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.