Friday, November 09, 2012

Letter from WC I (3)

Covent Garden

In one respect, the Ring is a lot like Star Wars.

Wagner wrote a single opera called Siegfried. He realized it was too long, so he split it in half (Young Siegfried; Siegfried's Death). Then he realized that he needed a prequel to explain the back-story And, like George Lucas, Wagner's understanding of the plot and the characters changed during the writing process, so the early episodes are a good deal more complex than the later ones. We have to work quite hard to convince ourselves that the pantomime Dark Lord in Episode IV is the same character as the flawed Chosen One of Episode I. We have to work almost as hard to make ourselves believe that the favoured daughter of Wotan, we meet in Valkyrie, the personification of the All-Father's will is the same character as the vengeful ice-queen in Gotterdamerung.

The loose ends never really get tied up. Gotterdamerung is more primitive — more like an opera — than either Siegfried or the Valkyrie. It has a chorus. It has a silly plot involving a love potion. It has a revenge trio. Am I the only person ever to spot that the elaborate revenge plot in Act II makes no difference whatsoever to the final outcome? Brunhilde, Hagen and Gunther agree to kill Siegfried during a hunting trip; but then Hagen stabs him in the back and immediately admits that this is what he has done. He might as well have just stabbed him when he first saw him. (Their original plan is to make it look like an accident for the benefit of Gutrune, who has just married him, but they forget about this during the interval. They were probably also drinking cocktails.) Have all the shenanigan of Acts I and II really just been to generate a situation in which Brunhilde will reveal Siegfried;s Achilles heel to the villains? (It turns out that he is indestructible from the front but vulnerable from the rear "because he would never turn his back on an enemy". I believe that in the original legend Brunhilde guides Hagen's Spear into Siegfried's Achilles-Spot-Just- Below-The-Left-Shoulder blade. I recall even less distinctly that the sympathetic villain in Maharbarat has an Achilles Bottom, which causes endless problems because the hero is too chivalrous to strike below the belt.) Chunks of the libretto of Acts 1 and 2 feel like one of those bad Dungeons and Dragons games where the GM desperately tries to retrofit the scenario to the mythology. Brunhilde suddenly remembers that, despite having been de-Valkyried at the end Valkyrie, still has "magical powers" inherited from Erda; and that she has, without telling anybody, cast magic indestructibility spells on Siegfried. On the other hand she seems to have completely forgotten all the hours of exposition that she went through with Wotan. She knows what the significance of the Ring is — yet when Siegfried hands it to her she seems to regard it as important only as a token of love. (Are we being asked to believe that when Wotan sends her to sleep he also has her memory erased? But then how does she know who Siegfried Help!)

There is also, in the Ring as in Star Wars, a problem about the passage of time. So far as I can see, it takes Siegfried a matter of hours to get from the dragon's cave to Brunhilde's rock, and he sets out on new adventures after one ecstatic night of love with his new bride. Siegfried's Rhine Journey must take a few days at the most. But by Act III of Gotterdamerung, the slaying of the dragon has become an event which took place in the hero's youth. When he says that he hasn't talked to any birds recently, does he really mean "since yesterday afternoon."

"There you are, Andrew" I hear you saying "That is why it was much better in the olden days when we used to listen to Wagner without surtitles. We understood that the music tells the story of the universe from creation to apocalypse, starting and ending with that undulating B flat buzz; and as long as we couldn't understand them we could pretend that the words must be saying something very profound indeed. (It also meant that we could treat Tristan as a love story and ignore all that Buddhist shit.) If you insist on listening to a running translation of the lyrics you can't complain if they turn out to be tosh."

Well, up to a point. It is true that there are sections of the work which don't make sense once you understand them, it is also true that once you know what is going on, you discover that the opera is full of significance and connections and subtleties that you hadn’t noticed before.

For example. Act I of Gotterdamerung is very long. Very, very long. Longer, as everybody knows, than a complete performance of La Boheme. And there is no doubt that it can feel like a bit of a marathon. Scene two sets up the climax — Siegfried is going to climb up the mountain and awaken Brunhilde all over again. But before you get to that pay-off, you have to go through a long (and very beautiful) musical interlude and a long (and very powerful) scene in which Brunhilde is visited by another Valkyrie.

