The essence of Wagner Ring of the Nibelung This is also what Graham Vick communicated so amazingly in several of his unforgettable productions with his Birmingham Opera Company (Khovanskygate in a marquee and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in a disused nightclub were perhaps the most revealing experiences of my opera life to date).
This spring he embarked on RhineGold, unusual place then to be confirmed, but fell ill with Covid and died, at just 67 years old, two weeks ago – the biggest personal shock of the time for many of us. The ensemble he formed, including a full Birmingham City Symphony Orchestra led by the brilliant young Alpesh Chauhan, born in the city he still lives in and the new musical director of BOC, has honored his memory until on guard ensuring that the quality of the work and the intensity of the experience, musical drama at its best, came first.
An authentic Vick RhineGold would not have taken place at Symphony Hall; the real experience of previous undertakings was to stand among the singers, moving, gathered by Vick and her partner, choreographer Ron Howell, pushed aside by hordes of police coming out of a van (Khovanskygate) or threatened by humanoid rats (Lady Macbeth). But the lighting of Vick’s regular collaborator for decades, Matthew Richardson, and Stuart Nunn’s designs bring out the essence of it to the highest level. And since the acoustics of the concert hall are the best in the UK, at least for orchestral music, the luxury of a full orchestra, four harps and nine horns (four double Wagner tubas) was equal to what you get. live in Ivan Fischer’s Wagner Days in Budapest’s MUPA Hall – that is, the clearest and most impactful orchestral textures for Wagner all over the world. The ripples of the woods and the colorful chords that you might escape if they came from the orchestra pit create rich, kaleidoscopic textures throughout and atmospheric moments – especially the aging gods due to the absence of the apples of Freia youth – always cast a spell.
As for the cast, it is no coincidence that nine of them are British and American black or Asian singers; Vick, like Peter Sellars, was way ahead of the current curve in ensuring that performers reflect an ideal mix in an ideal audience (there’s still some way to go, but we’re getting there). There was absolutely no weak link, although Symphony Hall was not a great place to get all the words out of Jeremy Sams’ brilliant translation, and there were no surtitles to help. Supreme in this regard was the Lodge of Brendan Gunnell (photo above with Eric Greene’s Wotan), as good sly demigod as I have seen anywhere, a heroic side to the tenor voice bringing beauty to passages like the one in which he sings the beauty of women on earth as something not to be traded for gold. Implicit fire in the red string waistcoat and goggles, leathers distinguishing him, a brilliant thinker but not always master of the game, this Lodge made an uneasy piste master when she was in the center of the stage (a a large circular space was projected at the front half of the stalls, the orchestra in its usual place but behind). Keel Watson’s construction giant Valhalla Fasolt, Andrew Slater’s more prosaic and brutal Fafner, and John-Colyn Gyeantey as Nibelung Mime also worked very well with the text. The sound and physical meaning were more relevant with Eric Greene’s main god Wotan delivering his loudest hypocritical nobility to campaign cameras (photo above); the ultimate moment of Wotan’s “big idea” (the sword, not revealed until the next Ring opera) was perhaps the most resonant and impactful I have heard since Norman Bailey’s divine delivery. Wotan must be as charismatic as that. Chrystal E Williams, Vick’s Katerina Izmailova (or “Wife”), gave us Fricka as a real worried wife so fondled (none of the women do well in RhineGold); the frail Freia, the ransom for the non-payment of the giants, marked the soaring lyricism of Francesca Chiejina more than usual. If BOC changes to Valkyrie, she would surely make a good Sieglinde, and the little we hear of Froh’s valor has given Amar Muchhala hope as his Siegmund. There was another vocal ringtone from Byron Jackson’s boastful cheerleader Donner. The most contrarian cast was a soprano, Gweneth-Ann Rand, as Erda – usually a contralto, but the balance was there – and lyrical baritone Ross Ramgobin as Alberich, the role which is the greatest song in opera. Usually we get a loud bass baritone to describe Nibelung’s renouncing love thief as a creepy villain with the darkest tones, but that clearly wasn’t Vick’s design – this Alberich is an alien, one of those underpaid food delivery cyclists who stumble across the “Rhine Girls” (Zoe Drummond, Felicity Buckland and Georgia Mae Bishop, brilliant and convincing) who protect gold from the powerful. The gold comes out of the bins they occupy; a giant glitter ball causes fear of the treasure.
Later, the Nibelung that Alberich enslaved brings gold in black dish bowls and places it around the stage at the most effective crescendo with the most overwhelming climax I have heard from an orchestra. in 18 months – there are more to come Chauhan’s superbly paced performance, including Alberich’s curse lump, which Ramgobin effortlessly pulls off, leaving the orchestra to make the real cut of steel (j loved the “fuck you” to Wotan and Loge as he ran away). The measure of the giants’ gold against Freia is also the most effective staging of this scene of humiliation that I have seen. So often the “preliminary evening” of Wagner’s tetralogy is a box of scenic stuff, but everything here is done by the performers with a handful of props. The 19 volunteer actors are essential in the interludes; I don’t always know what the message is, other than in the fight against exploitation, “Us” can turn into “Them” (T-shirts have both logos). What I do know is that the final idea is superb: the rainbow bridge on which the conceited gods will pile up in the sky, unaware of their fate, becomes a chasm as seven helmeted cyclists, each in one color of the spectrum, crawl towards indifferent power holders. A sufficiently strong stage image against the overwhelming pomp of the orchestra. Vick would have been proud of his company: he left behind not so much a legacy as a challenge to create the ideal in the future.