Der »Knick-Knacks« des Nibelungen

I’ve waited until the end of the entire first Cycle before compiling jottings on the Royal Opera’s revival of Der Ring des Nibelungen in Keith Warner’s fussy, random, distracting collection of bits’n’pieces. What you might call a Gesamtkunstwerk of jottings. I see it again for the third cycle and might give it the blow-by-blow treatment then.

Overall musical impressions

There was a definite air of dress rehearsal about it, certainly the earlier parts, which is entirely understandable, given the scale of endeavour that a run of full cycles represents. For this reason I’ll gloss over the slight lapses in co-ordination between stage and pit in Rheingold and Walküre, the sense of tentativeness in some orchestral entries and the mishaps of lighting evident through parts of Siegfried: all of which are not customary at Covent Garden and, given the general quality of performance, will certainly iron themselves out after this first run – most certainly if the more resplendent flow of Götterdämmerung is anything to go by. In general terms, Pappano’s experience and dramatic fervour in Wagner were thrillingly evident throughout. I sensed a slightly less voluble approach to the scores, so that there emerged a stronger sense of overall integration, rather than an emphasis on big drama at key moments – right up to, and only just including, an all-out and utterly shattering Funeral March and finale to the whole thing. The orchestra, those occasional lapses notwithstanding, sounded on gorgeous form – and it is an absolute wonder that, before I can get these thoughts down on screen, they’ve plunged headlong into the second cycle: there may be minimal casting overlap between the last and first operas of successive cycles, but it still boggles the mind to think of starting it all over again so soon!

Performances

In terms of performances then, Bryn Terfel has developed his Wotan to encompass the Wanderer and the whole impression was remarkably visceral and consistent across the long narrative span. His voice appears to me to have developed a slightly freer but actually fractionally lighter tone, which marries well to his complex take on the character – a fascinating, thrilling joy at every moment. This time around it seemed all the more tortured, and more prone to outbursts of violence (this is a Ring in which scarcely an Act can go by without someone throwing over a chair). As his wife, Fricka, Sarah Connolly brought an astounding glamour and intensity to the part: much as I am a great fan of Rosalind Plowright, and her Fricka in particular, Connolly unearthed different layers to the character, her concerns in the Walküre Act 2 standoff eloquently projected as genuine and principled, her personal pain more evident than her tendency to ‘harangue’. The collection of gods were all uniformly excellent, with Stig Anderson bringing a welcome restraint to Loge and Ann Petersen an incisive and bright-toned Freia. Eric Halfvarson and Iain Paterson did sterling service as the giants, Fafner and Fasolt. Maria Radner made for a rather glam, but fabulously warm-toned Erda.

In both Rheingold and Siegfried, the Mime of Gerhard Siegel was a fantastic portrayal, not straying too far into fussy camp, and effortlessly coping with the (questionable) comedy injected into the forging scene in Siegfried. His brother Alberich was similarly excellent in the hands of Wolfgang Koch, even if he had to withdraw from Siegfried and act the role to a strong vocal performance by Jochen Schmeckenbecher, standing in the wings after being freshly offloaded from a plane out of Vienna (understudy, anyone?). Koch was back on good form, with some alarming coughing, for his haunting of Hagen in the last instalment. As the Wälsung twins, Eva-Maria Westbroek and Simon O’Neill reprised their earlier roles. She brought a fantastic abandon to the part in the more ecstatic moments, gloriously toned but sounding to my ears just a bit short of some of the higher passages. I can’t claim to have been looking forward to O’Neill, but was actually incredibly impressed, his voice sounding fuller than I recall in previous hearings, even if his acting remains stiff and awkward, with a tendency to flailing arms as a means to conjure up emotion. The Hunding and Hagen of the stalwart John Tomlinson were perfectly suited to his hefty bass: his Hunding was a study in bluff, uncompromising malevolence, whilst his insinuating Hagen is surely the master study in this role. Peter Coleman-Wright sounded rather dry and raspy (perhaps off form?) as Gunther, but relished the sour queeniness of the interpretation; his questionably inamorata sister, Gutrune, was in the sensuous, gorgeous voice and form of Rachel Willis-Sørensen. Siegfried was led astray by the aerially acrobatic and vocally sensational Sophie Bevan.  And bravos to all Norns (Karen Cargill especially), Rhinemaidens and a rumbustious set of Valkyries, with Mihoko Fujimura taking on the role of Waltraute in Götterdämmerung.

