Feature Review – The Royal Opera’s Der Ring des Nibelungen [Domingo, Tomlinson, Gasteen & Treleaven]

Written by: Kevin Rogers


Der Ring des Nibelungen [Libretto by the composer; Sung in German with English surtitles]

Das Rheingold [Preliminary Evening]

The closing scene from 'Das Rheingold' ©Clive Barda

Woglinde – Sarah Fox

Wellgunde – Heather Shipp

Flosshilde – Sarah Castle

Alberich – Peter Sidhom

Wotan – John Tomlinson

Fricka – Rosalind Plowright

Freia – Emily Magee

Fasolt – Franz-Josef Selig

Fafner – Phillip Ens

Froh – Will Hartmann

Donner – Peter Coleman-Wright

Loge – Philip Langridge

Mime – Gerhard Siegel

Erda – Jane Henschel

Die Walküre [First Day]

The Valkyries in Act 3 of 'Die Walküre'. ©Clive Barda

Siegmund – Plácido Domingo

Sieglinde – Eva-Maria Westbroek

Hunding – Stephen Milling

Wotan – John Tomlinson

Brünnhilde – Susan Bullock

Fricka – Rosalind Plowright

Gerhilde – Geraldine McGreevy

Ortlinde – Elaine McKrill

Waltraute – Claire Powell

Schwertleite – Rebecca de Pont Davies

Helmwige – Iréne Theorin

Siegrune – Sarah Castle

Grimgerde – Clare Shearer

Rossweisse – Elizabeth Sikora

Siegfried [Second Day]

Siegfried kills Fafner in Act 2 of 'Siegfried'. ©Clive Barda

Mime – Gerhard Siegel

Siegfried – John Treleaven

Wanderer (Wotan) – John Tomlinson

Alberich – Peter Sidhom

Fafner – Phillip Ens

Woodbird – Ailish Tynan

Erda – Jane Henschel

Brünnhilde – Iréne Theorin

Götterdämmerung [Third Day]

First Norn – Catherine Wyn-Rogers

Second Norn – Yvonne Howard

Third Norn – Marina Poplavskaya

Brünnhilde – Lisa Gasteen

Siegfried – John Treleaven

Gunther – Peter Coleman-Wright

Hagen – James Moellenhoff

The final scene from 'Götterdämmerung'. ©Clive Barda

Gutrune – Emily Magee

Waltraute – Mihoko Fujimura

Alberich – Peter Sidhom

Woglinde – Sarah Fox

Wellgunde – Heather Shipp

Flosshilde – Sarah Castle

The Royal Opera House Chorus

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Antonio Pappano

Keith Warner – Director

Stefanos Lazaridis – Set Designs

Marie-Jeanne Lecca – Costumes

Wolfgang Göbbel – Lighting

17, 19, 21 & 24 October 2007

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Alberich and the Rhinemaidens in 'Das Rheingold'. ©Clive Barda

Throughout the month of October the only operas to be heard at The Royal Opera stemmed from the pen of Richard Wagner. Indeed, there are many other Wagner-related events to support this ‘Ring Cycle’, such as workshops and films. Alongside all of this are some fascinating photographs and other mementoes from previous ‘Ring’ cycles, dating all the way back to Covent Garden’s first, in 1892, which was conducted by none other than Gustav Mahler. There are also fond reminiscences of the Hans Hotter productions and those conducted by the former music director of the ROH, Sir Georg Solti, who died ten years ago and who is currently being commemorated by Royal Opera.

This photographic journey (which can be viewed at the entrance to the Amphitheatre) shows productions ranging from Hotter’s to the most recent one, by Richard Jones. This latter was conducted by an exasperated Bernard Haitink. At the time he was on record for threatening to walk out of the whole venture as he thought the production insulted the audience, and this was vividly captured in the BBC expose film “The House”. (Fortunately, Haitink has not been put off from coming back to the House to conduct Wagner: he returns in December 2007 to lead “Parsifal”.)

