Das Rhinegold is the first of Wagner’s works that comprise his epic four-opera Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). It premiered as a single opera at the National Theatre Munich on 22 September 1869, receiving its first performance as part of the Ring cycle at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus on 13 August 1876. Das Rheingold gives the background to the events that drive the main dramas of the cycle.
Birmingham Opera Company’s new production is a RhineGold for our times, with references to fake news, coronavirus, Black Lives Matter, civil unrest and more. Wagner’s opera about greed, power and corruption has been brought up to date.
It opens with ‘our leader’ Wotan – dressed in a gold lamé tracksuit – giving a news conference to announce his ‘Your Lives Matter’ campaign. At the same time ‘industry giants’ Fasolt and Fafner are demanding payment for constructing Wotan’s fortress, the scale model of which looks a lot like a wall.
Then the true action of the production begins, with the Nibelung Alberich trying to woo the sultry Rhine Maidens. They reject him and instead he steals their gold in order to forge it into a magic ring. Powerless, reviled and spurned, the outsider believes the ring can make his own life matter.
But the all-powerful ring corrupts its user, and he enslaves his fellow Nibelungs. With help from his trusted advisor Loge, Wotan seizes the gold and the ring to pay the giants, but Alberich curses the ring and its possessors. Wotan tries to keep the ring, in an attempt to prolong with gods’ waning powers. However, a warning comes from the earth goddess Erda and Wotan yields the ring to the giants.
This new production from Birmingham Opera Company was semi-staged at Birmingham Symphony Hall, with a full symphony orchestra. The company is known for staging opera in empty warehouses and disused factories, and this production was meant to be performed at Port Loop, part of a redevelopment site. However, it took place in August 2021 and coronavirus restrictions meant it had to move to a more conventional location.
It was to have been directed by Birmingham Opera Company’s artistic director Graham Vick, but he died of Covid just as rehearsals began. The production was instead directed by the company’s general director Richard Willacy. This performance was filmed on 2 August 2021.
Often with these streamed performances there are issues with poor lighting or low definition. This isn’t the case here. If you can, it’s worth watching it on a TV rather than a laptop – it justifies the bigger screen.
RhineGold is sung in English in a new translation by Jeremy Sams. Much of it is poetic, using such devices as rhyme, rhythm and alliteration so it scans well. A couple of sweary bits make it NSFW, while Alberich calling Loge a twat is amusing.
The main cast performs alongside local volunteers. This is very much Alberich, Wotan and Loge’s opera and the three respective singers perform admirably.
British baritone Ross Ramgobin makes for a sympathetic Alberich. Transformed into a cycle courier, the themes of poverty, inequality and power are explored here, and at times it’s hard not to feel sorry for the much-put-upon Alberich, although his downfall is brought about by his own hubris.
American baritone Eric Greene has a wonderfully rich tone and great diction as Wotan; he ably projects the charisma and authority required for the role. However, American-born, UK-based tenor Brenden Gunnell steals the show as devious Loge. He looks like a heavy metal biker, with leather trousers and red string vest. His voice is clear and powerful, his performance by turns scheming, controlled, humorous, camp and uneasy.
Sound reproduction is sometimes questionable on these streamed productions. Luckily, it’s excellent here. The music is sublime. The conductor is Alpesh Chauhan, Birmingham Opera Company’s music director. He ably leads the 87 players of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.
This is an inventive staging of Wagner’s opera and it works well as a film, avoiding the pitfalls that some productions fall into. Thought has clearly gone into the lighting, sound and reproduction. You can watch RhineGold on OperaVision for free until 9 March.
• RhineGold, Wagner, by Birmingham Opera Company
• Broadcast on: 2 August 2021 from Birmingham Symphony Hall
• Available on: OperaVision and YouTube
• Length: 2hrs, 39 mins
• Available to: 9 March.2023
• Language: English
• Price: free
A RhineGold for our times. This is a very watchable production with excellent lighting, sound and resolution.