★★★ DAS RHEINGOLD Clear but often aloof exposition from Jurowski's LPO
Vladmir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra have been to the bottom of the Rhine before, but in 2015 only did a whistlestop tour of the rest of Rheingold's terrain with an extensive array of excerpts. Having worked with the players on Tristan und Isolde and DIe Meistersinger at Glyndebourne, their ever-thorough and brilliant music director decided that the time has come to tackle the most daunting of Wagner's music-dramas, one opera a year up to 2021 when the river will finally burst its banks and the fortress of the gods goes up in flames.
Water and fire already play an impressive role in the first of the Ring operas; just how ahead of his time Wagner was with the impressionism in which the Rhinemaidens swim and the modernistic textures out of which Loge flickers emerged supremely well here. New to me were the woodwind gurgling as most seductive Rhinemaiden Flosshilde promises a love duet with the lusting Alberich, quickly kicked aside, and the special articulation of the brass as they reflect the aspirations of the gods and their negative image in the Nibelung's hellish strivings.You really heard as well as saw the four Wagner tubas which ballast their horn cousins, and Paul Benniston's trumpet had all the space it needed. It was good to get the nine players wielding the 18 anvils which sound-image the slave labour of Nibelheim on the platform rather than offstage, and the percussion made a frightening din which meant we didn't miss the usual screams of the Nibelung workers slave-driven by Alberich. The Festival Hall doesn't offer any glow around the sound - I couldn't help longing for the perfect acoustic, that of the concert-hall in Budapest's Müpa complex where an unmissable Wagner Festival takes place every year - but Jurowski (pictured above with the LPO last night) did his best to make amends. Interesting that previously he had explicitly stated he wanted to do his first Wagner Ring with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, but even with plentiful guest players they couldn't have hoped to make as cohesive a sound as this.
There wasn't much in terms of even a "concert staging" to parallel the aural illustrations, and Malcolm Rippeth's lighting needed to make much more of the phantasmagorical Festival Hall organ pipes - really, no gold, and no rainbow, where one colour could have been applied to each of the seven lower sets? More worrying was that though potential director Ted Huffmann was listed as "consultant", very little work seemed to have been done on those crucial interactions of characters which, well handled, emphasise how Das Rheingold is the first piece of music theatre in the operatic canon to marry meaning with a wondrous orchestral palette. Like a select few others – several of the late Janáčeks, Shostakovich’s The Nose – and unlike its successors in the Ring drama, Rheingold fares less well in concert than most operas unless there's a perfect fusion of music and text. At least all the singers bar one had been persuaded to do without scores or music stands and project the drama to the varying best of their abilities. The exception was he who should have been most commanding, Matthias Goerne as chief god Wotan (pictured above with Michelle DeYoung as Fricka). The sound can be beautiful, though for me always a bit too much wrapped in cotton wool. But the Rheingold Wotan is never noble, a treaty-breaker from the first scene with Fricka who becomes a greedy opportunist, and having Robert Hayward, one of the role’s best living exponents, alongside Goerne as Wotan’s parallel power-grabber Alberich only pointed up the German bass-baritone’s shortcomings in the role.
This was Hayward’s first Alberich, and he was inside the character who becomes the first Lord of the Ring from his first, limping appearance. You even felt his pain as he faced the loss of the only thing that has meaning for Alberich - totalitarian power in the form of the ring, Economical but eloquent of gesture, strong and focused of voice with enough stamina left in this taxing role to deliver the full meaning of his second curse, Hayward (pictured below Tarnhelm-torturing Adrian Thompson's Mime) was the total assumption of the evening – and the highest applause levels suggest I’m not alone in thinking so. We needed that largeness of sound in the opening scene; with the singer-actors behind/above the orchestra, the Rhinemaidens (Sofia Fomina, Rowan Hillier and Lucie Špičková) needed voices one size bigger. Paradoxically their offstage laments at the end of the opera, close to the nicely integrated seventh harp at the side, offered much more vocal glamour. Up on the mountain top, Michelle DeYoung’s Fricka was a superb sacred monster, a glamorous figure in sparkling dress who could have eaten her husband for breakfast (though shame about some of the modified vowels).
When her sister Freia is less integral a part of the action in concert, you wished that the wonderful Lyubov Petrova had more to do. Likewise Stephen Gadd as Donner, the storm-raising solo reminding us that this British baritone is under-used here, and Allan Clayton as Froh, beginning to sound as if he could head towards Siegmund territory; right now he would be a superb Loge. So would Adrian Thompson, who temporarily stole the show as a very put-upon but nasty-in-the-making Mime. As it was, the trickiest of Rheingold leading roles fell to Jurowski regular Vsevolod Grivnov (pictured above), not as eloquent an actor as Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke in the last Rheingold we saw in the Festival Hall, Opera North’s, but more than the usual character-tenor tenor and even though the basic tone isn't lovely - which Loge's is? - he was sensitive to all the dynamics. I’d have liked more of that sensitivity from the tenderer giant Fasolt when he sings of his feelings for Freia; Matthew Rose tended to sing at one dynamic level, though meaningfully, and there was good rapport with nasty co-worker Fafner (Brindley Sherratt, splendid). Which leaves only Erda, and at a distance Anna Larsson didn’t quite own the role as she usually does; maybe it’s time for a young contralto to have a chance in the great prophecy.
The stage, finally, was left to the orchestra to glitter with the false pomp of the gods entering a castle built on the shakiest of foundations. We may not have got the full benefit of the six harps, but the LPO brass rammed the point home. Alert to every detail, winning magnificent articulation from the first violins especially, Jurowski has the spirit of Rheingold but perhaps not quite yet its elusive and unsettling soul. I’d like to hear it again once he has Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung under his belt, and with Hayward as Wotan. Anticipate 2022 as the year when we get them all; start saving now and be ready to jump in when booking opens. Meanwhile, there's no rest for the LPO's Music Director in his tenth superb year; it's on to a brilliantly-planned Stravinsky festival in less than a week's time.