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Underwater opera? Anybody staging Das Rheingold attempts it, since the first act plays out in the depths of the Rhine river. But few productions look wetter than Valencia’s. It helps that the city’s brand-new €300m opera house looks for all the world like a strange, futuristic ship, with the stage well below where the water level should be. Add Rhinemaidens swimming in individual Plexiglas fish-tanks amid vast, bold images of video-projected water, and you have just the sensational start that Wagner must have hoped for.

This is a sink-or-swim Ring for Valencia. The new house’s long- overdue first season has been fraught with problems, with the Intendant Helga Schmidt coming under fire for everything from the collapse of the stage’s hydraulic lifts to inefficient ticketing. To launch straight into the first half of Wagner’s tetralogy with a brand-new orchestra and the anarchistic Catalan theatre group La Fura dels Baus was a risk.

Schmidt minimised potential mishaps by hiring Zubin Mehta to conduct and a big-name cast of Wagner veterans to sing. How much could go wrong?

With La Fura, prone to wild flights of fantasy and not famous for dramaturgical vigour, plenty. But the Valencian Rheingold starts with fantastic promise and stays on course as the evening progresses. La Fura’s director Carlus Padrissa and video designer Franc Aleu have come up with a wealth of evocative images, beautifully realised video projections rich in computer-generated detail. The results are cinematic in scope and full of intelligent detail. Even better, the images work as an integral part of the staging, dynamic and inventive, never purely decorative. The gold itself appears, in a homage to Kubrick’s 2001, as a gigantic gold-plated foetus. In the Nibelheim, Alberich’s minions work with apocalyptic conveyor-belts to manufacture legions of gilded humanoids. Later, chained together, these form the walls of Valhalla. From afar, we watch our planet turn, crack and splinter.

There is little stage direction in the classic sense. Aleu and Padrissa deal in gestures and images, not psychology or character development. Gods and giants are moved about on wheeled, levered lifts, more puppets than actors. Emotional expression is left to the singers. Luckily, most fare well here. Anna Larsson is a forceful Fricka, Franz-Josef Kapellmann an articulate Alberich; John Daszak is charismatic and persuasive as Loge. Matti Salminen almost steals the show as Fasolt, eclipsing the mellifluous but insipid Wotan of his young compatriot Juha Uusitalo.

Zubin Mehta works hard in the pit, producing clean and accurate playing. This is no substitute for a real Wagner tradition, something that cannot be created overnight, but Mehta coaxes and cajoles to impressive effect. Every tradition begins somewhere.

Unfortunately, La Fura’s ideas run out where Die Walküre begins, and all the frenetic promise of Das Rheingold fizzles out into a few projected images above lonely singers in tragic costumes (design: Roland Olbeter and Chu Uroz). Siegmund, Sieglinde and Hunding wear rags and wield bones like the Flintstones gone wrong, the Valkyries are moved dully up and down on their lifts, Brünnhilde’s ring of fire is created by black-clad men with juggling torches – all far below the standards set two nights earlier.

The singing, however, remains first-class. Peter Seiffert’s Siegmund is the real thing, fearless and unflagging, with Matti Salminen back as a formidable Hunding. Petra Maria Schnitzer’s Sieglinde is accomplished and Jenifer Wilson’s Brünnhilde fares well, but Juha Uusitalo confirms the impression he gave in Das Rheingold, that however gorgeous the sounds he makes, it is too soon for him to be singing Wotan.

Valencia’s Ring continues next May, and should be finished in 2009. Perhaps that will be time enough for La Fura to fill in the blanks.

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