WAGNER’S RING IN LONDON, October/November 2018
Review by Graham Bruce
The Royal Opera’s recent revival of Keith Warner’s production of Der Ring des Nibelungen received an enthusiastic response from the audience, and deservedly so: it featured a very fine cast and superb orchestral playing under Sir Antonio Pappano. While some aspects of Warner’s production may not have pleased all, this revival made clear the general excellence of staging.
As a device linking the narrative across the four operas, Warner and his set designer, Stefanos Lazaridis, favoured recurring aspects of prop, set, and performer movement. The curved shining metal pieces seen throughout formed the broken pieces of a ring-shape; red ropes in the first opera culminated in the red rope of destiny wound by the Norns at the beginning of the last opera, while the red ribbon with which Hagen almost strangles Gutrune also serves to produce his own self part-strangulation; the small boat in which Alberich arrives to greet the Rhinemaidens later conceals Siegfried before he emerges to bandy words with the Rhinemaidens in Gotterdammerung, and finally serves as his coffin; a jagged hole in the set in Das Rheingold is seen again in Siegfried, clearly the entry point of the crashed aeroplane, a prop which is anticipated by the toy ‘plane seen earlier; finally, the stylised placement of two singers back to back becomes almost irritating in its repetition.
It was good to see John Lundgren returning in this production to his more usual role of Wotan after singing Alberich in Munich to Wolfgang Koch’s Wotan, an exchange of roles which was only partly successful. The Alberich here was that very finest of Beckmessers, Johannes Martin Kranzle. His Alberich was rather more subtle than we are used to, the performance seeming unduly understated only during his curse in the final scene. Compared to an earlier cycle which I’d seen of this production, the Nibelungen scene seemed a good deal less gruesome. Fewer body parts were flung about, and the zombie-like slave workers were only seen in the background towards the end of the scene
Vocal, stage, and pit performance were in perfect conjunction in this opera. Hunding’s hut was a multi-levelled enclosure in which Emily Magee as Sieglinde prowled about frantically like a caged animal, the reason being clear from the brutal reaction of Hunding (a magnificently dark-voiced Ain Anger) to her sheltering of Siegmund. Stuart Skelton was in superlative voice as the intruder, and if he did not quite convince as the young lover, our ears forgave this as the cry of “Walse!” rang out fearlessly. Furthermore, the exquisite string playing as the two lovers locked eyes provided all the romance needed. Little details abounded in the staging such as Wotan’s animal-skin cloak which Sieglinde had clearly retained after Wotan embedded the sword in the tree, a cloak which matched that of his other child, Siegmund. The act climaxed with the lifting of the roof of the hut revealing the free world into which the lovers fled.
Act 2 re-introduced us to the Valhalla interior which we had seen in Das Rheingold, the room now rather dilapidated, with a pile of books on the floor. Brunnhilde’s and Wotan’s vocal wordplay were perfectly judged, and their singing was matched by the excellent performance of Sarah Connolly as Fricka. The great scene between Wotan and Brunnhilde, following his painful agreement to Fricka’s demands, began with the two facing each other quietly then moving about as Wotan became more and more agitated. Their detailed response to the text which reveals Wotan’s despair clearly showed the fine conjunction of the masterly direction with the performances of Stemme and Lundgren. Act 3 introduced a set structure which was to return in different ways: a square ‘flat’ with a door, here functioning as a wall, placed downstage, in front of which the Valkyries performed their ‘ride’. Orchestrally and vocally this was impressive; however movements with skeletal horse-heads hardly bettered the more usual practice of implying that the horses are off stage. The second Wotan/Brunnhilde scene, beginning in anger and ending in the most moving farewell, again brought peerless performances from Lundgren and Stemme. Perhaps we were denied a degree of empathy as Brunnhilde was placed behind the wall, but when the flat rose to reveal the Valkyrie asleep on the chair, and the fire flared up impressively in the Ring segments, we were indeed moved.
Warner’s production here surprised the audience with a glimpse of the past action. During the introductory music and the early bars of Mime’s singing, we saw Mime entertaining the baby Siegfried in his pram with a toy head, then showing a teenage Siegfried how to wield a toy sword, reminding us of the mission Mime has in mind for his adopted child. The set was dominated by a grounded aeroplane which would seem to have crashed through the ceiling. This prop proved very useful to the stage action. Siegfried’s sudden emergence from the ‘plane provided our first view of the mature adolescent. Later he made specific use of parts of the wreckage to re-forge the sword, using the fuel in the tank to fire the stove, and the propeller to fan the flames as he heated the filings of Nothung removed from the mincer. Throughout this first act Stefan Vinke, with the experience of so many performances of the part, didn’t overdo his nastiness towards Mime, nor overplay the rebellious youngster; it was the best of the many performances of Siegfried I’ve seen him do. Nastiness here emerged instead from the actions of Wotan as Wanderer. Following his victory in the three-questions game, the Wanderer tied Mime to a chair, poured fuel over his head, pretended to set fire to this, but then placed a naked flame close by, the source of Mime’s panic stricken “Verfluchtes Licht” and the descriptive ‘fire music’ which follows Wotan’s exit. Gerhard Siegel’s brilliant performance was achieved at the expense of minimising pure singing.
