July 22, 2007 2:53 pm

A reluctant ring of the changes

New Yorkers love their Ring, and they love a conservative projection of the mystic myth. While the rest of the world has been exploring modernist reinterpretation – often ridiculous and occasionally sublime – the Metropolitan Opera has clung, stubbornly and proudly, to let’s-pretend realism. For better or worse, it makes a tree look like a tree, a dragon sort of like a dragon. And validating old-school romantic conviction, James Levine has been enforcing spacious, leisurely, poetic grandeur in the pit for 21 years.

Now comes the shock. For the Lincoln Center Festival, the Met has imported a very different, much-travelled Ring from the Mariinsky Theater in St Petersburg, from the company the Soviets called the Kirov. This, for all practical purposes, and impractical purposes too, is Valery Gergiev’s Ring. It hardly adheres to the progressive strictures of Regietheater, a development dismissed by reactionaries as eurotrash. Still, it manages to defy tradition at every turn. If only it could do so with equal parts confidence and competence.

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Gergiev, probably the most chronic, most blatant over-achiever in music today, doesn’t just conduct. The skimpy programme booklet lists him as “production supervisor” and he shares responsibility for the “production concept” with his designer, George Tsypin. Significantly, no one is billed as director.

As a point of stylistic departure, Gergiev cites Ossetian folklore. That potential inspiration may explain some of Tatiana Noginova’s costumes, which, amid other oddities, provide the once-primitive Gibichung men – now mincing puppets – with prim skirts and equip the Valkyries with bizarre fan-shaped headdresses. The Slavic perspective does not, however, explain the clumsy mishmash of symbols, props and periods, misplaced artefacts and time-warp contradictions of Gergiev’s show. Nor does it justify the pervasive theatrical ineptitude.

The unit stage in all four operas is dominated by four huge statues suspended on wires. Perhaps the monolithic figures represent primitive gods. Sometimes they float in the background. Sometimes they loom in the foreground. Sometimes they stand. Sometimes they tilt. Sometimes they sit. Sometimes they function as character abstractions, eg Fafner the dragon. Sometimes, when recumbent, they become props; Brünnhilde clambers into a convenient hole in one statue’s chest for her extended nap. Another visual leitmotif, equally baffling and boring, involves a corps of petrified penguins that observe the inaction. The images look fussy and silly to this observer, but they may convey deep meaning for the initiated.

Gergiev and Tsypin demonstrate little concern for storytelling. The crucial gold of the Rhine is reduced to a yellow-lattice orb, big enough to encase Freia. The giants are now a pair of massive tanks with arms clumsily attached. Forget physical battle. The flirtatious Rhinemaidens traipse about the scene in gauche evening gowns. Reviving a time- dishonoured tradition, the evil dwarfs Mime and Alberich resemble Semitic caricatures. The Forest Bird has become a wandering coloratura who flaps her arms as if in a grade-school pageant when not pretending to play a magic flute. Wotan appears to greet the new world atop a mammoth potato. Balletic spooks provide distraction whenever a scene change is suggested or an illusion faked. At fire time, sperm images, lit in crimson neon, squiggle on the backdrop. I’m not making this up, you know.

The charades bumble onward if not upward, with the hapless, also helpless, principals often left to what may be their own devices. Concept? What concept?

Under the circumstances, it would be gratifying to report great musical compensation for the dramatic deficiencies. Unfortunately, this ingrate detected little. Gergiev, whose forte never has been introspection, favoured high speeds most of the time, and whipped up undeniable excitement when surface agitation was warranted. He kept the dynamic levels loud, loud, loud. He did not sustain much tension between the big moments, however, did not dwell on telling details, focus leitmotivic relationships or build gradual, organic climaxes. The gutsy Kirov orchestra followed his nervous whims faithfully and flexibly, though not without occasional mishap or passages of seeming disorientation. The ever- changing singers, all Russian and not exactly idiomatic, did what they could.

The marathon – two cycles within nine days – began with a particularly listless Rheingold on July 13. Alexei Tanovitsky, the tall and youthful Wotan, looked imposing, sounded wan as Wotan. Larissa Diadkova, one of the few artists of international stature on duty, provided the counterforce of a smart and sensitive Fricka. Nikolai Putilin as Alberich sang forcefully while stumbling about the stage like a zombie. Zlata Bulycheva emerged muffled and shaky as Erda the earth- mother, possibly because she was made to masquerade as a laundry line. Vasily Gorshkov sang craftily as a dramatically stodgy Loge. The others were meek and/or weak.

Standards rose a bit in Die Walküre on July 17. Despite an announced indisposition, Mlada Khudoley mustered lyrical radiance as Sieglinde, generously partnered by Avgust Amonov as Siegmund. Mikhail Kit, the Wotan, seemed genuinely heroic until he tired in the Abschied. Olga Savova, a  mezzo-soprano, soared impressively to the soprano heights of Brünnhilde, and Gennady Bezzubenkov barked darkly as Hunding. Svetlana Volkova’s unsteady Fricka made one long for Diadkova.

Siegfried, the next night, found Leonid Zakhozhaev straining for vocal survival over the long haul, an amiable lightweight burdened as the heavyweight hero. Gorshkov, the erstwhile Loge, easily outsang him as a wily Mime. Evgeny Nikitin droned relentlessly as the wandering Wotan, and Olga Sergeeva found Brünnhilde’s should-be ecstatic awakening something of a trial.

Götterdämmerung on Thursday offered new principals: Victor Lutsuk, vocally fearless as an astonishingly vital Siegfried, and Larisa Gogolevskaya, a big-voiced, slightly wobbly Brünnhilde who ran out of vocal steam at Immolation time. Nikitin returned as a surprisingly macho Gunther, with Mikhail Petrenko posing little menace as a mini-Hagen dressed, I think, in an evening gown. Returning to her lower depths, Savova conveyed ample urgency as Waltraute. The norns were harsh, the mermaids shrill.

Some of the singing, not incidentally, sounded like German.
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