In Keith Warner’s production of Der Ring des Nibelungen for the Royal Opera, the separate operas were introduced between 2004 and 2006 before full Cycles were staged in 2007 and 2012. If technically, therefore, this constitutes the Ring Cycle’s second revival, it feels just as new as much of the surroundings at Covent Garden on the completion of the Royal Opera House’s Open Up project. This is mainly because the cast is so different, with only Sarah Connolly as Fricka, Gerhard Siegel as Mime and Stefan Vinke as Siegfried reprising their roles from 2012, but also because there have been some alterations to the staging.
Warner’s production never had the same grand overarching concept as, for example, Patrice Chéreau’s for Bayreuth, which presented the Ring as the Bourgeois dilemma of both the nineteenth century and present day, or Harry Kupfer’s, which set the tetralogy on the road of world history. Instead, it was very much about introducing a multitude of themes and ideas to help gain a sense of what the work was really saying. The detail is impressive and some of the insights are nothing short of brilliant, but even in this sharpened up revival the need always to have something going on sees more facets explored than might seem safe or palatable.
The prelude and first scene see a lattice pattern projected over the entire stage, although by the time it ripples across all of the various surfaces it feels very fluid and watery. At the end of the first scene this ‘grid’ moves from forming a flat surface to creating a globe, thus signifying the world over which Wotan has dominion. Das Rheingold has always posed a problem to directors because it requires substantial scene changes while providing no intervals in which they can occur. In Warner’s production, with sets by the late, lamented Stefanos Lazaridis, the floor constituting the mountain that the gods occupy outside Valhalla rises to the top of the stage to reveal Niebelheim below. However, for the most part we gain a sense of moving between different realms through such things as lighting alterations, and by having a ladder and rope ascend from below the stage to high above it. In this way, characters clambering up them can provide a sense of movement, and after Alberich steals the gold he passes Wotan ascending the ladder as he descends it.
There are many brilliant touches so that Fricka almost swoons with the smell as Fafner removes his boots upon arriving, and rushes to rescue her shawl from a back of a chair when it looks as if a giant will crush it. There are, however, moments when the amount going on is too much. Freia is brilliantly sung by Lise Davidsen, who delivers one of the strongest performances of the evening, but it is not clear if she is merely taunting Fasolt by seeming to flirt with him, or has some genuine feelings for him. It is questionable, however, whether either interpretation neatly fits with the behaviour of someone who would have feared going with the giant like nothing else. Thus, while it could be argued that there is a deeper point to be made with this directorial decision, it still seems as if it was reached simply because it enables more visual elements to accompany Fasolt’s monologue.
In Nibelheim, we see Alberich exploit the Nibelungen, but it still does not quite explain the laboratory-like setting where weakened workers are strapped onto trolleys. As a result, the impact of the moment when Mime recalls the happier, carefree days in Nibelheim, which normally represents the one point at which we see his more sensitive side, is undermined by having him brandish a rotting, half-skeletal corpse. Nevertheless, if one delves deep enough there are always things to be discovered. Alberich leans over a female Nibelung and places a blue wig on her, just as the Rhinemaidens sport, thus revealing how he metaphorically raped the nixies by stealing their gold. While doing this, he boasts of how the world will grow to lust after the loveless dwarf, with his actions revealing, or at least symbolising, his entirely passionless fathering of Hagen.
One of the most insightful moments comes when Alberich has finally surrendered the ring. He deliberately pushes the tip of Wotan’s spear into his eye to show how Wotan has ‘wounded’ him, and how he and the god, who only has one eye himself, are cut from the same cloth. At the same time as Alberich mutilates himself, the tarnhelm is broken in the corresponding place, thus revealing how the dwarf is beginning to wreak his revenge. When Freia is covered in gold Wotan must surrender the ring because there is still a crack through which Fasolt can see her eye gleaming. In this instance, that gap is created by the fact that the tarnhelm is damaged. However, it seems strange that, following the release of Freia, Froh reveals a huge case of gold left over. It may be that he recognised the need for Wotan to relinquish the ring, and thus kept it hidden, but, if so, it rather takes the focus off Erda as the one who foresees the gods’ fate.
The musical credentials are very strong and, along with the ultimately successful direction, help to make this Das Rheingold feel quite special. Sir Antonio Pappano’s conducting is smooth, full and balanced, and if this means that he does not always capture the monumentality of certain moments, so that the death of Fasolt does not generate the type of shocking jolt that it can, this is compensated for by the amount to which such consistently rounded playing moves us. As Wotan, John Lundgren has quite a dark bass-baritone and, excepting the odd weaker moment that most likely results from warming up in some instances and pacing himself in others, delivers an exceptionally powerful performance where the directness of his sound is offset by just enough warmth to stop it feeling harsh.
It will certainly be interesting to see how Lundgren develops, both vocally and dramatically, in Die Walküre where Wotan is quite a different character. In the first opera, he initially appears in a coat and large wig before he sheds both to contrast the image of the wise god with the reality. This action feels particularly poignant in this instance because Lundgren’s Wotan is as far from noble as they come as his taunting and goading of Alberich are quite relentless.
Johannes Martin Kränzle is brilliant as Alberich, transforming convincingly from a comically frustrated chaser of the Rhinemaidens to a single-minded pursuer of power. Most notable is the way in which he can demonstrate such a detached cruelty when in charge, and yet still arouse considerable sympathy when he is fooled and toppled. Alan Oke is equally superb as Loge, constantly conveying the trickster’s glint in his eye, and, as a result, some of the interactions between Wotan, Alberich and Loge are perfect. Nevertheless, there are still a few that go too far because one feels that Wotan, although certainly having a sense of superiority, should display some traces of guilt, which would reveal themselves in more subtle moments. Again, one feels that the choice to have quite so much goading and taunting derived from the fact that this introduces more dynamic moments than if characters stood all quiet and shameful.
Günther Groissböck is luxury casting as Fasolt, and Brindley Sherratt a class act as Fafner. Markus Eiche and Andrew Staples as Donner and Froh respectively reveal fine voices, although the production hampers the portrayal of their characters by requiring them to oscillate between sleeping and jumping about. Froh holding a flower while Donner brandishes his hammer says something about the ineffectiveness of the god of spring, but it makes both feel a little too comical when as gods they still need to possess a certain gravitas.
Lauren Fagan, Christina Bock and Angela Simkin are extremely impressive as Woglinde, Wellgunde and Flosshilde respectively, while Wiebke Lehmkuhl is a beautifully rich voiced Erda. The two performers who also appeared in the 2012 Cycle are similarly on top form. Sarah Connolly, with her sumptuous mezzo-soprano, feels an even more demanding Fricka perhaps than six years ago, while Gerhard Siegel has that rare ability to convey the sense of the squirming dwarf Mime, while in reality projecting an extremely full sound.
The Royal Opera House’s current presentation of Der Ring des Nibelungen consists of four full Cycles, which continue until 2 November 2018.
The Royal Opera House’s production of Die Walküre will be broadcast live to selected cinemas in the UK and worldwide on 28 October, while some cinemas will also show encore screenings over subsequent days. For details of participating venues visit the Royal Opera House Live Cinema Season website.