The current ROH production of the ‘Ring’ has already been seen, albeit in instalments from September 2004 to April 2006. Such was the demand for the original three cycles (fuelled, no doubt, by the prospect of Bryn Terfel making his debut in a complete cycle as Wotan and Wanderer) that Royal Opera opened up its dress rehearsals as a “Preview” (24 September-1 October) and a special student-only performance of “Das Rheingold” (12 October, conducted by Rory Macdonald). This ‘student’ performance had drastically reduced ticket prices and was completely sold out. (This review is of the second performance of the cycle, which, including the “Preview”, was actually the third.)

Left to right, the Gods Freia, Donner, Froh, Fricka, Loge and Wotan with Fasolt and Fafner in 'Das Rheingold'. ©Clive Barda

The separate productions of the ‘Ring’ suggested that it needed paring down; as it still needs to be! There have been some changes but they do not go far enough. At the time of the first outing for “Götterdämmerung” one critic suggested that the whole production should be scrapped and concert performances given instead. The ticket prices could be reduced. Everyone’s a winner!

Given the confusion about what the designs of this ‘Ring’ mean, Stefanos Lazaridis had some explaining to do, which he does in his brief programme note, that joins a collection of articles from Pappano, Keith Warner and Marie-Jeanne Lecca under the title: “Interpreting the Ring”. The idea of the sanatorium from Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain” describes the house for the gods before they depart for Valhalla in “Das Rheingold”. Lazaridis stresses that the drama cannot be set in modern times because the music “clearly belongs to the 19th century”. No guidance is offered regarding the spiral, which has puzzled many, other than “it appears repeatedly throughout the whole of the ‘Ring’”. There is then the matter of a ceiling fan, which crops up in the most peculiar places. We are told that it is “linked to the sultry sexual tension that exists in 20th-century works such as ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ and the plays of Tennessee Williams”.

Lazaridis’s seemingly naïve explanations, therefore, seems to be this: stuff the stage with symbols that have a vague meaning, and are recognisable, and repeat slightly-changed forms of them later on in the action, so that the objects themselves are the discussion point rather than the underlying idea as to their purpose. His ideas are a muddle. What he does not address in his designs are questions of why one might use these symbols rather than the superficial question of what they are. After all, a spiral is a spiral. And, if the main theme is characterised by a sanatorium from Mann, this can only last for a few scenes, as Lazaridis seems to concede. In the end, it just does not make sense. What we are presented with are scenes that are not linked except by a few objects (including an aeroplane!) that do not mean anything.

Overall, the ‘look’ of this ‘Ring’ is of the Industrial Revolution, where there are clear parallels that may be drawn with Wagner’s story. What does work in this production’s favour is having distinct and recognisable sets for the various locales; thus what Wagner conceived as “an open space on the mountain tops” where the gods reside before their procession to Valhalla is now a busy and grand drawing room with a large window at the back where characters enter and leave at will. There is a hole in the middle of the room through which a large red rope dangles from the ceiling, representing the thread being spun by the daughters of Erda, the Norns. Nibelheim is a ‘mad- scientist’ laboratory, populated by slave-children and their sadistic masters; there is no representation of Valhalla – not that one is needed. The descent to the Nibelung’s world was executed terrifically, with the whole stage floor being lifted, revealing Mime hard at work. It is a simplistic idea that one has to descend to visit Alberich in his lair, but sometimes the simplest ideas are the best.

Alberich (with the Tarnhelm) and Loge in 'Das Rheingold'. ©Clive Barda

Other moments failed because they were treated like a pantomime: when Alberich demonstrates the power of the Tarnhelm in Scene 3, making himself bigger and bigger, the effect, unfortunately, was comical rather than it striking fear in the gods; his turning into a leaping toad was certainly funny, appropriately. Quite why this transformation of Alberich getting bigger was changed from the original one (he did not get quite so big) is odd as that was effective enough. On this occasion, giant arms entered from the sides of the stage to grapple Loge and Wotan whilst the projection of a large Tarnhelm was seen at the back. Wagner writes that Alberich turns into a giant snake that threatens to eat Loge.

One always imagines Fafner and Fasolt as intimidating but here they were ineffectively presented, and played as stumbling fools.