Wagner loves to embed back-story in narrative: even he can't put the whole of Norse mythology on the stage, so he engineers sections in which Wotan, Waltraute (the Other Valkyrie) or the three Norns tell us about the creation of the world and the cutting of Wotan's spear from the World Ash Tree. The narrative of Waltraute is very powerful indeed. Wotan is, she explains, still sitting on his throne in Valhalla with the broken fragments of the spear on his knees, waiting for the universe to come to and end. She tells Brunhilde that he is saying that the end of the gods could be averted if only she will return the Ring to the Rhine-maidens

Brunhilde says no: she's not giving away Siegfried's wedding present no matter who asks her too. What she actually says — I've never noticed this before — is "I will not renounce love". She would have to renounce love in order to return the ring; Alberich had to renounce love to steal the ring in the first place. The music agrees: the two scenes are parallel. Thematically and philosophically and musically it all hangs together wonderfully. But you do rather need to know what she is singing about.

People who'd rather not have surtitles are as silly as people who'd rather have a concert performance or just listen to it on the wireless. 

(Except…why is Wotan asking her to return the ring to the Rhine? I thought the whole point was that he has accepted and was positively seeking, oblivion and the end of the gods? Help.)

There is, by the way, nothing more surreal than a men's lavatory in the interval of an opera. Lots of men, all in their extremely smart tuxes, standing alongside each other doing what they came into the lavatory to do, and all humming different bits of the opera while they go about it.

Once again, the most memorable scenes in the production are the most minimal. Hagen stabs Siegfried in the not-invulnerable back and kills him. There follows two of the most beautiful bits of music in the Ring, and therefore anywhere. First Siegfried's death itself; the harp notes of him dying are precisely the same as those we heard when Brunhilde woke up. And then, of course, the mighty Funeral March which is arguably what the whole sixteen hours have been building up to, thumping out all the motifs, with that huge explosion of brass in the middle. (Don't bother to listen to it if you haven't been to the opera: it doesn't work out of context, any more than the Mona Lisa's smile works out of the context of her face.)

The script says that during the funeral march, Hagen’s vassals come and carry Siegfried back to the castle. This production simply left him dead on the stage, picked out by a spotlight and left the music to do the work. Just when we thought that nothing was going to happen at all, we realize that Wotan (presumably not Bryn Himself) has come in and is standing over the body of his dead grandson, paying his respects. That’s it. Astonishingly powerful. And, of course, it was powerful precisely because the simple empty stage was such a contrast to the relatively crowded imagery of much of the rest of the cycle.

There were other powerful ideas. At the beginning of Act II, Alberich appears in Hagen's dream, floating above him in a boat, the same boat in which he approached the Rhine-maidens on Friday night. (Siegfried finds the remains of the boat on the banks of the Rhine at beginning of Act III.) The Tarnhelm has been represented as a transparent perspex cube throughout: when Siegfried arrives at the Gibiching castle, the whole stage has become a cube; as if he is somehow inside the helmet. (Opera-buddy spotted that the glass of one of the windows was cracked, and the Tarnhelm was cracked in exactly the same place.) Act I ends with Siegfried using the helmet to take on the form of Gunther, and going back up the mountain to woo Brunhilde all over again on Gunther's behalf. (The love potion means that he's forgotten her and fallen in love with Gutrune, Gunther's sister. Please try to keep up.) This usually means we see Siegfried but have to imagine that Brunhilde sees Gunther. Tonight, the wooing/abduction/rape was acted by Gunther, while Siegfried stood on the stage, wearing the helmet, and delivering his lines. This may have been the cleverest invention of the whole cycle: it was easier to understand, more dramatic and less silly than the standard staging. (Oh, and Hagen — John Tomlinson again — remains on stage as a malevolent reminder of who's in charge for the whole of the second half of the act.)

Years ago, I saw a version of Pygmalion in which introduced Bernard Shaw as a character, reading out his own impossible stage directions. Has anyone ever tried to do the Ring on a bare stage, with the text of Wagner’s descriptions projected as text or read out as a commentary? It would be fair to say that his instructions for Act III of Gotterdamerung are literal unperformable. 

From the ruins of the fallen hall, the men and women, in the greatest agitation, look on the growing firelight in the heavens. As this at length glows with the greatest brightness, the interior of Walhall is seen, in which the gods and heroes sit assembled, as in Waltraute's description in the first act. Bright flames appear to seize on the hall of the gods. As the gods become entirely hidden by the flames, the curtain falls.

