Das Rheingold can be a bit of a drawn-out introduction to the Ring Cycle. It clocks about 2 hours and 40 minutes and is usually performed without intermission. Consisting of four scenes marked by orchestral transitions, it can be a directorial challenge; most productions deal with scene changes by lowering curtains. Oper Frankfurt’s revival of Das Rheingold, a 2010 production by director Vera Nemirova, solves the issue with an ingenious set by Jens Kilian which can only be described as a “rotating turntable with rings”. Inspired perhaps by the planet Saturn with its ring, the set is an architectural marvel. It tilts, rotates and detaches into several narrow rings as dictated by action. The center of the ring can be lowered, as when Alberich steals the gold, when Wotan and Loge descend into the Nibelheim, and when Erda appears from the depth of the earth. The giants with their helpers lift up the top of center to demand their payment.

Katharina Magiera, Britta Stallmeister, Jenny Carlstedt (Rhinemaidens) and Jochen Schmeckenbecher © Monika Rittershaus (2009)
Katharina Magiera, Britta Stallmeister, Jenny Carlstedt (Rhinemaidens) and Jochen Schmeckenbecher
© Monika Rittershaus (2009)

A large screen is at the back of the stage, curved to follow the contour of the ring. The screen is lit with various colors, mostly of blue hue, to reflect the mood of the action at hand. The Nibelheim scene takes place “underneath” the ring, as its highest portion is tilted to face the audience, creating enough underground space for the gold factory. The scene works particularly well in the claustrophobic realm of oppression, compared to a wide open space above the ring that is the world of the gods.

One puzzling aspect of the production occurred at the beginning and the end of the opera. Alberich was initially dressed in tuxedo; as he entered the space of separated rings in pursuit of the Rheinemaidens, he shed his jacket and pants to appear only in his undergarments. Conversely, the gods all disappeared off-stage as the final Valhalla music began, to reappear in tuxedo and long gowns in the front row of the orchestra; Wotan and Fricka sang their last lines among the audience, looking at the stage with actors representing their old selves (they appeared earlier as Freia was taken away by the giants and the gods began to grow old), together with the lamenting Rhinemaidens and Alberich in his undergarments. Loge alone was above it all, riding on a swing as he ascended back into the ceiling, where he came from. Does this mean the whole opera was a “play within a play?” How is it that the gods are commenting on the last scene together with the audience?

Kurt Streit (Loge) and the gods © Monika Rittershaus (2009)
Kurt Streit (Loge) and the gods
© Monika Rittershaus (2009)

Sebastian Weigle led the orchestra in a spirited and cogent account of the opera. From the initial E flat, the music flowed naturally and seamlessly as if a new note was the most logical continuation to the one before. There was little playing with tempi or dynamics; it was an honest and smooth storytelling, no mean feat superbly handled by the skilled orchestra. Weigle and his orchestra greatly contributed to the satisfying drama that unfolded efficiently.

Jochen Schmeckenbecher (Alberich) and Kurt Streit (Loge) © Monika Rittershaus (2009)
Jochen Schmeckenbecher (Alberich) and Kurt Streit (Loge)
© Monika Rittershaus (2009)
Singers were asked to be physically agile in this architectural set. Kurt Streit’s Loge was the fittest of them all, displaying moves that sometimes bordered on athletics. He was an experienced Loge, and sang with great nuance while executing difficult moves. Together with Jochen Schmeckenbecher, an experienced Alberich, he was a leading performer of the fine vocal ensemble. Their scene in the Nibelheim was a highlight, as they exchanged banter and insults as if they were the oldest friends/enemies.

The women all sang well. The three Rhinemaidens, clad in mermaid-like glittering gowns and blond wigs, were caricatures of flirty and cruel women. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner was elegant in both appearance and voice, and her Fricka was unusually sympathetic in her warm and incisive singing. Meredith Arwady as Erda, in an animal hair outfit and saddled with three children (the Norns?), sang with clear and light voice, not typical of Erda but was nevertheless touching. Lise Davidsen, winner of the 2015 Operalia competition, gave us a sense of what this young Norwegian soprano might one day be singing (Sieglinde? Brünnhilde?) in her brief moments as Freia. Hers is a rich and brilliant voice effortlessly produced across registers. Her high notes soared above the orchestra. She is definitely a singer to watch.

James Rutherford’s lyrical voice was well-suited for the young Wotan. He had no problem essaying the role, including the last few bars the require singing both high and loud. Alfred Reiter as Fasolt and Per Bach Nissen as Fafner both made up for lack of menace in their singing with good vocal acting. It was nice to hear well-cast From (Beau Gibson) and Donner (Vuyani Mlinde) to round out the excellent ensemble.

***11