Der Ring Des Nibelungs: Das Rheingold Performed by the Mariinksy Opera

Das Rheingold © N.Razina (16)Last night, Mariinsky Opera’s take on Wagner’s epic masterpiece, Der Ring Des Nibelungen, opened at the Birmingham Hippodrome with Das Rheingold, a mythic prelude to the epic story of Siegfried, Brünnhilde and the ultimate overthrow of the Norse pantheon that occurs across the rest of the tetralogy.

The Mariinsky’s Das Rheingold is a beautiful thing to behold from start to finish. The curtain lifts to reveal a group of performers draped in glowing blue cables, swaying, wave-like, around a series of strange, dwarfish statues in a mesmerising dance sequence that builds slowly along with Wagner’s stunning, ethereal prelude. Beautiful music washes over the audience as lights flicker across the stone figures, like sunlight seen underwater. Thus we are transported to the watery world of the Rhinemaidens who, to our surprise, eventually emerge from the rocks where they have been resting onstage all the while, revealed by light that slowly brightens like day dawning. Once we’ve seen them, we wonder how on earth we could have missed them: dressed in pearly gowns with striking, otherwordly hairstyles, everything about them announces them as magical beings before they ever open their mouths.

047These fantastic – in both senses – costume designs are matched elsewhere: the gods are styled in a brilliantly bold and bonkers fashion, vivid and colourful in every sense. Alexander Timchenko as Froh, for example, manages to pull off flowing, rainbow-coloured locks without losing any of his divine dignity. Wotan and Fricka are magisterially dressed in long, white, Grecian gowns, while Donner shimmers in appropriately silvery robes, a glittering, lightning-blue streak flashing through his hair. When Loge finally emerges, he is a vision in fiery red with a sharply peaked hairline. Freia’s golden dress, meanwhile, matches both golden apples of youth she tends, as well as the mound of Rhinegold she is eventually exchanged for, serving as a constant reminder of how she is valued and the shame of Wotan’s transactions with the giants.

Beyond the characters, the design of the set itself is magnificent and massive in scale: Valhalla glistens gloriously, even as huge, giant-like figures hover ominously in the air above it. The creepy statues present right from the opening are most striking of all in the Nibelungs’ mines, where their faces glow a bright, warning red.

Despite all these impressive constructions, however, the whole thing is played out against a completely plain backdrop, designed to emphasise the show’s complex lighting that in many ways does a better job of setting scenes and immersing us in the story than any flat, painted background ever could. This is one of few productions I’ve seen where it’s impossible not to be constantly aware of the lighting design, which becomes almost as important in creating mood as is the music itself. Through shifts in colour and brightness, we travel from the depths of the Rhine to the shining Valhalla, and away again to the fiery furnaces of the Niebelungs.

097The dwarfs, too, look wonderful, with fat bellies, bulked up shoulders, spindly fingers and inflated heads. For all their exaggerated, inhuman features, however, we still feel for them – especially Mime, who is played by Andrey Popov with a brilliant mix of comic timing and genuine pathos.

Elsewhere, Willard White portrays a complex and commanding Wotan, and Alexander Timchenko is charming as the gentle, soft-hearted Froh. Evgeny Ulanov’s Donner is considerably more powerful and interesting than certain recent interpretations of Norse myth have led us to expect the God of Thunder to be, though the thunderstorm he conjures towards the end could perhaps have been a little more dramatic. Overall though, it’s difficult not to be taken most with the trickster fire god, Loge. Mikhail Vekua makes a deliciously mischievous and cheerfully crafty Loge, swelling with conceit in his own cleverness and guaranteed to disappoint hundreds of teenagers besotted with Marvel’s mopey, misunderstood film version of Loki.

Wagner’s music, imagination and capacity for storytelling offer perhaps the perfect route in to opera for contemporary audiences: as Neil Brand explained in his Ringside talk, it is his musical style, radically different to anything that came before, which has been largely responsible for shaping our understanding of film scoring to this day. The Prelude to Das Rheingold makes it immediately clear that this is unlike anything you might expect from an opera by almost anyone other than Wagner, and the rhythms and dramatic beats of his compositions will be immediately familiar to the modern movie-goer.

088Overall then, an exciting start to the series, which promises to be something very special. More thoughts on the story of Das Rheingold to follow, as well as a review of Die Walküre which is showing at 5pm tonight.

For more information and to book tickets for The Ring Cycle, visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website.

Header image by N. Razina. Other images taken from the Birmingham Hippodrome blog.

Ringside: Film, Music and Adventure Inspired by Richard Wagner

ringsideTo celebrate the Mariinsky Opera’s upcoming performance of the Ring Cycle at the Birmingham Hippodrome, a series of special events were held over the weekend, each inspired by Richard Wagner’s iconic work. Across Saturday and Sunday, visitors were invited to enjoy a wide range of free and cheap performances around Birmingham’s Southside area.

Saturday’s Ringside programme kicked off at 11am with One of Our Singers is Missing, an interactive show that took the form of a kind of treasure hunt or murder mystery game, suitable for kids and grown-ups of all ages. Every 15 minutes throughout the day, small teams were sent off to search for a purportedly missing Mariinsky Opera singer named Albert. All was not what it first seemed, however: a simple walk round Southside soon turned into an epic adventure, that saw participants encounter a range of otherworldly beings who assisted them in the discovery of an all-powerful ring. A fun, free way to pass a Saturday afternoon with friends and family, One of Our Singers is Missing also offered a great opportunity to get to know Southside and perhaps to visit somewhere new.