The producer claims, however, that tonight’s production found some stage action to represent virtually everything which Wagner describes. I can will believe this.

In Act II, huge golden statues of the gods from Rhinegold dominate the stage. (This makes a lot of sense, since the act actually ends with sacrifices being made to Fricka to celebrate the marriages of Siegfried and Gutrune and Gunther and Brunhilde. Instead of taking oaths on the point of Hagen's spear, they take oaths on Wotan's spear, which Hagen has taken down from the statue for the purpose) In Act III, the dead Siegfried is wrapped in a shroud, like a mummy, and Brunhilde embarks on her monumentally epic Immolation aria, in which she decides that the resolution to all dramatic, theological and philosophical problems that have developed in the story up to this point is to throw herself onto Siegfried's funeral pyre. Typically for this production, she puts a lot of light and shade into the final solo; she's particularly convincing and dramatic in the bit when she says that Siegfried was both the most faithful, and the least faithful of lovers. (The scene where poor Gutrune realises that she was never married to Siegfried at all is also carried off with unusual sympathy and drama.) Considering the pyrotechnics we've had on Brunhilde's rocks and Mime's forge, it's not surprise that the funeral pyre is done with real fire, sprouting from both the Rhine and from the arches (possibly representing DNA) which have been cropping up since Day 1.

But the really inspired bit was that the long-suffering vassals also carry the four golden statues from Act II back onto the stage and then dropped them into the Rhine, where they burned impressively. So while we don’t actually get to see Valhalla going up in flames (we never, ever do) we do very much get to see the Twilight of the Gods. (Didn’t Wagner’s mate Freddy write a book called Twilight of the Idols?)

This spectacles didn't completely swamp out the joy of the Rhine-maidens finally getting their ring back; although we felt that when Brunhilde jumped into the river (as opposed to riding on to the pyre) it felt slightly bathetic, as if the immolation had turned out to be a dip in the pool.

The very very final image had the double-helix-archy-things rising up out of the Rhine, now formed into a circle (or, indeed, as you might say, a ring) with a previously unseen and unidentified youth sitting on them. I assume that this represented Rebirth or the Triumph of Youth or Birth of a New Society or something. Tomorrow belongs to me. (This was possibly the one point in the whole week when I felt that the part of my brain that said What are they doing? What does this mean? destracted the rest of my brain from listening to the actual music.)

I am told that this is the first production in Covent Garden history where, during the final curtain call, the orchestra comes onto the stage and got, naturally and justifiably, the only actual standing ovation of the week.


Groß Glück und Heil lacht nun dem Rhein,

Whoot whoot.

It may, however, now be that I have seen enough Wagner for one year.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Letter From WC 1 (II)

Covent Garden

The English National Opera (the less snooty wing of the London Opera Scene) is currently engaged in a risible “undress for the opera” advertising campaign. Opera is now a democratic art form, open to everyone prepared to spend £800 on a ticket, regardless of whether or not they can afford a dinner jacket.

This might have made sense 50 years ago when there may have been people who wanted to go to the opera, could afford to go to the opera, but didn't think that they'd would feel comfortable at the opera among all the people in posh suits. It makes no sense at all in the democratic twenty-teens when the very rich wear jeans and the very poor wear…well, jeans. It’s a bit like one of those religious campaigns that says “Come to Church! You might like it! We no longer burn heretics at the stake! We have black people and everything!”

Covent Garden is posher, more expensive and more traditional than the English National, but the dress code was very democratic. I did three nights in coloured waistcoat and one night in D.J and didn't feel either over or under-dressed on either occasion There weren't that many penguin suits, actually; although some of the ladies had dressed up. There were men in business suits, men in tee-shirts; a lady in an impressive turban; a young lad of fifteen in a grey suit enthusiastically explaining the finer points of the plot to a long-suffering middle-aged lady companion. Very little evidence of "Corporate Jollies": everyone around us seemed to be keen and enthusiastic Wagnerians. The man in front of us spent the interval studying the libretto. The man next to us had never been to a Ring before and was reading the synopses after the acts finished so as not to spoil it. He told us that he was "all pumped up" before Act III of Gotterdamerung to find out how it came out. 

