Posted tagged ‘Ring’

Gergiev’s ‘Ring’ at Covent Garden

August 3, 2009

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, (more…)

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Oh, Wagner! Wagner!

October 2, 2007

(…said in tones of exasperation, not reverence…) – how can you do this to me?  How dare you take over whole chunks of my life like this? 

I remember in the early 1970s sitting though a whole cycle of The Ring at Covent Garden, spread over a couple of weeks, and for all that time it was really impossible to listen to any other music or even to think about anything else.  ‘Real’ life faded into insignificance, and was put on hold for the duration.  Well, now that I am involved from the other direction, with rehearsals and performances of The Ring at Covent Garden, I find the same thing is still true – this time spread over a couple of months…

So – what is it about Wagner?  Was he a ‘great’ composer?  I don’t know.  Certainly there is tremendous and moving and impressive (and loud) music in his operas;  and Götterdämmerung (the fourth and last opera in the Ring cycle) has some of the most weirdly forward-looking, avant-garde music imaginable (more so, to my mind, than the ‘ground-breaking’ harmonies of Tristan und Isolde).  It also has some clunkily terrible, BAD music.  

Was he, as many claim, a great psychologist of human nature?  Hmmm.  I’d much rather have Richard Strauss and his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal:  show me anything in Wagner to match their heartbreaking, penetrating insight into the character of the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier (Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger?  Wotan in The Ring??  I don’t think so).  Or in any case I’d rather have Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte – all the psychological insight, delivered with tenderness, humour and the lightest of touches.  Or any of Janáček’s operas…  surely there is more humanity, and sense of man’s place in the universe, in Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen than in the whole of The Ring (and you could fit Janacek’s opera, complete, about three times into just one act of Götterdämmerung). 

(And don’t even think about how many Haydn symphonies you could fit into that time!   (more…)