- The Washington Times - Monday, December 20, 2004

LONDON - The next great Wotan has arrived. Bryn Terfel sang the role of Wagner’s head god for the first time Saturday night in the premiere of The Royal Opera’s new production of “Das Rheingold,” a macabre staging likely to provoke controversy. With his burnished bass-baritone, impeccable diction and intense acting, he gave a memorable performance that is likely to deepen over the next decade as he performs Wotan on the world’s great stages.

Director Keith Warner, whose Ring Cycle will unfold at Covent Garden over the next three years, has a dark view of the tetralogy. In “Rheingold,” the 2-hour opening work, he filled the stage with sadistic images of Alberich electrocuting a Nibelung, Mime pulling limbs off a rotting corpse and Fafner as a cruel cone head killing his brother Fasolt.

At the end, Wotan already is looking ahead toward “Die Walkure,” unwrapping the sword Nothung during his final aria before jumping Erda during the final bars; a tryst that will produce the Valkyries, Siegmund and Sieglinde.

With impeccable singing and fleet conducting by Covent Garden music director Antonio Pappano, the performance was greeted with extended applause from the sellout crowd.

In the more conservative houses of the United States, there probably would have been loud boos for Mr. Warner,

set designer Stefanos Lazaridis and costume designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca, who clad the characters in Victorian garb.

Mr. Terfel, dressed in a white dinner vest, dominated the stage. Slightly stooped and sneering, he was overtaken by his lust for power, money and sex, with no trace of majesty or optimism. James Morris has dominated this role since the late 1980s. While Mr. Terfel’s bass-baritone voice is lighter, his portrayal is more intense.

Mr. Warner and Mr. Lazaridis (who replaced the architect Daniel Libeskind about 18 months ago) have the opera open with three Rhinemaidens who appear to be naked except for wigs of blue pubic hair.

They prance about a huge silver-colored glass ball hanging by a rope, with the gold in the center. Alberich, the head of the Nibelung dwarf race, enters on a rowboat that loudly makes its way down a huge slide. While lights give the illusion of the set being underwater, it looks more like a cave.

The Rhinemaidens quickly put on some fisherman’s clothes, and one wears a fedora. When they sing of the treasure they guard, it alternately turns gold and red. Alberich puts on a red tie as the trio rejects him, curses love, punctures the ball and makes off with the gold.

While Wagner’s score has the glittering sounds of the sun illuminating Valhalla open the second scene, Mr. Warner has Wotan appear before a black curtain, with a hint of a flickering spotlight.

Instead of setting the second scene on the banks of the river, Mr. Warner has the gods already in the great hall of a Valhalla that resembles the lobby of a contemporary hotel. There are black stone floors, a huge rectangular black table, a metallic ladder, a glass wall, a fireplace, black chairs and a telescope to look down from the heavens.

Several of them enter wearing colorful dressing gowns, as if they’re all congregated after a late night on the town. Freia, whose golden apples are needed to keep the gods young, wears a white dress splattered with blood, and flirts with her captors. Loge wears a tailcoat, is balding and pulls his long red hair into a ponytail.

Fasolt has mutton chops and Fafner looks like a character out of the old “Saturday Night Live” cone head skit, the hugeness of the giants conveyed by projected shadows outside the window at the back of the stage.

Nibelheim is a white-tiled lab where the mad scientist Mime plays with corpses strapped to gurneys. The magic helmet Tarnhelm is a huge cube with nine square mirrors on each panel. When Alberich transforms himself into a serpent, he becomes a huge rotting corpse with the cube on his head. Then he turns into a rubbery toad that hops across the stage, also with a cube on its head. Wotan and Loge then make off with the gold, the ring, the tarnhelm and a small metallic airplane.

In the final scene, when it is time for the entry of the gods into Valhalla, a rainbow replaces the clouds outside the window, three more ladders descend from above and some of the gods climb as Loge takes a burner to the table and makes a baked Alaska.

A cast that would be hard to top produced standout singing: Alberich (Guenter von Kannen), Loge (Philip Langridge), Mime (Gerhard Siegel), Fricka (Rosalind Plowright), Fasolt (Franz-Joseph Selig), Fafner (Phillip Ens), Erda (Jane Henschel), Freia (Emily Magee), Froh (Will Hartmann) and Donner (James Rutherford). The maidens (Sarah Fox, Heather Shipp and Liora Grodnikaite) had attitude rather than the usual dizziness.

There are four more performances through Jan. 10. “Die Walkure,” the next of the Ring operas, opens March 5.

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