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Wagner, Götterdämmerung: soloists and orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Antonio Pappano (conductor), Keith Warner (director), Stefanos Lazaridis (sets), Marie-Jeanne Lecca (costumes), Wolfgang Göbbel (lighting), Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 17.4.2006 (JPr)



Keith Warner concludes his new Ring cycle at Covent Garden and leaves us little wiser as to his ‘vision’ than when he began Das Rheingold. Certainly compared to that Rheingold and Die Walküre, this Götterdämmerung is generally a clutter-free zone. The sets are very spare and there are lots of clean vertical and horizontal lines, as well as the large rectangular platform from Walküre Act III. It opens with a screen depicting a whirl of mathematical formulae. Erda has been left sitting stage right prior to the Norns’ scene but then goes to leave and her children are hooded apparitions at the footlights, entwining themselves in their luminous red rope. Video imagery is the latest ‘in thing’ for opera productions but the Rhine Journey is a direct steal from Phyllida Lloyd’s probably defunct (but infinitely more thought-provoking) English National Opera Ring. The best moment is the point at which the Rhinedaughters are shown as swimming below Siegfried’s feet.

There is a twirling image of a small cube within a large cube and we reach the Hall of the Gibichungs. This is typically sterile and clean, with mirrored panelling reflecting the theatre so we almost have opera ‘in the round’. There is a very long chaise longue – at one end Gunther, the other Gutrune and in the centre – centre stage in all respects – is John Tomlinson as Hagen: here he remains for most of the evening. In an eclectic mix of costumes (by Marie-Jeanne Lecca) Hagen is in a business suit, so typical for this character these days. The biggest crime occurs as Keith Warner’s runs out of new ideas and starts replaying the best moments from his seminal Bayreuth Lohengrin. Brünnhilde and Waltraute sit back-to-back to a typical Euro-Wagner estrangement device already seen in that previous production. This is very poorly staged and totally unconvincing, though Brünnhilde – as she does all evening – defends her honour, and the ring, feistily.

With Pappano already in place Act II begins – ‘Schläfst du, Hagen’ – is some sort of hallucinatory vision because where it fits in the rest of the staging I had no idea. Alberich is still bloodied from Rheingold and is on a drip suspended above the stage in his boat (or it may even be a bath) – come back Richard Jones, all should be forgiven. When the mirrored wall rises it is clear that Keith Warner and his set designer Stefanos Lazaridis have raided the waste bins at the end of last summer’s final Lohengrin and helped themselves to parts of the set, that platform with its creaking hydraulics, as well as costumes and it is put to use recreating those best bits from that staging. If you are not convinced then just look at photos for Act II and III there and compare them the same Acts in this production and you will be! Here is just one example from Bayreuth (Lohengrin Act III).



The vengeance scene is very dramatic as played out with the three characters moving from chair to chair against the moving platform and the Act ends with John Tomlinson’s Hagen in the centre (you guessed that didn’t you?) pulling a gloating face as he nears his goal of reclaiming the ring.

For Act III there is more borrowing from Bayreuth – is there no one in his team capable of approaching Keith Warner to say ‘Hey boss didn’t we do this before?’ It begins not too badly with more projected swirling and then three down-on-their-luck Rhinedaughters in blue wigs mercilessly teasing Siegfried. At last, here and through the warning about the curse of the ring, we begin to see some of Warner’s much vaunted personenregie. Disturbingly, however, we are in an entirely different world to the other Ring operas in this cycle. Hagen and his men enter with crossbows and wearing hunting gear. For some reason they kill what is just like a stuffed white deer and then Siegfried in his white wedding suit from Act II sets about recounting the past. There might be some symbolism in the slaughter of the white animal and the imminent despatching of Siegfried in white.