Which brings us to our hero and heroine.  As Brünnhilde, Susan Bullock was stronger as an adult than as an adolescent, not quite bringing off (whoever can?) the requisite girlish swagger. Her voice has penetrating power, but is slightly uneven in its ability to ‘cut through’, so that it took a little while to get used to. Pleasingly, it is warmer than some Brünnhildes, including the last incumbent at Covent Garden, Lisa Gasteen, which takes some of the outright fearsomeness out of the early portrayal of the character. Her duets with Siegfried were wonderfully abandoned as the temperature rose ever upwards, and even if some clarity of pitch was lost here and there, it was a thrilling sing. It only got better through Götterdämmerung, and she was touching and visceral by turns through the closing scenes. The same developing appreciation applies to Stefan Vinke. I don’t think his Siegfried is for everyone (some will hanker for the out-and-out rafter-ringing heroics, but given the recent Siegfrieds I’ve heard, they’ll be hankering for a while yet). Nonetheless, I was completely taken by his excellently rounded Siegfried, and even with a voice a shade more slender than might be expected he stayed the course for Siegfried well. Just as he sounded like he was tiring, with pitch control starting to be an issue, he redoubled his strength for the final killer duet. He ended the Cycle in a blaze of impressive, clarion singing. He was a more convincing mover as the adolescent hero than many a Siegfried, and athletically bounced around the stage. I heartily warmed to his crop-haired bear-like persona – and the fact that it is a little more huggy-bear than grizzly just added to the pathos at the end.

The production

So that only leaves us with the staging. I seem to recall being rather indulgent towards it at the first outing, but I have resolutely lost patience with it now.  It is a godawful mess. Warner seems to have fatally confused ‘symbols’ for ‘knick-knacks’, and the stage is littered with random curves of steel, tree roots growing out of holes, purposeless tables, random propellers, ladders, a red rope (about the only symbol with any consistency or point to it), a baffling crashed aeroplane (there having been a prominent model of one in Rheingold), not mention an array of pointless domestic bits and bobs (forging steel in a… erm… steel saucepan anyone?) The stagecraft is about as amateurish as I’ve seen on the Covent Garden stage – and from the Upper Slips you see far too much of it.  For those of us sitting in such high or side-on parts of the House, the mechanics of the production are painfully evident: people emerging and disappearing down holes in the ground, not quite in sufficient darkness; little rolling trucks with the flame on at the Walküre Act 3 close; Alberich’s Rheingold transformation under the Tarnhelm blindingly obvious; the dispiriting sight of stagehands fighting to draw a dark grey sheet over the little green idyll in Siegfried Act 2 which, after receding, remains visible through a great craggy hole in the stage.  Some of the most heinous crimes seem to me to be the amount of distracting business that goes on at critical moments. Having Siegfried’s death and Funeral March overlaid by the sight and sound of people scurrying about to assemble the next set is truly murderous of any dramatic engagement: I tried to maintain my utter absorption in this gut-wrenching music with my eyes closed, only to then be assailed by the creaking and grinding as parts of the set rumble upstage for the next scene. On some of these occasions, less is very definitely more.

