And so, on to the conclusion of Wagner's colossal cycle, perhaps the most daunting to approach for directors and opera goers and surely for Wagner himself who had to logically and coherently conclude the massive musico-dramatic construct that he had set in motion. The stakes are stupendously high: he must succeed in order to vindicate his project and vision, rout the suspicion that what he is trying to achieve is too big, too grand, that he has gone too far beyond what music can reasonably express, prove that all this elevated talk of sublimity is not just posturing and an act of supreme self aggrandisement and ego. That he is not found wanting in this task is almost unimaginable, but there it is before us, unmistakable in its greatness; proclaiming itself clearly and unarguably as one of the greatest pieces of art that has ever been attempted.
The Prologue started promisingly, the ancient Norns practising extispicy on themselves, pulling the strands of fate from their own bowels. Their call to Erda seemed even more desperate and desolate than usual, as in this staging Wotan kills Erda in Seigfried. Unfortunately, Brunnhilde and Siegfried again failed to register properly in terms of their devotional, almost obsessional passion towards one another. Part of the problem was surely Vinke's lack of dramatic commitment (here no longer an interesting "take", but a real impediment to the story telling), but the staging also failed to convey any intimacy between the two. This has major repercussions later in the opera, because it makes Brunnhilde's wrath and supreme heart break hard to make sense of. With regard to the relationship, never was the simple phrase "Show, don't tell" more apposite. That phrase is surely the touchstone of any truly moving dramatic scene or piece of writing, and I'm always amazed at how callously it is ignored in much opera direction.
Once again what really did work were the more domestic scenes - Hagen's encouragement of Gutrune and Gunther worked brilliantly in the coldly palatial setting of Act 1. Hagen's debonair appearance and elegant manner makes him an easy charmer, but he then absent mindedly proceeds to strangle Gutrune as he muses about Brunnhilde downfall - these unexpected moments were disturbing and horrifying: we see that Hagen is just a shell of normalcy about a core of pure emptyness and loathing. He is an archetypal psychopath - that is he is exceptionally intelligent and socially adept, able to learn effective patterns of social interaction, but in reality completely devoid of feeling and empathy. He cannot feel. John Tomlinson understands the psychology of this role better than anyone, and gave a truly outstanding portrayal of this part that it would be difficult to imagine being bettered dramatically. Vocally he took a while to warm up (for the first ten minutes I was worried that the voice was completely gone), and although he struggles greatly with the top, the middle is still focussed and stentorian, and just like his acting, he makes every vocal gesture count and add to the characterisation. Exceptional stuff.
In this scene, the back wall is a huge set of windows hinged in two places such that at the crucial moment they can form a sort of box, a large version of the Tarnhelm (which is a mirrored cube in this production). The scene where Siegfried (transformed via the Tarnhelm into an image of Gunther) tries to seduce Brunnhilde happens inside a larger version of the helmet, by this point in the cycle a symbol not just of transformation, but deception. In the previous scene, director Keith Warner also cleverly reflects what is happening in the score as Siegfried drinks the love potion - Hagen holds the Tarnhelm, whose motive is going on in the orchestra, again with its new connotation of deception. For Wagner mavens who already know the score inside out and blow by blow, it might be too much, but for the rest of us, it was a telling visual and dramatic clue to the aural mechanics.
The quartet in Act 2 was a particular low point staging wise - it all seemed vaguely ludicrous, and the sense of burgeoning catastrophe with the myriad repercussions at every level of the plot seemed far away. Gradually it dawns on one that this is a fairly small scale reading of the Ring, one that seems to be basically about normal people in extreme situations, and while it entertains, never bores, and sometimes moves, the massive architectonics of the plot, drama and philosophical underpinnings often feel undernourished. Thankfully Keith Warner never does anything to abuse or undermine Wagner's fundamental conception, though occasionally things become a little muddled, and by the end, the strands of the plot seem not quite wound up clearly enough. At the same time, he doesn't get in the way: the Immolation scene made its colossal impact and I left the theatre profoundly moved. Though I loved the ride, in the end this production seemed like it told the right story, but at the wrong scale.