Mime sits on the crashed plane (Act 1: Siegfried) from which the Wanderer appears. ©Clive Barda

A ‘symbol’ that features in the first three music dramas is a prop- plane; it appears as a toy model in “Das Rheingold” and “Die Walküre” – it is an object that Wotan takes with him from Alberich’s workshop – whereas in Act One of “Siegfried” it is a full-sized crashed plane out of which the Wanderer appears. As a model Wotan is able to easily control it, playing with it as a child would, but when it is a ‘real’ plane it is uncontrollable and so crashes, marooning Wotan, as the Wanderer, amongst mankind.

This is a clever idea and one of the more successful attempts at representing a character’s predicament: in this case being dictated to by events and losing control as a consequence. Rather than an intimate a homely setting for Hunding’s and Sieglinde’s hut in Act One of “Die Walküre” there was a suspended room, complete with ceiling fan, within the (now wrecked) room that served in “Das Rheingold” – had the gods trashed their former home before going to Valhalla, or was it the result of disrepair?

There is no way that the fan can conjure what Lazaridis suggests as the set is too cold. One curious aspect was the sword that moved its way along an arm of the giant spiral. Act Two’s set was an incoherent mess and was largely forgettable: Wotan is searching for the ‘answers’ in pile of books, again in the wrecked room. This is the room that Siegmund is killed in, and in which Wotan kills Hunding. The lack of a coherent vision for this Act is detrimental to the whole drama because it is here that Wotan convinces himself to disobey natural laws, and sews the seeds of his own, and the world’s, end. It is the pivot on which the rest of the saga turns.

Brünnhilde's rock: Brünnhilde and Wotan (Act 3 'Die Walküre') ©Clive Barda

Brünnhilde’s rock, on which she was surrounded by Loge’s fire quite effectively, was a large rotating white wall. There is a door in the wall that some characters walk through whilst others go around the side! What’s the difference? Depicting the horses of the Valkyries with horses’ skulls just does not work; English National Opera’s reins were more convincing. Being skulls, the horses are no-more and not able to ferry dead heroes to protect the gods’ fortress of Valhalla. Having Brünnhilde put to sleep on a bed with her spear and shield was fine and, other than the rotating wall, the bare set was ideal, a chance to focus on the characters, providing one blotted out the crass reappearance of the ceiling fan above the sleeping Brünnhilde.

The front cloth for “Siegfried” (the cycle’s second day) was a mess of formulae that one might recall from reading for a degree in physics. Within them, so the theory might go, lies the secret to re-forging the sword, Nothung. If only it could be deciphered. Domestic hell was the theme. Siegfried is the brat who, thankfully, was not throwing toys out of his pram but trying out Mime’s attempts at forging a sword. The crashed aeroplane loomed large on the set. One of the plane’s engines has come off and its rotating propeller served as powerful bellows for the forge. Fafner’s cave was akin to an abandoned Cold War staging post: dark, with barbed wire and forbidding in atmosphere. Fafner as the Dragon was a large and noisy puppet, but too cumbersome. The ‘intermezzo’ of this second act is the sequence known as ‘Forest Murmurs’. There was a square of grass around which a proud stag and a sheep, standing on hospital trolleys, are wheeled about, which was done, originally, by children who were visible to the audience but, this time, there was a pedalling facility hidden beneath the trolleys so that they appeared to move unaided.

Siegfried awakes Brünnhilde in Act 3 of 'Siegfried'. ©Clive Barda

That rotating wall was wheeled out again for the final act, and it performed its own acrobatics, with what seemed like computer screen-savers projected on to it occasionally. One great blunder of the first staging was not seeing the moment when Siegfried awakes Brünnhilde. This was rectified here by a projection on the front screen that mirrors what is going on behind, and shows Siegfried removing her armour and kissing her lips. Unfortunately, because John Treleaven has a weak voice he had to keep coming round to the front of the stage to deliver his lines.

Wagner is very specific about the extra requirements for extra-musical sound in “Siegfried” – not all of them were observed here. Thunder (in Acts One and Three) were absent but the required distortion of Fafner’s voice when disguised as the Dragon was chilling. The forging scene that closes Act One was botched by an inept Treleaven who dropped the hammer and used another, consequently producing wrong notes, and he occasionally missed a few strokes, too.

