The Ring Cycle is opera’s biggest box set: a sixteen-hour binge of dwarves, nymphs, dragons, gods, heroes and monsters, all suspended inside one of the greatest philosophical conundrums expressed by the human mind – and set to glorious, extraordinary music. Technically, Das Rheingold is a ‘preparatory evening’: it’s the story of why the whole story began (or in Netflix, “Previously on The Ring Cycle…”). Accordingly, it’s got lots of characters, lots of plot; after all, it’s setting up three more huge music dramas, culminating in the death of the gods, the end of everything and the burning down of the entire world (in order for love and virtue to be restored to a purified universe: well, Wagner never did anything by halves).
It therefore may surprise some people that it’s possible to find a Rheingold which takes only 100 minutes to perform (that’s a whole hour shorter than usual), but this year’s Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre offers just that: Graham Vick and Jonathan Dove’s controversially slimmed version in a brilliantly minimalist, tightly honed production directed by the eagle-eyed Julia Burbach. Dove often cuts and joins on the same chord, allowing the piece to flow seamlessly ahead, and if you know it really well, you’ll know where the joins are, and even notice (shock horror) where Dove has interpolated the odd passage to fill the cracks. But, for the rest of us: this Rheingold is a revelation. The only shortcuts taken are in the score itself, which is played with surprising richness (given the confined space) by the 18-strong Orpheus Sinfonia, conducted with care and precision by Peter Selwyn: meanwhile, the singing is top notch, the acting forensic, the staging ingenious. Bettina John’s design uses cardboard boxes as giant building blocks, decorated with hand-drawn graffiti summoning all the iconography of the Ring, as well as Valhalla itself, which can be built and rebuilt at will while Wotan argues with his giant builders about their fee. John’s creativity is literally brilliant: just watch how Alberich steals the gold from the Rhine by snatching all light from the stage in his mirrored palm (my jaw dropped).
Burbach’s direction makes this Rheingold very much Alberich’s story, played with tantalising humanity by Seth Carico: from the first moment he saunters on stage, picks up cardboard headphones and begins to imagine the world into musical and literal being, Carico’s Alberich is a dreamer disillusioned by rejection and stung into bitter vengefulness, soon scared but also intoxicated by the power of his Ring – I’ve never seen a more fascinating Alberich, quite apart from Carico’s crystal-clear tenor. Kiandra Howarth produces a stunning dual performance as the Rhinemaiden Woglinde and goddess Freia, her creamy soprano glowing with energy; meanwhile, Claire Barnett-Jones and the stunning Marianne Vidal alternate nightly between Fricka and Wellgunde, which is luxury casting whichever way round you get them, with Angharad Lyddon completing the nymph trio as a vivid, passionate Flosshilde. Barnett-Jones’ Fricka exudes emotional intelligence, yet remains vulnerable in her permanent suspicion of Wotan, marvellously depicted by Paul Carey Jones, who gives us a masterful account of a god of many layers, from ruthless corporate master of the universe to a penetrating world soul, troubled and intrigued by the warnings of Erda (the magnificent Harriet Williams). Andrew Tipple’s huggably innocent craftsman Fasolt is a resonant treat, while Dingle Yandell is spot on with the acquisitive callousness of Fafner, Yandell’s rich bass deep enough for a Rhinemaiden to dive in. Philip Sheffield’s dapper, weaselly Loge is memorably acted, voiced with a distinctive metallic edge which rather suits this sharp dealer in spin. Gareth Brynmor John’s ebullient Donner, complete with immaculate trainers, baseball bat and braggadocio attitude, brings weight to the family dynamic throughout, finishing with the most sumptuous of storm-summoning arias… The world may not be on fire yet, but this cast definitely are, many of them making role debuts. [And meanwhile, guess who’s already booked to be Longborough’s Wotan next year? Paul Carey Jones.]
If you’re a Wagner fan, you’re likely to go one of two ways. One I’d characterise as the “Granny’s china” route: “How dare Jonathan Dove make cuts to the genius of Wagner? How dare anyone mess with my best, most precious Rheingold, which must only be brought out in full on special occasions and handled with the very best dramatic care at all times?” The other way, however, I’d call the “gateway drug” route: “This may be shortened, but it’s musically breathtaking, emotionally gripping, and dramatically convincing, and is a better advert for the genius of Wagner to a new audience than I’ve seen for ages: if they see this, it’s good enough to get them wanting more.”
My vote: if there any tickets left at all, swap your immortal apple-growing sister for one immediately. And don’t take a jumper – the Arcola gets hotter than a Nibelheim mineshaft. But it’s so, so worth it.
Box office: 020 7503 1646 (until 10 August)
Part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre