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Welser-Moest takes the baton in Vienna

THE gods were OK. The giants looked neat and the evil dwarf was scary.

But it took a magician in the orchestra pit of the Vienna State Opera on Saturday to transfix the mortals in the audience attending a new production of Wagner's "Das Rheingold."

From the opening sonorous and extended E flat of the double-basses to the last thunderous and crashing fortissimo as the gods take procession of Valhalla, it was Franz Welser-Moest's evening.

The Austrian conductor is to take over next year as music director of the storied Vienna opera house. So the notoriously finicky audience in the Austrian capital had its ears pricked for every tiny possible mistake in the new production of Wagner's first installment of the four-part Ring Cycle. Instead, they were treated to a State Opera orchestra that was simply too hairy-chested to bother about niceties.

Under Welser-Moest's baton, the brooding undercurrents of the River Rhine grew to a crashing intensity that was just a step away from leaving those next to the pit physically drenched; the Valhalla motive wed trombones, tuba and the trumpet fanfare to lofty heights worthy of the gods, and the metallic hammer-on-anvil clink-clink of the elves toiling in thrall to the evil Alberich mutated seamlessly to the harmonic orchestral mix that brings Wotan and Loge to the lair of the evil dwarf bent on dominating the world.

Apropos Wotan: the king of the gods just wasn't in this performance.

The Wotan in Rheingold has to project the all-powerful and wise figure who at the same time exhibits enough human frailties to set up the action for what ultimately proves to be the demise of the gods in the last of the four epic musical dramas that make up the Ring Cycle.

But Juha Uusitalo's voice lacked the gravitas, the breadth and the volume needed for the role. He was more baritone than bass and was frequently drowned out by the orchestra - and it wasn't the orchestra's fault.

Instead, the top performers were Adrian Eroed as Loge, the wily half-god of fire who outwits Alberich to gain possession of the magic ring of power for Wotan - and Alberich himself, played by Tomasz Konieczny.

Not the usual troglodyte, Konieczny's Alberich is virile, bare-chested - and sorely in need of female companionship.

His attempt to gain the favor of one - or all - of the Rhine maidens guarding the gold that he later uses for his ring is a very effective piece of sultry theater that makes his rejection by the maidens all the more effective.


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