Covent Garden gave us decent length intervals: around 30 or 40 minutes after Acts 1 and 80 or 90 after Acts 2. There were singletons reading big thick books; groups who had pre-booked the sit-down dinner (we were impressed with the numbers of Lords and Sirs on the reservation list); people who had brought sensible hampers of smoked salmon sandwiches and bubbly and eccentrics who were laying out tablecloths and jars of HP Sauce and Helmans Real  Mayonnaise. I hear that a large number of people beat a course to Zizis Pizza over the road, who carefully laid on timed interval reservations. Opera-buddy and I ate at a Very English Pub before Act I and spent the intervals leaning on the swish bar drinking champagne cocktails that were not quite as expensive as you might have expected under the circumstances.

This is what Wagner meant by gesamtkunstwerk, I suppose. There were no bratwurst to be had, not even for ready money.

Dinner Jacket is the British English for "Sidewalk". May I apologize about a decade late to the person who thought my reviews of  English National Opera Ring were going to be about Brian Eno performing classical music. 

Wagner has a tendency to drive producers crazy, but I am happy to report that some of the prettiest and most powerful moments of the week were the simplest and therefore the bravest. The Great Big Revolving Wall from Valkyrie reprised its role as Brunhilde's rock and all purpose stage-symbol in Siegfried. It tilted on its side and rotated during Wotan’s confrontation with Erda at the beginning of Act 3: Bryn Himself sure-footedly walking around it in the opposite direction while continuing to sing. (Possibly an over-literal interpretation of Erda’s line "wild und kraus kreist die Welt!" ("wild and askew rotates the world") but it worked. Erda herself materialises in her armchair from Rheingold, floating in mid-air. By the end of the scene, we've worked out that it’s actually perched on a big black column, but that doesn't stop the initial effect from being striking.

It has reverted to being a vertical wall for Scene 2, where Wotan does the "No Luke, I am your father" thing with Siegfried. Flames are projected on it while Siegfried is passing through the magical fire on top of the rock. Slightly oddly, Siegfried's finding of Brunhilde is mostly mimed; with Siegfried saying "look, there’s a horse" and "a man in armour, shall I take off his helmet" to empty air. Presumably this was to stop the audience from laughing when Siegfried takes off Brunhilde's breast plate and cries out "This is not a man!" They laughed anyway.  But it also meant that the first we saw of Brunhilde is at "Heil dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht!" when she steps through the door in the rotating wall, light streaming behind her; a nice image. She and Siegfried don’t attempt to play the Dreadful Quarter Hours in the love duet as drama: it makes far more sense for them to talk about how they feel the seas raging fire when their blood surges towards them directly at the audience.

Siegfried has to brave Wotan’s spear-point before he can ascend the mountain to Brunhilde. (Opera-buddy and I agree that this is a bit of the opera that just doesn't make sense: if he's already guaranteed that only the Noblest Hero of All will wake her up, why guarantee the destruction of the gods by also standing guard himself?) Tonight, he  put his spear across the door in the rotating wall, so Siegfried has to physically break it to pass: a very cool image. 

But the most striking image of the third evening is Bryn Himself standing in front of the Revolving Wall holding the two broken pieces of the spear. That's the last we see of Wotan (more or less) and, without any dramaturgical jiggery pokery: it sums up the whole plot of the opera so far. The power of the gods, represented by Wotan’s spear, is over. Wotan has been destroyed by the contradiction in his own being: he has finally created a hero who is independent of the gods, but that hero has (by definition) to destroy him. "Pass on! I cannot prevent you!" The music doesn’t say that Wotan has lost, but that he's won. Or at any rate, that he’s cool about losing. Very possibly it's a Buddhist thang about true being being being non being, or, come to that, a Christian metaphor about the only true messiah being the one who denies his divinity.

Bryn Himself is magnificent throughout. He’s gone from the slightly capricious "Percy, who’s All-Father?" deity of Rhiengold, through the tortured, self-doubting father of Valkyrie, to achieve a godlike serenity in Siegfried: he’s achieved the true divine dignity now he knows that his time is over and he has to be overpowered by his (grand)son. Bryn’s subtle acting is a joy to watch. The "riddles" scene in Act I (when Wotan and Mime spend 20 minutes telling each other things they already know for the benefit of the audience) can be a musical hurdle that you have to get over before the macho magnificence of the sword forging. Bryn Terfel and Gerhard Siegel make it both funny and dramatic; Wotan listening intently to Mime’s questions and nodding to himself when he is confident he knows the answer; tying Mime up and casually pouring petrol over him when the latter fails to answer the third question. 

