Friday, 5 October 2012

Der Ring des Nibelungen

Royal Opera, 24 September - 1 October 2012

Brunnhilde mourns Siegfried, Götterdämmerung. From Royal Opera website.
The end of the love that was supposed to redeem the world.
It is confusing to see how this could be, either in Wagner's idea or in this particular production. 

Many interesting ideas, but key aspects of this genuinely extra-ordinary drama go missing, both theatrically and musically.

The Ring Cycle is a powerful example of mythmaking and a profound critique of the possibilities of improving our relations with one another. It also places massive demands on both theatres and audiences, starting with simple endurance – how to interpret, or respond to, 14 or so hours of intense music drama.
Theatres with the resources and ambition to tackle it seem to approach it from one or other of two performing traditions that have emerged.
They might try to present the work as closely as possible to Wagner’s original, fairly literal, theatrical intentions. Or they might interpret the various layers of symbolism in a ‘modern dress’ sense.

The legendary Lilli Lehmann (right), as a valkyrie.
An example of the first tradition, of keeping to Wagner's intentions.
Both of these traditions have problems – in the first, the risk of embedding the drama in a sword and sorcery fantasy world, in which deeper meanings might be missed; the second approach generally confuses through the mismatch between what is said and what is happening on stage, a confusion further heightened by the new layers of symbolism.

Keith Warner’s production is in this second tradition, and doesn’t avoid the problems I’ve mentioned. First-time Ring-experiencing companions asked me why Wotan jumped into a pit rather than lead his fellow gods upwards into Valhalla at the end of Das Rheingold. Or why the Rhinemaidens were dressed like a shabby chic variety troupe in the final act of Gotterdammerung.
Even if I felt I could answer these questions, they were two of perhaps two dozen that might reasonably have been asked, and I’m not confident I could answer them all – I was especially perplexed in the second act of Siegfried, with the woodbird being both a symbol of the hero’s youthful imagination and the youthful version of himself.

Maybe these confusions only enhance the attempt to achieve myth, and I did feel that Warner could have answered any question, so deeply has he thought about this production.
But the production also repeated several fatal mistakes that are part of this tradition, but which needn’t be – I wonder why they persist?
Firstly, the gods are presented as corrupt from the moment we see them, and we see a young Wotan long before Wagner intended, at the very beginning, carrying out his mutilation of the World Tree. As the gods have all of the flaws Wagner intended, but little of the compensating grandeur, they are both deeply unsympathetic and hard to distinguish from the corrupt human world of the Gibichungs in Gotterdammerung.
Wotan siezing the ring from Alberich, in Das Rheingold. From Royal Opera website.
As this image suggests, it isn't easy to distinguish these characters in this production.
When the concept starts like this, it is almost inevitable that the final conflagration will have to be visually bathetic – in this case gold statues of the gods being lowered into fire. An unsympathetic Wotan is even more disastrous, given the centrality of this complex character. By the end of Siegfried, he appears as a (violent) student in his bedsit, sullenly discarding his possessions in a fit of pique.

The second mistake, arriving like clockwork, is a bullying, unsympathetic portrayal of Siegfried. This is more understandable, as his characterisation needs a director of genius in order to reflect what Wagner for once cackhandedly intended. For Siegfried is the man of the future as well as dragon-conquering strongman. Not much sign of this here.

Mime's cave, first act of Siegfried. From Royal Opera website.
Where Wagner's dramatic and musical needs demanded a forest, or at least natural beauty, we see post-industrial waste.
A third mistake is for sets to be almost unremittingly ugly. I suspect the reason for this is to illustrate how, over the course of the drama, the natural world is corrupted and destroyed by our interventions, ‘our’ here being whether god, dwarf, giant or human.

So it reflects our views on ecology, which have intensified since Wagner’s time. I don’t want to suggest producers should ignore these concerns, which are absolutely in the Ring, but such a simplistic visual approach is as harmful to understanding as focussing on horned helmets and realistic dragons. 

Although I feel these three cardinal mistakes sink this production just as they sink all similar productions, I found many individual aspects to admire.

It seems that productions in the second tradition are chosen by teams with a strong commitment to realistic acting, and there were many thought-provoking moments between characters, or even whole scenes.

The Rhinemaiden scene mentioned above for instance, was charmingly comic, and an inspired interlude before things got extremely serious. Or Siegfried showing a sensitive side to Mime when the wretched dwarf is finally forced to reveal something about the hero’s parents.

Some of the symbols worked well over the course of the dramas, with the Tarnhelm later forming the Gibichung Hall; or Wotan’s Rheingold treaties forming a damning pile in the second act of Die Walkure, then appearing in the insouciant hands of the Wanderer in Siegfried; or a veil with horrible significance in Rheingold reappearing in Hagen’s case in Gotterdammerung. 

My mixed, but generally negative, feelings about the visual side of the production continue with the musical side.
In particular, I disliked the conducting. Antonio Pappano gave us beauty, with occasional intense or even ferocious touches, as with a magnificent Funeral March in the fourth part. But I also found myself unsettled and generally bored with the music, which implies he didn’t grasp its flow. The finale of Siegfried was especially dispiriting, with none of the soaring rhapsody I expected.
The singers were generally much more consistent, with Susan Bullock an especially radiant and heartfelt human Brunnhilde, though generally not convincing as a goddess in her first act.
Bryn Terfel’s Wotan was memorable, and for reasons consistent with the production, which is not to say I thought it did the character justice: a lot of anger, little beauty or nobility. Volke’s Siegfried was disappointing in his first act, but was clearly saving his voice, as he at least managed to sing all the way through. That this is cause for relief suggests I set the bar very low. I didn’t notice any great beauty or even variety in his voice, and his acting wasn’t a highlight.
Other roles varied from good to excellent, with only the Alberich and the Gunther not meeting the highest standards.

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