The Mikado at ENO was delicate but tear-jerkingly funny, despite still the most ridiculous story line in all opera. Jonathan Miller’s renowned and now venerable production places the action in a fashionable nineteen-thirties hotel but the verbal and music satire thrive in the transposition. ENO's production has become a National Treasure just as much as a major National Trust property.
The fabulous thing about this production is that it is so light, fresh and delicate. My generation were (over) exposed to G&S in school and professional productions but, although well thought of at the time, these pandered to the toe-tapping aspects of the music and their stagings were lumbering in comparison. This production plays the humour absolutely deadpan straight and is murderously effective for that.
Fine, fine music from the pit. Antonio Pappano letting the music breathe and giving the singers space to sing beautifully. Measured performances from the principal singers in Act 1 - Götterdämmerung is long and demanding.
But boy is this production emphasising the gloom and the sorrow. The end of the world is nigh almost before Siegfried has left Brünnhilde’s rock. The dawn on the same rock was pretty drab too. Siegfried’s usually glorious Act 1 duet with Brünnhilde was sunny but it didn’t set me alight with their joy. Siegfried’s journey down the Rhine (at last a transition where the production tried harder than video clouds) was literal, perhaps with echoes of the skeletal glass architecture of Frankfurt am Main railway station, but the video was a gloomy black and white affair, hardly a glorious journey after a night of heroic passion. Indeed Siegfried in this production seems very much a victim of events rather than the hero above all heroes.
The Valkyrie Waltraute turns up and the gloom gets monumental. Brünnhilde still in black. So much for the Prologue and Act 1. The setting is very much symbolic but to my mind doesn’t hang together. The Gibichung hall resembles the skeleton cube Tarnhelm and the transition video emphasises that. But Brünnhilde’s rock uses the same imagery, maybe a staging necessity but it’s just confusing and certainly not clarifying.
But the music and singing are fantastic with no signs of the dodgy ensemble on the previous night. If it was a problem with a video relay of the conductor then it had been fixed.
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.
At last a charming and relevant setting! Act 2 was a good modern setting where the images on stage clearly added to the literal understanding of the music drama. A stylish forest, a reasonable dragon plus great interpretations from the singers and supportive music from the pit.
Act 1 had been nicely pacey, even fast, which is the first time I’ve felt that in this cycle but unfortunately the brass in particular had problems maintaining ensemble. Maybe some video failed and there was a problem with seeing the conductor?
Nice action with a physically suitable actor as Siegfried grows up. He transforms in to the bear he has been hunting and then the singer Siegfried (Stefan Vinke) appears in the style of 21st century “bear”. But actually so what: the growing up was good but I didn’t see how this little piece of extra symbolism adds to my understanding of Wagner’s epic; or maybe it’s an example of misleading symbolism where none was intended. Stefan Vinke’s singing was wonderful: listening with my eyes closed he was naive, powerful and subtle.
Wotan the Wanderer (Bryn Terfel) appears in scene 2, very much the world-weary wanderer, but also very much Bryn Terfel playing the part very well but it would be difficult to say he personified Wotan the Wanderer.
This was a Das Rheingold to explain Der Ring des Nibelungen. The production is bedded in and smooth and the singers are impeccable. Antonio Pappano’s conducting weaves the continuous thread of Wagner’s music smoothly, making it easy for us to understand because he understands The Ring so deeply; his conducting is supportive of the singers so they can give good performances though he has a way of clarifying the musical line which appears to simplify Wagner’s music.
Symbolism abounds in Keith Warner’s production. The world globe is represented by a lattice drawing, which opens out to a square lattice and eventually becomes a lattice cube representation of the magic tarnhelm. This is by no means a bare stage setting, there’s plenty of detail with much clever use of the set and props to emphasise the metaphysical basis of Wagner’s story.
So we have understanding and clarity but we loose magic and the moments of high drama - Freia’s removal, Alberich’s curse, the entry of the gods in to Walhalla - become if not commonplace, at least lacking in the ultimate spine-chilling juju. As The Ring is so big and so expensive for The Royal Opera to mount, a production at Covent Garden is under pressure - maybe self-perceived rather than external - to widen the understanding of their show; but by mounting an “accessible” production they’ve lost a lot of the simple wonder that goes with playing it as a fairy-tale.