24/07/2013 12:48 BST | Updated 23/09/2013 06:12 BST

Das Rheingold Review


Daniel Barenboim conducts the Staatskapelle Berlin in Wagner's Das Rheingold at the BBC Proms

It felt like quite an epic day - London awoke to thundering clouds and went to bed as the child destined to be the 43rd monarch since William the Conqueror was born. Appropriately it also saw the opening of one of the greatest musical epics getting its first full play at the Proms.

I've always been a bit put off by Wagner and the Ring cycle. Partly due to the fanaticism and scholarly pedantry of his following; partly due to all that historical baggage that attends him. But this year, his 200th anniversary, I have been drawn in by the ever helpful 'edutainment' of the BBC. Paul Mason, more used to reporting on gloomy forecasts for the UK economy, left behind his day job to give an admirably accessible account of Wagner. The Ring, as Mason had it, is far more intellectually controversial than the image of Gothic romance it inhabits in most modern minds. It's the writing of a young revolutionary, eager to change the world through music. It's also got a real psychological and intellectual heft to it.

It's an epic full of corruption, power, sex and violence. And there's also that most fitting of subjects for our age: greed. As George Bernard Shaw noted, the Ring is about 'shareholders, tall hats, white-lead factories and industrial and political questions looked at from the socialistic and humanitarian points of view'.

A glorious flood of primeval noise opens the Rheingold, the first of the four operas in the cycle. In comparison to the other behemoths, Rheingold feels relatively manageable. It's got a neat structure and clear distinctions between musical themes.

The Staatskapelle Berlin, with its roots in the 16th century, was masterfully directed by the ever energetic leadership of Daniel Barenboim. Rheingold, which is often believed to be a lighthearted overture to the main event, was treated by Barenboim with a depth and seriousness here as well. This was not the light tongue in cheek introduction, but a premonition of what was to come.


Iain Paterson as Wotan in Wagner's Das Rheingold at the BBC Proms

Iain Paterson got Wotan spot on as a result. His was a subtle and brooding god, rather than the striding leader that you might have expected. He frequently took a step back from his position - allowing Stephan Rugamer as Loge space to flounce and flourish in a questionable suit and bright orange tie. It's shame not to see Paterson being given the opportunity to develop the character in the following operas. Johannes Martin Kranzle was also particularly engaging as Alberich: he gave off a real menace, but avoided leading the character into the territory of cliched greedy dwarf.

The Proms version of the Opera was, of course, a sparse affair. No iron-wrought coats of armour or elaborate special effects here. And while Wagner is famously associated with the idea of 'Gesamtkunstwerk' - a total work of art, which saw him writing music, libretto and stage directions - the lack of effects were more than compensated for by the music.

Indeed the dark suited Wotan brokering deals with emotionally volatile builders quickly took on the appearance of a scene from the Sopranos for me. Perhaps that was just the heat getting to me...

So no staging, but still with all the earth-shattering impact you would expect from this fantastic cast under the direction of Barenboim.