With some wonky notes the Bruckner Orchester launched into the breathtaking prelude to Richard Wagner’s Rheingold. Fortunately, once they warmed up they got better, although not always completely successful in keeping together. Conductor Dennis Russell Davies seemed to me to have his work cut out. Producer Uwe Eric Laufenberg knew his audience and was helped by clever yet simple sets by Gisbert Jakel. The clever inter-scene transitions of earth, air, fire and water was staged like film projected in a narrow strip across a black stage heightened ones expectation of each dramatic new scene.

Oskar Hillebrandt (Alberich) Valentina Kutzarova, Gotho Griesmeier and Mari Moriya (Rhinemaidens) © Karl Forster
Oskar Hillebrandt (Alberich) Valentina Kutzarova, Gotho Griesmeier and Mari Moriya (Rhinemaidens)
© Karl Forster

This Rheingold opened with body-suited rhinemaidens, Claudia Braun-Tielje, Gotho Griesmeier and Valentina Kutzarova, with hair reaching almost to their feet, singing sweetly as they cavorted in an impressive under-Rhine enclosure, giving Alberich (Bjørn Waag) more opportunities to get up close and personal than usual. He was still able to use his pick to dig up the gold and whisk it away.

Meanwhile, up with the gods, Valhalla was being built – the site a clutter of crates, boxes and even a Greek temple model adorned with toy soldiers. Gerd Grochowski's Wotan, with a large Band-Aid over his right eye and a rich baritone voice, awoke to argue with his hausfrau wife Fricka (Australian Karen Robertson) over the price he has agreed to pay to construct his dream mansion: her sister Freia, the goddess who keeps them all from aging with her golden apples. Robertson wore a weary expression, and sang so as to convince us she endures a husband never willing to listen to her. Goddess of youth, Freia (Sonja Gornik), whom the gods rely on, appeared with seven young children in tow, dressed in white and gold (is she moonlighting as a child care nurse?). Smitten with love, sweet bassed Fasolt (Dominik Nekel) and pragmatic, harsh bassed Fafner (Nikolai Galkin), were the giants, the builders, dressed in a sort of mid-Asian chieftain style black and white, following closely behind.

Gerd Grochowski (Wotan) © Karl Forster
Gerd Grochowski (Wotan)
© Karl Forster

With the arrival of Froh (Iurie Ciobanu), god of the fields, with a blunderbuss, and Donner (Seho Chang), god of thunder, with a huge mallet (also in Asian-ish costumes) confusion reigned until smiling, beautifully voiced, tenor Loge (Michael Bedjai) in black and white, including a skirt and leather mittens, lit a fire and tried to offer a solution. Bedjai sang well and clearly and drew the focus to himself whenever he opened his mouth.

Down in Nibelheim, the home of the dwarves, we met Mime (Matthäus Schmidlechner), the set-upon brother of Alberich the thief. He had one of the nicest voices heard all night. He appealed with his resonant tenor, as he cringed under the onslaught of his beastly brother. Unfortunately, in this opera, he did not have a very large part. His hour will come later! Cocky Alberich’s changed into a dragon and a frog through depictions on film. As a frog, he was caught in a cage, then taken up to the Valhalla worksite. His voice suffered some wavers, and while mostly strong and true, there were times where one held one's breath for him. However when he climbed out of his cage, his singing was expressive, full of menace for the consequences of any who wear the ring or fall under its spell. Wotan managed a disbelieving look, and ignored him completely. But when the ring was needed to ensure Fricka’s release he held out until good old earth mother, Erda (Bernadett Fodor), an impressive contralto, made herself clear in a way that Wotan cannot ignore.

Karen Robertson (Fricka) and Sonja Gornik (Freia) © Karl Forster
Karen Robertson (Fricka) and Sonja Gornik (Freia)
© Karl Forster

Making ready for the grand finale, a plastic backdrop was pulled down to display a pair of immense doors, the entrance to Valhalla, with a man-sized statue of a raven guarding them. An unending line of servants appeared to carry crates and boxes into their new home, then finally, grandly, Wotan led his family inside. Loge made sure the door was safely closed, then smilingly headed off-stage.

Wotan had achieved his ambition, entering Valhalla at the peak of his power. All the characters had been introduced. Over the next three operas these characters, or their descendants and relatives, will contribute to the unravelling and finally destruction of all that he had achieved. They will do it to the accompaniment of some of the most outstanding music ever composed. This is what has made Wagner’s Ring so engrossing, so inspiring and ultimately, so addictive to so many.

***11