Oper Frankfurt's new Ring gets off to a very promising start with this Rheingold, directed with effective and elegant economy by Vera Nemirova, the young Bulgarian director who has been carving out an important career in several German houses.
Nemirova attracted attention earlier in the season with a Macbeth in Vienna that was deemed something of a scandalous failure. This was due, depending on which reports one reads, either to the Viennese public's general aversion to the premises of Regietheather, or to Nemirova's failure to find a convincing angle to take on Verdi's tricky early opera.
It seems, in fact, to have been down to a mixture of both, and while Rheingold is a very different prospect and the Frankfurt audience more open-minded, she here directs with the surest of touches a work whose recent production history has more often than not revolved around abstraction. And despite this production's clean lines and smart aesthetic, Nemirova thankfully avoids falling into the classic Regie trap of clearing away the clutter of traditional stagings only to replace it with a great deal more clutter. Not everything works perfectly, but this is an admirably clear-headed, intimate view of Wagner's tautly structured masterpiece.
Jens Kilian's set is based on a large tilted circle, made up of wide concentric rings like the rings of Saturn, which can be rotated independently on the horizontal plane, bringing to mind both astronomical models and the movement of certain fairground rides. During the Prelude, water drops with slow regularity into a pool projected (by Bibi Abel) onto the circle in blue. It's an image more in keeping with meditative calm than the increasingly fast flowing Rhine of Wagner's music, but provides a useful contrast to the subsequent action; this calm, untroubled state, rather than the innocence of Ur-Natur, is what the characters seem to long for.
When the Rhinemaidens emerge writhing out of the central circle, the resulting stage picture is strikingly beautiful. With a touch of the mermaid about them, they are dressed in elegant, sparkly dresses, and Alberich makes his first stuttering appearance in a tuxedo. The programme reproduces extracts of George Bernard Shaw's influential early criticism, and Nemirova subscribes to his view that these maidens are the cold-hearted coquettes of any capitalist society. They flirt with Alberich cruelly, before stripping and sexually humiliating him, and running off around the rotating discs.
The uncluttered circle is restored as we ascend to join the Gods, relaxing in the calm of the cool blue. Froh and Donner are the standard ineffectual pair, with Froh absentmindedly blowing bubbles, while relations between Wotan and Fricka seem unusually harmonious. The rude interruption of the giants, who appear from under the central disc with an entourage of workers in welding masks, is therefore a particularly unwelcome intrusion. I was not sure about the effectiveness, after Freia's abduction, of having elderly versions of the Gods hobble along the front of the stage, but the descent to Nibelheim is brilliantly effected by means of then set's rotating rings alone.
Without a wholesale change of scene, however, this underworld is restricted to limited space under the disc, and it seemed a shame that no real attempt was made with the Tarnhelm's magic: Jochen Schmeckebecker's Alberich has to portray the dragon simply by writhing, finally (and somewhat perplexingly) touching up Loge; while the frog is represented by a just green glove. There is just a small number of Nibelungs, who feature in branded overalls, packing cash into cloth bags. Alberich's cruelty, however, is portrayed with unflinching power, and reciprocated in the raw violence of Loge removing both Ring and finger to complete the hoard.
Perhaps most controversial is the final entrance to Valhalla. The gods change into evening dress, before standing as if preparing to deliver a set piece finale and walking out into the theatre. The house lights are raised, and their superannuated alter-egos observe from above as they start to clink glasses at the side of the auditorium. It's perhaps the least clear aspect of Nemirova's conception and raises several questions, not least, one might flippantly suggest, regarding the health and safety implications of bringing the Valhalla-as-auditorium concept to its natural conclusion in Götterdämmerung's final conflagration. Clearly the exact meaning of Zemirova's overall plan will not become clear until the subsequent parts of the cycle are unveiled, but on its own terms this is Rheingold is refreshing, clearly thought-out and dramatically effective.
Musically the quality is every bit as high, and the results are being recorded by Oehms' classics, who are also half way through releasing Simone Young's ongoing Hamburg Ring. Conductor Sebastian Weigle has already recorded several important new operas for the label, and here showed himself to be an astute Wagnerian, keeping the action moving along well, unleashing the full force of Wagner's powerful score, but not afraid to take his time with the rare appearance of more lyrical musical ideas.
Heading the cast is the Wotan of Terje Stensvold, for whom the role seems to lie almost perfectly. With his relatively light timbre, he is more a civilised, urbane pater familias than an implacable authority, but this seems to give the hypocritical nature of his actions greater dramatic weight. As Fricka, Martina Dike is not just critical, but also loving of her husband, and avoids the matronly shrillness of some in the role. The star of the evening, however, is the magnificent Loge of Kurt Streit. The American tenor, a consummate Mozart stylist, brings clear diction, a beautiful voice, energy and athleticism to his wily performance. Schmeckenbecher makes an excellent Alberich, too, almost likeable at first, but descending into focussed megalomania, pointing the text clearly but avoiding the trap of resorting to too much Sprechgesang. Dietrich Volle and Richard Cox are well matched as Donner and Froh, and Barbara Zechmeister is an ingratiating Freia. Of the giants, Magnus Baldvinsson's Fafner, perhaps appropriately, was a more powerful presence than Alfred Reiter's Fasolt, while Meredith Arwady made a strong impression as Erda, looking every inch the earth-mother as she rose from the deep, draped with children, and with a plummy, true contralto voice to match. Hans-Jürgen Lazar is excellent as the subjugated Mime, while Britta Stallmeister, Jenny Carlstedt and Katharina Magiera are seductive and well-matched as the Rhinemaidens.
Wagner himself might have raised an eyebrow at this vehemently anti-capitalist work being performed in the shadow of Deutsche Bank's new shiny twin-towers, or the fact that the view from Oper Frankfurt's bar is dominated by a ten-metre illuminated euro sign. But Nemirova's production eloquently reiterates the precautionary allegory at the opera's heart, underlining its continued relevance without resorting to didacticism. The opera world will no doubt be keen to see how she manages to keep such effective control on Wagner's drama as it spirals off into the subsequent instalments.
By Hugo Shirley
Photo Credits: Monika Rittershaus