The Four Day Ring

Not all that long ago I was going to attempt to go to all the many performances of Wagner's Ring taking place all over the planet, and write a book about the experience. My publishers decided it was uncommercial (I still think they were wrong), but not before I had been to complete cycles at Adelaide, for the first Australian Ring and to a wonderful and wacky Ring in the famous opera house at Manaus, near the Amazonian jungles of Brazil.

Mariinsky  Ring-500wi.jpg

So I felt it essential to go last week to the Royal Opera House Covent Garden for the Mariinsky production: it firmly belonged in my Ring collection, as it was being performed on four consecutive nights, starting with Das Rheingold on Wednesday, and ending with Götterdämmerung on the Saturday. Even Wagner himself never got to see his 14-16 hours of musical drama performed in this fashion. Of course it's a crazy idea. For one thing, it's impossible to have continuity of casting, as no singer is capable of properly singing the roles of Wotan, Brünnhilde or Siegfried in consecutive performances - at least, not without ruining his or her voice.
It's no surprise that the Mariinsky's continent-commuting boss Valery Gergiev should see this as just another challenge.  His production, designed by the great George Tsypin, who has been responsible for some of the most memorable sets I've ever seen (his Glyndebourne Makropulos Case was a masterpiece), had already been performed in the normal way in St Petersburg in 2003, and had toured extensively, including to Cardiff in 2006, where it was played consecutively.
It was not exactly received with rapture. Indeed some critics claimed that the production had - literally - no direction; that Gergiev and Tsypin told the singers where to stand, and that was that. So the big news this time is that they have brought in as stage director Gergiev's newest protégé, the 24-year-old Alexander Zeldin, whom he first notice when Zeldin stage the Russian première of Thomas Adès's Powder Her Face. If the unusual name seems familiar, it is because, as I learned when he tapped me on the shoulder as I emerged from the Gents' at Covent Garden, Alexander is the nephew of Theodore Zeldin, historian of France, co-founder of the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery, radical thinker, prophet and seer.
The young man obviously did not have adequate rehearsal time; indeed, it is a testimony to his talents that you could so easily tell the passages he had been able to direct, simply from the fact that the singers were acting, something they signally failed to do at other times. For example, the scene in the Gibichung Hall in Act I of Götterdämmerung was terrific, with Hagen, Gunther and Gutrune actually singing to each other, whereas in Act III of Siegfried, one of Wagner's greatest moments, even "Heil dir, Sonne" fell flat, and Brünnhilde and Siegfried might just as well have been strangers ignoring each other at a bus stop.
        This production has one insuperable problem, though - Tsypin's vast sets (see the illustration above for proof). He and Gergiev say they were looking at folk tales from Gergiev's native Ossetia that parallel the myths on which Wagner drew. In the programme Tsypin says: "I had this image of an amazing Ring which looks towards Asia, towards the Russian steppes. I had a sense of this ancient Russia - an almost archaic barbaric perception of that culture, and I was very inspired."  Hmm. What this meant in practical terms was giant, 2-story high papier mâché sculptures, like mummified Easter Island figures, sometimes headless, sometimes limbless, with metal armatures showing, and Tatiana Noginova's costumes that veered from the wonderful feathered cape Siegfried had on one occasion, to the demented lampshade-cum-tea cosy worn by the Woodbird and the similarly insane costumes of the Norns, which made me pleased I had misread the time on the ticket and was too late to see them except at the curtain call. Sometimes ghastly, but when I wondered why Hagen was dressed in a two-tiered skirt looking as though he was going to a Minoan ball, my confusion was cleared up in Act III of Götterdämmerung, where it became clear that the costumes were copied from Persian miniatures, and the stage picture of the picnic meal just before Siegfried's murder is taken from a celebrated picture with lancers lining the platform on either side. That was lovely, as were some of Sven Ortel's new video projections that give at least some minimal interest to Tsypin's dummies.
        On the whole, though, poor Zeldin could only tell the cast to remember to sing to each other, and not to trip over the sets - but in fact, wherever his touch was evident, the cast did manage their manoeuvres pleasingly and with more energy than they displayed in the parts he had not been able to get to. With enough rehearsal time, he could have made this an almost respectable production, though the sets would never allow a really interesting reading of the work to emerge. 
        And the music? Oh dear. In Rheingold Gergiev mostly failed to capture the long Wagnerian lines; it was choppy, and a little dull. When the brass section and the timpani really let go, it seemed almost a vulgar contrast with the middling dynamic range of most of their reading. This improved, and by Act II of Die Walküre, Gergiev's phrasing got longer; oddly enough, he got one thing right nearly every time, something that a lot of conductors miss - the dynamics of the crashing cadence of Act II of this and of Act II of Götterdämmerung, which should give the audience a real fright. I was lucky that my tardiness for the Prologue got me banished to a box from which I could see that when the conductor was seated, he and the orchestra were sometimes on autopilot. The band's attacks were too often casual; details were not precise, either; and even the power of the bass instruments was sometimes muffled.
        The awful truth is that the singers weren't much good, the exceptions being Mikhail Petrenko's Hagen, as he looked and acted the part (though perhaps a bit too sympathetically), Vasily Gorshkov's sometimes too-beautifully sung Mime; and Nikolai Putilin's simply terrific Alberich.  The two Siegfrieds were not bad, though I didn't warm to Leonid Zakhozhaev's steely timbre, or to Viktor Lutsyuk's imperious posturing. None of the three Brünnhildes had the puff to make it through to the end, and Olga Sergeyeva's vibrato was so wide you could drive a bendy bus through it, and in the Rhinedaughters' final ensemble somebody was flat .
        Am I glad I saw it? Yes. Why? Because it was there, but I think all Gergiev has proved is that a Ring in four days is a no-no.

August 3, 2009 4:49 PM | | Comments (0)

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This page contains a single entry by Plain English published on August 3, 2009 4:49 PM.

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