With Twilight of the Gods, the Royal Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle has come to a blazing finish. It’s had a mixed press so far, not least for Keith Warner‘s challenging direction and concept, but when a performance is this exciting it’s niggardly not to admit it. How can such an absorbing, moving and provocative night at the opera be only worth two stars?
Although some of Warner’s ideas lack clarity, he has at least acknowledged the main point: the Ring is an adventure on a large scale, and needs to be treated as such. Largely, he does this with success, and if none of the visual coups de theatres have quite matched the ring of fire at the end of Die Walküre a year ago, at least he’s kept us entertained.
In this final opera of the tetralogy, the hero Siegfried drinks a magic potion and unwittingly betrays his lover Brünnhilde. She reveals his one weakness to the greedy Hagen, who kills him and attempts to steal the all-powerful Ring, though the Rhinemaidens manage to retrieve it and drown him. With world order restored, Brünnhilde creates a funeral pyre for the dead Siegfried, who is now forgiven, and rides into it. The flames destroy Valhalla and all the gods, and the story has come full circle, taking us back to the River Rhine where it all began.
Stefanos Lazaridis‘s sets for Warner’s production are sometimes cumbersome but nearly always evoke a powerful setting for the meticulously detailed direction. The Hall of the Gibichungs is a large room of mirrors, creating a suitably self-reflective background for the most revelatory opera out of the four it’s the one where everything becomes clear, especially to Brünnhilde. The Rhinemaidens splash in and out of the river, and the final tableau shows Brünnhilde setting fire to various props before jumping, perhaps inexplicably, from the back of the stage. More fruitfully, in the final minute of the opera a huge ring descends upon the stage, confronting us with the most powerful force in the story.
The Ring is opera’s biggest project, and if there are still unanswered questions in this production, I think it has more to do with us being unable to take some of the ideas in on one viewing. When the company stages the whole cycle in autumn 2007 (booking opens this autumn), it is certain that the cumulative force of the four operas together will be as awe-inspiring as it should be.
Whatever one’s reservations about the production, the evening was a triumph for Royal Opera Music Director Antonio Pappano and his huge forces. The chorus was in stunning form, singing heartily in the second act; it’s not excessive to say that they’ve never sounded better. The most striking aspect for me, though, was the commitment of the orchestra to Pappano’s interpretation, which is far more special than has been acknowledged.
With each opera, perhaps with each performance, the conductor and his orchestra have grown together in stature and have clarified their vision for this Ring. The horns and trumpets played with greater security; the strings were much warmer than they were in the earlier operas (their vibrato in the final strains of Brünnhilde’s motive in the last bars was almost tear-jerkingly intense, for instance). Pappano conducts not only with passion but with a deft and light touch, moving the music on where it needs to. In striving to do this, perhaps some of the score’s gravity is lost, but a better balance will inevitably come with time.
A Ring Cycle can succeed or fail on the basis of its Brünnhilde, so the Royal Opera is lucky to have found a singer-actress of Lisa Gasteen‘s quality. Her critics complain of her insecure top notes, but who wouldn’t sacrifice these and enjoy Gasteen’s luxurious middle voice (where most of the role lies)? She has the stamina of the great Brünnhildes of the past, and acts superbly she dominates every scene in which she appears, and is indeed the real warrior of the piece.
Her Siegfried, John Treleaven, is the weakest member of the cast, but by no means as bad as some accounts have suggested. The sheer size of the role is mainly the problem, because after a less than heroic Act I (lasting an exhausting two hours), he occasionally produced some exciting high notes and stylish phrasing. Without making a huge impression, he gets through a massive role with his dignity intact.
As the cheer at the curtain call suggested, John Tomlinson made the evening worthwhile. He brings intelligence to the role of Hagen, projecting clearly, making sense of the words; and he still retains much of the vocal beauty for which he is renowned.
Peter Sidhom returned as Alberich, and was underwhelming and weak in both voice and character; conversely, Peter Coleman-Wright and Emily Magee were full of nuances as the brother and sister, Gunther and Guntrune.
The ROH debut of Mihoko Fujimura is something to herald: she fills the House with ease, and sings with an unusual degree of passion. Sarah Fox, Heather Shipp and Sarah Castle were striking as the Rhinemaidens; Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Yvonne Howard and Young Artist Marina Poplavskaya (making a strong ROH debut) were even better as the Norns, getting the show off to a powerful start.
The production will be broadcast on BBC 2 on 27 June. Don’t miss the opportunity to see this seminal opera of the nineteenth century performed with total conviction.