Wagner Notes

Stephen Wagley
December 2018

Great singing and convincing acting marked the revival of Keith Warner’s production of the Ring at the Royal Opera House in October. Warner’s conception was generally forceful and intelligent; the production had several points of view, not all consistent. It got a lot right, but it got some things wrong, and a few things very wrong.

Strong ideas and images and excellent interaction between characters were what it got right. But Warner—or the associate directors responsible for this revival—may have tried too hard to make connections from opera to opera. There were recurring visual symbols: a suitcase that passed from Alberich to Mime to Hagen; a corpse that may have been that of Hagen’s mother; a gold figurine of a goddess, perhaps Freia; a blue wig; ladders; a model airplane; horse skulls. There were many forms of writing, suggesting a tension between texts and direct encounter, savoir and connaître. Mime (Gerhard Siegel) consulted a book in Das Rheingold. Mathematical formulas (in place of runes) covered the set curtain at the beginning of Siegfried and appeared again in Götterdämmerung. In Siegfried the Wanderer (John Lundgren) extracted a contract from his spear to show to Mime in Act I and fruitlessly consulted books in Act III. Hagen (Stephen Milling) brandished what looked like a pocket diary and the vassals waved similar pocket diaries at Brünnhilde (Nina Stemme).

The production conveyed the story fairly efficiently but the sets by Stefanos Lazaridis undermined the sense of continuity. They were alternatively detailed and plain, literal and abstract, divided between realistic sets—an Edwardian parlor with a glass wall at the back, Alberich’s white-tile-lined laboratory, and the Gibichung hall—and a large white rectangle. When it first appeared in Act III of Die Walküre, the rectangle marked a major change in the style of the set and costumes; it reappeared in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. It served as a wall, but it also rose and lowered, tipped at various angles, revolved, and wobbled. Characters (Wotan and Brünnhilde, Siegfried and Brünnhilde, the Norns) passed through a door in the rectangle, or rode on it as it revolved (the Wanderer), or stood on it as they plotted Siegfried’s death (Brünnhilde, Hagen, and Gunther). At key moments, the rectangle hid important plot developments from the audience: Wotan led the sleeping Brünnhilde through the door; the rectangle then rose to reveal her asleep on a chaise lounge. The awakening scene was played behind the rectangle with the sleeping Brünnhilde and the searching Siegfried visible in silhouette. Nor were the costumes by Marie-Jeanne Lecca consistent: gods, Nibelungs, and Gibichungs wore vaguely early- and mid-twentieth-century costumes, but the Valkyries were in filthy, shapeless dresses, their arms covered with blood.

Hiding key moments from the audience was not the only misfire. In the confused and confusing final scene of Das Rheingold, Freia (Lise Davidsen) cowered in a pit in the center of the stage as the gods dumped the gold into it to cover her; Erda (Wiebke Lehmkuhl) rose from it (as though Freia was transformed into Erda); Wotan (Lundgren) descended into it as the other gods climbed multicolored ladders to the flies. At the end of two operas, characters sang from opposite sides of the stage, making for slack drama: Wotan and Brünnhilde at the end of Die Walküre and Siegfried and Brünnhilde in the awakening scene in Siegfried, as though they were giving a vocal recital. In Act II of Siegfried, Mime (Johannes Martin Kränzle) stood in a depression in the floor, alternatively putting on and off a wolf or rat mask indicating his true and murderous thoughts as he sang to Siegfried (Stefan Vinke). Most shocking, a frustrated and angered Wotan stabbed Erda at the end of their scene in Act III. At the end of Act II of Götterdämmerung, Vinke sang from a chair at the side of the stage with his back to the audience as Gunther (Markus Butter), not wearing the Tarnhelm (which resembled a large Rubik’s) confronted Brünnhilde. The final scene of Götterdämmerung was set around a large open space surrounded by metal walkways; Brünnhilde lighted fires in the four metal chim- neys and statues of the gods were lowered into them. It was difficult to get much sense of emo- tion given all the activity. Someone threw at least one chair in every opera. There were some traditional elements (traditional, that is, judging by other productions I have seen): men in top hats, characters wearing eyeglasses, a sofa and a bar cart in Act I of Götterdämmerung. If I focus here on the problems, it is because they distracted from an otherwise fine production.

The performances were well-acted and generally well-sung. John Lundgren was stalwart and a little dull as Wotan. Substituting for an ailing Johannes Martin Kränzle as Alberich in Das Rheingold, James Cleverton acquitted himself admirably, both vocally and dramatically; Kränzle sang Alberich in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung; his voice is warmer than Cleverton’s. Emily Magee as Sieglinde became shrill and metallic when reaching for top notes. Stuart Skelton as Siegmund held the second “Wälse” while I counted slowly to thirteen. In Siegfried, Stefan Vinke paced himself well throughout, still sounding robust at the end.

Other notable singers were Günther Groissböck as Fasolt, Sarah Connolly as Fricka, and Heather Engebretson as the forest bird. Nina Stemme had some vocal difficulty at the beginning of Act II of Die Walküre, singing with a wide vibrato and carefully preparing before reaching for high notes. The power of her voice became more apparent in the Todesverkündigung scene. She is arguably the best Brünnhilde at present, though I wonder whether she will soon retire this role. The standout performer in three operas—as Freia, as Ortlinde, and as the third Norn—was Lise Davidsen. In the past, I have found Stephen Milling stiff and uninteresting, but in this production, he showed himself capable of great singing and acting, a worthy successor to Matti Salminen.

Antonio Pappano moved things along efficiently, if not effortlessly; he seemed to lack inspiration. The brass had difficulty at the beginning of Das Rheingold and in Walküre. It was good to see the orchestra on stage to take a bow after Götterdämmerung.

As this may have been the last revival of this production, I would be sorry not to see it again (I saw it in 2007 and 2012). Despite its oddities and inconsistencies, this was, generally, a thoughtful and thought-provoking Ring.

© Wagner Notes, December 2018, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York. All rights reserved.

Stephen Wagley,

a Society member, has attended 34 Ring cycles.