DSCF3348[1]At 4pm, dramatist, author, musician and composer Neil Brand discussed the impact of Wagnerian opera on film music through the ages in the theatre’s Patrick Centre. His engaging two-part talk, Film Music and the Ghost of Wagner, explored explored the emotional and psychological effects of soundtracks on audiences, and how styles and dramatic structures first used by Wagner have always played an important part in making the movies what they are. Using examples ranging from early silent films to contemporary superhero blockbusters, Brand offered a fascinating and enlightening insight into the relationship between sound and pictures. In addition to examining the work of some of his favourite film composers, Brand also demonstrated how subtle changes in music can completely alter our perception of a story by playing two different versions of an accompanying score alongside silent footage of a shipwreck.

Neil Brand (credit TOM CATCHESIDES)The talk was immediately followed by a free concert in the theatre foyer, with students and former students of the Birmingham Conservatoire performing the “Siegfried Idyll”, a beautiful melody based on one of Brunnhilde’s songs from Der Ring des Nibelungen, thought to have been composed by Wagner as a sort of love letter to his wife. The Conservatoire played the piece perfectly: it was magnificent to listen to, and a great taster for the Ring Cycle itself, which will be staged from Wednesday through to Sunday this week. The evening then rounded off with cabaret from Kit and McConnel, who performed their opera-inspired comedy show The Fat Lady Sings.

Conservatoire SIEGFRIEDOn Sunday afternoon, The Electric Cinema played host to a special screening of Fritz Lang’s Siegfried, widely acknowledged as a masterpiece of the silent era. The film was accompanied by a live piano score from Neil Brand, who played throughout the film (over two hours) with an unflagging energy. The movie itself is a really interesting take on the myth that makes some significant changes to the story, notably that Brunhild is actively scorned by Siegfried rather than him being tricked into forgetting her. It also features an amazingly impressive dragon that actually breathes fire and smoke, which must have been some feat of engineering!

788px-Nibelungen_film1Ringside continues on Saturday 8th November with Brunch with the Brunnhildes: a brunch discussion with sopranos Susan Bullock and Catherine Foster who will discuss their experiences of performing in the Ring Cycle with Front Row‘s Matthew D’Ancona. For more information, click here.

Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen begins on Wednesday 5th November with Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold), and concludes on Sunday 9th November with Götterdämmerung (Ragnarök). For more information and to book, visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website.

Neil Brand photo by Tom Catchesides.

Ringside – Special Events Inspired by Wagner’s Ring Cycle

ringside

To coincide with its full run of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in November, the Birmingham Hippodrome is presenting a series of special, themed events from 25th October until 8th November. Called Ringside, the diverse programme encompasses everything from film to cabaret, concerts to family friendly adventure games.

Kicking things off in The Patrick Centre on Saturday 25th and Sunday 26th October, Reel Access will be screening a film titled Twilightofthefreakinggods, adapted from a play by Stan’s Café, which is in turn based on Wagnerian opera. All in black and white, this striking, wordless movie features a stunning original soundtrack. Twilightofthefreakinggods begins at  6.30pm on the Saturday and 2.30pm on the Sunday, with tickets priced at £6. Check out the Stan’s Cafe website for more information and clips, or click here to book.

Then, on Saturday 1st November, a packed schedule starts at 11am with One Of Our Singers Is Missing, a real-life, interactive game open to all. Participants will be sent to search for a missing opera singer, following clues to save the star and bring them safely back to the Hippodrome. This free adventure will be taking place every 15 minutes until 4pm. To join in, you’ll need to book a place via the Birmingham Hippodrome Website.

At 4pm, Neil Brand, presenter of BBC4’s acclaimed Sound of Cinema – The Music that Made the Movies series, will be discussing modern film scores and searching for elements of Wagner within them. Film Music and the Ghost of Wagner will be taking place in the Patrick Centre with tickets priced at £10. Click here to book.

Then from 5.30pm, students from the Birmingham Conservatoire will be taking over the Hippodrome foyer to play Wagner’s much-loved Siegfried Idyll, conducted by David Purser. Based on one of Brunnhilde’s melodies from The Ring Cycle, the song was written by the composer as a birthday present to his wife. This event will be open to all with no advance booking required.

This beautiful free concert will be followed by an evening of cabaret with West End stars Kit and McConnell, who will be offering their own irreverent take on the opera repertoire in The Fat Lady Sings. A veteran of Radio 4’s Just A Minute, Kit Hesketh Harvey is also well known for his work as one half of comedy duo, Kit and the Widow. The Fat Lady Sings will take place in the Patrick Centre from 7.30pm. Tickets cost £18 and can be booked online here.

On Sunday 2nd November, Birmingham’s Electric Cinema will be running a special screening of Fritz Lang’s Siegfried at 11.30am. One of the classics of early cinema, this 1924 film will be accompanied by an authentic live piano score played by Neil Brand. Tickets cost £10-16.50 and can be booked via The Electric’s website.

Nibelungen_film1

Finally, on Saturday 8th November, leading soprano singers Susan Bullock and Catherine Foster will discuss the challenges of performing in a five-hour-long opera in Brunch with the Brunnhildes at 11.30am in the Patrick Centre. Hosted by Spectator journalist and presenter of Radio 4’s Front Row, Matthew D’Ancona, the event will cost £25 to attend with brunch included in the ticket price. Menu and booking details can be found on the Hippodrome website.

The Ring Cycle will run at the Birmingham Hippodrome in four parts, presented on Wednesday 5th, Thursday 6th, Saturday 8th and Sunday 9th November. Each show will be conducted by Valery Gergiev and performed by the Mariinsky Opera. More information is available here.