Arts: Bellows from the master ring-maker

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WHATEVER WAGNER had in mind for the Artwork of the Future, it can't have been this: singers performing behind the conductor's back; in a hall that might charitably be described as acoustically compromised; in a hemi-semi-staging (no director named in the programme, although pre- publicity credited Andrew Sinclair) the singers making all-purpose gestures and, in the absence of surtitles, half the audience burying its nose in the specially printed, and expensive translations.

Well, Wagner's desiderata don't bear much relation to opera as we know it today, for which many thanks. The Royal Opera's Albert Hall residency may not have been the ideal way to present Wagner's Ring cycle but, despite everything, including the low esteem in which the company is presently held, the event was something of a triumph.

Much of the credit must go to Bernard Haitink, who manages to hold on to his popularity while all around him are ridiculed. On each of the four nights, he took the loudest ovation, and at the end of Gotterdammerung made a little speech asking for our help in saving the Royal Opera. If goodwill were the answer, problem solved; but it's a little more complicated than that.

Haitink is not considered the most instinctively theatrical conductor, so perhaps this adulterated presentation suited him. Although I can't imagine he liked the idea of the singers taking their cues from television monitors or from the prompter's box in front of the stage, it didn't seem to cause serious problems. The modesty of the staging may had done something to render Wagner human, if not humane, but it demanded forceful personalities to make it work; and that's what it got.

Personalities don't come much more forceful, elemental even, than John Tomlinson, and if there's rather too much bellow, not quite enough bel canto, perhaps that's right for a Wotan who's a bully and a cheat, a deity on all too human scale. Yet if the Ring has a moral centre, it lies with the women: with Erda, Catherine Wyn-Rogers in magnificently minatory form; with Fricka, a coolly imperious Michelle de Young; and most of all with Brunnhilde. In Die Walkure Hildegard Behrens made her darkly conspiratorial, but the role then passed to Anne Evans, who sang beautifully but with a plainer, less complex sense of the character. Perhaps a full staging might have given her a firmer dramatic foundation.

With the singers behind him, Haitink's attention was devoted to the orchestra, which found the sublimity Wagner's characters so conspicuously lack. Haitink has the happy knack of moving this music along at a fair lick without ever rushing; and of filling in tiny details without seeming pernickety. His platform presence was modestly self-effacing, yet he seemed to be the cycle's epicentre. Nobody can have any confidence about the future of the Royal Opera, but these four nights gave ringing testimony to its present musical health.

Further performances at Birmingham Symphony Hall (0121-212 3333), tonight, Thursday and Saturday