The primordial power of nature – blind and ambivalent – is the basis of The Ring’s musical and dramatic architecture: power and love, blessing and curse, everything builds on the pristine waters of the Rhine. As depicted in Erda’s circular motif of the twilight of the gods, opposing forces rise in elegant dialectics only to fall back to the same abysmal waters. In this constant succession of bliss and demise, Wotan’s sorrow is but a drop in the mighty river. But in Robert Carsen’s Rheingold, nature fails to regenerate and the dirt of fallen progress has turned the Rhine into a dunghill that can produce no good, an obvious critique of industrialism that has earned the production the confusing moniker of the “Green Ring”. It may be better understood as the uneventful birth of yet another diminishing cycle of history, a minor iteration of what was once a meaningful, epic tale. This sense of melancholy decay, where there’s no room for heroism or grandeur, seems now even more timely than it was in 2000, when the production premièred in Oper Köln.

As in modern autocracies, Wotan’s predatory dreams are made of concrete, as naked as his own selfishness. Patrick Kinmonth’s austere sets convey sharply the pettiness of the uninspiring project to which he is willing to sacrifice Freia. As he has often done in other productions, Carsen uses the sociology of theatre to depict the structural inequalities of the plot: while the gods are always at Stalls level, the giants come from a suspended scaffold and Nibelungs are confined to the vaults under the stage. Also their body language marks the unsurmountable social differences. Despite being moral Doppelgängers, Wotan’s patrician stiffness contrasts Alberich's rowdy manners, and ultimately only Freia and Fasolt defy this rigid order with interclass caresses. The supernatural side of the story was trusted to Manfred Voss’ lights, with mixed results: the sparkling effects of the first appearance of the gold, hidden in a truck tyre, created a moment of rare lyricism, while the Tarnhelm’s transformations had more than their fair share of clumsiness. In the final scene, the gods, after a gloomy ball and a Champagne toast, move into their new home, followed by an army that hints at the martial turn of the next episodes.

Pablo Heras-Casado, Principal Guest Conductor, made a cautious debut in the cycle. As Carsen’s gods, he conducted with empty elegance, defending a sense of order that didn’t really serve to a higher purpose. He channelled the chaotic flow of the prelude and, despite always showing a good dynamic range, muffled the climaxes, underplaying the mighty musical pillars of Valhalla, as if refusing to crown a head that didn’t deserve the laurel. He was at his best in the scenes between the gods, revealing the music's truly chamber scale. This commendable moderation, however, turned often into lack of emotion, which set the general tone of the performance.

Even under this scaled-down perspective, Greer Grimsley’s Wotan didn’t really sound the part. His voice lacked authority in the centre and was too strained in the top notes and he sang with cold and absent phrasing, which only paid off in the final scene, under the spell of Erda’s warning. On the other hand, Samuel Youn, with a lyric, clean timbre and solid technique, depicted a reckless Alberich. Sarah Connolly excelled as a sophisticated Fricka, giving meaning to every word thanks to her perfect diction. Mikeldi Atxalandabaso's clear tenor gave Mime a stirring touch of humanity. Albert Pesendorfer was a last-minute replace as Fasolt and made a very good impression, with a rich bass-baritone and candid acting, next to Alexander Tsymbalyuk’s correct Fafner. Sophie Bevan’s fresh soprano was perfect for Freia’s eternal youth and Raimund Nolte and David Butt Philip were also good as Donner and Froh. Loge’s fiery wittiness eluded Joseph Kaiser, who sang with elegance but downgraded the importance of the character. Claudia Huckle’s dark mezzo was a good contrast to her Rhinemaiden sisters, María Miró a playful, light Wellgunde and Isabella Gaudí, with unsteady tone but good acting, as Woglinde.

In an attempt to underline the only firm truth of the story, Carsen reserved his touch of magic for Erda’s scene. Ronnita Miller appeared unexpectedly in a dim blue haze, as if she had been there all the time, and embraced Wotan in a sad moment of wisdom. Her bronze timbre flowed powerfully as a wise and poignant warning: “Alles was ist, endet”.