The first of the four operas that comprise Wagner's Ring cycle, Das Rheingold has a narrative that serves as the backstory of the ensuing saga of deceit, greed, and betrayal. It opens underwater, with the Rhine maidens tricked of their gold by the Nibelung, Alberich, who forswears love for the power to rule the world. We are then taken to Valhalla, where Wotan's new castle must be paid for. The giants who built it demand his sister-in-law Freia in payment. But the wily god descends to the underworld to steal Alberich's gold. He pays them with it, including the magic ring upon which Alberich lays a terrible curse. Its first victim is the giant Fasolt, murdered by his brother, Fafner, who takes his booty.
This version of Das Rheingold features the talents of leading Wagnerians. Producer Harry Kupfer, a veteran of several Ring cycles, sees the operas as a parable of man's greed and despoliation of nature and his spare sets reflect that vision. The ash tree, central to the plot, dominates a stage whose grid screen backdrop changes to suit the action, vertical lights symbolizing the bridge across which the gods walk in triumph to their new castle. Wotan descends to the Nibelung realm, a nightmare factory of clanking machinery and fearful slaves, via a stairway encased in a transparent plastic tube reminiscent of the escalators in Paris' De Gaulle airport. The gods are costumed in nondescript generic outfits and enter Valhalla's castle holding suitcases. The giants are fitted in clumsy industrial garb that limits their movements. A grim vision expertly realized by Kupfer, but made darker by filming that casts the action in murky gloom.
The musical side of the production is in the hands of Bertrand de Billy, whose conducting is competent, but without the strong individual interpretation heard in other versions. The orchestra of Barcelona's beautiful Gran Teatre del Liceu is a fallible instrument, which may account for some slower than usual tempos. Falk Struckmann's Wotan is one-dimensional; his semi-permanent anger limits the universality of a figure whose deceptions ensnare even himself. The vocal and acting star of the production is tenor Graham Clark as Loge, a diminutive figure in a red wig, whose sinuous vocalism drips with sarcastic contempt for his masters. Alberich, played by the experienced Günter von Kannen, is a forceful presence, and bass Kwanchul Youn as the giant, Fasolt, is superb as both actor and singer. But the Erda, Andrea Bönig, is miscast, too light of voice and figure to be the all-knowing Earth-Mother. On the whole then, a thoughtfully provocative, decently sung production. --Dan Davis
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