Gergiev’s ‘Ring’ at Covent Garden

rheingoldnatasharaz_228381t[1]So… the circus came to town last week, and now it has departed in a cloud of dust and a hail of booing (some of it mine – never done that before!) amid the storms of applause.

Valery Gergiev, the Ossetian wizard, attempted the impossible – all four operas of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen in four days, with his Mariinsky company from St Petersburg (formerly the Kirov) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

I can’t really comment on all four, since for two of them I was behind the glass, working.  But my friend Diana did come to all four and took me to the other two (thank you, D!) so I got the general idea.

Did Gergiev succeed?  No.  Over-hyped, over-conducted, mostly beautifully played;  under-cast and under-sung, with very few honourable exceptions (it does not bode well for a Götterdämmerung when the loudest applause is for the Alberich);  over-designed, over-lit, under-rehearsed;  and, above all, under-directed.

This is surely Gergiev’s fault:  my feeling is that he doesn’t think anything is important except what he thinks is important, namely his conducting and the fact that he has ‘achieved’ this impossible feat at all.  He is quoted in interviews as saying that he wants to get away from the tyranny of the opera director:  having evolved his overall concept with designer George Tsypin (master of the enormous stage-cluttering useless object:  remember the giant cracked glass bottles in his Theodora from Glyndebourne?), Gergiev proceeded to sack or alienate at least four directors along the way (including Johannes Schaaf – ‘too German’ – and Opera Factory’s brilliant David Freeman). 

Finally he has brought in a fifth director, Alexander Zeldin, who has a Russian name but is British and as far as I can tell speaks not much Russian;  worst of all, he is only 24.  With the best will in the world, nobody aged 24 can have more then the haziest notion of how to direct this Everest of the operatic repertoire, which countless directors, conductors, scholars and analysts have spent whole lifetimes trying to understand.

I fear he is not really a director, but a ‘crisis manager’ and director of traffic, brought in to salvage what is left of previous attempts to make the original concept work.  By the time we got to the end of Götterdämmerung, it was impossible to discern any attempt at understanding the piece or the drama, or even listening to the music, for heaven’s sake.  Of all composers, Wagner tells you in every bar precisely what is going on, dramatically and emotionally;  just open your ears and listen (and read his stage directions!).  And please, try sitting out front and reading the surtitles, and then you will understand why the audience sniggered at things that were clearly in the text but were not happening on stage.  Ho hum.

Gergiev’s original concept was a fascinating one:  finding parallels between the Nordic myths that Wagner drew on and his own native Ossetian Nart sagas, he gets Tsypin to fill the stage with 30-foot effigies of Nart gods, and tries to get away from conventional Teutonic readings of the cycle by finding links with other mythologies.  Well yes, fine.  But (as my boss, Judi Palmer, said) it might have been a nice concept if anyone had done anything with it.  There were interesting ideas, such as making the ‘gold’ and the ‘Rhine’ out of shimmering masses of actors’ bodies;  but these ideas were not thought through or related to Wagner’s text, so failed to take off. 

Moreover, the stage was constantly invaded by troupes of meaningless ‘supers’ who wombled about, performing mysterious rituals or generally getting in the way of the action.  No, please!  When will they ever learn? – more means less.  The more ‘extras’ you have on the stage, the more you dilute the tension and drama of the principal characters.

Talking of which, any sense of Personenregie (the meaningful psychological interaction between the characters, which is where a decent director earns his wage) was almost non-existent.  Critics complained of the 1930s silent-film arm-waving and static out-front poses (which, not incidentally, meant they were facing the prompt box) which were all that most of the singers could muster by way of ‘acting’.  Honourable exceptions again:  Wotan and Fricka in their confrontations;  Wotan and Brünnhilde (mostly) in theirs;  the character of Mime;  and once again the magnificently sung and acted Alberich (Nikolai Putilin:  Gergiev tries to make the enterprise survivable by double-casting principal roles on different nights, but Putilin got to sing all the Alberichs).

So I’m sorry, Mr Gergiev – you do need a director.  Please, engage someone who has a sense of theatre and some decent operatic experience, and a grasp of the broad picture:  David Freeman would have been good, as would David Pountney or Francesca Zambello (but please, Francesca, no supers).  Even Graham Vick or Peter Hall, who knows?  John CoxJohn Copley?

And don’t tour this production on no rehearsals (it was beyond belief that it has already been seen around the world, in the Far East, the USA and Europe, including Cardiff);  I know for a fact that at Covent Garden only Rheingold had a complete play-through, and the other three received only technical rehearsals with piano or brief top-and-tail sessions with the orchestra (and the Brünnhilde was asking the director how she should act the final scene of Götterdämmerung only two hours before the show started;  had she really never done it before?). 

And although the orchestra played their hearts out – (amazing brass and woodwind sounds particularly, but the short-measure strings were sometimes scrawny, and Wagner’s six harps would have been nice rather than two, which used to be all very well for the old Sadler’s Wells tours but is inexcusable for a major international company) – ensemble was understandably not always as precise as it should have been.  (As one of the reviewers tactfully put it, ‘The players did not seem to have this music in their blood’.) 

Gergiev’s conducting, despite occasional manic bursts of exciting fast tempi, tended towards the slow if not downright catatonic.  So often the music almost ground to a halt, with one broken phrase after another limping along between pauses – which cannot work unless you have a John Tomlinson, or dare I say Bryn Terfel, to carry a long line at such a dangerously slow pace.

I could go on, but you get the idea, especially if you have read the reviews.  Please, Mr G, don’t try this again, at least not until it has been decently directed and rehearsed.  It was really an insult to put this shambles on the stage of one of the world’s great opera houses and expect to get away with it. 

Oh, and it’s also an insult to stretch your intervals, late starts and slow tempi so that the evening ends almost an hour later than advertised – with the result that people missed their trains, audience members (including us!) had their interval dining arrangements messed up, and one ROH usher was mugged on the way home because it was so late.

What a pity.  Expectations were so high, and it could have been so good.  No use telling Valery Gergiev to slow down and take more time to put a decent show together (as Wotan says, ‘How can I stop a rolling wheel?’);  but maybe the promoters, Victor and Lillian Hochhauser, could think twice before taking so much money off so many unsuspecting punters to import this appalling mess. 

Wagner’s music (and what amazing things there are, especially in Götterdämmerung!) deserves better, and gets it in just about any other production than this one.  A depressing and infuriating experience. 


photo by Natasha Razina, borrowed from The Independent — thanks!

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3 Comments on “Gergiev’s ‘Ring’ at Covent Garden”

  1. This was one of the most interesting and frank accounts of what seems, from over here in Vancouver, to have been a complete debacle. I once heard Gergiev conduct the Met orchestra in Die Walkure and it was exquisite. Too bad he has worn out his own players. I don’t think he ever displayed much feeling for what makes a good singer. Oh well, we lucky souls on the West Coast have the fabulous Seattle Ring to look forward to. And by the way, Mr Burton, would you consider changing the colour of your text? Black on dark blue is very difficult to read on a MacBook!

  2. Thank you JB – much better!

    • jonathanburton Says:

      I didn’t change a thing (in fact I have been computerless, away on holiday!) So it must have been a Mac compatibility glitch. Many thanks for your comment anyway — glad to have the feedback…

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