From 5 to 9 November the Mariinsky Theatre, under the baton of its artistic and general director Valery Gergiev, brings its famous Ring Cycle to Birmingham. It is the only UK date for the production in 2014, and the four operas are surrounded by a series of events (25 October – 8 November) designed to encourage a deeper understanding of Wagner’s world, character and inspirations.
The Birmingham Hippodrome is ideally suited to hosting a production so vast in both its scale and ambition that it has only ever appeared in a handful of venues across the world. It requires a space with the necessary width, depth and height to accommodate the four giant monoliths that grace the stage, and which slowly transform themselves in line with the unfolding action.
This Cycle was conceived by Gergiev in 2003, but only recently found its natural home when St Petersburg’s new theatre, known as Mariinsky II, was officially opened on 2 May 2013, the conductor’s sixtieth birthday. Though front of house exudes warmth and elegance, backstage boasts super-efficiency as there are four rehearsal areas, each the size of the main auditorium stage. The Birmingham Hippodrome can come closer than most places to replicating everything that Mariinsky II can offer. Although it is a much older building, it underwent a major refurbishment twelve years ago that has brought it up to the standard of the world’s greatest lyric theatres. The singers have already proved they can reach the furthest corners of Mariinsky II’s vast auditorium, so there will be no problem being heard and understood in Birmingham’s equally large, but no less acoustically sound, interior.
In crude terms at least, there are two approaches to staging a Ring Cycle. The first involves attempting to fulfil Wagner’s own vision as closely as possible, while the second concerns introducing a new take or commentary on the composer’s ideas, usually in line with the thinking of the day. Otto Schenk’s Metropolitan Opera production of 1986 would seem to epitomise the first approach where the aim was to utilise modern technology to fulfil all of Wagner’s original stage directions. Robert Lepage’s 2010 production for the Met might also fall into this category for although it was innovatively staged, the focus was not really on challenging, or in any real sense developing, Wagner’s philosophies.
The Patrice Chéreau / Pierre Boulez production for Bayreuth (widely considered to be the best Cycle available on DVD) took the latter approach by making The Ring a critique on the bourgeois attitudes and values that prevailed both in Wagner’s own time and 1976, the year in which the production opened. The Harry Kupfer / Daniel Barenboim Cycle also adopted this second approach, while coming up with a very different analogy. It presented the 1988 Bayreuth Ring as a story of ecological catastrophe, with the set representing the Welt-Straße or Road of World History.
Gergiev’s Ring, however, would seem to take a third way. On the one hand, it hooks strongly into the notion of mythology just as Wagner intended, and yet it considers this within the context of Ossetian as much as Norse legend. Tatiana Noginova’s costumes evoke the culture’s ancient rituals, and Gergiev says “I’m Ossetian myself, and the Ossetian mythology is also quite rich and epic”. In addition, there is no designated stage-director in charge of the production, which may sound surprising, but makes sense when the origins and intentions of this Ring are understood. It follows a production concept by Gergiev himself and, although there is a production designer (George Tsypin), there are virtually no set-dressings other than the monoliths. With much of the visual impact coming instead from the lighting and costumes, it soon becomes clear why the normal role of director emerged as redundant.
Surrounding the Mariinsky Ring Cycle are a series of events that could be just as exciting as the four central operas. These include a screening of Fritz Lang’s 1925 silent film version of Siegfried at 11.30am on Sunday, 2 November at Birmingham’s Electric Cinema. While this classic is freely available on DVD, opportunities to hear it with live piano accompaniment (from, in this instance, Neil Brand who presented BBC 4’s Sound of Cinema series) are few and far between. Having managed to experience it this way nine years ago in Brussels, I can vouch for the difference it makes, as well as the importance of taking the opportunity when it arises.
There is also a Brunch with the Brünnhildes at 11.30am on Saturday, 8 November at the Patrick Centre. Here, two world renowned Brünnhildes, Susan Bullock and Catherine Foster, will discuss what it takes to capture the part, sustain the voice over so long a period of singing, and work up to the final breath taking Immolation Scene. These are just two of the many events in the Ringside season which, when considered alongside the tetralogy from the Mariinsky Opera, should make for quite a stunning festival.
The Mariinsky Ring Cycle is at the Birmingham Hippodrome from 5 – 9 November 2014 (Das Rheingold, 5 November; Die Walküre, 6 November; Siegfried, 8 November, and Götterdämmerung, 9 November). Tickets are available for both the whole Ring Cycle and individual operas. For further details and to book visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website.
For full details of all events in the Ringside series (25 October to 8 November) click here.