Opera-buddy and I once again agreed that we didn’t quite understand what Wotan is up to in this scene: if only Nothung can kill the dragon and only Siegfried can forge Nothung, isn't Wotan cheating, yet again, by giving Mime this crucial fact? And did Mime really need to be told — wouldn't Siegfried eventually have done it for himself anyway?

At first, I thought that Stefan Vinke did not have a sufficiently powerful voice for Siegfried. But it grew on me as Act I dragged on, and I was totally won over by the Very Famous Sword Forging Scene (shamelessly ripped off from the scene which Tolkien left out.) He had great nuance, great characterisation, and pulled off the humour pretty well. This was an easy going, nonchalant Siegfried. I wasn't convinced that I was going to like having the Woodbird played on stage by a singer (rather than being a special effect voiced from the orchestra pit.) We first meet her peeking out, like a cherub, from the hyper romantic painted blue sky during the "forest murmurs", dangling a paper bird over Siegfried on a piece of string. I understood why the set suddenly had astroturf grass and warm green lighting — to contrast the pastoral interlude with the dark grim scenes with Mime and the Dragon. But wheeling on stuffed animals when Siegfried starts wondering whether his mother’s eyes were as soft as a roe-dear was, shall we say, a Production Idea Too Far. When Siegfried gets a lick of the magic Dragon's Blood of Birdtalking, the singer comes down from the roof and runs round the stage. There’s a nice running gag about Siegfried forgetting things. The Word-bird beckons him playfully to come and find the fiery mountain where there is a magical companion, and Siegfried runs after her, and then runs back to pick up the Tarnhelm. Which is also a nice piece of characterisation: Siegfried’s power and freedom depend on the fact that he has powerful magic items like the Ring of Universe Ruling and the Magic Helmet of Shape-shifting, Invisibility and Teleportation and doesn't actually care. A bit like that Tom Bombadil, in fact.

Neither ether Opera-buddy nor I quite knew why there was a great aeroplane in the middle of Mime's forge, although there has been Propeller Imagery throughout the opera. I wondered if we were being asked to imagine that Sieglinde and her baby had somehow been flying from Wotan in a plane and crashed in the forest? It didn't matter, though. An aircraft hanger, with tools and vices and blowtorches, is as good a place as any to forge the Perfect Sword. My one quarrel with Phylida Llloyds English National production was that she said that she found the forge scene to be too testosterone-soaked, and toned it town a little. It seems to me that when you are the Noblest Hero of All and the Man Who Has Never Learned To Fear, you are allowed to be a little bit macho. Here it was shown in all its mechanical details. He grinds it, he splinters it, he blow torches it, he plunges it in water, he sharpens it, he brandishes it; and he cries "Hi-ho, hi-ho" and "hi-ho-ho-ho".

Mime is sufficiently smarmy and unpleasant (we see him beating the child Siegfried during the overture) that the Perfect Hero mostly avoids coming off as nasty Aryan bully when he kills him. I even forgave them the man in the teddy bear suit.

“Schau, Mime, du Schmied: so schneidet Siegfrieds Schwert!” Or words to that effect. 

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Letter From WC1

Das Rhiengold
Die Walkurie
Covent Garden

There is never, ever an encore at an English opera — Jonathan Miller wouldn’t even allow them to encore Three Little Maids in Mikado. But still, opera audiences shout out “MORE!”. Even at the end of Wagner operas where they have arguably had quite a lot already. I have resolved never to shout “MORE!” but to replace my customary folk-whoop with a more restrained Covent Garden “BRAVO!” 

John Tomlinson got distinctly the biggest ovation at the end of Valkyrie. People not only shouted MORE and BRAVO, they also stamped their feet. It says something about the production that such a beloved performer is handling one of the supporting roles. The last time they staged the Ring, Bryn Himself became temporarily indisposed and John Tomlinson stepped in and did Wotan. Tonight he is doing Hunding. That means that Bryn Himself gets to kill him at the end of Act II. So This Generation’s Wotan is killing the Last Generation’s Wotan. (He’s back on Friday as Hagan in Gotterdammerang.)

