Putting The Ring to rest

Well, I don’t think I’ll ever do that but, now that Covent Garden’s first cycle has ended, I thought I’d give a personal assessment of the production as a whole (having only “officially” reviewed one of the operas – Gotterdammerung).

The productions started three years ago and over the time I have seen the whole cycle twice and by next week will have seen Die Walkure five times (including the Prom in 2005). A few things have changed over this time but nothing is fundamentally different. I left Das Rheingold and Siegfried (on both occasions that I saw each of them) profoundly pissed-off and left the other two (on every occasion) uplifted and excited.

Overall, I loathe Keith Warner’s approach. It’s as though he has no awareness that human beings operate below the neck – everything is heavily conceptualised and there’s no heart or balls in so much of his work. He has a very poor visual sense and no physicality in his direction. He can’t even move actors on and off stage and so much of his stagecraft, even the most basic, is completely amateurish. Actors (singers more so) need help with these things and he gives none, no help with objectives and basic acting techniques so they flap around pointlessly.

Typically bad are his treatment of small groups – Rhinemaidens, Norns, Valkyries – who have no co-ordination or sense of purpose and run around aimlessly (well not the Norns – they stand around aimlessly). Then in Act 2 of Gotterdammerung he shows that he can handle crowds (unless he turned that over to a deputy?).

In a work rich with symbols already, Warner loads more and more until it overflows. The worst example is the crashed aeroplane in Siegfried. I’m less concerned that I can’t “work out” the clever clever reasoning behind it, as the incompetent way the singers try to deal with this unnecessary baggage. It adds nothing but a huge screen between the audience and the work.

So, what confuses me is that at times, the productions are brilliantly clear and enthralling. This guy’s all over the place. When he removes the obstacles (unnecessary props and sets) and allows his actors to breathe, everything comes to life. In Act 3 of Die Walkure, Wagner comes shining through and it’s very moving and whole sections of Gotterdammerung are thrilling (particularly Act 2).

It’s no coincidence that these moments are uncluttered by Warner’s intellectual vanity. Take Waltraute’s scene in the latter – two singers on stage with two chairs and the simplest visual backdrop in the whole production – and it’s riveting.

Die Walkure has benefited from some star performances – Domingo, Meier, O’Neill, Westbroek, Terfel – but this has been in spite of cumbersome staging.

I don’t go along with the worship of John Tomlinson that has been expressed over the last couple of weeks – I can’t help thinking the press want to “punish” Bryn Terfel by praising his replacement. To me, there was no contest between the two singers, Tomlinson coming across more like a Nibelung than a God.

So, to summarise, this Ring production is a disturbingly mixed affair for me. I will never go and see Rheingold or Siegfried again (if they were to do it again at some point) but would be back to the other two like a shot and the lack of a sense of completeness I feel is extremely bothersome.

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