Throughout the week a gulf has existed between the high levels of singing and orchestral playing featured in the Mariinsky Opera’s Ring Cycle and the standard of the production itself. This gap was not entirely bridged in the final instalment Götterdämmerung, but it was at least narrowed as overall the staging proved to be the most successful of the tetralogy.
In a Cycle that has laid much emphasis upon mythology, with references to ancient Ossetian and Egyptian culture abounding throughout, the final opera reinforced the concept by dressing the Gibichungs (including the chorus) in what appeared to be Aboriginal attire. This worked because their skin decorations alluded to ‘tribal’ loyalties, and in particular to Hagen’s connection with Gunther and Gutrune.
If the chorus seemed visually weak as they tamely shuffled on and off in Act II the sound they produced was brilliantly terrifying. They were led by Hagen who stood on a level above them, with Mikhail Petrenko proving tremendous at commanding and manipulating everyone around him. In terms of staging, this act was possibly the most successful of the entire Cycle. At the end, encased in a blue glow, Brünnhilde, Hagen and Gunther placed their hands together to seal their agreement to kill Siegfried, while the hero and Gutrune occupied the level beneath them with the contrasting red hues highlighting their huge, ‘innocent’ smiles.
There were many small touches throughout, and some proved more successful than others. When Siegfried and Gunther became blood brothers the former dripped his wrist over the cup for ten times longer marking out his infinitely greater courage. On the other hand, it felt disappointing to see ‘Gunther’ on the rock represented by Siegfried dressed simply as Siegfried only with the tarnhelm on his head. It told us all we needed to know, but hardly helped us to see things from Brünnhilde’s perspective. She is, after all, coming face to face with a total stranger, and the original directions require that the Wälsung appear in Gunther’s shape.
The orchestra played brilliantly as it has done all week, and Siegfried’s Funeral March was the most powerful I have ever experienced. It also rendered the ending with the right combination of beauty and power, although visually the moment was a little lacking. It is difficult for any production to do it full justice, let alone an essentially touring one where the scope to produce grand effects is limited. Given this, it felt appropriate that it made no attempt at a lavish staging, and instead simply had the three Rhinemaidens stare out at us during the closing bars.
However, the four monoliths, which have featured throughout the tetralogy, were merely lowered (their size presumably preventing them from crashing down), making it hard to feel that we had witnessed a definitive or climactic end to their own story. The consequence was that even as the music sent tingles down my spine (as much as in any production I have ever witnessed), a tiny part of my brain was still thinking that this ending was just a tad facile. It was hardly a major problem, but at the end of a Ring Cycle one does not want to be left thinking at all, but only feeling the power.
Andreas Schager proved just as strong a Siegfried as Mikhail Vekua had the previous day. He too revealed power and warmth alongside immense stamina, although he made his sound striking by bringing a slightly more forthright edge to his most climactic phrases. His acting was also engaging, and ironically less hyperbolic than in his performance at the Proms in 2013 when he probably saw a concert performance as an opportunity to have a little more fun with the role, or as an arena that required larger gestures to make up for the lack of staging.
Larisa Gogolevskaya also proved a strong actor as Brünnhilde and with an intriguing soprano that felt difficult to categorise delivered a mind-blowing Immolation Scene. Initially, her voice appeared to be extremely direct and not particularly resonant, and yet it was her ability to shape any sound that produced such a variety of richly coloured lines, whether she was working in her striking upper or haunting lower register.
Edward Tsanga was a powerful Gunther, while Mlada Khudoley as Gutrune and Olga Savova as Waltraute repeated the magic they had brought to the roles of Sieglinde and Brünnhilde respectively in Die Walküre. Elena Vitman, Svetlana Volkova and Tatiana Kravtsova provided an excellent Prologue as the Norns, while the three Rhinemaidens were beautifully sung by Zhanna Dombrovskaya, Irina Vasilieva and Ekaterina Sergeyeva. Edem Umerov also made his mark in Alberich’s sole scene by interacting so well with Hagen.
The Mariinsky Ring Cycle represents a valiant attempt to interpret Wagner’s tetralogy in a new way, by placing the emphasis upon mythologies other than Norse legend. However, the more I watched the more it reinforced my feeling that Der Ring des Nibelungen is not really about mythology at all since that merely constitutes the medium rather than the essence of Wagner’s thesis.
I personally like the Bayreuth productions of Patrice Chéreau (1976) and Harry Kupfer (1988) precisely because they work from Wagner’s philosophies to provide analogies for our own times, but the point to be made here is rather more basic. It is one thing to place the emphasis on Norse mythology, as Otto Schenk’s 1986 production for the New York Met did as it attempted to reproduce Wagner’s original vision as closely as possible. As soon as alternative mythologies are explored, however, this fulfils neither the letter nor the spirit of Wagner’s vision, because that spirit is not mythology.
I am sure that every positioning of the monoliths, and every alteration to the animal and human heads that they sported, held significance, but while it was possible to detect the general direction of movement, I was surely not the only person upon whom many of the specific references were lost. Even if every audience member had grasped every point, however, they would only have seen interesting ways in which parallels to Norse mythology had been provided, rather than necessarily received new insights into the issues of love, power, corruption and renunciation.
The staging was certainly not a dead loss from start to finish, but where it did work it was because the formation of the monoliths in an act happened to create a pleasing backdrop for the relevant drama, not because of the insights that the positioning offered us. Mention should, however, be made of Gleb Filshtinsky’s lighting designs, which proved excellent all week and which deserve credit for helping make many of the best moments of high drama as powerful as they were.
In spite of these reservations, the Mariinsky Ring Cycle will stay long in my memory by virtue of the excellent conducting of Valery Gergiev, and a host of very strong performances. It was, of course, good to enjoy established figures such as Sir Willard White, Mikhail Petrenko, Andreas Schager and Ekaterina Gubanova, but the real revelation came in experiencing some singers whom I had seldom or never heard live before. In singling out Vladimir Feliauer (The Wanderer), Mikhail Vekua (Siegfried in Siegfried) and Vitaly Kovalyev (Wotan in Die Walküre) I am simply emphasising just how stunning I found their performances to be, rather than suggesting that several others were not of an equally high standard.
If the Mariinsky Ring Cycle were ever to make a fourth appearance in the United Kingdom (it came to Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium in 2006 and the Royal Opera House in 2009) I imagine that its success would depend largely upon the singers employed. There were, however, more than enough good performances here to suggest that the production could draw on an equally great pool of talent in the future, and provided that Gergiev were at the helm once more the strength of the orchestral playing would be virtually guaranteed.