Oper Leipzig’s Das Rheingold production dating back to 2013 is unique in at least two ways.  First, the entire opera unfolds in one setting, a large foyer of an opulent bourgeois house with a spiral staircase in the centre, flanked by two enormous walls. The curtain remained open throughout, with scene changes deftly handled in plain view during the transitional orchestral interludes. The only hint of the River Rhine was a small pool of water on the floor of the foyer which got mopped up after the first scene. The gold was taken by Alberich from a display case. Scene 2 transformed the foyer into Wotan's living room with sofas and a desk. The gods were dressed in turn of the century upper-middle-class dress, the giants in suits and huge top hats.

Karin Lovelius (Fricka) and Tuomas Pursio (Wotan) © Tom Schulze
Karin Lovelius (Fricka) and Tuomas Pursio (Wotan)
© Tom Schulze

Wotan and Loge’s descent into Nibelheim was through a narrow window cut under the foyer. Mime appeared from stage left with his hammering tools. At the end of the opera, after the gods had ascended to their bedrooms via the staircase, the Rhinemaidens walked across the stage with their heads bowed low. The final glorious music was played on empty stage. Using the glass-panelled ceiling of the room as the major source of lighting was clever and effective; blue lights for scene 1, bright white for scene 2, red for scene 3, and the rainbow colours at the end. 

The second distinct feature of the production is the ubiquitous presence of twelve dancers as mythical elements. They were props, facilitators of scene changes, spectators, commentators, even Norns accompanying Erda. Some acted as Wotan’s ravens, others as animals. Alberich was transformed into a giant worm surrounded by dancers. Unlike some other operas using dancers, these extra “bodies” worked well in this production. The choreography by the director Rosamund Gilmore, herself a former dancer, was precise and respectful of the music. The meticulous care was taken to direct the singers’ every move and emotion. Wotan was an arrogant, yet confused, womanizer trying to maintain his dignity in the face of a futile dilemma. Fricka was already weary of Wotan’s whims and selfishness. Alberich was not so much an evil incarnate but was made evil by others’ thoughtlessness. Loge was a clown, a manipulator, a flatterer whose contempt for the family was barely hidden. The acting was at times funny without being camp. Wotan's family here seemed a parody of the bourgeoisie taking themselves too seriously. The director may have felt humour was a good tool to entice the audience to stay engaged for two and a half hours of continuous music. And it worked. The opera unfolded as a sarcastic family drama full of irony and pathos.

Stephan Klemm (Fasolt), James Moelenhoff Fafner), Sandra Trattnigg (Freia), Karin Lovelius Fricka) © Tom Schulze
Stephan Klemm (Fasolt), James Moelenhoff Fafner), Sandra Trattnigg (Freia), Karin Lovelius Fricka)
© Tom Schulze

It is a treat to have the legendary Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Ulf Schirmer to play Wagner’s music. The tempi were brisk without being rushed. The conductor did not choose to stretch out phrases to make a point, but was more interested in moving the story along and providing support to the singers by keeping the volume subdued. And yet in crucial moments, the strings shimmered to make us see the river that was not there; the Rhinemaidens’ joy at the sight of the gold was palpable in woodwinds; the brass conjured up the image of a fortress on an empty stage; double basses and timpani warned us that it was not going to end well. I might have heard one or two false notes, but overall this was an impeccable and brilliant orchestral performance.

Among the singers, Thomas Mohr as Loge was a standout, his tenor full of colour and flexibility, revealing the complex character of a trickster who is also a sympathetic demigod. He infused meaning to every word, whispering intrigues and plotting schemes. His clear and ringing high notes cut through the orchestra; his legato made me realize that Wagner could be sung as Mozart. Dan Karlström as Mime made the most of his brief scene with fine vocal acting. Bernhard Berchtold was an elegant Froh, both in voice and appearance.

Jürgen Linn (Alberich) and Dan Karlström Mime) © Tom Schulze
Jürgen Linn (Alberich) and Dan Karlström Mime)
© Tom Schulze

It was announced that Tuomas Pursio as Wotan was under the weather. His clear and light baritone was a good fit for a youthful and ambitious God. He did not shade his voice much and so lacked subtlety and nuance, but perhaps that was due to his indisposition. He cut a fine figure on stage and was a great actor. Jürgen Linn was an experienced Alberich, but his voice was rugged and worn at times. Jürgen Kurth’s Donner and Henriette Gödde’s Erda, the former being honored for his last performance as an ensemble member, the latter just starting out, both made strong impressions.