Wednesday, January 27, 2010

"Das Rheingold"

I saw this in a concert performance in the Gaiety Theatre by Opera Ireland. I think it was originally meant to be fully staged, but the current economic climate meant that this was all they could afford.

As you know, the Rheingold is the first opera in Wagner's Ring. This one tells the story of how the Ring came to be made, and it how it found its way into the hands of the giant Fafner. It is an odd tale. Wagner's Ring deals with semi-divine characters very much larger than life – the giants, Valkyries, heroes, and the Norse Gods themselves – but they seem to lack any kind of higher nobility to go with their exalted status. If anything, they seem even more petty and venal than normal human beings.

A lot of the action here is driven by Wotan's promise to supply Freia, his sister-in-law, to some giants, as payment for their having built him a lovely new palace. Aside from all the yap he gets from the wife over this, brainbox Wotan failed to register that without Freia's magic apples the Gods are doomed to age and wither. Duh. To buy off the giants he has to get the magic ring from the sinful dwarf who made it from magic gold he stole from the Rhinemaidens (themselves a bunch of slutty teases). It is all very tawdry, with no one coming well out of this, except maybe for Loge (Loki), who does at least seem to be somewhat brainy and far more self aware than his fellow Gods.

The Rheingold is the one of the Ring Cycle with which I am most familiar, so it was easy enough to follow this concert performance as a piece of drama, even though it was sung in German (with English surtitles). The various singers performing the roles were excellent, really getting into character for all that they were just standing onstage singing away. I was particularly struck by the two giants, who (without make-up, funny costumes, or anything) managed to convey a sense of overwhelming bulk.

Musically, the Rheingold has two big moments. The first of these is the opening, reprised at the end, when the music evokes the flowing of the Rhine so effectively that it sounds like the surging waters more than the product of musical instruments. The other is the scene in the dwarves' workshop, where the junior dwarves bang away on tuned anvils as they strive to fashion the Rhinegold into wonderful artefacts. This piece of proto-industrial music is a bit less impressive in a concert setting, as we lose the sense of visual spectacle gained from the site of the dwarves pounding away, but it still did the job.

So that was that. I would definitely go to further Opera Ireland productions of the later Ring operas, staged or just in concert. My only real criticism of this was that they staged it as one continuous two and a half hour performance, without any breaks. Although this is as Wagner wanted it, it was somewhat hard on the weaker-bladdered members of the audience.


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