At curtain-down on Monday the Royal Opera passed the virility test of any self-respecting opera ensemble: it completed a new Ring, the first in its renovated Covent Garden home. It was a cause for minor rejoicing, not just because the evening was more successful than the three previous instalments of the Antonio Pappano-Keith Warner production, but because we can now look forward to the first integrated cycle of Wagner’s tetralogy in London for a decade. Unlike English National Opera’s recent attempt, which foundered through lack of funds and willpower, the Royal Opera promises three complete Ring cycles in 18 months’ time, and is already marketing them.
The engineer of Monday’s success was Antonio Pappano, whose Wagner conducting suddenly seems to have found its pulse and shape. There were no traces of the disjointedness that dogged earlier instalments. The Royal Opera’s music director has finally begun to relax. He now listens to the music in longer breaths, communicating a wider sense of its architecture and a more mature grasp of Wagner’s orchestral palette. The Norns scene is a little slow – better that than starting off fast – but from there it is the most singer- friendly Wagner I have heard, generating Italianate lyricism in the Brunnhilde-Siegfried duet and a suitably high-voltage act two.
With the exception of Peter Sidhom’s muffled Alberich, this is also the finest cast since Das Rheingold 18 months ago. Lisa Gasteen’s Brunnhilde gets better and better: there are no exposed notes to trouble her, she looks more feminine (costumes by Marie-Jeanne Lecca) and she has found a way of singing the German words expressively. Just as important, she manages the transition from spunky bride to heroic tragédienne with ease. She deserves better than John Treleaven’s cautiously crowing Siegfried.
John Tomlinson’s Hagen is another of his clever portraits of evil, while Peter Coleman- Wright gives Gunther welcome substance. I particularly liked Mihoko Fujimura’s Waltraute and Marina Poplavskaya’s Third Norn, the latter a Sieglinde in the making.
It may be hard to come to Warner’s staging without prejudices formed by his previous three Ring evenings, but he nearly wipes those memories in the first two acts of Götterdämmerung. Stefanos Lazaridis’s sets have a clear architectural profile, and the Gibichung scenes – a stretch-settee in act one, a mobile platform in act two, both gilded with statues of the gods – tell us that Hagen & Co have as much sincerity as Hollywood royalty. There is a novel solution to the act one finale: Warner assumes his audience is intelligent enough to know that the Gunther who overpowers Brünnhilde is really Siegfried transformed by the magic Tarnhelm. Why then have Siegfried walking about simultaneously?
If the storyline is otherwise clear, the real thrust of Warner’s staging remains intentionally murky. It is not so much an interpretation, more a narrative overlaid with à la carte references to Wagnerian philosophy, which the audience can either ignore or acknowledge, depending on familiarity with the composer’s influences and intentions. Should Wagner’s idea of the imprisoning power of civil society, for example, have any bearing on the Gibichung scenes? And if so, why does the Tarnhelm come from the same cast? Is Hagen the alter ego, the dark side, of Brünnhilde, just as Alberich is of Wotan? What is the significance of the crown of thorns in which Brünnhilde is borne into the hall of the Gibichungs?For all its philosophical pretensions this staging is fatally short of attitude or irony, and it limps home in act three. Lazaridis falls back on the clutter that has become a leitmotif of his Ring. Warner neuters Siegfried’s demise and Brünnhilde’s swansong, and the only redeeming factor in the finale – an empty fire-spectacle with an innocent boy raised aloft – is the sight of Heather Shipp’s breasts: she and the other two Rhinemaidens exchange their grunge for the full Monty as they reclaim the cursed gold. Does this Ring have nothing deeper or more original to say?