Plane crash - that’s the key to the setting: it took some working out! The fan circulating above the action in Act 1 looked like a ventilator, possibly representing the troubled times but no, it turns out it is meant as a propeller. The famous storm which opens Die Walküre was a disappointment and Hunding’s hut looked like a garret that wouldn’t shelter anyone. Similarly thrown away were the dramatic opportunities of Brünnhilde’s going-to-sleep music and Spring. Loge’s encircling fire was represented by setting the double helix alight with real flames; symbolic and impressive but the staging didn’t match the timing of the music. The double helix had been a running symbol of life since the beginning of Das Rhinegold: a problem with this is that Wagner had already nominated the threads of the rope of destiny for a very similar dramatic function.
So did we gain anything in between the storm and the magic fire? Actually “yes”. We gained a performance structure for a very solid dramatic performance which laid open the family turmoil; we gained a very controlled and measured performance of Wotan by Bryn Terfel, a completely different style from (say) John Tomlinson’s authoritative god. Bryn Terfel’s god is fallible, not all-knowing and quite credible of transgressing the “natural” rules of family relationships. So heretical in exactly the way that Richard Wagner’s libretto intends. And beautifully sung, controlled, powerful when required and subtle as well. He made a lot of sense of the long monologue of Act 2.
We gained a couple of symbolic bits of stage-work which highlighted the metaphysics which underpins the story, for example the withdrawal of the ladder which had been indicating the link between the eternals and mortals. The Ride of the Valkyries (Walkürenritt) and the rest of Act 3 was very persuasive in this production. Interesting use of shadows and the stage turntable, with the relatively bare staging suiting the subject.
The down side of the fussy plane crash staging of Acts 1 and 2 and particularly the twentieth century costumes, was that it emphasised the aspects of the drama irreverently deconstructed by Anna Russell: the kitchen sink drama of Mr and Mrs Wotan and their noisy daughters.
Wotan (Bryn Terfel) is fantastic, Hunding (John Tomlinson) is a nasty piece of work under whose roof you wouldn’t want to stay the night with and you can definitely believe he batters his wife. Brünnhilde (Susan Bullock) is loud but also tender, shrieking in the vulgar Valkyrie music but tender to her Father, the flawed God Wotan. Siegmund (Simon O’Neill) and Sieglinde (Eva-Maria Westbroek) sang beautifully but I couldn’t quite believe they would have made it to bed with each other at the first touch of Spring.
And anyhow, Spring was another of the lost dramatic moments: a snap lighting change from sombre to primary colours. Sorry but I don’t get that. And as a distraction, it threw away one of Wagner’s treats.
Maybe Richard Wagner the theatre production geek would have loved the toys in use here but he made a point in his letters of 1854 and 1856 to his friend Röckel that he valued artistic instinct over reason. In trying to lay clear the underlying meaning, productions such as this lose the fundamental point that The Ring is a work of instinct; it works on an instinctive level because it was composed on an instinctive level. You can follow most of the metaphysics just by following the music: the clues are in the leitmotifs.
Maybe opera audiences today are less familiar with the feel of woods and forests and rocky crags than audiences of the late nineteenth century and these days know more about crash sites; but if that’s the case, there would be sense in a production that explains the world of gods and heroes, giants and dwarves rather than transplanting the story to a situation which throws marginal new light at the expense of loosing some very significant components of the balance of the original work. I don’t remember the movies of Tolkein’s “The Lord of the Rings” being ridiculed for being naturalistic but it seems that is the fear the Royal Opera have sought to address by commissioning this production.
And exactly where these days does one find a naturalistic production of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle, other than at home listening to a sound recording and imagining it oneself? Authentic performances of orchestral music using original instruments and period performance style have been around for some time now, isn’t it time that opera caught up?
Director Keith Warner
Set designs Stefanos Lazaridis
Costume designs Marie-Jeanne Lecca
Lighting design Wolfgang Göbbel
Original Movement Director Claire Glaskin
Video Mic Pool
Video Dick Straker
Associate Set Designer Matthew Deely
Conductor Antonio Pappano
Siegmund Simon O'Neill
Sieglinde Eva-Maria Westbroek
Hunding John Tomlinson
Wotan Bryn Terfel
Brünnhilde Susan Bullock
Fricka Sarah Connolly
Gerhilde Alwyn Mellor
Ortlinde Katherine Broderick
Waltraute Karen Cargill
Schwertleite Anna Burford
Helmwige Elisabeth Meister
Siegrune Sarah Castle
Grimgerde Clare Shearer
Rossweisse Madeleine Shaw
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House