I am happy to say that the production keeps the symbolism of the sword in place. Some producers have Siegmund throwing his sword down so he can screw Sieglinde on the castle floor, where clearly they are are supposed to go out into the feminine forest holding the symbol of his manhood aloft. 

This is, indeed, a production which is refreshingly free from Ideas. Some of the newspapers are still saying that you should watch it with your eyes closed in case the imagery distracts you from the music, but that’s because they get music critics to write about Wagner, and Wagner isn’t really music, he’s theater. The best description is “abstract”: Hunding’s homestead has a marble table with a backdrop of flowery wall paper. There are lots of ladders and walkways for people to interact with. There is an extractor fan hanging from Hunding’s ceiling and there is a propeller projected on the curtain at the beginning of the Ride of the Valkyrie. One of the items of the Nibelung’s magic treasure seems to be a metal aeroplane. 

But everything seems to be in the service of actually telling the story. This isn’t one of those evenings when the producer has worked out his own story and decided to ignore Wagner’s. There is some invented business, but it almost always makes sense. At the end of Act II, after Siegmund and Hunding are both dead, Fricka (Sarah Connolly) comes and stands in menacing silhouette at the back of the stage, looking at the havoc her principled objection to brother-sister incest has created. 

I could have done without the gigantic sword hanging from the ceiling during “Walse! Walse! Wo ist dein scwert?”. With the best will in the world, it makes you wonder if someone is going to shout out “It’s behind you!” But the symbolic pulling of the sword from the tree works very nicely indeed; Siegmund stands with a perfectly normal sized sword suspended above him, and it drops magically into his hand for “Heraus aus der Scheide zu mir! ”. ("Come forth from thy scabbard to me!” I am afraid I first got to know Wagner on the Reginald Goodale recordings, and I still think of the rather feeble Andrew Porter translation as the Proper Words. There is no doubt that Wagner sounds better in German, and its perfectly possible to follow the story with surtitles.) Everyone is in dramatically stitched together fur coats. When we first see Wotan in Rheingold, he’s carrying an rough wooden staff as if he hasn’t got around to making a spear yet. But when they take their coats off, they’ve got standard issue Edwardian opera costumes on underneath. One could almost feel we have reached a point when “Edwardian” is theater short hand for “Time Period: Legendary”. Donner and Froh are wearing silk dressing gowns, possibly intended to suggest prize-fighters, but Donner has a proper big hammer. (I though his invocation of the hammer was the only musical disappointment of the first night: not quite loud or loud enough.)A shower of petals fall on Sieglinde for “winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond” ( “winter storms have vanished at spring’s command!”) 

John Tomlinson has an astonishing clarity for the bass villain Hunding. He comes across as more the wronged husband, less the horn helmeted thug than he sometimes does. (Not that he’s above violently kissing Sieglinde when he comes in from a hard days pillaging and violently telling her to make dinner.) He doesn’t quite chew the scenery, but I think he is doing slightly more crowd-pleasing old school opera acting than Bryn Terfel. But that’s because Bryn’s sctick is under acting and in a sense, under singing. It’s a marathon rather than a sprint: the Ring is Wotan’s story, even though he isn’t in Gotterdamerang. He is both the mythological king of the gods and a metaphor for God and a husband and father and grandpa; a combination of music, libretto and “acting, darling” has to convince has that Wotan’s trajectory makes sense. Where Hunding is a comic opera villain and Alberich is a stage in an argument, Wotan is a character with the kind of complexity and ambiguity of Hamlet. In Rheingold, he is still, to a great extent, enjoying being God. We see him playing chess with Fricka; and he’s very calm about having agreed to hand her sister over to the giants in return for their building Valhalla. The giants are not very giant, although we first see them as huge shadows on the back of the stage, but they are very monstrous: Fasolt wears a tall Isenbard Kingdom Brunell top hat, but when he takes it off, reveals a high Mekon-like forehead underneath. Fafner is more of a workman, but rather than being just a brutal kidnapper, seems actually affectionate to Freia and quite sad when he has to give her up in return for Infinite Wealth. There are nice moments when Wotan casually grabs Donner’s hammer-arm in mid-tantrum as if to make the point that whatever else is going on, he is the Father of the Gods and we shouldn’t forget it. 

