Sunday, March 21, 2004

I went to see Rhinegold at English National Opera on Friday. I've been looking forward to the ENO Ring for years. I've bought tickets for the whole cycle this year, I went to the staged rehearsals over the last two years, and I was eagerly awaiting the visual spectacle of the full production. And how my heart sank when the curtain rose to reveal the Rhinemaidens got up as lap-dancers in a sleazy club. As the evening wore on it was heart-breaking to watch the superb musicianship of the orchestra and cast struggling at every turn to make itself heard through the puerile nonsense of the production. Rhinegold is full of nature music - invoking mountains, rivers, caverns, sunrise and rainbows - but on stage all we could see was relentlessly urban, indoor settings, and the gods (how thought provoking!) portrayed as a family of gangsters and the Nibelungs as overalled proles.

The worst thing about this kind of pretentious bollocks is that it closes the door on newcomers. It becomes a game for insiders. We who know the operas are invited to admire the director's clever insights into Wagner's subtexts, or his witty subversion of Wagner's intentions. But for a newcomer the story is rendered unintelligible by the fact that there is very little correlation between the words that the characters are singing and the actions that they are performing on the stage. For example Rhinegold climaxed with the gods' triumphal entry into their new home Valhalla. The orchestra was describing this spine-tingling moment with electrifying skill, but what we saw on stage was a press conference, with a crowd of photographers gathered around Wotan. Oh so clever-clever, but how would a Ring first-timer make sense of all this?

Is it really any wonder that opera audiences continue to shrink and age?

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