A land unfit for heroes

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"WHERE are my runes to solve this riddle?" pleads Brunnhilde in Act II of Gotterdammerung; and if you read "runes" as "reason" it becomes the cry of Wagner audiences throughout the performing history of the piece. One of the few givens of Gotterdammerung is that its narrative is not driven by logic but, rather, a sense of what Wagner would have called inner need; and so long as you're prepared to surrender to the music, that doesn't create too many problems. For example, when Gunther says, "What we need around here is a great hero like Siegfried" and suddenly (with a haste almost unknown in Wagner) the great hero comes sailing down the Rhine, we accept this risible coincidence because we know it has to be.

But there are two big issues in Gotterdammerung where this surrender requires assistance. One is the final scene where, according to reason, Siegfried's death has saved the world - and yet the world shrugs off salvation and goes up in smoke. The other is the nature of Siegfried himself: as commonplace a bore as you could hope never to meet, but persistently assumed by text and music to have won us over with heroism.

I assume that director Richard Jones has thought about these things; but, frankly, his new production of Gotterdammerung which opened at Covent Garden last weekend doesn't show much sign of it. When he took his curtain and was booed it didn't necessarily signify a lot: he has been booed at each instalment of his Ring, and it's become a ritual. More significant, because less calculated, was the initial non-response of the audience when the piece ended. I don't suppose the Garden has experienced such mute applause since first-night audiences gave up wearing gloves; and it wasn't because anyone was overawed by the momentous theatre of this closing scene. It was because we were stunned by the failure to deliver anything recognisable as the closing scene at all. To know that the Rhine had burst its banks, Valhalla was in flames, and the world finished, you'd have to read the synopsis.

Given that the whole of Jones's Ring has flinched from epic heroism, I suppose we should have been prepared for it. We have, by now, received the message loud and clear that Jones's idea of the Nibelungen world is Brechtian: a world which has no place for heroes and can only smirk at their behavioural extravagance. But this is Wagner in denial: Wagner topped and tailed, and tamed, for fear of the Teutonic baggage that his work acquired under the Third Reich.

Fear is what this slapstick Gotterdammerung comes down to. It's not wholly without insight - the Brunnhilde has matured into a deeply human portrait, and the Hagen has the kind of next-door-neighbour credibility that genuine evil needs to carapace its darkness - but it simply can't confront Wagnerian epic drama on its own terms. When the whole Jones cycle runs together next year, the sheer momentum might just generate a compensating power. But as things stand this Ring - the litmus test of what an opera house can do - has proved conspicuously second rate. At least as theatre.

Musically, it's been a happier story, and the Gotterdammerung is dominated by two impressive vocal performances. The Austrian bass Kurt Rydl gives a rich and rounded Hagen, with a glorious, unflagging strength. And the American soprano Deborah Polaski is a Brunnhilde of distinction: warm- toned, with a clarity and purity of sound that frees the notes of squall and phrases beautifully.

If you're now wondering, what about the Siegfried? I'm afraid there's not much to say for Siegfried Jerusalem these days. At only 55, the voice sounds thin and frayed; and thus the small, endangered-species world of heldentenors grows still smaller. As for the conductor, Bernard Haitink, it's undoubtedly a good performance and a landmark in his life that - taken with his fine EMI Ring cycle - confirms his place among the leading Wagner conductors of our time. He lights up the score with sheer musicianship, details are nurtured lovingly, and the proportions of the massive score are finely judged. But Haitink is, I fear, too reasonable a man to be a truly great Wagnerian. He doesn't drive the music hard enough, the earth does not move. And you feel he wouldn't countenance such a distasteful possibility.

The sheer scale of Gotterdammerung eclipsed all this week, including ENO's new Fairy Queen (to be reviewed next Sunday) and the Barbican premiere of Peter Maxwell Davies's Three Kings: a Christmas sequence to texts by George Mackay Brown. Done by the LSO & Chorus under Richard Hickox, it didn't prove one of Davies's most penetrating scores; but it is, I'm sure, a "useful" piece that will meet the needs of choral societies keen to test the waters of contemporary writing. The week also saw the start of the new Mobil season at Greenwich Naval College, with a short but sweet programme of Venetian masters - Gabrieli and Monteverdi - devised by Paul McCreesh. For years the season has been a major fixture in the outer-London music calendar, and the Naval College is a glorious venue. Take it in before the Government sells the site and the music stops.

Meanwhile, across the sea in Ireland, the Wexford Festival began on Thursday, and under new management. Elaine Padmore has gone to run the Royal Danish opera in Copenhagen. In her place is Luigi Ferrari, who also runs the Rossini Festival at Pesaro and brings to Wexford a shift in repertory emphasis towards obscure Italian bel canto. Thursday's opening was Saffo by Pacini, a composer (not to be confused with Puccini) who falls into the interstices of history between late Rossini and early Verdi. If you thought that gap was already adequately plugged by Donizetti and Bellini, you'd be right, and Pacini is undoubtedly an also-ran. Prolific in every sense (90 stage works, 9 children) he is remembered for facility rather than depth. But Saffo shows him at his best. It's a grand opera seria about the ancient poetess known to modern times as an icon of lesbianism but, for operatic purposes, a conventional abbandonata in pursuit of an errant tenor with a top E flat. Such men are hard to come by, and you can understand why she throws herself into the sea - although she takes her time about it and, in the manner of retiring sopranos, delivers an awful lot of addios before she goes.

Beni Montresor's production manages to convey a sense of epic tableaux style within the tiny space of Wexford's stage, and though it doesn't boast much subtlety, it serves the piece. There are some ample voices, including a stunning Bulgarian mezzo, Mariana Pentcheva, whose deep, true tone is still developing but a potentially exciting talent. And Maurizio Benini conducts with vigour. But ultimately the piece sets its own parameters, teasing the ear with unfulfilled promise. As Rossini said of Pacini in a decidedly back-handed compliment: "God help us if he knew music; no one could resist him."

'Saffo' continues tonight & Wed (00 35353 22144).