As ever, ultimately it was the music made the thing live. Pappano is perhaps not the most natural Wagner conductor, and though singers and orchestra were wonderfully rehearsed, some may have wished that his sensitive shepherding of the singers had been sacrificed occasionally for the larger musical picture. That said, he got everyone involved making a magnificent sound, and there were more than occasional moments of transcendent beauty. I have to say that I have left this Ring cycle (my first live in the theatre, and with Walkure still to go) considering myself a Wagnerian, rather than just a staunch admirer of Wagner as I had previously seen myself - I now fully understand and am completely convinced of the appeal and for the first time in a Wagner opera never felt that time was moving slowly for a single second. I could happily do another cycle in this run, but sadly won't have the time.
Susan Bullock has consistently been referred to as the weak link in this Ring cast, and even though I am hyper critical about voices, I have to say I completely forgave her all her vocal shortcomings by the end, not least because of her wonderful performance of the Immolation scene. Physically, she hardly looks like a statueque Nordic goddess, and vocally, the upper reaches of her voice are in tatters, the rest only just on the edge of acceptable - but still, in that moment, on that stage, she was giving everything that she had, and simply communicating with an extraordinary intensity and level of commitment that went way beyond what one usually witnesses in the opera house. For me she redeemed herself, and I'm not merely taking the will for the deed - there was the strong feeling that something special was occurring for her. I would even call this performance a success. I'm not sure how many will agree with me.
At the other end of the spectrum, when Gutrune started singing, I was shocked to hear a perfect Strauss soprano voice emerge - a soprano of radiant, shimmering beauty, with the sort of technique that is so solid that it conceals itself such that the voice has the added attraction of seeming effortless. It is so rare to hear singing like this in Wagner these days, where it would not have been uncommon 50 years ago. Unbeknownst to me, this was Rachel Willis-Sorensen, who I already very much admired as the Countess in Figaro last February, and I fell in love with her voice again here before realising who she was. The legato is seamless, the timbre juicy though always silvery, with a rich chest register, and size wise she is surely a lyric spinto. She would be absolutely ideal as Arabella, the Capriccio Countess, the Marschallin and Ariadne, and also as Elsa or Elisabeth, and I really would travel some distance to see her in any of these roles. Amazingly she's only 28, which partially makes me worried that she is singing Wagner at this age, but someone who is this technically sorted probably knows what they are doing in that respect too. It's not just the technique and sound that are beautiful though - she is able to use the technique to great expressive effect. I'm a real fan already. Check out the clips on her website: http://rachelwillis-sorensen.com/live/
In general the small parts were all very well taken actually - the three Norns revealed three very diffierent young dramatic voices, all three with great potential. Maria Radner who had sung Erda on previous nights, seemed much more comfortable here, and didn't once seem underpowered either - it's a very lovely true contralto voice. Carin Cargill is similarly beautifully timbre-wise and possibly even more even and controlled technically - certainly there is greater ease in higher registers and a feeling of greater flexibility. Elisabeth Meister has a very large top and is wilder than either of these two, but there is something quite viscerally exciting about the sound. A pleasure to hear all three.
As Gunther, Peter Coleman-Wright was having a terrible night. The voice had no vibrancy, and though occasionally at the beginning of a phrase it seemed like some body was returning to the sound, he didn't manage to convincingly sing a single line all evening. Quite shockingly bad considering the stage he was standing on, but I guess it's hard to sack people these days. Whether he was having an off night, or whether the voice is now entirely wrecked remains to be seen, but it was sad to witness.
Waltraute's scene, like Fricka's in Walkure, is an absolute gift to a talented singer, and a perfect opportunity to upstage any and all comers with music of wonderful sweep and contour, not to mention dramatic impact. Mihoko Fujimura delivered some very powerful and precise singing, the lower half of her voice possessing the most wonderfully richly colour. In some ways she's close to ideal, though I unfairly, I had in my memory Waltraud Meier's Waltraute who is obviously superlative, so I wasn't as overwhelmed with Fujimura as some other seemed to be. Still she was very impressive.
Die Walkure remains as a treat for next week, and among other things I really cannot wait to see Sarah Connolly as Fricka. It's the most generous and likable of the Ring operas and the one that gives me most pleasure in isolation from the others. As I say, I would happily watch the entire cycle again, but sadly won't find the time. What a wonderful experience it has been.