This was a first for me. While I had heard the individual operas of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs several times, this was the first time I heard all of them in one sweep – and sitting very close up. This was a great performance by Royal Opera House’s Antonio Pappano and the orchestra, mostly fanstastic singing, but an ugly, quite dismal and absolutely illogical production. There are beautiful images (the Rhinemaidens, Valhalla in Rhinegold), but kitschy and ludicrous sets (the downed and broken-up airplane in Siegfried, the clumsy and dirty wall behind which Siegfried finds and awakens Brünnhilde; the stupid suspended boat – reminiscent of the 3 boys from Zauberflöte – from which Alberich urges on Hagen to obtain the ring; the final scene in Götterdämmerung where caricatures of the gods’ golden statues are brought in, etc., etc., etc.) and really ugly sets (an utterly illogical and ugly upstairs room in Hunding’s hut, with its velvet wallpaper looking more like a 20th century brothel in New Orelans than a medieval abode). Director Keith Warner should go home and cry, luckily for him is was not on the stage for plaudits, he might have been booed off (certainly by me!).
The outstanding singers were certainly Bryn Terfel as Wotan/Wanderer whose stage presence matches his commanding voice, both in the lyrical passages (“leb wohl, mein schönes, herrlich Kind”), as well as the imperial and the wrath-filled ones. He really is the perfect Wotan, hard to see who could surpass him. Also John Tomlinson (a previous Wotan) was excellent as both Hunding and – even more so – as Hagen, both vocally and as the envy-torn devious son of Alberich. Both of them received standing ovations and the loudest cheers. And, of course, at least on an equal level with these two giants was Stefan Vinke’s Siegfried. He initially looks like a young Per Steinbrück (the German SPD chancellor pretender) and also acts accordingly, but this is not to his disadvantage: the rough-hewn cave boy, ignorant of the facts of life, who takes what he likes and obeys advice both from the Waldvögelein as from Hagen. A beautiful tenor, a real Heldentenor with a great future.
Among the women most impressive were Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde and especially Mihoko Fujimura as Waltraute in a riveting unparalleled performance. Susan Bullock as Walküre was disappointing in Walküre, but found her appropriate strength in Siegfried and especially in Götterdämmerung, to an absolute dramatic highlight. If just she did not have to jump into the fire!
I was also impressed by Sarah Connolly’s Fricka, especially in Rheingold, less so in Walküre, but her act between stern protector of virtue and her lust for power and sex is played out extremely well. Of special quality (in Rheingold) was Wolfgang Koch’s Alberich, despite being slightly indisposed. But why does his early coughing have to be turned into him breathing into a plastic asthma bag in Götterdämmerung? Again, one of Warner’s ridiculous “ideas”. His powerful singing depicted his “depraved” lust for world domination beautifully. Less convincing, but still very good was Gerhard Siegel’s Mime, whose portrayal as a scientist was rather credible. Rachel Willis-Sorenson’s Gutrune did well. The major disappointment was Peter Coleman-Wright’s Gunther whose voice is just too weak for that role. Granted, he had a hard time maintaining his position between Siegfried and Hagen, but even in a weaker cast he would have been an outlier.
Beautiful singing by the Rhinemaidens, a very strange characterization of Erda, an extremely strong choir of the Gibichung’s followers – who completely incomprehensively show their determination for battle and celebration by brandishing little books, like delegates voting at a party convention (???), somber Nornen and a wild bunch of very< strong-voiced Valkyries, who unfortunately have to handle slaughterhouse meat carcasses (skinned torsos, arms and legs) instead of bodies of fallen “heroes”.
It seems to me that to hear the whole Ring in two weeks’ time does not do what one of my friends had told me before (“you will be sick of Wagner after this”), but rather the opposite. It brings out so much of the late-romantic music, the ups and downs of life and gods, a musical richness and quality which makes me want to hear more of it. But next time: I need to see a different staging.