Das Rheingold in Leipzig

Leipzig has strong associations with Wagner and a landmark centenary production of the Ring was given there by Joachim Herz, one of the then formidable East German directors. This was understandably a radical anti-capitalist, Marxist interpretation. For its more recent production, there may have been a concern in Leipzig to reconcile the work with its new post-reunification commercial identity. In any event, the choice for director fell on Rosamund Gilmore, a Briton long-time resident in Germany, whose stagings have been more traditional than many of those active in her adopted country.

Indeed, her Rheingold remains faithful to the characterisation and settings of the original. It is very strong on narrative so that no one can fail to understand, or be perversely led into misunderstanding, what is going on. However, it does not lack innovative qualities. Gilmore an experienced choreographer uses dancers imaginatively to represent the forces of nature which human beings with their worldly ambitions seek to override, but fail. So, in the beginning, as the waters of the Rhine begin to rise, the dancers emerge as wormlike creatures from a chrysalis form. Later they become the servile workers for Alberich in Nibelheim, eventually jubilant when he is captured by Wotan and Loge. And at the end they link up again with the Rhinemaidens who reiterate their yearnings for a return to an undisturbed primeval existence.

The largely abstract decors designed by Carl Friedrich Oberle is discreet rather than ostentatious, with unobtrusive videos and lighting effects above and behind the action, setting the context of, for example, waves for the opening or the rainbow for the entry into Walhalla. An altogether satisfying scenographical approach to frame a production which most successfully focuses on the doomed ambitions of human beings to seek power. The gods are in no way divine rulers above and beyond the mortals; rather they are a bourgeois bunch with very ordinary human desires and emotions. Loge alone is independent, manipulative for no specific ends and without any concern for the consequences of his actions.

A good cast had been assembled. Tuomas Pursio may not possess the range of vocal colouring which many exponents of Wotan are able to deploy, but he sang strongly and displayed considerable dramatic skills to present a young energetic, power-hungry but emotionally highly-strung individual, from time to time dabbing with a blood-smeared handkerchief the cavity from which his eye was taken. Thomas Mohr’s plangent tenor served very well Loge’s music in terms both of its lyrical and cynical content. Pavlo Hunka evoked some sympathy as Alberich even after he has foresworn love to achieve his power-hungry purposes and he also brought some nobility to his warmly sung denunciations of Wotan. Among the smaller roles, Karin Lovelius, notwithstanding a striking resemble to Theresa May, impressed as a housewifely Fricka still attracted by her husband’s masculine qualities but nevertheless keen to keep him to the straight and narrow. Then there was Claudia Huckle as Erda. I recently heard this contralto as a rather uninvolved Angel in the Dream of Gerontius at York. Obviously, she is more at home in the depths of the earth than in the heavens above for this was a richly sung, emotionally communicative, prophesy of the problems ahead for the gods.

I was expecting much from Ulf Schirmer and his Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and have to confess to some disappointment with the opening scene. I missed the organic growth from the first stirrings of the Rhine to the flowing signs of emerging life. Later, particularly with the dramatic encounters in Nibelheim, I was won over, not the least by the poignancy of the playing of the woodwind and brass. As the piece drew towards its end, the successive and conflicting Leitmotiven of achievement, forsaken nature and ultimate doom were superbly intermingled in an exciting climax which, when combined with Gilmore’s perceptive and engaging production, whetted one’s appetite for the evenings to come.