Elsewhere, Mime’s deception is revealed to Siegfried by him putting a boar’s head on for the deceitful lines, then off, then on again, etc., necessitating much tiresome climbing in and out of a hole in the ground. At the start, atmospherically lit, one naturally assumes that that hole is the Neidhöhle in which Fafner is supposed to dwell, but this turns out not to be where the dragon eventually appears from. The dragon starts out promising, but not enough work has been done on the movement, and its eventual demise is rather lame (it retreats into its hole, its shiny eyes remaining unfortunately still visible). The Forest Murmurs scene (one of just a handful of distinctively-lit scenes) is completely trashed by plastic animals being wheeled in on carts (and getting stuck on the scenery). Erda being wheeled around on a precariously high wing-back-chair-on-stilts-and wheels is a notable bit of tat, and that she has to hold Wotan’s spear for him when he thrusts it into her may not have been visible to the centre stalls, but was another nail in the coffin of believability for some of us. The close of Rheingold leaves a stage littered with crap, the appearance of ladders doing nothing to conjur a rainbow bridge; indeed, the obsession with ladders (which left Susan Bullock unable to unclip herself in her first entrance, having descended from the flies to ‘Hojotoho’) is as irritating as it is pointless. The sight of Valkyries cavorting with horses skulls to represent their steeds is a particular low point, recurring as a motif – to dispiritingly comic effect – right to the bitter end, the ultimate example being Siegfried marching into the Gibichung Hall and dumping his horse’s skull on the back of the white sofa. There are scenes played out in more straightforward and geometric spaces, such as the Act 3 Walküre set with the large rotating white wall, or the same wall laid horizontal and spinning to thrilling effect with Wotan pacing upon it to open the scene where he confronts Erda in Siegfried. These are improvements over the general run of the presentation but, in general, the whole thing is pervaded by a sense of someone imminently about to trip over or fall off something.

The few interesting moments are mostly in the last opera: Hagen breaking off the spear point from Wotan’s statue for the pledging of the oath and Brünnhilde mirroring Wotan’s ‘farewell’ kiss to her from Walküre with the statue of Wotan in the immolation scene are nice ‘echoes’ of these key emotional moments from earlier in the story. Indeed, the direction of people, no doubt inspired by these fine singing actors, has delivered the production’s key insights and they really are a rounded set of characters, interacting with all of the force implied by the music. Sadly, time and again, they are undercut and traduced by the poor staging, lighting and set design, to distracting or reductive effect. It’s as though these characters exist slightly ‘in suspension’, divorced from the construction around them. Whilst I don’t expect rocky outcrops, flying horses and all the literal apparatus of a naturalistic production, I do expect a setting that conjures a coherent story, intelligently told, with convincing stagecraft. The occasional stage picture is potentially attractive or atmospheric, such as the general environment of Wotan’s hall in Rheingold, or the Nibelheim sets that emerge from under Valhalla, or the transformation from Brünnhilde’s rock to Gibichung hall, or the Neidhöhle referred to above; but it is all marred by a maddening lack of consistency or purpose. I’d rather have a Regietheater effort, with something more incisive and more consistently carried-through, such as the ‘corporatist’ production ENO was developing a few years’ ago, or the Götterdämmerung I saw at Hamburg, than this messy disaster of a production which, whilst not cutting across or particularly traducing the essential premise of the Ring, does nothing to illuminate it, respond to it or shape it anew. So the casually clothed kids that appear at the end of Götterdämmerung are the future – fine, that’ll be standard Ring imagery then – but you have to present us with who they are, how they have come into the story: it simply isn’t good enough as a standalone ‘idea’ bolted on to the end.  This is 16 hours of music drama – you’ve got to engage with the overall arc of it, not randomly shove stuff in and hope people will pause for thought. It has a faint air of laziness about it, and why no-one put the brakes on it after the last outing, I don’t know… Could Kasper Holten not have brought the Copenhagen production with him? I can only hope that 2012 is the last we see of it.

It is a great shame that such a uniformly excellent cast has been assembled, have risen to such heights, and they haven’t been given a better backdrop against which their excellently-developed characters can cohere. And I say ‘backdrop’, because that’s all this production amounts to: a cluttered, occasionally mildly atmospheric, frequently maddeningly distracting backdrop.

So, I return to the third cycle later in the month.  Let’s see if I have any improved impression of the production; I’m confident that the individual performances will only have matured over the period… and thrilled just to think about it now.

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