The London Ring Cycle III: October 16-24, 2018 A Very Theatrical Experience

(Review by Pierre Couture)

I was not impressed by the original 2004-2006 Keith Warner Ring production at the Royal Opera, nor the 2012 revival, so my expectations were not extremely high when I booked tickets for this recent offering. I opted to sit in the stalls near the stage which I thought would help me better understand Warner’s intentions. Unfortunately that was done at the expense of the sound which was slightly distorted by my being so close, unlike the glorious sound of the orchestra and singers, from the lower amphitheatre section that I heard at the recent Verdi Requiem concert. I fully understood the mistake I had made especially considering the excellent cast this time around. No wonder the tickets – with the top price at up to £ 300 – sold out fairly fast a year in advance to various levels of “Friends” so that no tickets were available for the general public.

Some London friends told me that of the four operas, Das Rheingold was the only one that had a full dress rehearsal and the first full cycle turned out to be the real dress rehearsal. The few glitches mentioned in the press reviews were a testament to this lack of preparation.

In his own words, Keith Warner is concerned about the search of social, spiritual, human and political truth. According to his short documentary at the beginning of the telecast of Die Walküre on the 28 October 2018, he said that “The world of the Ring is three worlds: there’s way up the top of this ladder where Walsall “Valhalla” will be, and at the other end of it we have the earth, and beyond that deep down we have Niebelheim which is where the dwarfs…where Alberich and Mime live.” He attempts to demystify in a highly theatrical fashion Wagner’s vision as “ a journey from a world ruled by gods to a place where their power is relinquished to humans.” He strongly believes that Wagner was “a revolutionary of the theatre, someone who wanted theatre to be at the centre of civic life”. He is concerned that, over the years, productions of the Ring have somewhat retreated from that goal. To support his theory, Keith Warner has brought up a most appropriate and surprising quote from Wagner himself: “I will only be happy when the person who gets the loudest applause is the person who has acted best, who has shown the character in the truest way, not the person with the best voice.” Warner strongly believes that this is the reason why Wagner wanted to direct, rather than conduct, the first Ring Cycle at his theatre in Bayreuth in 1876.

Concerned with establishing the adequate balance between realism and symbolism, he attempts to connect Wagner’s drama to our current world and forces us in this life-changing experience to consider what happens subsequently in an uncertain, all-too-human future. Remind you of anything?

There does not appear to be an overall deep concept that connects the entire Ring cycle aside from updating it somewhat to more modern days while stressing the realistic and fantastical elements. Aside from the ropes and ladders of the Greek set designer Stefanos Lazaridis, the flamboyant sets have been somewhat simplified since his untimely death in 2010. His staging of the four operas is dominated by a helix spiral climbing all the way up to space. This grand and glamorous curve is symbolic of the regeneration of humanity’s DNA, and the biological ties amongst this highly dysfunctional family. This helix, albeit reduced in size, becomes the ring of fire in which Brünnhilde is abandoned at the end of Walküre. This hints at the ultimate destruction of the family, as does the immolation scene at the very end of Götterdämmerung.

In a definitely allegorical production, Keith Warner seems concerned to emphasize the importance of interaction between characters, whether they sing or not, sometimes with stunning theatrical effects. The major asset of this Ring remains the interplay of the characters, most notably in the minimalistic settings. It is always fascinating to witness how Wagner’s and Shakespeare’s works with complex characters seem more prone and subject to Regietheater than any other composer.

According to Keith Warner, the modern approach to Wagner’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerk consists of fulfilling the goal of the “total work of art” which blends music, poetry, drama and design in order to create “transcendental theatre which explores the deepest philosophical ideas”.

