The Guardian

It all boils down to oil

From an all-consuming performance of Barrie Kosky’s fierce new Rheingold to a stage invasion in Lucerne, last week musical excellence and the climate emergency went hand in hand

Das Rheingold, Lucerne

Das Rheingold Lucerne festival

KKL Lucerne

Dead forest, barren rock, dry stone, no water. This waste land vision dominates the first part of Wagner’s Ring cycle at the Royal Opera House, conducted by Antonio Pappano, in a new staging by Barrie Kosky. As double basses, bassoons, horns gurgle from the aural depths, depicting new life, we see only death. Nothing is that simple. Rheingold signals the damnation of the gods, and teems with incident: the world ash tree, gold, Rhinemaidens, a one-eyed Wotan, slavish Nibelungs, giants, a rainbow bridge. Kosky, the Berlinbased Australian director, yokes us to his bidding – imaginative, intelligible, at times violent, with no letup. Musically outstanding, dramatically potent, this Rheingold holds high hopes for the entire cycle: the greatest artistic investment an opera house makes.

Drawing parallels between ecological disaster and the Ring is now a given. How you handle it is not. Erda, depicted in all her naked frailty (performed by Rose Knox-Peebles; sung, radiantly and offstage, by Wiebke Lehmkuhl), is ever present. The message is clear. The Earth is still beautiful, but finite, sucked nearly dry by humanity’s greed. In the gaseous depths of Nibelheim, Erda is attached to pipes and hydraulic pump. From her very essence the final dregs of oil-like gold drip from cavernous bore holes, viscous and shining. Alberich, played with superb venom by Christopher Purves, licks the sticky liquid from his fingers as if savouring the last scrapings of hot toffee.

There is still much to consider, to say, about this production, designed by Rufus Didwiszus, with costumes by Victoria Behr and lighting by Alessandro Carletti. A skimming precis will have to suffice, to leave space to honour the music. Every moment was all-consuming, helped by the simple device of bringing the curtain down for each orchestral transformation: the ROH musicians and Pappano never faltered, tempo well judged, singers never drowned out. The strange, tinny anvils, tinkling and wayward, epitomised the folly of ambition. In contrast, the true, weighty brilliance of the Royal Opera’s brass sounded thrilling, truthful, ominous.

The cast was excellent, from the trio of Rhinemaidens in black lace slips (Katharina Konradi, Niamh O’Sullivan, Marvic Monreal) to Fricka (Marina Prudenskaya), taut and aloof in polo breeches and high riding boots. The giants Fasolt and Fafner (Insung Sim, Soloman Howard) were thuggish and tattooed in grey suits and dark glasses. Special praise for the agile and hideous Mime of Brenton Ryan. Sean Panikkar’s Loge, so sly and cynical you wanted to shake him, added coherence to this pivotal, ambivalent role. Christopher Maltman’s Wotan, smooth and mean, was a star turn. He negotiated the role’s psychological and vocal range admirably, lyrical and resplendent as he greeted the rainbow bridge and his fortress of Valhalla, built on the wages of sin. Roll on the next part, Die Walküre.

The first complete cycle of Kosky’s Ring, in the 2027-28 season, will be conducted by Pappano’s successor as ROH music director, the Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša. He was in

last week for two concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic in the final days of the Swiss city’s high-profile summer festival. I heard them play Janáček, Smetana and Rachmaninov – familiar territory for Hrůša, less so for the Viennese players, who moulded their consummate timbre to the service of these Czech-Bohemian and Russian composers. Keen-eared experts speak about the “Viennese sound” – the “Wiener Klangstil” – in part explained by subtle technical differences in woodwind and brass instruments (especially horns), as well as goatskin-covered timps and tuning to a higher pitch. The orchestra’s rich brilliance, in any repertoire and whatever the nature of their instruments, springs from the skill of every player, harnessed to long tradition.

In Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, Hrůša shaped the music meticulously. The central waltz movement whirled and spun – hints of 1940s American swing – while the last dance became snarling and cataclysmic. The orchestra’s short encore was music from home: Johann Strauss II’s polka Auf der

Jagd. Who could fail to succumb to Hrůša’s charms? Usually elegant rather than extravagant in gesture, here he let rip, hips swaying, left foot turnouts and elegant kicks, balletic arms. He would be a natural to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic’s waltz-fest New Year’s Day concert.

Lucerne’s theme this year was “paradise”, and a recognition of climate devastation and the need for action – already practised by a festival that has been assiduous in its carbon-neutralising efforts. A concert by Les Siècles soloists, conducted by François-Xavier Roth, featured composer-in-residence Enno Poppe. (Lucerne is far braver in its commitment to new music than the BBC Proms.) His 40-minute ensemble piece Öl – Oil – slides and shimmers, layering fast and slow music in microscopic shifts that edge towards crisis: a nod, Poppe states, to “dented nature”. Despite the environmental theme, action came in an unwelcome manner the following night.

Midway through a rampant and magnificent performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No 4, “Romantic”, given by the Bavarian State Orchestra and their conductor, Vladimir Jurowski, two climate protesters strolled through the hall, leapt on stage and positioned themselves at the foot of Jurowski’s podium like sentinel meerkats. One of the pair crooned declamations over the Bruckner. This is the orchestra of Munich’s opera house: they only stop, it is said, if someone dies. They played on. When the sonic war had raged long enough, mostly provided by jeering from the audience, Jurowski stopped and commanded silence. He would not continue, he said, unless we first listened to these two young people. The interruption was evidently well planned; a video of the entire event was quickly posted on a Swiss civil resistance site. Then the concert continued. The last movement of the Bruckner was incandescent.


Chanel at the V&A, page 32


(120 mins, 15) Directed by Clement Virgo; starring Aaron Pierre, Lamar Johnson, Marsha Stephanie Blake; in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema

This critically feted and broodingly touching Canadian drama from writer-director Clement Virgo focuses on two siblings, Francis and Michael, brilliantly played by Aaron Pierre and Lamar Johnson. Yet despite the title and the poster that both foreground the two male leads, the film could equally have been called Mother (as opposed to mother!), with Marsha Stephanie Blake dominating the screen as the Jamaican-Canadian matriarch Ruth, struggling to hold and protect her sons. Indeed, all of Brother’s most powerfully affecting moments centre on Ruth’s love and loss, with her children the source of her joy and sadness.

We first meet Francis and Michael as teenagers at the foot of a gigantic power pylon, an electrical crackle buzzing in the bright rural air. The older, more adventurous Francis is encouraging his shy younger brother to climb this vertiginous structure. “Follow my every move,” he tells him, “think on every step,” assuring Michael that if he does so he will be safe. From here, the