It’s when things go wrong that you really get the measure of Wagner’s 16-hour “Ring Cycle.”
If it can withstand prop failures wardrobe malfunctions, and recalcitrant scenery, all is well.
Keith Warner’s Covent Garden staging had several “oh no” moments in its first revival as a complete cycle.
When Susan Bullock made her initial appearance as the free-spirited Brunnhilde, she immediately got tangled in a safety harness. After a few desperate tugs, she had to be released by a very unWagnerian stagehand.
Future Brunnhildes take note: always carry a Swiss Army knife for such emergencies. You can use it to attack the props manager too.
Later the “Forest Murmurs” scene in “Siegfried” lost its sylvan serenity when the antlers of a stuffed deer went clunk against the scenery. There was comical shuffling before the poor beast was freed. Then a counterpart female deer rolled past with its unoiled castors emitting mouse-like squeaks.
It’s not what Wagner had in mind for that scene.
Then Siegmund couldn’t find the sleeve-holes in his wolfskin coat. Bits of set got stuck. Things fell over.
In other words, it was live theater at its best. And the cycle as a whole still managed to work its awe-inspiring magic.
It also now boasts Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel in his first U.K. appearance in the complete role of Wotan, a character who appears in three of the four operas.
When this cycle was first seen in 2007 he canceled at the last minute, claiming it was because his son needed an operation on his finger. The Royal Opera issued an angry press release in response. Terfel went on to sing the role for the Metropolitan Opera.
Clearly all is now forgiven. Conductor Antonio Pappano (who is also music director of the Royal Opera) patted Terfel on the back affectionately after each of his appearances.
So he should. The singer gives a powerful performance, combining a luxurious voice and psychological subtlety. He doesn’t skimp on the character’s arrogance and brutality, and still manages to make his situation sympathetic during his long monologues.
Pappano is no slouch either. The conductor is the only leading figure who appears in all four operas. If he doesn’t look as if he’s been put through a mangle at the end of each evening, he’s not been doing his job.
Pappano wrests drama from the score without drowning the singers, and creates and relaxes tension with Hitchcockian control. He makes the climactic B-flat thunderclap in “Das Rheingold” explode with the cosmic force of the Big Bang.
If there’s an occasional lack of warmth in Bullock’s voice, she makes up for it with huge waves of sound. Her acting offers a mix of Greek-Tragedy grandeur and detailed realism.
Stefan Vinke (Siegfried) has the vocal heft to match his Brunnhilde. It’s great to hear his enormous voice boom out with the force of a foghorn while he’s forging his sword or singing the joyous love duet. If only someone could tell him where the volume control knob is, and give him some basic acting lessons.
Warner’s production has been tweaked since last seen, and offers plenty for newcomers and hardened Wagnerians to chew on. He emphasizes the social allegory of the story.
Wotan, chief of the gods, is presented as a member of a decaying 19-century political elite who lives in a gloomy black-marble hall. He looks to his anarchic grandson Siegfried to regenerate order, without foreseeing that he himself will be swept away in any coming revolution. Siegfried’s lack of political guile leads to his own destruction.
Warner presents the characters in a psychologically detailed way, and their relationships are full of telling and sometimes surprising nuances. Wotan’s farewell kiss to his daughter Brunnhilde, delivered with incestuous ardor (just as the music suggests it should be) is a meaty example.
Any “Ring” needs spectacle, and here Warner (and designer Stefanos Lazaridis) are on shakier ground.
Some scenes -- Alberich turning into a huge bloody-bony monster, Brunnhilde’s fiery rock, Siegfried’s Rhine journey -- are thrilling. Others -- a confusing immolation scene, Siegfried’s battle with an unscary dragon -- sacrifice symbolic effect for underpowered staginess.
In some ways, Warner out-Wagners Wagner too. In addition to the usual symbolic props, which include a sword, a helmet and a spear, Warner adds others. A red rope, a propeller, a suitcase and a helix all also make frequent, and not always narratively helpful, appearances.
There are far more hits than misses. And with masterful singing actors like John Tomlinson (Hunding and Hagen), Sarah Connolly (Fricka), Simon O’Neill (Siegmund) and Eva-Maria Westbroek (Sieglinde) to help tell the story, it’s still a “Ring” to remember. Rating: ****.
There are three further complete cycles of the “Ring”, finishing November 2. http://www.roh.org.uk or +44-20-7304-4000
What the Stars Mean: ***** Excellent **** Very good *** Average ** Mediocre * Poor (No stars)Worthless
Muse highlights include Robert Heller on rock, Martin Gayford on art and Ryan Sutton on food.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)