For myself, the most minimalistic images of this production will remain the strongest in my memory. As the dust settles, my heart still trembles at the majestic voice of our fearless Brünnhilde, the phenomenal Nina Stemme. I have followed her career since 2001 in her London debut as Manon Lescaut in English at the English National Opera. Which was also a Warner/Lazaridis production. At age 55, her compelling London Ring performances may possibly be her last iterations of this spellbinding role. I was fortunate to experience two of her Ring cycles in Munich earlier this year and I have always considered her voice to be most human, warm and feminine. Fully aware that her high notes may be occasionally tainted with some tight edginess, her genuine facial expressions and expressive body language were the Royal Opera’s trump card this year. Her rich low notes and top register seemed to gather increased power and thrust as the cycle unfolded while reflecting wisdom, pride and nobility.

Neil Fisher in The Times expressed my thoughts better than I can possibly write them, referring to “the immensity of Stemme’s voice and presence, which could very possibly make a stage burst into flame by itself”. He went on to add that “Yet it isn’t so much the power of her voice as the humanity and intelligence with which she wields it that makes her unforgettable.”

Also, I shall never forget Antonio Pappano’s lyrical and poetic approach to the Wagner Ring. He had always been known as the singer’s conductor – I had a long conversation back stage with Emily Magee after Walküre when she rated Pappano the best conductor she ever worked with. He presented a highly textured score while maintaining the constant momentum and never lost sight of the details. There were a few notable glitches with the often problematic French horns at the beginning of Rheingold and elsewhere. The brass was also problematic at the beginning of the third act of Götterdämmerung. The orchestra sound never overwhelmed the singers and I particularly enjoyed Pappano’s softer approach in transitions and the more tender moments. His fluid and sensitive conducting, always in harmony with Warner’s theatrical approach and the singers, rendered his phrasing and shaping of individual moments just mesmerising. He can certainly be thrillingly bombastic in the grand climaxes when total power was required. Unsurprisingly, he and Nina Stemme always gathered the loudest applauses.

The imagery of Das Rheingold was cumbersome to say the least and problematic with a mixture of cluttered staging and at times an irritating mess reminiscent of a Victorian or Edwardian setting contemplating an experimental future – witness the genetic experimentation in the laboratory of Alberich and Mime with dismembered corpses and toy planes. There is a symbolic connection with the toy aircraft in Das Rheingold being transformed into a wrecked larger aircraft in the first act of Siegfried. It means that Wotan, currently the Wanderer in Siegfried, has come down to earth as he emerges from the broken shell of the cockpit and is becoming more vulnerable and human. In the end, It all washed out as a satirical parody bordering on comedy with the intent of entertaining the audience.

I was actually surprised to hear very few English singers in this London-based Ring. Only Sarah Connolly as Fricka, and Karen Cargill as Waltraute. I have always admired the artistry of Sarah Connolly but have to admit that her voice occasionally lacked the depth and power of Ekaterina Gubanova that I heard in Munich. However, she is such a great singing actress and her performance fits very well with the director’s concept.

Same with John Lundgren’s Wotan and Johannes Martin Kränzle’s Alberich who were perceived by some as underpowered with less venom in their voices compared to some historical baritones. They both sang more lyrical and nuanced roles which were just as commanding with rich, dark tones. They were totally in harmony with Warner’s goal of “humanizing” the Ring and Pappano’s more lyrical and poetic reading.

It was a luxury casting to have the fast-rising star Lise Davidsen singing the small but important role of Freia. She is gifted with a beautiful timbre and immense power, and I am looking forward to her Sieglinde in Toronto at the end of January, and as Elisabeth in Tannhäuser in Zürich and Bayreuth next year.

The other three operas are much less annoying, and are more minimalistic without too many superfluous distractions.

The first act of Walküre offers us a powerful real Heldentenor with a heroic ringing tone, Stuart Skelton, and a very vulnerable and believable Sieglinde – Emily Magee, who it has to be said, is in her vocal decline. There does not appear to be much chemistry amongst these singers but, as lovers, they look like they have fallen in love at first contact – very reminiscent of Tristan and Isolde.

The beginning of Act III shows Siegmund lying dead on a mattress during the scene with the Walkyries. Brünnhilde confirms that Sieglinde is pregnant and that she will give birth to Siegfried, the noblest hero in the world.

