Just leave the Ring to sparkle: The Valkyrie at the Royal Opera House
Wagner: The Valkyrie Royal Opera House, London
The remains of my Royal Opera House Ring turned out to be only The Valkyrie and Twilight Of The Gods. A nasty bout of flu robbed me of Siegfried. It also knocked out Alberich. They missed him more than they missed me.
After Twilight Of The Gods, an experienced friend confided: ‘Covent Garden is one of the world’s great opera houses, but this wasn’t one of the world’s great Rings.’ Just so. But why was it so?
Most of the blame must be shouldered by director Keith Warner, whose banal approach never got near to illuminating one of the greatest triumphs of Western art. Instead, like some bulky guy who stands in front of you while you’re admiring a great painting, he just got in the way, and irritated like a nasty gnat bite throughout.
TWISTED FATE: Susan Bullock brought sophistication to the role of Brunnhilde
In Twilight Of The Gods, he adopted almost every cliche of contemporary German Wagner directors, so the evil Hagen’s palace was set up like a Hamburg pimp’s apartment, all white leather sofas and kitsch.
When Hagen’s vassals arrived, they were clad in black leather. As the Labour politician Ernest Bevin once exclaimed, ‘clitch after clitch after clitch’.
At the end of the Ring, Brunnhilde’s Immolation is a cataclysmic moment. Warner turned it into bonfire night in Basildon, with lots of happy-clappy young people wandering about, until an actual Ring descended and a ponytailed girl in jeans and T-shirt was hoisted aloft.
The triumph of the common woman? Or bathetic rubbish? Doubtless Warner imagined it to be moving. But, like the celebrated comment on the death of Little Nell: you needed a heart of stone not to laugh.
‘Like some bulky guy who stands in front of you while you’re admiring a great painting, he (Director Keith Warner) just got in the way, and irritated like a nasty gnat bite throughout.’
The late Stefanos Lazaridis’s sets didn’t help either. Especially in Valkyrie, they were clunky and ugly. The big room with the picture window in Rheingold reappeared, this time looking as if a bomb had hit it, probably trying to depict the chaos the world had been thrown into by the theft of the Ring.
It wasn’t just awful to look at, but an ’elf ’n’ safety hazard. Brunnhilde entered, and immediately got stuck on a bit of scenery: it required a stagehand to prise her off.
A few moments later, in came Fricka, and caught her costume under a heavy chair. She freed herself, but the damage was done. ‘Titter ye not,’ advised Frankie Howerd, but we all laughed like drains.
All this is sad, because somewhere amid the chaos was a rather good musical performance struggling to get out. Tony Pappano continued to conduct splendidly, and it was a nice touch to put the entire orchestra on stage for a well-deserved ovation.
This isn’t a great era for Wagner singing, but most of the cast did well. Bryn Terfel, now singing out, unlike in Rheingold, was a majestic Wotan in Valkyrie. Susan Bullock, though perhaps with a voice a shade small for this house, was a sophisticated Brunnhilde, with a detailed grasp of the role that transcended the frumpy frocks they stuck her in.
Stefan Vinke’s Siegfried was a make-do until something better comes along. Vocally he’s dry, nasal and uningratiating throughout most of his range, and it didn’t help that he looked more like a mugger out on licence than a great hero.
A real star was Sarah Connolly as Fricka. Mainly a specialist in baroque opera, she was a revelation, and has a big future in this stuff if, among her many options, she chooses to focus upon it. Mihoko Fujimura also shone as a sonorous Waltraute.
Act 1 of Walkure, one of Wagner’s strongest inspirations, went especially well, with Eva-Maria Westbroek a radiant Sieglinde, Simon O’Neill a fine enough Siegmund to make me impatient for him to step up a weight and take on Siegfried, and Sir John Tomlinson as ever totally charismatic as Sieglinde’s gruesome husband Hunding.
John is what football fans call a legend, and he can do no wrong for most of us. However, he doubled up as Hagen in Twilight Of The Gods, a role he first took on here more than 20 years ago, and today he’s more of a favourite uncle than the Ring’s most double-dyed villain.
I’m marking these shows purely on the musical performance. I know it’s a counsel of despair, but a semi-staged performance purged of Warnerisms would have been far more effective.
Twilight Of The Gods