The catalyst for the action in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is the theft of the gold. To some, the entire 18-hour cycle that follows is a parable of capitalist greed – an open invitation to set the operas at Canary Wharf, with Wotan as the head of a multinational bank and the scrabbling Nibelungen as a horde of grasping bond traders.
It is probably fortunate that Keith Warner’s production for the Royal Opera preceded the financial world’s own Götterdämmerung. Assembled between 2004 and 2006, it offers a rather muddle-headed take on the big picture, though Das Rheingold starts out promisingly enough, pitting the aristocratic, 19th-century ruling class of the gods against warring clans of Victorian industrialists and evil-minded scientists.
This second revival of Warner’s Ring arrives as preparations are warming up for the composer’s bicentenary in 2013. Much of the cast is new, though at its head stands the original Wotan of Bryn Terfel, who increasingly feels like the raison d’etre of the entire enterprise. Gloriously sung, imposingly played as the patrician leader of a dying breed, Terfel’s Wotan is a match for any, past or present. His ability to sing quietly and look intimately into his character’s heart provides a depth of understanding that is generally missing from what is going on around him.
The rest of the cast put musical qualities first. There is little of the old-style Wagnerian shouting, barking or whining, though with some loss of character along the way. Wolfgang Koch’s businesslike Alberich and his sidekick, the nerdy Mime of Gerhard Siegel, sing solidly. Sarah Connolly makes a dignified Fricka and, among those who will not appear again later, Stig Andersen was a somewhat muted Loge, Ann Petersen a nicely open-hearted Freia, and Iain Paterson sang strongly as the more human of the giants, Fasolt.
Antonio Pappano’s musical direction lives very much in the here-and-now. There is little of the mythic quality of some Wagnerians to his conducting, or their achingly expansive speeds, and he keeps the music on a keen, forward trajectory that should ensure this cycle never loses its impetus – appropriately so, when a real-life financial crisis that might have been drawn from the Ring is still so urgently with us.