During the funeral music, Siegfried remains upright until a screen drops. It then lifts to reveal a scene devoid of any connection with the rest of this cycle. There are the square tops of what become four incinerators surrounded by a large rectangular walkway. A gnarled tree trunk and a strip of dark ground against which a Calvary tableau is played out (again as used in Lohengrin) prefix Siegfried as Christ removed from the Cross. At stage front is a fallen statue of Wotan, toppled earlier in Act II, a metaphor reminiscent of other fallen tyrants, from the ‘masters’ of the old Eastern Europe to Saddam Hussein. As fire burns, four other gods (but not Wotan) have their golden idols lowered by rope into fiery pits during the Immolation Scene. (Much is made of Kuwaiti oilfields in the programme so there might have been something we were supposed to spot here.)

There is a great deal of fire – Brünnhilde grabs a branch from the tree before setting it, the tree and everything that needs to be alight before running to the back of the stage to belly flop off it. The spiral from Rheingold is now a stage deep crescent (probably part of a ring?) on which a young person is standing and being looked up to by those who had survived this end to this world. ‘Health and Safety’ probably prevented this being one of Warner’s signature small children. This ‘child’ in Wagner production lore is often thought of as Parsifal.

It was all a mess and without a clear message. John Snelsdon’s recent book on the history of the Ring at the Royal Opera House (Oberon Books) has recently dropped on to my doormat for review and I have been fortunate to see all of the Wagner there for the last 25 years and much elsewhere. Keith Warner has found nothing really original (for himself or us) in the cycle. I know it is easy to criticize but the Ring can be heroic myth, some sort of socio-political allegory or a story full of human drama: it isn’t a cosmic void. It is left here as four disparate (if not desperate) settings that are nowhere near a unified Ring.

The search should begin for a better Siegfried, because he was the singer who most let the side down. I cannot see how John Treleaven has three – or any – Ring cycles left in him. He can surely have never sought advice from anyone who has sung the role – he does not even appear to have heard a CD of it. His singing was often of the single note variety, although a long held top note near the start of Act III appeared to herald a better vocal time but then his voice fell away again during his farewell.

In the twilight of his career as one of the Wagner singing gods, John Tomlinson gave what is becoming his only performance; bluff and gruff with a voice to match. A slightly grumpy eccentric elderly uncle is another way to consider him. Matching Lisa Gasteen’s vocal security and stunning commitment as Brünnhilde was Mihoko Fujimura’s rich mezzo voice as Waltraute, giving full vent to a sister’s anguish in a stunning house debut. Emily Magee and Peter Coleman-Wright made a suitably venal pair of Gibichung siblings, never out of love with one another but doing their royal duty. The high standard of the acting by all the principals is at odds with the general obfuscation around them.

Alberich was a slightly underpowered Peter Sidhom, probably slightly put off by his precarious position up in the air. Three well-matched Norns were balanced by three spirited Rhinedaughters. The chorus sang out lustily and the Royal Opera House orchestra from solo horn to six harps played as if they were the finest opera orchestra in the world.

It is incredibly difficult to cast the Ring these days; just witness the list of relative unknowns stitched together for Bayreuth this year. So to have an evening sung, on the whole, with so much concern for music-drama and given such fine support by conductor and musicians gave the evening a gloss its otherwise dire staging did not deserve. Having your eyes closed would be the best way to appreciate Antonio Pappano’s musically intelligent and blazing account of this difficult score with it many potential longueurs – even the Norns’ scene didn’t drag. Never has a Götterdämmerung gone by quite so quickly despite another ludicrous one hour second interval.

Maybe Keith Warner will pull a rabbit out of the hat and give us a superb Ring in 2007, but the odds are against it. Richard Jones’s version for Covent Garden in the mid-1990s was ahead of its time, unrecorded and largely forgotten. Every scene of his had more wit and provoked more thought about the possible meaning of Wagner’s Ring than Keith Warner and his cohort evoke over four evenings of old hat and second thoughts.

© Jim Pritchard


Pictures of Götterdämmerung © Royal Opera House / Clive Barda


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