Scene 3 of Rhiengold (in which Wotan and Loge go down to Nibelheim to steal the Ring from the Dwarves) was the only section which left us perplexed. The Nibelung caves seem to have become a dissection laboratory, or a mad scientist’s lair. Mime dances with a dead body at one point, and Alberich distinctly sexually molests one. Opera-buddy noticed that the corpse had been dressed up to look like one of the Rhine-maidens, so it may have been adding an element of Thanatos Alberich’s giving up of love in return for Infinite Wealth. 

The Tarnhelm (the Magic Helmet of Invisibility, Shapeshifting and Teleportation) is tonight a big perspex cube; possibly designed by Dr Rubik. The shape shifting special effects are great fun: the "dragon", in keeping with the Frankenstein imagery, is a gigantic zombie, with a huge head at the back of the stage and gigantic arms coming down from the sides.

Rheingold is meant to finish with the gods walking across the Rainbow Bridge to Valhalla; this production finished with Wotan jumping down a hole, presumably because he is going to spend the period between Rhiengold and Walkurie producing mortal children and leaving swords in ash trees. There is a nice motif running through the production of a red rope, which characters climb up and down, connecting the realms of the gods and and the realm of mortals. 

Brunhilde (Susan Bullock) is not as boyish as she sometimes is; she’s very small (Bryn Himself is very tall); almost puppyish as she bounces around one of the obligatory ladders in Valhalla and the All-Father playfully slaps her backside with his spear. (Yes, I also spotted the safety harness.) I didn’t think that she managed to numinous and scary when she appear to tell Siegmund that he’s going to die and go to Valhalla, but there’s an obvious and immediate connection with Sieglinde which convinces us that she’d be prepared to defy Wotan over this mortal woman. (Is Brunhilde simply defending an innocent woman and her baby against Wotan’s unreasonable wrath? Or is the point that, in ensuring that Siegfried will be born, she’s still carrying out Wotan’s wishes against his will? In the Dreadful Quarter Hour during which Wotan explains the back-story, he keeps saying that Brunhilde is his will, that in telling her all his secrets he’s only telling them to himself. How literally does Wagner want us to take this?) 

Act III of Valkyrie contains quite a famous tune. The Valkyries come across more as Greek furies than as ladies with horns on the helmets. They mime riding, holding horses skulls in front of them. They bring in dismembered heroes which look like lumps of meat, and cast spells which make their spirits ascend to Valhalla, via the magic of back-projection. But its the following scene, which which Wagner obviously ripped off from Peter Jackson, in which Brunhilde gives Sieglinde the shattered fragments of Siegmund's magic sword to pass on to her baby when he grows up, which is my single favourite moment in the Ring and therefore in anything. “He will forget them anew and someday wield the sword”, she explains. It’s moments like this which explain why Wagner has to be so long and such hard work: the drama depends on the blaring out of the sword-motif that we last heard two hours ago when Siegmund pulled the sword out of the tree (and first heard, oddly, back in Valhalla when Wotan was about to step onto the rainbow bridge) and are going to be hearing again tomorrow. 

The final confrontation between Wotan and Brunhilde manages to clear away a lot of the crowded junk which has been accumulating on the stage; there is a single huge revolving wall with a single door in it, which Wotan keeps rotating. In the final moments he sends her to sleep and carries her through the door; the whole thing rotates and we find her delicately asleep on an old-fashioned chaise-long. The programme notes suggest that the two big arches (which have been appearing on staqe in various guises since Wednesday) represent the double helix. I am not quite sure about this; or at any rate I am not quite sure that this matters. What we’re all paying attention to is Wotan calling on Loge; and Bryn calmly hold magic fire in the palm of his hand; and the final beautiful image in which real flames ignite along the two arches.

Wagner intended the Ring to be a spectacle even if (by all accounts) early productions could be rather like Victorian pantomimes. While there were a few moments which made us scratch our heads, it was the simple beauty of the spectacle which carries the day. Magic fire in the music. Real fire on the stage.


Please see Other Blog for this months batch of music reviews: Nic Jones, Nancy Kerr/James Fagan, Robin & Bina Williamson, Faustus and Don McLean.

Copies of Once Upon a Time Third Edition should be arriving in game shops any day now. Remember, it's the un-autographed copies which are the valuable ones.