In modern productions, the story often takes on the elements of modern war with the use of military uniforms, or takes on a modern setting with the Rhine maidens trudging alongside their terribly polluted river, and so on.
In the Thai production, the director, Somtow Sucharitkul, moved it very far into the past – into the Golden Age of Thailand, before they interacted with the west and were a complete and powerful kingdom unto themselves. This is a mythical Thai past that can be seen reflected in the murals on the walls of the Wat Phra Kaew at the Grand Palace in Bangkok. These murals, about 2 kilometres in total length, depict scenes from the Thai national epic, the Ramakian, based on the Indian epic the Ramayana.
As you can see from this production image, Wotan and Fricka are in traditional Thai clothing as worn by royalty – from their gold crowns down to their clothing. Lars Waage as Wotan and Barbara Smith Jones carry the authority of their crowns and give us an idea that this will be a different kind of opera.
Das Rheingold, opening of Scene 2
When Wotan (still in kingly garb) and Loge in his Hawaiian shirt descend to Nibelheim, one thing was immediately impressive: all the Nibelungs were played by children. This made Alberich (sung by Colin Morris) , dominating over them in gold rainiment (ok, a gold raincoat) even more frightening. He might be a dwarf, but he could loom over the little kids.
Woltan and Loge meet Alberich
Later in the scene, when Alberich has been defeated and he summons the Nibelungs to bring out all the gold, it’s not golden armor and weapons as in many western productions. They bring toaster ovens, and oil cans, and an iron…in other words, white goods for home use.
Freia’s redeemed, the gold is handed over, and then, as the gods ascend over the rainbow bridge to Valhalla, the golden vision that arises is the skyline of Bangkok. So much of the opera was filled with brief shocks that, at first, caused a laugh, but then was followed by a pause for thought. Taken as a grand metaphor, Somtow was showing in his opera what has been lost by Thailand following the gold and not its own internal strengths. In taking an opera out of its traditional western garb and dressing it in a Thai-Buddhist garment, Somtow was able to make us think a bit more deeply about what Wagner wrote and what can be made of it today.
Next: Die Walküre.