Der Ring des Nibelungen
The Royal Opera
Connolly and Terfel in Das Rheingold at Covent Garden
© Clive Barda 2012
The Royal Opera has turned a revival of its current Ring cycle (performed four times from September to November) into a significant upbeat to Wagner's bicentenary. The initial cycle opened the company's 2012–13 season on September 24 and ended on October 1.
Begun in 2004, director Keith Warner's Ring was created over four years in collaboration with set designer Stefanos Lazaridis (who died in 2010) and costume designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca. The look is broadly modern, mixing periods: the gods in Das Rheingold wear Victorian dress, while in Act I of Die Walküre, Siegmund, Sieglinde and Hunding seem to be living in the postwar era. More problematic is Lazaridis's fondness for cluttering up the stage with too many bits of set; fortunately there is some clearing out of debris for important scenes in Walküre and especially Siegfried, though Warner's own huge stock of Wagnerian knowledge and the Ring's many possible meanings often tempt him into trying to convey too much interpretive information simultaneously. At its worst, the result is fussy and obscure; at its best — at such points as the second and third acts of Siegfried, when he grasps a firm hold of the narrative focus — the results are engrossing.
Royal Opera music director Antonio Pappano has been in charge of this realization of Wagner's epic since its inception. He has grown into the task. His interpretation feels faster and lighter than some, with a consequent loss of sheer visceral power at some of the blockbuster moments — the gods' procession over the rainbow bridge, for instance, or Siegfried's funeral music. Yet his sense of momentum was pretty well faultless, and the flow of Wagner's huge structures was unimpeded; the music never became ponderous or becalmed. The ROH orchestra played energetically and enthusiastically for him, conquering technical challenges with confident ease.
There were some new cast members this time around, several in important roles. Bryn Terfel sang his first Royal Opera Wanderer on this occasion. Though there were a few moments of rough tone and an occasional sense of tiredness (particularly toward the end of Walküre), his three contributions confirmed his preeminence in these roles today in terms of the grandeur, richness and variety of his bass-baritone and the sheer detail of his convincingly thought-through interpretations. His Wanderer was a magnificent achievement from all points of view.
The much-loved British soprano Susan Bullock, who has sung the role of Brünnhilde widely, but previously at Covent Garden only in Die Walküre as a stand-in, gave a performance of the entire tripartite role that was marred by limited tonal resources and some ungainly top notes, yet overall her assumption was committed and creditable. She rose with determination to the challenge of Götterdämmerung, pacing herself well throughout the long evening and easily maintaining sufficient voice to deliver a more than respectable immolation scene.
Entirely new to the ROH was Stefan Vinke, a convincing proponent of Siegfried. His ample voice comes from the lyrical side of the heldentenor fach, but with no weak spots or blemishes, and its essential beauty and substance fitted the part's superhuman demands extremely effectively. He also proved credible as the callow, rough-edged tearaway, more useful with his hands than at working out exactly what is going on around him. In comparison, Simon O'Neill's Siegmund, who sounded baritonal lower down and pinched higher up, was not much more than presentable. Stig Andersen sang his first-ever Loge, bringing keen textual enunciation and a still sizable vocal persona to the task.
New, too, were Sarah Connolly's regal, rich-toned Fricka — more than a match for Terfel when she worsted him with her unanswerable arguments in Act II of Walküre; Maria Radner's young-looking and young-sounding Erda (though the character's murder by Wotan following their discussion in Siegfried still seems one of Warner's more bizarre notions); and Wolfgang Koch's finely acted though vocally attenuated Alberich, which became entirely an acting performance in Siegfried when indisposition prevented him from singing at all. (German baritone Jochen Schmeckenbecher sang from behind a music stand to one side of the stage.) Koch returned, however, to make an eerie final appeal to the loyalties of his son Hagen in Götterdämmerung.
Hagen himself appeared in the shape of John Tomlinson, who at sixty-six still boasts a formidable presence, both physical and vocal, with the decline in the sheer quality of his tone scarcely registering negatively in his two assignments. (He also sang a memorable Hunding.) Eva-Maria Westbroek repeated her human, blowsily lyrical Sieglinde, Gerhard Siegel his memorable Mime, though Peter Coleman-Wright sounded distinctly out of sorts as Gunther and Donner.
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