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Richard Wagner (1862)
12 Jan 2007

WAGNER: The Ring Cycle

It is a mystery as complex as the Kirov’s Ring Cycle staging and equally inexplicable.

Richard Wagner: The Ring Cycle

Kirov Opera Mariinsky Theatre, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff


How can so much be put into possibly the greatest of artistic undertakings, Wagner’s masterpiece of a prologue and three operas stretching over 19 hours, and yet seem incomplete?

Conductor and artistic director Valery Gergiev and his designer George Tsypin are credited with having created this epic production with no mention of a director. And there lies one of this extravaganza’s key weaknesses.

If more time and effort had been put into giving the cast stronger direction rather than worrying about the impenetrable concept this would have been a more rounded experience.

The orchestra under the baton of one of music’s current demi-gods certainly lived up to the huge expectation, albeit after a lackluster start with the first of the four parts of the Ring, Das Rheingold. Ultimately, there were indeed moments (well long periods as this is Wagner) of exquisite beauty, including an awe-inspiring ‘Siegfried’s Death and Funeral March’.

Vocally we had some world class performances but equally some frankly disappointing voices that sounded either tired or just badly cast.

Being performed over four consecutive days requires different singers to take on the same roles, so, for example, we had three Wotans. I liked Yevgeny Akimov but none bowled me over.

Similarly we had two Siegfrieds and these could not have been more different, down to Leonid Zakhozhaev having a flowing brown mane and the second Viktor Lutsyuk sporting a shock of white hair.

Zakhozhaev coped with the demands of Siegfried and at least looked the part. Poor old Lutsyuk looked like one of those gonks children stick on the end of a pencil. I could have forgiven the dopey grin if the voice had been as memorable.

There was no such problem with Olga Sergeyeva’s striking Brünnhilde who was a dominating presence, emotionally intense and vocally heroic. Her show stopping scenes were indeed show stopping and she seemed totally unfazed by some of the comings and goings around her.

Just as enjoyable were some of the relatively smaller roles such as Vassily Gorshkov’s Loge, Svetlana Volkova’s Fricka and a splendid Hagen from Mikhail Petrenko. Larissa Diadkova sang Waltraute’s great aria in Götterdämmerung as if she had been waiting all her life for the opportunity.

It is one of the wonders of the Ring Cycle that virtually whatever a producer or designer throws at it Wagner’s music manages to rises above it. This was such a case. While Tsypin’s sets are monumental, with vast figures, rising and descending rocks and multi-coloured internal lighting that is presumably deeply significant but quite what they had to do with what the singers were doing was unclear.

This is very much a Russian ring but with references to gods from a myriad of ancient world religions. Some are more recognizable to us in the West than others, especially Egyptian deities including Wotan as Anubis, the god of death and embalming, which made perfect sense.

I thought I would start to understand other elements of the staging as the Ring proceeded. Instead, by the end of the second evening, Die Walküre, I had decided not to hurt my brain any more and enjoy the music.

Yes, we had some powerful dramatic performances but we also had times when singers seemed to be wandering around the stage. The Valkyries, for example, sounded superb could have been in a concert performance, being reduced to a dreadful little choreography that involved changing places and rotating several times. Likewise, the giants Fafner and Fasolt had to overcome being wheeled on, their pin heads protruding from cumbersome pretend “rocky” bodies.

But the physical side of the show did have its plus points. The figures dressed in black with long fluorescent hair worked very well as the Rhine and, combined with Gleb Filshtinsky’s lighting, such theatrical cleverness created much atmosphere.

Production aside, the flashes of musical genius from stage and pit, however, made the whole experience an exhilarating experience, justifying this massive undertaking.

This was a remarkable event to be staged in Cardiff, establishing Wales Millennium Centre as one of the top houses for large scale opera, and feeding a hunger for the best the world can bring.

Mike Smith

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