“Götterdämmerung” was so stuffed with imagery that the effect was overwhelming. There are a lot of ideas here but the consequence of this produces confusion. The only clear directorial viewpoint was presenting the encounter between Alberich and Hagen in Act Two as a dream. Siegfried’s ‘Rhine Journey’ was like a computer-game ride, and very silly. He sailed past what looked like wind-farms (that fan, again) and cubic structures that resembled the Tarnhelm before docking at the Hall of the Gibichungs, which itself was a kitsch, mirrored cubic structure, complete with a long, white leather sofa.

Siegfried walks to his own funeral (ridiculous) and the moment of high-drama when Brünnhilde encounters Siegfried after being captured by Gunther (really Siegfried in disguise) was botched by over-the-top lurching. A cry and a look of horror on Brünnhilde’s face would have been sufficient.

The very final tableau in 'Götterdämmerung'. ©Clive Barda

The ’Immolation Scene’ was sufficiently apocalyptic (there was lots of fire) but the very final tableau of a woman standing on a giant ring and pointing begged the question: ‘who is she and why is she pointing, and at what?’

The Rhinemaidens – naked, naturally – at the start of the saga, were vocally strong, and their teasing of Alberich was very naughty; one felt sadness at the way they taunted this poor fool in to thinking they might love him, but was it enough for him to curse love? The experienced Peter Sidhom brought to the character the desperation and conniving qualities that would see him through the cycle, and he seemed caught up in events. His ultimate cursing of the ring when Wotan steals it was chilling to the bone.

John Tomlinson as Wotan. ©Clive Barda

As the leader of the gods, John Tomlinson is without equal, and Royal Opera is lucky that he was able to step in to the breach left by Terfel’s withdrawal. Tomlinson brings many years of experience and his presence does tend to put everyone else in the shade; he is a forceful leader. He plays the part as a man desperate to control events but finds that he has to go further and further. Macbeth says: “I am in blood / Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more / Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”

The desperation and the raw emotion of greed were palpable when Wotan tore the ring from Alberich’s finger (Wotan is really stealing the ring for himself, not for payment to rescue Freia from the giants). Was Wotan really this desperate? Wonderful stuff and a model characterisation.

The God Donner in 'Das Rheingold'. ©Clive Barda

Donner swinging his hammer to call forth a storm to sweep away the mists and create a rainbow bridge to Valhalla was stirring enough but his swing did not coincide with the culminating anvil stroke. Freia, the damsel in distress, seemed very needy and nagging towards Wotan, and Fricka panicking as the giants arrive worked well enough. Fasolt and Fafner had great authority, and, although not especially ‘giant’ in appearance, they had command. Fafner was dressed in Brunel garb, odd, as Brunel was a very short man, hence the hat to make him appear taller. The killing of Fasolt by Fafner took place at the back of the stage, a mistake.

Phillip Langridge’s Loge was an utter joy. He was mischievous and always in a hurry. Langridge’s warm and thoughtful tone fits the music. It was to the character’s detriment that he was placed under an umbrella during Donner’s hammer scene. This is not pantomime! Rosalind Plowright brought out the anxiety of her character, trying to rein in Wotan. Throughout the original outing of “Das Rheingold”, Erda (Jane Henschel) had to endure being seen throughout, obviously asleep otherwise the Norns could not spin out her dreams. This time, though still seated, she appeared like an apparition. Henschel is a rich singer and her warnings to Wotan were laced with foreboding.

The orchestra plays a vital part in conveying the drama. Throughout “Das Rheingold” Antonio Pappano and The Royal Opera Orchestra provided plenty of sweep and power. The music is designed to ensure continuity, and this is what happened. The most effective ‘spellbinding’ music was that that for the Tarnhelm: it is a ‘simple’ motif but steeped in great mystery.

Act 1 of 'Die Walküre'. ©Clive Barda

The music was genuinely thrilling in “Die Walküre”, in the stormy opening and in the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, and tender in the gentler moments between Wotan and Brünnhilde. Plácido Domingo’s Siegmund was superb in every respect. Not only did he throw himself into acting the part, and not shy away from the physical aspects, but his singing of the role has developed. The love between him and Sieglinde was passionate and grew organically, but the set only served to distract from Hunding’s realisation of their similarity. The love that the two shared found defiant expression in Domingo in this taxing role. He was chilling when threatening to kill Sieglinde and their unborn child; genuinely moving. As a whole, the music-making and singing of Acts One and Two of “Die Walküre” were the high points of the cycle.

