An open curtain greets the entering spectator at the Royal Opera House’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold. The set is covered by just a canvas. It’s an odd way to begin the opera, whose opening scene is set at the bottom of the Rhine and whose opening measures are thought to depict the world in an incipient, primeval state. Also likely to perplex is what the canvas reveals when it is pulled away: the large trunk of a burned-out tree resting on its side. (Rufus Didwiszus designed the sets, generously lit by Alessandro Carletti.) But the director Barrie Kosky, whose staging initiates a new production of Der Ring des Nibelungen to be completed over four years, has clearly given the libretto a close reading.
The trunk represents the remnants of the world ash tree, derived from Norse mythology, that Wagner appropriates as a symbol of wisdom. (An ash tree is also present in Die Walküre, but a different one.) Those who know their Wagner will remember that the god Wotan’s power stems from a visit once made to the ash tree, during which he broke off a branch and fashioned a spear, inscribing on it runes and treaties that form the basis of the rule of law he enforces. He later violates these laws by paying for the construction of the fortress Walhalla with stolen goods, which results in the collapse of his rule and order. His action is irremediable, a point the Ring emphasizes again and again.
Kosky, however, plausibly suggests that there is a second force at work. In the Ring cycle’s final opera, Götterdämmerung, we finally learn that by ripping off the branch for his spear, Wotan created a wound that caused the tree to wither and die. Kosky considers this affront to nature as irreparable as Wotan’s illicit bargain. This is why the decayed ash tree is front and center in the first and appears in every subsequent scene of Rheingold, even being demeaned by the addition of industrial accoutrements when the action moves to Nibelheim. Yet through it all, none of the characters seems to recognize the tree’s existence, let alone appreciate the implications of its sorry state.
Kosky’s new Ring cycle, which will be produced over the coming years, can thus be expected to depict nothing less than the demise of the Earth as we know it. The interpretation is textually supported (although Wagner did allow humans to survive the apocalypse) and it resonates in our time of environmental decay. Since Ring productions have addressed this issue before, the question becomes: how will Kosky develop his concept over the course of the cycle? In the first production, he keeps his cards close to his chest. The action unfolds fluently and recognizably, though his treatment of Erda shows how quirky his productions can be: acted by Rose Knox-Peebles, an eighty-two-year-old woman, but sung by Wiebke Lehmkuhl (in imposing voice), the Earth goddess is a constant presence, and she is for almost the entirety of the performance completely naked. Also idiosyncratic is Kosky’s treatment of the Rhinegold itself as a liquid commodity. When the giants insist that the gold be used—stacked, in the original—to block Freia from their view, the liquid is poured over her in a bathtub, a fate that seems especially unpleasant.
The Royal Opera assembled an able young cast, though one with just a single German in it. The company was especially fortunate in its casting of the more challenging roles: Alberich is often said to be the villain of the Ring, but he can also be an object of sympathy, and Christopher Purves brought the expressivity of a lieder singer to many of the dwarf’s phrases without sounding underpowered. Christopher Maltman, smartly dressed in riding attire (Victoria Behr’s costumes give the gods an upper-middle-class look), revealed the young Wotan’s arrogance while singing solidly and meaningfully. This Wotan clearly tries to promote congenial relationships: as the characters gather in his abode in one scene, gods and giants alike feel free to help themselves to a drink.
Sean Panikkar, vocally and visually over-the-top in his rendition of Loge, grated in a role that needs, besides character, the assurance of a stylish lyrical heldentenor; I didn’t hear one legato phrase from him all evening. Among the other singers, Marina Prudenskaya was a feminine, vocally appealing Fricka and Brenton Ryan a vivid Mime, while Soloman Howard (Fafner) and In Sung Kim (Fasolt) made for an aptly differentiated pair of giants.
The Ring cycle now launched is the second for the conductor Antonio Pappano, the Royal Opera’s music director since 2002. He leaves the post at the end of the current season (to be succeeded by Jakob Hrůša) but will return to conduct Kosky’s Ring operas as they are introduced. The well-paced, dramatically charged, and sumptuously played performance he presided over is a testament to the standards he has set and maintained as well as the bonds he has established with the orchestra as the music director.