The second act also began with a surprise: downstage a hand gradually became visible, then the whole of Alberich’s arm, bloodstained still from Wotan’s savage attack to gain the ring, a bitter memory as the Nibelung again confronts Alberich. Siegried’s attack on Fafner produced an effective dragon in the form of a huge red head. Just as we were thinking, perhaps, that the bare rock and cave would hardly suit the “Forest Murmurs” scene, the floor rose to place Siegfried on a grassy plot below around which animals glided, and a young girl as the wood bird descended from above. She proved to be a better athlete than singer, with many notes of the Woodbird’s difficult part off pitch.
In the third act the square flat returned as a revolving platform which Erda, an excellent Wiebke Lehmkuhl, approached to answer Wotan’s call. The flat then became the Walkyrie wall again, the door becoming Siegfried’s entry to the sleeping Brunnhilde behind it. It was only in silhouette that we saw Siegfried’s kiss, while Brunnhilde’s awakening song to the sun was delivered standing under the doorway in the wall. As a result what is generally a key scene was drained of romance, its stylised staging rescued only by the intensity of Stemme’s singing and the beauty of the orchestral playing.
In a final opera, the Norns wove their red rope in front of a down-stage black backdrop covered with white-chalked figures and designs (see photo), recalling the chalked lessons for young Siegfried visible in Mime’s dwelling. The scene of sunrise and the awakening of the lovers, one potentially of great beauty, here inherited the cool, stylised staging of the last scene of Siegfried. Brunnhilde and Siegfried were seen far apart, sitting on opposite sides of the stage; nor did the former’s present of a skeletal head (Grane) soften the atmosphere, but instead invited a few giggles from the audience. Again it was the singers and the orchestral players who provided the romance. For the scene change, long couches slid across to establish the Gibichung Hall. Here, moral decay clearly ruled. Gutrune was shown as the sexual partner of her brother, Gunther (sung by Marcus Butter), and as the magnet of the brutal attentions of Hagen who was clearly in total control of all. The scene change from the Gibichungs to Brunnhilde brought Waltraute’s visit to the Valkyrie, their conversation beginning with a stylised back-to-back stage placement, and continuing in rather lack-lustre fashion. In the final scene, where Siegfried, disguised via the Tarnhelm, subdues Brunnhilde, we saw Marcus Butter miming Gunther while the Siegfried (Stefan Vinke) sang the part, an unconvincing stage strategy.
Disappointment with the Prologue and first act was soon banished by the intensity of the second act as its lively action and thrilling choruses produced a memorable 65 minutes. It began, however, quietly, with Stephen Milling following Wagner’s wish during Hagen’s dialogue with Alberich, the Nibelung now back in his Rhinegold boat, but ailing and needing a medical drip. Heinrich Porges recorded “that Wagner described how perfectly the (1876) Alberich achieved the requisite whispered delivery….how he conveyed the feeling of an uncanny daemonic presence”; that was exactly how the sleeping Hagen here began his replies to his father. The Gibichung hall then appeared as a broad, three-walled glass rectangle. Into this poured the chorus, their movements perfectly directed, their singing extracting the proper thrill from the audience. Few sopranos today could match the vocal power and intensity of Nina Stemme as she challenged Siegfried’s oath, nor the subtlety of her reactions as she and Hagen plotted the hero’s death.
The tension of the second act was lightened by the third as we watched the Rhinemaidens, now looking rather the worse for wear, frolicking around an invisible Rhine. Their scene with Siegfried, who emerged from a small boat close to the water, was full of laughter as banter was exchanged by both sides. Siegfried’s death following his murder by Hagen was not at all moving, partly perhaps owing to Stefan Vinke’s performance but rather more to the departure of the Gibichungs, leaving the last bars of Siegfried’s song to be delivered to a bare, darkened stage. For the last scene, the body is brought down stage wrapped like a mummy, something which did not allow the staging of Hagen’s attempt to take the ring, nor the rise of the dead Siegfried’s arm to forbid the theft. For the finale, Nine Stemme was in wonderful voice, the singing full-voiced, fearless yet beautiful and moving. Impressive too was the conflagration as Brunnhilde torched certain points downstage and the flames spread backwards until a raised curtain showed the destruction spreading to Valhalla.
Pappano and his first-rate orchestra provided us with a most moving performance of the final strains of the tetralogy avoiding any large pause before the return of that motif which accompanied the pregnant Sieglinde’s rapturous outburst in Die Walkure, music which in all its beauty suggests the positive outcome of the destruction we have just witnessed.