Don't over-commit to buy your dream home. That's one lesson Londoners might draw from Das Rheingold, Richard Wagner's opera about a god, Wotan, who rashly promises his sister-in-law to pay for a mountain-top castle, and then has to resort to stealing an all-powerful golden ring to buy her back.
As the first instalment of the Ring Cycle, Wagner's epic tetralogy based on Norse sagas, Rheingold launches the Royal Opera House's new season under weighty expectations. Billed as the theatre's contribution to the Olympic spirit, this is the operatic event of London 2012, with an international pantheon of singers leading four complete performances of the cycle, each lasting 15 hours spread over four evenings within a week. It's a marathon for performers and audience alike, yet such is the rarity of a full staging of the Ring that tickets – which could only be bought for the cycle as a whole – sold out within days (though returns are available for individual operas and 23 tickets have been held back for queuers on the day).
Judging by Rheingold – which Wagner called the "preliminary evening" and is the shortest and least musically interesting of the four operas – the glory of this production will be the singing on stage and the orchestral playing below. Welsh superstar Bryn Terfel as Wotan sang and acted the part with rare beauty and conviction, despite sounding slightly tired in the loudest passages. His great dilemma – do I give away my relative, or do I steal the ring? – was the palpable driving force of the key second scene, and indeed much of the opera. The mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly was also radiant of tone as his long-suffering wife. In fact, it's hard to fault any of the singing, which soared up over the vast orchestra with surprising ease – helped by a score that never lets itself go in the manner of Wagner's later, lusher works.
The staging, first aired in 2004 under director Keith Warner, is less convincing. There are some arresting images and nice touches: the primeval darkness of the beginning, with only the conductor’s baton illuminated; the parallels between the ‘heaven’ of Wotan’s castle and the ‘hell’ of Nibelheim, where the dwarf Alberich wields the ring’s power; the illumination of the opera house’s gilded ceiling when Wotan refuses to give up the ring (it is as addictive here as in Tolkien, who used some of the same sources). But the only discernible general principle was to throw so many ingredients into the cauldron that everyone should find something to their taste. The Nibelheim set looked like an evil scientist's laboratory, a Bond villain's underground lair (think Doctor No) and a fat-cat executive's office all at once. Each of these interpretations is thought-provoking, but the combined effect is messy – and does nothing to concentrate the drama, which is what a staging should be about. Lots of stage noise and technical glitches, notably a chair that failed to sink down into the earth at a crucial point in the final scene, didn't help.
Some of the loose threads in this staging will no doubt be developed and tied up later in the cycle – that, after all, was Wagner’s musical approach with the famous ‘leitmotifs’ or (for want of a better term) theme tunes that underpin the action. After a mere two and a half hours, it is too early to judge the whole production. Besides, this is a chance to see one of the most ambitious artistic projects ever conceived, performed by some of the world’s best opera singers. Jump at it if you can – but if you see just one performance, avoid Rheingold.
Das Rheingold runs at the Royal Opera House until 26 October, while the full Ring Cycle plays till 2 November.