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If all-knowing Erda had pronounced on the likely fate of this first complete cycle of the Royal Opera’s new Ring des Nibelungen, she probably would have foretold disappointment. The productions of the four operas were not thought a success when performed individually and Bryn Terfel, whose Wotan was arguably the raison d’être of the enterprise, cancelled a couple of weeks ago.
So it was a pleasant surprise to find Tuesday’s opening performance of Das Rheingold setting out with such a confident sense of where it was going. It helped that the Royal Opera had a reserve Wotan polishing his spear in the wings. John Tomlinson, who was to have sung the second of the three cycles, is scheduled for the lot and, at 61, still has everything a potent Wotan needs save some top notes. His portrayal of the chief god as the ageing head of a well-to-do Victorian household living beyond his means – shades of Wagner himself – promises to be a vivid presence throughout.
Equating the gods with the bourgeoisie of Wagner’s time is one of the main ideas behind Keith Warner’s production. Here, as Bernard Shaw told us, is a tale of the upper class indolently looking on as their position in the social hierarchy is threatened by the up-and-coming new money of the industrial revolution. Having only seen Siegfried the first time round – the scatter-gun approach to opera production (fire enough ideas and some will stick) – I was unprepared for how vivid and convincing the start of the cycle might be.
Although there is a shortage of first-class Wagnerian voices, every character comes alive. Wotan’s family are a delightfully supercilious shower, including Rosalind Plowright’s rather wayward Fricka and Emily Magee’s wordless Freia. The Nibelungs, led by the incisive Peter Sidhom as Alberich and Gerhard Siegel as a bumbling Mime, have become a race of ominously horrible scientists. Philip Langridge played a brilliantly know-it-all Loge. Will Hartmann’s Froh, Peter Coleman-Wright’s Donner and Jane Henschel’s Erda supply the surest singing. Where great Wagnerians tread with awe and majesty, Antonio Pappano can be a penny-plain conductor, but he guides the musical narrative with a strong hand. Suddenly, the prospect of a whole cycle does not seem half bad.