Pure Gold: Das Rheingold at the Concertgebouw Amsterdam

Wagner – Das Rheingold

Wotan – Derek Welton
Loge – Thomas Mohr
Alberich – Daniel Schmutzhard
Fricka – Stefanie Irányi
Erda – Gerhild Romberger
Mime – Thomas Ebenstein
Fasolt – Tijl Faveyts
Fafner – Christoph Seidl
Donner – Johannes Kammler
Froh – Tansel Akzeybek
Freia – Sarah Wegener
Woglinde – Ania Vegry
Wellgunde – Ida Aldrian
Flosshilde – Eva Vogel

Concerto Köln / Kent Nagano.
Concert Performance

Grote Zaal, Het Concertgebouw, Amsterdam. The Netherlands.  Saturday, November 20th, 2021.

This concert performance of Das Rheingold marked the start of a new epic, the first ever complete Ring over the next four years on period instruments, the result of years of work by musicologists and performers to better understand Wagner’s sonic universe.  Following a first outing in Cologne two days ago, the cast travelled to Amsterdam to give their second performance as part of the Netherlands Radio Zaterdag Matinee series. 

This was my first visit to Amsterdam since 2018, so a quick note regarding the safety situation in the hall.  The Kingdom of the Netherlands is currently under partial lockdown and the Concertgebouw needed to reduce capacity to comply with regulations.  I must admit to being surprised by the extremely low levels of mask wearing.  While vaccine certificates were checked on the door, none of the venue staff wore masks and only a minority of the audience also wore masks during the show or when using the washrooms.  Fortunately, with the free seating policy of the house, I was able to sit in an area with enough space around me and with people in my vicinity who remained masked.

Photo: © Eduardus Lee

The performance was billed as a semi-staging, although no director was credited in the program book.  The singers sang from the front of the stage, the exception being Gerhild Romberger’s Erda who gave her warning from behind the orchestra, and the cast used gestures to illustrate and colour the text.  Entrances and exits, along with the placing of the singers on the platform, rendered the narrative clear.  The clarity of the diction across the board was phenomenal which, combined with the exceptionally vivid orchestral sonorities, made for an experience that felt as real and direct as any staged production. 

It was extremely apposite that this new approach was born on the banks of the Rhine.  Today, Concerto Köln was augmented to around a hundred players, including a significant string section – 14/12/10/10/7 plus 5 harps (one off-stage) – along with quadruple woodwind and eight horns.  It made for a quite spectacular sight on the stage of the Concertgebouw.  And yes, it sounded even better.  Listening to Concerto Köln play this music under Nagano gave the impression of seeing years of grime cleared from a great building, the edifice made once again gleaming and fresh.  It made Wagner’s music sound as revolutionary as it must have sounded at its first performance and made this familiar score sound completely new.  Nagano made use of flowing tempi, his performance clocked in at just under 2 hours and 15 minutes, yet nothing ever felt rushed.  Instead, it felt utterly natural, the transitions between scenes built with a sense of organic continuity as part of a natural whole.  As the Rheingold was first sighted, the orchestra responded with glinting tone colours and golden brass.  The palette of orchestral colour seemed even more unlimited, the gut strings providing a beguiling warmth, not least in their frequent use of portamento adding an easy lyricism to their playing.  As we descended into Niebelheim, Nagano and his players brought out the half-lights of the scene, making the most of the score’s nocturnal tinta at that point.  Then, as the rainbow bridge came into sight, we were rewarded with a rainbow of orchestral sound, with gossamer strings and the harps wonderfully scintillating through the texture.  The achievement of Concerto Köln’s playing also lay in the quality of the execution – string intonation was true and there was barely a brass fluff during the entire afternoon.  This Rheingold is a major achievement for them.

Photo: © Eduardus Lee

Thanks to the historically-informed approach, we were able to hear some lighter voices than usual in the cast.  Daniel Schmutzhard’s Alberich sounded rather narrow in tone, at least initially.  It felt that his curses were rather passive, less a vocal explosion but rather something more contained.  He did bring out a lot through the text and the tone filled out in body as the evening developed.  Derek Welton has already sung Wotan at the Deutsche Oper and his experience was on display in the way that he savoured the text.  The voice has a wonderful warmth on the bottom and the tone was utterly firm throughout.  In a role that has been occupied by so many barkers over the years, what a pleasure it was to hear the role truly sung – and with a lieder singer’s sensitivity to text combined with an innate sense of legato.  Similarly, Romberger sang Erda in a ruby-red contralto.  While her tuning came in and out of focus, her pointing of the text was utterly compelling.  She warned and we definitely listened.

Thomas Mohr sang Loge with pointed tone and plenty of personality in his sandy tenor.  Again, he brought out so much through the text, holding the stage as much through his verbal acuity as with his focused vocalism.  Stefanie Irányi sang Fricka in a glamourous mezzo, much less a harridan and more a reasonable figure, persuasively sung.  Johannes Kammler’s Donner was sung in a handsome baritone, even from top to bottom.  Tansel Akzeybek’s Froh was sung in a bright, elegant tenor.  Sarah Wegener brought her vibrant soprano to Freia, generous of vibrations.  Both Tijl Faveyts and Christoph Seidl gave us vocal strength as Fasolt and Fafner, Faveyts lacking a little in amplitude at the very top, while Seidl kept the text front and centre, colouring the tone with a hint of acid fitting for his character.  As Mime, Thomas Ebenstein sang with a bright, well-focused tenor, youthful in sound.  We also had a well-blended trio of Rhinemaidens, notably Eva Vogel’s Flosshilde making the presence of her full and peachy mezzo felt in the ensembles.

Photo: © Eduardus Lee

This was a very special afternoon at the Concertgebouw.  What will stay with me is the unerring rightness of the sound world, that incredible feeling of hearing a familiar work transformed, cleared of the decades of grime, and instead presented to us with remarkable clarity and the inimitable sense of it sounding the way it really should sound.  It was conducted with compelling logic by Nagano, that feeling of rightness also feeding its way into how the transitions faded so naturally, allowing each scene to progress to the other in the most organic way.  The quality of the singing across the board was superb, and the clarity of the diction made this performance even more vivid.  The performance was greeted with rapt silence and then an enormous ovation from the Concertgebouw public – most thoroughly deserved.  As with any performance of Das Rheingold, one left the hall desperate to hear the rest.  And if the rest is anything as good as today, then that will be a most incredible prospect indeed.

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