presenting us with a deeper, more complex scenario of
humanity, the evolution of the human race and our society. Could this be why the Ring is
often taken out of mythology and presented to us in a form we can all identify with? Not
wanting to court controversy, but is that not what Valentin Schwartz was presenting us with
in the current production from Bayreuth?
Barry Kosky has taken on the mantle at the ROH. As a guy who does want to court
controversy, even before the rehearsals were over, he was giving interviews proclaiming that
streaming and the Met Live in HD relays were destroying live opera – even though this Cycle
is being streamed! It transpired, however, that what all the press were discussing was the
decision to have an 82-year-old actress (Rose-Knox-Peebles) play the role of Erda, on stage
for virtually all the performance, observing everything that was unfolding.
This is where I will start my review, because as is the tradition we do not see Antonio Pappano
enter the pit and as the house lights dimmed, we had about 90 seconds of silence as the naked
Erda walked across the stage.
Erda, (Old High German for Earth) conceived before the start of time and Earth Mother –
Goddess of Earthly Wisdom – is actually on stage in the score for the shortest time of any of
the main characters. However, she is present in spirit throughout the whole cycle. There is
no clear reference to Erda in Nordic Mythology, other than in the Poetic Edda, but Wagner’s
decision to elevate Edda to Erda, The Earth Mother, is more likely to have derived from Greek
Mythology that Nordic. Her warning, though, to yield the Ring to escape dark destruction, to
which its possession dooms all but the custodial Rhine Maidens, permeates through the entire
Tetralogy. To this end, it works having Erda on stage throughout Rheingold, observing events
as they unfold. I don’t know if they tweaked anything after opening night, but her presence
did not distract at all, quite the reciprocal. In fact, I was so wrapped up with the drama on
stage that I hardly noticed her, even though I knew she was there, omnipresent. So for me,
this was a mark of directorial genius by Kosky. He said in the programme notes that he wanted
to explore “the idea that we are watching the dreams, hallucinations and visions of Mother
Earth.” He certainly succeeded in that aim.
The triad of E-Flat sounds throughout the three minutes of the glorious prelude, representing
nature at rest and at peace, were certainly worth the 90 second wait. No curtain rises after
the 136 bars, just the covering taken off the gnarled Yew log to reveal the Rhine Maidens.
The set is very impressive and the Yew log is shaped into a dragon in which the Rhine Maidens
can leap in and out, singing very impressively. The free-flowing music is interrupted by a
stumbling motion in the depths and Alberich appears, brilliantly portrayed by Christopher
Purves. The gold pours out of a hollow in the tree making it all too easy to steal.
After an interlude, in which the ROH curtain falls, we are in the land of the Gods. Erda is now
a scullery maid, I am not sure that this is as effective as watching her naked and observing
from the sidelines, but this is just quibbling. Donner and Froh (Kostas Smorgiginas and Rodrick
Dixon) are amongst the strongest interpreters I have seen in these roles to date. Fricka
(Marina Prudenskya) is not up to the same standard as the others and much to my surprise
Christopher Maltman makes a very sound Wotan. The giants are superb. Fasolt (Insung Sim)
and Fafner (Soloman Howard) could easily have dominated this scene. I am going to steal a
description of them from another review, because I just kept thinking how accurate it was.
You don’t need giants on stilts, just two rogue, Mafia-like builders, “who would replace your
roof at a huge cost, whether you needed a new one or not!” However, as good as they are,
the star of the show is Sean Panikkar – the Loge of your dreams (and I have some pretty wild
In the subterranean Nibelheim a huge machine pumps gold from the roots of the Yew Log.
Here Erda is connected to the machine like a grotesque life support. The Nibelungs are
children with scary head masks, like something from a nightmare. It is very effective as is
Mime, brilliantly sung and acted by Brenton Ryan.
The transformations of Alberich showing off the powers of the Tarnhelm are amongst the
most effective I have seen. Captured all too easily, back at the realm of the Gods, Wotan
ruthlessly cuts off Alberich’s finger to retrieve the Ring. It is a very shocking, bloody scene
and the strength of Christopher Purves’ portrayal makes the curse scene shockingly effective.
Erda returns as the naked observer and the scene when she issues her warning is very
effective. The stage blacks out leaving only a beam of white line on Wotan who is molested
by the naked Erda while her lines are sung off stage, beautifully, by Wiebke Lehmkuhl.
Freia is forced into a bath by the giants and covered in molten gold. Fafner beats Fasolt to
death with a wooden broom, again, a shocking and bloody scene.
With the orchestra painting the serene beauty of a rainbow, the whole stage is covered with
falling, coloured confetti. Now, I am not going to get into a discussion as to whether or not
the ROH stole this idea form the ENO. At the ENO, we had coloured Las Vegas style party
At the ROH we had rainbow confetti – both very effective and both very different. Anyway,
I actually do not believe that Barry Kosky would have bothered to go to the ENO to see it or
steal their ideas. Perhaps I should have asked him, as he was sitting three seats away from
us. Whatever, it was amongst the most effective conclusions to Das Rheingold that I have yet
The orchestra and conductor – perfection, the music brough tears to your eyes and huge
boulders to your throat. I refuse to make a comparison with the ENO, it’s like comparing
apples and pears. Antonio Papano took the orchestra on to the stage for a curtain call. I leapt
to my feet, shouting. Sue, also on her feet, tapped me on the shoulder and said, “look behind
you.” I saw the whole house on its feet, shouting and cheering, giving one of the few total
standing ovations I have ever witnessed at this magnificent opera house.
What more can I say? With tears in my eyes, I can only tell you that it was all perfect.
Nigel Gallimore lectures physics and math’s in London, he is a published author of two novels (a third pending)
and a complete opera fanatic, specializing in Wagner, Mozart and Richard Strauss. Chelsea FC come
somewhere in his passions too!