After the 18-hour marathon of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen it would seem natural that the overwhelming emotion should be one of either elation or disappointment, depending on whether the performance had been a good one or not. To come out with a frustrating sense of incompleteness, when so much heroic effort has been expended by so many, seems almost perverse.
Eight years after it started out, and now on its second series of complete cycles, the Royal Opera’s Ring still feels like a work in progress. It is clear that the director, Keith Warner, did his homework before he began, but his production reads as if he had made so many notes that he did not know where to start. The result is an intellectual jumble sale, in which good ideas and bad have been thrown together – too many symbols, too many obscure references. Nothing is consistent, either in the look of it or what it has to say. At least, for this latest revival, Warner has continued to explore the characters, and some encounters, such as the parting scene between Brünnhilde and Wotan at the end of Die Walküre, have become quite moving. Perhaps, after all, there is a “human” Ring in there somewhere, struggling to get out.
If so, it will find its focus in Bryn Terfel’s enthralling Wotan, the production’s one truly finished part. In both vocal and dramatic terms Terfel has the abundance of resources and depth of insight that were mostly absent everywhere else. Few Wotans have dared to peer into the character’s intimate hopes and fears as devastatingly, and if his Wanderer in Siegfried, which he was singing in London for the first time, was less remarkable, it still completed a portrayal that was totally involving at every step.
The new Brünnhilde and Siegfried – Susan Bullock and Stefan Vinke – marked an improvement on their predecessors, while continuing to fall short of the ideal. Bullock gives her role everything she has, but where the music aspires to the very loftiest of human feelings, her singing remains down-to-earth, hard and tight in sound, often shrill. Vinke’s Siegfried is played as a young bruiser, who tramples any last shred of charm underfoot, but his gung-ho energy is unstoppable, and his voice never seems to tire. There have been many worse Siegfrieds.
The other newcomers were also mostly a step up. Sarah Connolly delivered a well-sung Fricka of uncommon intelligence, Rachel Willis-Sorensen a glamorous Gutrune, and Eric Halfvarson a gritty-voiced Fafner. Among those who have been around for the long haul, Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Sieglinde and Gerhard Siegel’s Mime are as good as any today. Sophie Bevan chirped sweetly as the Woodbird while performing acrobatics on her trapeze and Mihoko Fujimura was a concentrated Waltraute. John Tomlinson, doubling as Hunding and Hagen, worked marvels in his epic quest to defy time with a stage presence of undiminished power, even as his voice gets increasingly rusty. The three Norns were strong, the naked Rhinemaidens sweet of voice, and the male chorus kicked up a storm in Götterdämmerung. Weaknesses in the casting were incidental.
As before, Antonio Pappano was the driving force behind a musical performance red in tooth and claw. His tigerish energy kept the music pounding forwards and the brass tore at the climaxes with little restraint – coincidentally the same sort of bold and brash Wagner that Georg Solti, former musical director of the Royal Opera, brought to London in his time. The problem is not that there was nothing to enjoy, but as Warner’s production set light to the bonfire of all his unwanted symbols in the final scene, what this Ring left behind was a nagging sense of unfulfilment.