Wotan’s Act II monologue was richly sung by John Lundgren and the scene following with Brünnhilde is so touching for its humanity, very much like his farewell and the devastating confrontation in Act III which is painfully poignant. I have watched this act twice on video and get teary eyed every time. There is definite chemistry between the two Swedish singers. Nina Stemme’s facial expressions and vocal line are a perfect match for John Lundgren’s intelligent and virile portrayal, and are supported by Pappano’s magic sense of musical theatre. After Walküre, back stage with my fellow stage-door johnnies, we all agreed that we may never hear again a better Brünnhilde in our lifetime.

Stefan Vinke seems to sing better all the time in the role of Siegfried. It was amazing to witness how relatively fresh his heroic voice sounded towards the end of the last act. In this production Siegfried and Brünnhilde are often singing physically apart with much chemistry between them.  The opera comes to a final climax with a surge of orchestral power as they both fall onto the mattress in a very theatrical gesture. Siegfried has, after all, been living in the forest all his life and Brünnhilde is the first woman he encounters. As we will see later on in Götterdämmerung, his love for Brünnhilde is very fickle and he is in love with a woman’s body. That is why he literally jumps on top of Brünnhilde’s body on the mattress where his father lay during the beginning of the last act of Walküre. In the last Bayreuth Ring, Castorf had Siegfried making love to the wood bird…it is all about youth’s hormones.

In Götterdämmerung, Hagen has set the tone and the agenda with his strong presence in the living room setting at the Gibichungs and Stephen Milling’s sonorous and impressive bass voice cuts through the orchestra like butter. Some people wish for a voice with more venom but it is not necessary since it is so effective. He is also in harmony with Pappano’s splendid pacing of the score, and did not need to be bombastic. His character is such a driving force in the plot that I think the opera could simply be called “Hagen”. The Austrian baritone Markus Butter who sang Gunther is the weak link and he was greeted with some boos at the very end.

Although Hagen does not sing in the following scene his strong physical presence, as he sits on a a very theatrical setting, conveys a magisterial sense as if he has decided the course of action to come. The exchange between Brünnhilde and Waltraute sets the crisis point as Brünnhilde does not heed the dire warnings against Siegfried and the Ring. She is still under the spell of the “rocks”.

Coming to the last scene of the first act, where Brünnhilde is stripped of the Ring, and Hagen is still sitting in his regal chair, Siegfried sings on the side of the stage with the “tarnhelm” on his head while Gunther fights Brünnhilde to obtain the Ring. I had not experienced staging like this before, and I wondered how Siegfried would get the Ring from Gunther. Fortunately, the Act II staging answered my query and, while still respecting the text, provided Hagen the perfect excuse to punish Siegfried who had been a traitor in seizing the Ring from Günther. Regardless of how many times one sees the Ring, it is always welcome to witness a scene that clarifies or sheds light on a particular aspect of the drama, and Keith Warner’s staging answers some questions for me.

The second and last act of the Keith Warner’s Götterdämmerung “joined the dots”, so to speak, for me in providing some believable theatrical answers to the drama. For me, the best ending remains the Munich Kriegenburg production where all gather in a circle around Gutrune to lift her spirits after she lost her brother and husband.

I particularly enjoyed Pappano’s conducting Nina Stemme’s glorious singing in the Immolation scene. As soon as she came on stage for her final bow, the entire audience stood up to give her and Pappano a rare standing ovation. During my 40 years of attending performances at the Royal Opera House, I don’t remember this happening before.

Despite some initial and anticipated problems with Das Rheingold, the remainder of the Keith Warner production certainly provided a very enriching Wagnerian experience for me. It features vastly superior singing over the 2004-2005 and 2012 stagings. Ultimately, it is Nina Stemme’s powerful performance and Antonio Pappano’s intelligent direction that enhances the overall quality of this production. This is what matters the most and, upon leaving the Royal Opera House after Götterdämmerung, I just fell like staying in London longer and starting all over again with the Ring IV.