Atouring Ring. An idea-free Ring. A conductor’s Ring. A Russian Ring. This is the constellation of influences that shaped the impact of Der Ring des Nibelungen in Cardiff at the weekend.
Performed over four consecutive days by St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre, Wagner’s epic tale of love and power unfolded with a seamlessness you rarely find elsewhere – because in the real world of union agreements and financial constraints it is not possible, or advisable, to have a 250-member ensemble on call 24 hours a day for the delectation of western audiences.
The four Ring operas are best performed over six days, as at Bayreuth, but most companies spread the cycle over anything up to 10. Valery Gergiev, the Mariinsky’s plenipotentiary, can set his own terms because his theatre is his undisputed fiefdom. Without him, the Mariinsky’s singers, musicians and backstage staff would earn a fraction of what they do. And so the world’s hardest-working opera company flies around the globe on Gergiev’s coat-tails, the whole enterprise dependent on his reputation on the podium and his skill in conjuring money from donors. The quality of singing may be variable, the acting old-fashioned, the production style minimalist – but Gergiev’s charisma conquers all.
The Ring, opera’s Everest, is of course enormously expensive and artistically draining to put on. Most companies can barely mount a Ring in their own theatre. Gergiev’s production has already been to Baden-Baden, Seoul and California. In the next two years, it will visit New York and Beijing. These trips are crucial to Gergiev’s fund-raising, helping to finance, for example, the hall he has built in St Petersburg. So it was no surprise to find his Cardiff performances attended by the “Gergiev groupies”, an elite of wealthy patrons led by Countess Yoko Cheschina.
Artistically, the Mariinsky Ring treads a path no western ensemble could get away with today. Formulated by Gergiev in harness with a Georgian designer, George Tsypin, it has no director, no interpretative concept. The “production” amounts to one simple design for all four operas: a quartet of totemic mummies, apparently inspired by an archaic vision of the central Asian steppes, repositioned vertically or horizontally from scene to scene and profiled by a beguiling play of coloured light. It’s a sort of “Lord of the Rings meets Tutenkhamun” effect, where fictional narrative crosses ancient truth.
A naive Ring may be fine for Wagner virgins and Wagnerites tired of directors’ concepts, but it still has to be acted with authority. This is where the Mariinsky Ring falls flat. Much of the performance looked poorly rehearsed. Singers didn’t react to each other, preferring to follow a basic sequence of moves, position themselves front-of-stage and address the audience.
There was not a flicker of intensity in the Alberich/Wotan confrontations of Das Rheingold and Siegfried. The expanses of Die Walküre Act 2 sagged lamentably. The Forging Song was a damp squib – not least because the troupe of frizzy-haired “flames” (one of several nice decorative/choreographic ideas) was so poorly coordinated. What all this denotes is a maestro with ego – someone who, like Herbert von Karajan 40 years ago in Salzburg, sees the director as a rival and decides to do without. With one or two exceptions, the standard of German was lamentable: why doesn’t Gergiev employ a language coach? As for the singing, there was not much of international standard. The nearest to Larissa Diadkova’s exemplary Fricka/Waltraute was Mlada Khudoley’s child-of-nature Sieglinde. As Loge (Rheingold) and Mime (Siegfried) Vassily Gorshkov had potential; so did Vadim Kravets’ Fasolt. Oleg Balashov was the light, lyric Siegmund, Mikhail Petrenko an easily intelligible Hagen. Wotan/Wanderer was sung by different singers each night, none commanding. Both Brunnhildes tested my patience: too much Russian wobble. The Siegfrieds were tolerable.
There were redeeming features. One was the greatness of Gergiev’s orchestra, an ensemble with its own timbre (big string sound, euphonious brass) and a sense of majestic flight. The Funeral March in Götterdämmerung was truly monumental. In the fire music you could hear every flicker of the flames. Gergiev’s tempi were spacious and properly integrated, with a particularly finely graded Siegfried Act 3. The cast had every incentive to sing lyrically.
The other big success-factor was the Wales Millennium Centre, the opera house that dares not bare its name. It could have been made for Wagner: the acoustic is spectacular, the trade-off between grandeur and intimacy well-nigh perfect. If the WMC really wants to call itself a world-class destination, it should strike while the iron is hot and organise a weekend of festival-style opera every winter.