Lisa Gasteen as Brünnhilde in 'Götterdämmerung'. ©Clive Barda

Three Brünnhilde’s were heard, owing to Lisa Gasteen being ill, though she returned for “Götterdämmerung”. Susan Bullock was vivid in “Die Walküre” and perhaps her immediate unfamiliarity with the role was what gave her interpretation a degree of welcome vulnerability, at least in Act Two. The power and raw emotion on show through her singing provided a cathartic experience for her confrontation with Wotan. The pathos she brought to the sequence where she accepts her punishment for disobeying Wotan’s will stemmed from the solemnity of her movements and the colour of her pleadings to him: no histrionics that blighted such moments as when Gasteen’s Brünnhilde recognised Siegfried in Act Two of “Götterdämmerung”.

Gerhard Siegel’s Mime was possessed by a hint of caring for Siegfried: all part of his deception, the aim being to acquire the ring for himself. This was a proficient, multi-faceted characterisation, with the deception scene where he plots to murder Siegfried (and Siegfried understanding him) brilliantly incisive.

Gerhard Siegel (Mime) and John Treleaven (Siegfried) in Act 1 of 'Siegfried'. ©Clive Barda

The difference between the role of Wotan and Wanderer is the voice required: the tessitura of the latter is higher, whilst still requiring a real bass-baritone timbre. This is a taxing part and Tomlinson continued to prove that he is a force to be reckoned with. Of all of the singers Tomlinson had the clearest diction and the way he threw himself into the physicality of the last act of “Siegfried”, where the spinning stage required him to hurl objects off it, would test someone half his age. That he did this without affecting his breathing is remarkable.

John Treleaven is not a suitable Siegfried. His voice has neither the range nor the power that is required of any Heldentenor, and it sounds all too ‘innocent’. His upper register is fine when the voice is loud, but the lower end is inaudible. Most of the time the orchestra drowned him. He attempted to make up for this in other ways, such as leaping about, but there is no substitute for strong singing. The yearning in ‘Forest Murmurs’ was forgettable and his proclamations in the closing act were lame at best.

Joining Treleaven as Brünnhilde in Act Three was Iréne Theorin. She was captivated by Siegfried’s entreaties (surprisingly!) but her singing in this extended love-duet was not at the level required; the orchestra was too dominant. In the end, one could not believe that Siegfried was conquering her heart. Generally, the orchestra was sympathetic in this instalment but at crucial moments it took over, distracting from the drama as a whole.

Although these moments were not too frequent the damaging effect lasted. The orchestral ‘set-pieces’, however, were justly thrilling.

Peter Coleman-Wright (Gunther), Kurt Rydl (Hagen, sung by James Moellenhoff in this cycle) and Gurtrune (Emily Magee) in 'Götterdämmerung'. ©Clive Barda

The three Norns that open ‘Götterdämmerung’ wove their fluorescent rope, and snapped it. A lot of their discussion could not be heard as they were too busy moving around. Only Catherine Wyn-Rogers was noticeable. Peter Coleman-Wright’s Gunther did not seem in control of any events, perhaps how it is supposed to be, but his was the most convincing portrayal in this ‘Götterdämmerung’. Clear and powerful, he outclassed anyone he appeared with. The most disappointing role was James Moellenhoff’s Hagen. He was lazy when strolling about. I have never heard such blasé “Hoiho! Hoiho!” proclamations, and he did not inhabit the blackness and bitterness of the character. Initially, Emily Magee’s Gutrune was insignificant but she became despairing and desperate when Siegfried did not return from hunting. The other star-turn on this occasion was Sidhom’s Alberich, a bitter and twisted individual, frantic to control events by telling Hagen what to do; he was poisoning Hagen’s soul.

The only occasions that a chorus is used is in Acts Two and Three. Whilst in powerful voice, ensemble was not crisp.

A very mixed Cycle, then. The highlight was Acts One and Two of “Die Walküre”. It was disappointing that the music-dramas were still stuffed with images that were so numerous and bizarrely placed that the effect seemed amateurish. Still, surely any ‘Ring Cycle’ is always worth catching.

  • Fourth Ring Cycle on 26, 28 & 31 October and 2 November
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