There’s nothing like travelling for broadening the mind as the old adage goes and it holds equally true for musical experiences in other countries. This finds me in Zurich for the opening night of a new production of Das Rheingold, a city where Wagner penned the majority of the RingAnd what an opening! A stellar cast of singers, a fulsome, fiery orchestra and a clever and compelling staging that caught my attention from the very opening.

Tomasz Konieczny (Wotan) and Christopher Purves (Alberich)
© Monika Rittershaus

This production is not the socialist retelling of the Ring à la Patrice Chereau; nor is it the post-dramatic rejection of traditional narration of Frank Castorf’s controversial Bayreuth production. For Andreas Homoki, Wagner used myth “not as a means to convey some political idea, but rather to broaden his base and address humanity as a whole”. Refusing to give the viewer a ready-made interpretation of events, Homoki prefers to depict the objects in their tangible form. So in Scene 3, the dragon is a dragon and a jolly convincing one too. Likewise, the ring is a ring and one for which the different characters have Gollum-like desire. In doing so he invites the viewer to find their own interpretation of what is on stage.

Siena Licht Miller, Niamh O'Sullivan, Uliana Alexyuk (Rhinemaidens), Christopher Purves (Alberich)
© Monika Rittershaus

The opera is at once the shortest of the tetralogy (clocking in at under 2 hours 30 minutes) but also its longest single musical utterance, since the four scenes are all connected without a break. Not for Homoki the desire for special effects or video montages between scenes. We were left in darkness, with only the music to concentrate upon. This was particularly effective at the start where the long E flat chord unfolded in utter darkness (our eyes unaccustomed to it) and we could well imagine what conductor Gianadrea Noseda described as a musical representation of the forming of creation. Kudos goes to the horns for their sure navigation through treacherous pianissimo arpeggios.

That is not to say that Homoki didn’t use technology judiciously and to great effect. Alberich’s invisible beatings of Mime and the Nibelungs were thoroughly convincing with his voice appearing to come from the middle of the stage. The thunderstorm of Donner at the end with its blindingly bright light and thunder produced a suitable fright in the audience. And several times Loge was able to produce live fire to startling effect.

Christopher Purves (Alberich)
© Monika Rittershaus

The sets by Christian Schmidt and Florian Schaaf were both elegant and efficient in their ability to adapt to multiple uses. It featured the interior of a stately home in the Palladian style which revolved to show different rooms: at times bedrooms for the Rhinemaidens; at other times, drawing room or dining room. The windows were dramatically and symbolically important, allowing Alberich to leer through them at the beginning, and for Loge to jump in and out with suitable fiery lights to accompany this tricky god of fire. The costumes too were in general compelling though there were one or two puzzles. The Rhinemaidens were innocently frolicking in white pyjamas; Wotan wore a sumptuously brocaded dressing gown over a waistcoat; while Loge, dressed in a neat vermilion overcoat, had in his appearance and acting overtones of Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean.

Matthias Klink (Loge) with David Soar, Oleg Davydov, Patricia Bardon and Omer Kobiljak
© Monika Rittershaus

The cast of singers was outstanding. Bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny made a magnificent Wotan. Possessing a dark, rich, powerful voice, authority rippled from him. His acting too illustrated the nuance that exists in the chief of the gods – the odd moments of doubt and the desire for redemption; gentle humour in dealing with the naggings of his wife Fricka. Christopher Purves was the most compelling Alberich I have ever witnessed. From his gnomic leering at the start, through to his renouncing love to his cursing of the ring, Purves caught the essence of his character. Despite his repelling, evil nature, Purves still managed to awake pity within us as he is dispossessed of the ring.

Das Rheingold
© Monika Rittershaus

Tenor Matthias Klink sang wonderfully as Loge. Possessing the tricks and mannerism of the aforementioned pirate, the sweet heft of his voice helped him to wheedle his way around the various characters. One of the very rare moments that I felt wasn’t fully convincing was when Loge jumped out from the action of the opera and addressed the audience. To illustrate the breaching of the fourth wall, the main lights of the theatre lit up. Among the women, Patricia Bardon as Fricka sang her part beautifully while the three Rhinemaidens (Uliana Alexyuk, Niamh O’Sullivan and Siena Licht Miller) were as impressive individually as they were when singing in trio.  

A final word must go to Noseda who conducted the Philharmonia Zürich brilliantly from the tender pianissimo opening to the many evocative and passionate climaxes throughout. Dramatic music-making at its finest.