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Selected Review


Opera

The Royal Opera Covent Garden: Wagner – Der Ring der Nibelungen

Royal Opera Covent Garden: Wagner – Der Ring

If this review would have a title it would have been “Werkstatt Royal Opera”. Six years since its last revival this intriguing and ultra ambitious production, seen on September 24, 26, 29 and October 1, has been reworked and developed into a most successful Ring. The secret for this success lies squarely in the treatment of the characters. Over the years I have mentioned many times the word Personenregie in my reviews for the benefit of Musical Opinion readers, and now Covent Garden’s programme contains an article by Barry Millington extolling its virtues. As he rightly says, it is a very important aspect of any successful production because each character develops separately, not just reacting to each other but also to what each singer believes he or she should be thinking at the time in relation to the words and the music. Harry Kupfer taught me a lot about it, and he remains the Grand Master of this important aspect of performing opera. Keith Warner is no novice and I still remember fondly the end of his Lohengrin production in Bayreuth, where Lohengrin chooses at random a child amongst the people of Brabant as the new Herzog. The Ring is much longer and more complicated than that but he has induced his singers to react big and small; there are macro and micro details which, at least from row 5 in the stalls I was able to enjoy immensely. Siegfried’s short sleeved jacket had lower sleeves added from Mime’s own pullover, giving an important insight about how loving, careful and close Mime had been to this child. In Rheingold we saw a couple at odds with each other. Fricka has tried and failed to keep her husband at bay and her surprise at hearing the word Walhall for the first time sounds less than sincere. Fricka is full of hope though, even coquettish, but this Wotan is not for turning and during the second act of Die Walküre we see the end of this childless marriage. Wotan has had children through a mortal and through Erda, but not through Fricka and she extracts a heavy price as settlement, a typical angry divorce. This was a particularly wonderful theatrical encounter, bitter and angry yes, but each of them reacting as if it was a true argument, Fricka counteracting every single point made by Wotan, and it was also a nice touch that Wotan gestured to stop Brünnhilde entering the room where he was still arguing with Fricka. There were many revealing moments at every turn; this was a complicated set designed by Stefanos Lazaridis and it was also well justified. The airplane model in Das Rheingold appeared also in Die Walküre as propellers then it reappeared as a crashed plane in Siegfried providing the fuel to melt Nothung. The human laboratory where Alberich experimented with his own race was still too close to us and it hurt. Yes, the travelling flame which landed on Wotan’s hand at the end of Die Walküre was a triumph of imagination which would put a smile even in the most purist of Wagner devotees, but this was an organic production which, I am sure, differed from performance to performance by definition. There were four cycles; this was the first. An interesting development was the treatment of Hagen at the end of Die Götterdämmerung. It was the very same armed Gibichungs who had witnessed the murder who stopped him from taking the ring from Siegfried’s hand. Later, after Brünnhilde appears, the Gibichung Volk took care and guarded his body, thus turning him into a People’s hero.

There is so much action and so much in the music that it is obvious Warner felt tempted to have too much on stage - and it was really too much, distracting from the main point which is Brünnhilde’s farewell. Peter Konwitschny solved this problem perfectly in the Stuttgart Ring in 2000 (read my review in Musical Opinion) by closing the stage curtain and making Brünnhilde sing the final scene dressed in orange in front of it, as if being a know-it-all teacher explaining to the public what had happened and what was going to happen. An enlightened solution.

Keith Warner’s Sieglinde evoked womanhood from every pore, this was a woman who did not wish for anything other than a quiet orderly life with her husband and children and who did not understand what was happening around her. Nor did Siegmund, who reacted valiantly, and perhaps also understood, as his son would much later, what was happening and why in the last seconds of his unhappy life. We have seen before Gunther and Gutrune as an incestuous pair, and half- incestuous including Hagen. This touch always succeeds in depicting degeneration: it was not sexy, it was disgusting in a way that the previous Wagner incest was not. This was a Ring to be filmed and savoured time and again, why oh why was it not recorded and put on DVD? And if the production was good there was also a cast to match.

Let’s start from the sublime. Nina Stemme must be one of the great Brünnhildes of all time, a par with her illustrious compatriots from the Scandinavian peninsula. The voice was rich, warm, the attack was precise, not like a dagger penetrating flesh but like a huge cannon blasting a load of beautiful sound. There was nobody who came that close to perfection but there was also a cast to do justice to every note and to every nuance. John Lundgren was a dry, imposing Wotan, his bass cutting through the orchestra with concentrated sound; his movements were those of a man accustomed to power and holding to it; thus, the intensity of his failure to hold his will against a fierce Fricka was like a tower falling on its foundations. There was humour too, such as when he emptied his pipe against a metal table to the rhythm of the Nibelungs’ hammering. Priceless. Sarah Connolly was an equally dry, ambitious woman, who had an underlying feeling of being passed over when it came to love. She longed for it but she could only exert hate and revenge. Her voice was expressive, her acting immaculate. A capolavoro. Alan Oke presented a playful Loge, incisively voiced and extremely well phrased, an intransigent turned into adviser by a less than wise Wotan. Excellent Gerhard Siegel as Mime, a man at the end of his wit, singing with supreme authority. His confrontation with Alberich, the equally excellent and moving Johannes Martin Kränzle, created long-lasting goose pimples. To have Günther Groissböck as Fasolt was sheer luxury whilst Brindley Sherratt’s Fafner was a movable feast, with his head coming out of the ground when removing the Tarnhelm - a superb stage effect. Wiebke Lehmkuhl was a warm, strict Erda, firm in her third act confrontation with Wotan in Siegfried. The heroic tenors were good too, especially Stuart Skelton’s Siegmund, revealing an expressive and warm voice, whilst his colleague Stefan Vinke was an all-conquering Siegfried. His voice may not be the most beautiful but he can sing and act and also reach and hold the extremely dangerous top C in Die Götterdämmerung. He sang an extremely moving death scene as well. Ain Anger was a suitably lugubrious and violent Hunding treating his wife with contempt. Emily Magee shone as Sieglinde and distilled femininity with a pretty and rather small but audible voice; as Gutrune, she was treated like an object to be played with, a sad figure, beautifully presented by Magee. Heather Engebretson was the playful and sympathetic woodbird. As Hagen, Stephen Milling towered above everybody vocally and physically. One could understand the tiredness of this young man (he is supposed to be the same age as Siegfried, give or take a few months), treated by his father Alberich as a dog with one trick only, to get the ring. There is some sort of parallel between Siegfried being fed up with Mime and of Hagen also with Alberich, both being tools. Karen Cargill was an urgent Waltraute and Lauren Fagan, Christina Bock and Angela Simkin were absolutely fabulous Rheinmädchen as well as Claudia Huckle, Irmgard Vilsmaier and Lise Davidsen were splendid as the Three Norns. The chorus was suitably fierce and complicit but it was Antonio Pappano who guided all these wonderful artists with a safe hand and with care and love. There were some shaky moments with the orchestra in Die Götterdämmerung but that same orchestra played with vigour, detail, excellent phrasing and with an overall view of the whole cycle, not just bits and pieces. This was an epic journey which we were privileged to make in the best company possible. Surely it must have been filmed in secret?

Eduardo Benarroch

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