Fasolt and Fafner arrive driving fork-lifts. When Fasolt confronts Wotan about his contract, aggressively grabbing the latter’s spear, it is hard not to think of the controversies between management and unions that have recently dogged Palermo’s Teatro Massimo.
This new Rheingold marks the start of one of the Wagner anniversary year’s most bold and ambitious Ring cycles. It was the brainchild of Antonio Cognata, under whose no-nonsense leadership the Teatro Massimo managed to shrink its €27m debt by almost half, increase attendance and stage the Italian premieres of several major 20th-century operas. That kind of savvy fiscal housekeeping in Italy is not compatible with a union-friendly approach, and Cognata was not loved by the Sicilian left – he was even beaten up by unidentified men in 2009. But he ran a tight ship, and the political decision to oust him and install acting director Fabio Carapezza Guttuso late last year is hard to explain in rational, managerial or financial terms.
Despite this internal chaos, Palermo’s Rheingold is a moderately promising start for a Ring that will unfold one opera at a time throughout 2013 in the city where Wagner wrote much of Parsifal. Budget constraints mean that most money has been spent on singers and orchestra, leaving little for sets and costumes. After his Ring cycles for the Birmingham Opera Company and Lisbon’s Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, Graham Vick has both plenty of experience of shoestring Wagner and many ideas to recycle. Which of course he does, though there is also an auspicious sense of a coherent, new unifying concept.
This Rheingold plays on a bare stage, with a populace of plainclothes supernumeraries who are variously the Rhine river (in clear plastic raincoats), minions of Niebelheim (in suits, with laptops), and the Rainbow Bridge (with umbrellas). We, the audience, watch from Valhalla, a point easily made by raising the house lights where appropriate. Pietari Inkinen draws warm and confident playing from the orchestra, and supports his singers well, though the empty stage creates acoustic challenges and tension sometimes flags.
Of the cast, Keel Watson’s Fasolt is the truest Wagnerian voice and gives the most moving performance of the evening. Sergei Leiferkus is a commanding, sophisticated Alberich, Stephanie Corley’s Freia has youthful freshness and bloom, and Will Hartmann makes an agile, cynical Loge. It is hard to imagine Franz Hawlata’s Wotan surviving Die Walküre – already he sounds tired and frayed – and the less said about the Rhinemaidens the better. But overall the cast is credible.
Palermo’s 1897 Teatro Massimo is Italy’s biggest opera house, and has one of the most illustrious (if troubled) histories. Italy’s new cultural minister, Lorenzo Ornaghi, was present on Tuesday night. It can only be hoped that he will be inspired to fight for better conditions for his country’s cash-strapped opera houses, before hundreds of years of cultural wealth are sacrificed for the sake of a few short-term savings.